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What are the key differences between Mixing and Mastering in music production?

My last couple of blog posts have been solely focused on vinyl so I thought I’d get back to some more general mastering info today. At first glance this question seems like it’s for audio newbies and it will definitely benefit anyone new to the audio game but the line between mixing and mastering can easily become blurred even when working with established engineers, musicians and producers. 

Exactly how much we, as mastering engineers, can affect the audio at our stage of the process is a bit of a mystery (even to us at times) and it can vary with each project. Our tools and processing can audibly affect how prominent a vocal is, change the tone of a bass, alter the power of a kick drum but at what stage are we mixing and when does it turn into mastering?

The answer, I think, lies in answering the question - ‘what’s the goal of what I’m doing?’. Mixing and mastering engineers share many of the same tools, they may use the same hardware, software and even have the same monitoring but the intention and the desired outcome is what really separates both the practice and the mindset needed. 

Understanding these key differences is essential for anyone looking to produce professional quality tracks or simply to gain a deeper appreciation of all the work that goes into crafting the songs we know and love.

This is going to be aimed primarily at musicians and engineers so please forgive casual use of production jargon, I’ll try and keep this as understandable as possible! So let’s dive in and explore 3 major differences between these two production phases, we’ll bust misconceptions, provide some best practices, look at real world examples, and give you tips to start improving your own mixes and masters! If anything ahead is unclear you can send me a message anytime and I’ll do my best to help.

Let's break it down...

#1: Mixing Balances, Mastering Glues 

A song's mix sets relative levels, pans instruments, shapes tones, and generates a balanced blend for the listener. The mix engineer is working on each individual track elements as well as the composite whole. Their goal is to achieve a clear representation of the artistic vision that translates well across systems.

The mastering engineer takes that basic mix as their starting point and aims to "glue" it all together with subtle EQ and compression. They focus on loudness maximisation, stereo enhancement, and prepping audio files for distribution. Mastering enhances the mix without changing it’s core character and crucially, ensures that it is fit for the intended medium (a streaming master has different requirements than a vinyl master for instance).

To use a cooking analogy (I like food) - mixing is like the recipe, it’s creating and balancing all the ingredients, making sure all the flavours compliment each other and making sure there is exactly the right amount of each ingredient. At this stage we’re not trying to finish the dish, we’re trying to create the dish, contour the flavours and set an intention for how it will turn out. Mastering is the final step, handing over everything to someone who doesn’t concentrate on individual ingredients, but solely focuses on fusing everything together to turn a group of raw ingredients into a finished meal.

#2: Mixing is Creative, Mastering is Technical

Mix engineers wear many creative hats—acting as a conductor, balancing and spotlighting different instruments to shape a song’s emotional narrative. Their process can be deeply artistic and often highly exploratory, building contrasting textures, dramatic tension and punctuating choruses with impact.

Mastering however strives for technical excellence and consistency adhering to established standards instead of a more expression based approach. Mastering engineers scientifically analyse audio and judiciously apply subtle processing aimed at maintaining fidelity and dynamic range rather than generating radical tonal shifts.

Now these roles aren’t strict, mastering can be very creative and mixing can be quite scientific in parts too but as a generalisation, mixing is creating the track and mastering is finessing it (often with the help of analysis tools).

Think of the mixer as a bold abstract painter layering on wild strokes of colour with broad textural themes, while the mastering engineer is more like a museum curator carefully adjusting lighting and placement to best showcase the art already created. Or shall we stick with food analogies? Probably a cake one for this part! How about, the mixing engineer is the baker and the mastering engineer is the cake decorator, adding the icing and final touch. (I think mastering does more than just icing, so maybe this analogy isn’t the best, but hopefully you’re getting the picture).

#3: Mixing is Free, Mastering is Limited

During mixing, engineers are working with raw multi-track sessions where they still have total flexibility to independently process individual instruments—sculpting sounds and making creative choices about parts and arrangements.

But after mixes are consolidated down to a stereo master, the options become far more limited. Mastering only has control over the summed stereo mix so they can polish overall bandwidth and punch but no longer access the component parts. Any creative remixing or repairs needed must be sent back to the mixing engineer.

This is where the line between mixing and mastering can sometimes get blurred. A mixing engineer may get asked to ‘glue’ everything together or get everything louder (which will happen at the mastering stage) and conversely a mastering engineer may get requests to adjust volumes of certain elements of the track (which they can’t do - or can only do to a certain degree.)

This is why great communication between mixing and mastering engineers is so crucial. Mixers need to deliver the cleanest possible tracks, properly gain-staged with enough headroom for mastering to work its magic. Mastering engineers should know their tools and process well enough to know when to ask for mix revisions as well. If either engineer fails to do their job or fails to communicate effectively it can ultimately lead to the track falling short of its potential.

How about a real world example:

When acclaimed jazz pianist Robert Glasper was crafting his blockbuster 2015 Grammy-winning album "Covered" featuring diverse covers of rap, rock and R&B songs, his approach highlighted distinct mixing and mastering stages.

The mixing on Covered done by Glasper's collaborator Chris “Daddy” Dave focused on accentuating the onstage energy and improvised interplay between Robert on keys, Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. Compression, panning and reverb were specifically applied to spotlight jazzy solos, highlighting the raw yet refined interpersonal musical dynamics.

But in mastering, engineer David 'DQ' Quiñones had a bigger picture role - taking these individually vibrant live vibe mixes and unifying them into a smooth start-to-finish album flow ready for listening alongside today's laser-focused commercial releases. Whereas mix engineering had focused on jazz feel, mastering shifted focus to playback translation and continuity.

Using wider compression and EQ to shape a consistent ambience around the varied track listing, DQ tightened up inconsistencies in loudness and frequency from song to song for uninterrupted enjoyment. Careful 2-track processing protected portable device playback without diminishing dynamic highs and nuanced lows from the dazzling acoustic performances.

This allowed landmark jazz covers of hits by A Tribe Called Quest, Kendrick Lamar and John Lennon shine individually and as an album - melding virtuosic playing with the polish required for today's digital music services. The global perspective provided by mastering complemented the personality captured through jazz-faithful mixing. 

In the end, Covered won the crucial Best Traditional R&B Performance Grammy - merging stellar musicianship with cutting-edge sound quality for impact across the mainstream.

The Bottom Line:

I hope that’s given you some insight into how mixing and mastering are mutually dependent yet distinct phases in the music production process, each with their own goals, mindsets and toolkits. Great mixes engage us with compelling emotive narratives then great masters translate that vibrancy safely to all listening environments. Understanding these differences is actually quite liberating, it can give you the piece of mind to concentrate on your task. If you’re an artist you can focus on creating your song, if you’re a mixing engineer you can focus on pulling all the elements together and balancing everything - you’re not trying to finish the whole thing. And, if you’re a mastering engineer it gives you the confidence to communicate with your mix engineer and ask for alterations that are beyond your control. 

I’ve seen and heard way too many engineers who try and do everything and the results are rarely outstanding. When you know your role in the process very clearly, you can focus on getting better. It’s hard sometimes and we can all be control freaks at times but once you understand the value of letting go and the value of an objective set of ears your songs and productions will start connecting with listeners way more. Trust me.

As always, I hope that’s been interesting and helpful for you. Give me a shout with any questions or if there’s any topics or specific areas of mastering or vinyl cutting you’d like to learn about.

Click the link to go to my contact page -

Speak soon!


P.s. if you like all things analogue, mastering & vinyl related please go over and follow my Youtube & social media accounts where I regularly make videos about mastering and cutting records! 


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