Mixing and mastering: why are they so important?

Mixing

Once all of the parts are laid down and you feel good about everything that was recorded, you can move on to mixing. A good mixing engineer is worth his weight in gold! Anybody can get a decent board mix shortly after the basic tracks and overdubs are done, but that is a far cry from a truly professional mix that will stand up to all those professionally recorded songs you hear on the radio. In fact, in most music circles, a board mix that doesn’t take very long is called a demo and certainly not a record.

There are so many factors that go into a good mix, and one of the most important is patience—especially on behalf of the artist. You can expect to pay the studio for about four or five hours of mixing time, if it is not included in the day rate. For a really good mix, it can take even longer. Also, just because something sounds great in the studio, that doesn’t mean it’s going to sound great on your home system, in your car, or any other place where you are accustomed to listening to music. To make sure that your music sounds the way you want it to sound, it’s a very good idea to bring in a CD of something that you think is a great mix. Then the engineer can A-B your recording to that outside recording. This gives you a reference point so that your mix doesn’t go off on some sonic tangent that could end up sounding muddy or just plain bad.

In some instances, the producer or engineer may have a particular recording that he prefers to use for A-B purposes, but that may not be the sound you’re looking for. You probably have a good idea of how you want to sound, based upon other music that you like. Just remember that if a band has put in a few million dollars and several months in the studio, you may not be able to duplicate its sound on a low budget. Don’t expect miracles!

But this is where the home studio can keep up with the big guys. Most digital editing software applications have a plugin that takes the place of a whole truckload of outboard signal processors, and you can use that plugin on as many tracks as you want. This allows you to add compression, noise reduction, noise gates, reverbs, delays, and a whole host of other signal processing without having to run patch cords, so you can achieve that perfect mix. But again, don’t expect miracles. You need to put in some time and experiment to see what will suit your sound best.

Mastering

Experienced mastering engineers have the edge over most home studio engineers. Mastering engineers have years and years of experience at their craft, which is an artform unto itself and completely different than just mixing a recording. They also have state-of-the-art equipment in their completely isolated and tuned rooms, so they can discern even the slightest difference in sound. They know when to leave well enough alone, and when to add the right amount of equalization, compression, or any other signal processing to your overall mix. They know all the tricks of the trade, and they can make the difference between a decent-sounding record and a phenomenal-sounding record. They also can deliver your masters in the proper format for manufacturing and/or duplication so that you can be assured of the best-quality CDs.

However, mastering can be very expensive. If you cannot afford mastering, try to get your recording studio to master your CD. To that end, you should make sure that all of your songs have the same level and equalization. Make absolutely sure that there is no clipping on any of your masters, and no distortion of any kind. Also make sure that each track flows into the next track and there are no major differences in the sonic quality of the songs. If you don’t do this, the CD may sound like it has been recorded in two different places, or some songs won’t sound as good as the rest. If you don’t fix these differences, you will have a very sketchy product at best, especially if you are trying to shop a deal. You never know which song on your CD will be someone’s favorite, so make sure all the songs sound equally good.