Recording vs. Mixing vs. Mastering

This is the point in the process where you start giving over some control of your songs to others. Recording and mixing will usually be handled by a single engineer (though may involve a producer helping to set the overall sonic and creative choices of the process), and mastering is usually handled by another individually (though some engineers like to record, mix and master their work).

Tip: there’s a balance in trusting your engineer and trusting your own creative impulses. It’s always a good idea to let your engineer know ahead of time what you’d like them to listen for and offer input on when recording, whether it’s pitchy notes, an awkward phrase, speed changes, feel or energy. They’ll be listening with fresh ears and may be able to pinpoint if something isn’t working, or alternately, when you’ve got what you need. However, at the same time, ultimately, you are trying to capture your creative vision. Setting expectations and boundaries on the amount and types of input you’d like from engineer will set you up to both work towards the common goal of capturing that vision as well as possible.

In perhaps an over-simplification, recording is the process of capturing the various tracks that make up a song, most often consisting of some combination of guitars, bass, drums, percussion, keys and vocals. This can happen live “off-the-floor” in a single take, or can be pieced together from individual takes recorded separately. Overdubs would be made up of things meant to flesh out the basic song, recorded after the basic tracks are captured, including doubling of instruments or vocals for impact or aesthetic, harmonizing, additional instrumental flourishes, etc. At the end of the recording process, the elements of the song will be there, but it likely will sound out of balance and unfinished.

Tip: Before recording, sit down with your band and decide on some reference records for the direction of the sound of your album. While it may be clear to you what your songs should sound like simply from playing it live, communicating the end goal to an engineer is often a trickier endeavour. Picking out references for overall sound or aesthetic (ex: slick or raw sounding), specific vocal or guitar tones (ex: warm or angular), etc. will close the gap on getting something you are happy with. If you listen critically, you’ll also be able to pick up on other elements that add feel, but aren’t evident on first listen – elements like additional percussion, vocals, overdubs, etc. that may need to be recorded beyond simply playing the live version of your song. Share these references with your engineer and discuss specifically what you like about them. It will save a lot of time in the mixing process, but also may change the approach to recording to begin with.

Mixing, in simplest terms, is the process of assembling the various tracks previously recorded into a song. The mixing process involves far more than just setting volume levels for each instrument. At this stage, the engineer will often “comp” best takes, make adjustments to volume levels, use EQ tools and effects like reverb, delay and compression, set panning for instruments so that each lives in its own space, and in some cases, may do some heavy editing, alterations to takes and in some cases, re-structuring of a song. Simply, mixing’s goal is to take multiple individual tracks and end with a single song file. At the end of the mixing process, a song will usually, in isolation, sound “nearly there,” however, when listened to next to other released songs, it may sound a little thin, raw, or have elements not jump out the way are supposed to in certain listening conditions.

Mastering, on the other hand, is the final step in the process and a lot of veteran musicians still see it as something of a magic trick; a black box into which a song or album enters, and comes out sounding better. The mastering process uses EQ, compression, limiting, and other tools to ensure that an individual song sounds as good as it can individually, in a variety of settings (home stereo, headphones, in the car, etc.), and next to the other songs on a release, on the radio, or on a playlist. It’s more than just bumping up the volume. At the end of the mastering process, your songs should sound final.

Importantly, mastered files should be delivered in a variety of formats determined by your choices on how to release your music:

  • Mastered WAV files to upload to digital distributors
  • Separate mastered files meant for vinyl production specifically
  • Mastered DDP (Disc Description Protocol) file to send to a CD pressing plant include relevant metadata and ISRCs
  • …and if possible, your engineer will send you both vocal-less versions of your songs as well as stems (each individual track making up the final mix) that can be used in licensing your music to tv, film and advertising opportunities.

Real world example: Napalmpom was able to have music placed in MTV’s Ridiculousness, Showtime’s Shameless, and was in the running for a documentary produced by the Obamas (!), and none of that would have been possible without access to stems for individual songs.

If you discuss ahead of time what you want your record to sound like, listen critically to albums you draw inspiration from, plan out what tracks need to be recorded, and develop a transparent and trusting relationship with your engineer to capture the best takes possible, you’ll be setting yourself up to be happy with your album. Beyond that, make sure that you get every file needed from your engineers so that you can properly release it to the world.