Want to perfect your Mixing and Mastering techniques? These are all the steps of the music production I follow to come up with the perfect mix.
Mixing and Mastering are two processes involved in music production. This article will help you understand all the steps required in music production to prepare and achieve the perfect mixing and Mastering of your song.
As a professional mixing and mastering engineer and studio owner, I get asked all day long about my mixing and mastering services! Most experienced artists and studio goers get these two concepts totally “mixed” up! Sorry for the pun!
To get to a final song ready for release, there are many steps to consider! Each step is as important as the last. I would personally break these steps down as follows:
- Song creation & writing
- Instruments & sounds selection
- Editing – Tuning – Clean-Up
- Mixing verification on many monitors
- Final mastering verification.
This post is all about mixing and mastering your song to make it perfect and stand out.
- Song Creating & Writing
- Instruments & Sounds Selection
- Editing – Tuning – Clean-Up
Essential steps before even thinking about mixing and mastering
Song Creating & Writing
This is the idea phase, where the artist would develop their song concept. What is the song about? What emotion or message are we trying to convey? Usually, the idea would lead to the song lyrics. Every songwriter has their own way of coming up with lyrics, some lyrics first while others music first. Forget the next steps before coming up with your song idea. Lyrics can be rough at this phase and can be changed later; no worries.
Instruments & Sounds Selection
The style of the song will depend on the speed or BPM (Beats Per Minute Chosen), the chosen instruments and the arrangement. Have you ever heard or seen a video of a song played in different styles? It’s the same song, with the same lyrics, but now it sounds more Metal or Punk or Pop or even Acoustic: that’s the beauty of music! We can interpret the same songs in many different genres and styles.
Next up, we have the recording process. This is the step where we capture all the tracks in a format we can play back after for enjoyment and analysis. The two main elements in this process are recording talent and recording capture quality. In the business, we say if your source sucks, your recording will suck. We aim to capture the best performances at the highest quality possible.
A great player in a horrible room is as bad as a mediocre player with a good room. By room, we mean the physical space that the microphones are recording in. Forget again the mixing and mastering steps if this step isn’t done top notch. Think of this step of putting all the ingredients into the bowl when making a cake! We need to ensure we have the highest quality ingredients before even mixing and cooking = Mastering.
Practice, practice and practice again! (And take lessons to help)
The better we become as artists, the better the recording process will go. Can we be more on rhythm? Can we be more on the pitch? Can we express the music more optimally? As an experienced studio, I have access to many tools to fix pitch issues, such as Auto-Tune Pro and Melodyne. I use these daily to tune notes and ensure rhythms are perfect. However, we don’t want to rely on these tools. What does practice mean? I mean ACTIVE practice. Not just humming in the bus. I mean, putting your phone on record and pretending you’re in front of an audience who is judging you!
Run through your song for a week 4 times in a row each evening, and you’ll be golden. This allows your brain to connect the dots, so it’s second nature when you get in the studio. Also, watch/listen back to your practice takes. What can you improve on? Do you like your performance? Ask people you value their opinion for feedback and honest help, and then decide if you’d like to follow their advice!
Capturing the sounds and takes!
This could be your voice, acoustic guitar, drums or anything that makes a sound you’d like to layer into your song! We want a professional sound-treated and soundproof studio (two different concepts).
Your basement may be in an underground field with no neighbouring sounds, which would qualify as soundproof since no undesired sounds would leak into your recordings. But it may be empty and horrible to record in.
Soundproof basically means no other sounds from outside your recording room are getting in. Sound treatment ensures that only the right sounds are getting into your microphones. Sounds bounce around and if you yell Ahhh in the room with the microphones, and the Ahhhs bounce off the wall and get back into the microphone, we have a problem. We want the initial source to get into the microphone, but not a splashback or echo getting back into the microphone. How do we solve this? Professional sound treatment! You may refer to our article on how to make sound panels.
In the past, or The Beatles-Era, when post-processing didn’t exist, the bands needed to capture the sounds how they wanted them at the source. If they wanted echos, they would have to create echo chambers and put the microphones in a room that was echoey or for reverb in a huge reverberating room! In modern times, we may capture the sounds raw (without effects) and then add on to taste the effect we’d like giving us a lot more flexibility and post-choice!
Recording quality of the whole chain is the next step! The better the microphone + connectors + cables + pre-amp, the better the sum of the quality will be. This step requires a professional sound engineer to monitor the gain and input to hit the sweet spot so that the incoming recording signal is enough to ensure the thickness of the sound before hitting distorting clipping levels. Once all the audio is captured within your digital audio workstation, you are ready to move on to the next step!
Editing – Tuning – Clean-Up
You have now captured all your audio as best possible. However, it needs to be prepared for mixing. You may start by cutting off any background sounds between takes and words and fading in and out takes to ensure smooth transitions. Make sure not to cut any waveform to avoid clicks and pops.
In this phase, you may copy and paste any better parts to replace weaker parts. Many tools and plugins help remove saliva sounds, background sounds and unwanted frequencies. The Izotope RX Suite or the UAD Universal Audio C Suite are great brands. If you are a crazy perfectionist like me, you may go and tune all the vocal notes by hand. I do this mainly in Melodyne and have been using this for 15 years now, perfecting the craft of polished vocals. I will not let any songs leave my music studio without being tuned. A weak vocal ruins any song.
Mixing like a professional mixing engineer
The Mixing process
Want to know a good secret? Now that you have adequately done the parts I explained prior, your mixing process should be fun and pain-free! Simply put, mixing is adjusting all the layers you recorded to taste to make the song! When is a song finished and mixed? In my opinion, it’s when you can play the song through, and you don’t cringe anywhere, or anything bothers you. I know that sounds simple, but if you can’t find anything else to fix, you’re done!
What does all this mean technically? You’re sitting in front of your Digital Audio Workstation (Logic Pro X, Reaper, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Garageband, etc.) with your multiple tracks named, organized and potentially coloured: the world is your oyster now! There are many approaches to mixing a track! Some use the Top Down technique, literally starting from the top, but what is Your top?
I personally always put the bass track at the top of the DAW. Bass is the centre piece driving the track. I’ll mute everything else. Does the bass groove? What are the dynamics? Dynamics are how loud and quiet the track gets within a time frame. This is where our compressors come in. We want an even bass to flow the whole way through, so you may compress your bass first to taste. EQ (equalizer) comes next. Do you want more low-end or high-end?
Next, we can bring in everything from drums to percussion. I send everything, drums and percussion, to a Bus (Send) and compress that together so it glues. You can use a Shadow Hills Mastering compressor and compress to taste also. Sometimes, I may send the Kick & bass to the same bus to compress them together since they are similar frequencies. Play all that the whole way through to ensure you hear all the parts & elements.
Next, you can layer in guitars, pianos and any other main instruments. I suggest having these instruments double-tracked (meaning two different takes that you can pan left and right) to create the stereo image. You can compress, EQ and add reverb to taste. Play all this together now to ensure all is smooth and heard consistently!
Lastly is the vocals (my speciality)! Remember, you have already tuned and cleaned up your vocals in the previous section. The Lead vocal is the most essential element of every track. It’s what the listener hears first and will hum and sing along! Again, EQ, compress, and De-ess to taste. (De-ess is taking out the SSSss sibilance sounds of a voice.) You can send the vocals to other sends and buses to add reverb, quarter or half note delays, and other specific effects FXs.
Finally, layer in your harmonies (panning left and right) to create the stereo image again. Any Ad-libs or Backs can be thrown in there with more extreme EQuing for effects like cutting the highs and lows to create that mid-tone vocal. On to the next step!
Mixing Verification on many monitors
Is your mix ready for Mastering? How do you know? It all depends on what your listener is listening to your track on. You need to do the same: play your song in the car, using iPhone speakers and headphones and make notes on your phone or a notepad. Are there aspects you don’t like that come across multiple systems?
If you play your track in a Honda Civic with a sub, it may be too bassy (but it’s not your mix, just the monitoring system being super bassy). Take your notes back to your mixing stage and re-adjust. I suggest naming each of your mixes with the date and version not to get lost in your organization. Compare your track with other hits you love, give it a few days, and come back on fresh ears!
Mastering like a professional mastering engineer
The Myths and Legends of Mastering
There are many myths/legends and totally wrong information out there pertaining to the “Dark Art Of Mastering Music”.
One of them is: You shouldn’t master music that you have just mixed. I firmly believe the contrary. If I have my mix sounding professional and perfect as I see fit, I don’t want someone else messing around and changing the whole tonal balance of the entire mix by potentially jacking up the highs or creating too much rumble in the low end. If your skills are not up to par in Mastering, for sure, send it off to a professional mastering engineer like myself!
Another one is LANDR or all those online Mastering services. The AI is not evolved enough to offer professional masters that include feeling or are built to the taste of the song. Mastering is an art form.
Last but not least: There are no mixing or Mastering Presets you can buy online, even though many companies try to push their products by selling this concept. Everything comes down to compression, EQ, Reverb, and Delay-Echo as the “Main” parameters (which have existed since the beginning of studio recording on wax cylinders). There are specific tools for removing saliva sounds, breaths, etc. But those are in the ‘specifics’ category. Most plugins coming out these days are fancy packages that secretly work those previously mentioned parameters under the hood. As a professional, you want to have access to every detail of each parameter to be able to tweak it to your exact goal and taste, suiting the song.
The Mastering process
Welcome to the Dark Art of Mastering Music! What are we doing here? We are cooking your cake on the stove now to a perfect temperature and putting it in a nice box ready to sell on the shelf!
The music industry has norms to follow to ensure your track is accepted on streaming platforms. Mastering is squashing your whole mix together. Making it even more stereo, clear, punchy, equal the whole way through, that wow feeling and ultimately ensuring your track compares to any other professional track.
Also for the ease of the listener, Mastering ensures every track fits into a box and is the same output volume so the person biking to work doesn’t need to adjust the volume on their headphones constantly. Every song plays seamlessly back to back at the same volume level while sounding the same power!
Mastering is also an art form to ensure the song is sonically at its true potential. I know this seems like a bunch of buzzwords but just think of getting your song commercially ready. One must-learn is “LUFS”, which is the average volume of your track. I usually aim for -7db LUFS, where the song is powerful but not over-squashed, losing its dynamics.
We ended up in a Loudness Wars years ago, where songs from the 60s and 70s have been re-mastered to grow their quality and powerfulness. But I think we’ve hit a limit of that. We have Peak and “True Peak” to consider, where we try to hit -0.1 Db right before clipping at 0.
You may create your own mastering chain or buy Izotope Ozone 10 and learn all the modules one at a time! Test and learn or hire a mastering engineer like myself to teach you while getting your top-sounding masters ready for the world to hear!
Final Mastering Verification
Same concept as mix checking. Play your song in many speakers and places and make notes! You are no longer looking for little edits such as cutting out a back vocal or raising a guitar but the whole overall frequency spectrum of the song. Is there too much high mid, or low end? Do the vocals sit perfectly and are heard? Back to your master until you get it how you love! Also, don’t be shy to ask others’ opinions.
Happy posting your song everywhere! Next will be to learn how to promote your music: how to get your song loved and into the ears of new fans! And how to grow your music career. Go now and write and start this process over again! The more songs you run these steps through, the better you’ll get and the farther you’ll go!
This post was all about the mixing and mastering process and the preparation needed to achieve balance and create the perfect song.