How to Mix and Master a Song Recording

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How to Mix and Master a Song Recording

These days, practically every musician has a studio built right into their home. Gone are the days of dealing with record labels and producers. Nowadays, you can have your song recorded and released to the world in just a few minutes. 

That leaves you to do a lot of the heavy lifting that comes with those roles. Making music isn’t just about composing songs anymore; it’s also about bringing them into their final form on MP3s and FLACs. 

To do all that, you have to invest in the intricate art of mixing and mastering. You want your songs to sound polished and ready to be pumped into a pair of headphones, and these techniques will help you get there. 

Don’t let the mystery of the process hold you back. We’ll be delving into the inner workings of the process and explain them in a way that’s easy to understand. That way, you’ll be able to get your music all set to be streamed or downloaded. 

The Difference Between Mixing and Mastering

You’ll find that a lot of people lump mixing and mastering together under one umbrella. But they’re two different processes that link up to form your sound engineering workflow. That’s why it’s helpful to remember what they accomplish.

Mixing is the first of the two processes you’ll be applying to your tracks. It includes things like balancing volume levels, EQ, effects processing, panning, modulation, reverb, and more. This is where you’re changing the majority of your track to ‘sound right.’

Mastering, on the other hand, is more of an airbrushing process. By the time you get to the mastering stage, your song production should be more than three quarters finished. All you’re going to be doing here is making minor changes that add to the character of the sound. Things like applying limiters, compression, and stereo width are what you’ll be messing around with. 

In plain English, mixing is like applying a new coat of paint, while mastering is the wax that seals it in. You need both if you want your end product to sound polished. But understanding the difference between them can help you get a better grasp on the process.

Mixing and Mastering Your Recording

Once you’ve recorded and tracked your song, you’ll be ready to put your sound engineer goggles on. Just remember that you should take care of any compositional changes before you start work on mixing and mastering. You don’t want to be caught with a jumbled workflow. And with that out of the way, here’s how you actually do it. 

Calibrate Your Listening Environment

Sound is only as good as the space it travels through. That’s why you should always model your surroundings to take the most advantage out of them. Granted, you shouldn’t have your sights on getting the best studio treatment. But you’ll be surprised how much of a difference a little calibration makes. 

Start with the physical space that the sound is going to be bouncing off of. That means the walls and the floor in your studio. For the most part, you can get away with a few acoustic panels on your walls and a carefully placed bass trap or two. Add to that with a rug that kills some of the sound reflection. 

Next, move on to your actual equipment. Your amps, speakers, and studio monitors will need to be adjusted according to the room. For placement, you can refer to guides that let you calculate where everything should be kept, or you can even use space calibration software. 

You’ll also need to balance the frequency response on your monitors. Ideally, you want a flat sound out of them where the bass, mids, and highs are balanced. Most professional studio monitors will have some way to control these ranges independently of one another.

It’s crucial to remember that sound changes depending on the room you listen to it in. That’s why it’s better to tune your equipment to be neutral to the room rather than tuning your mix to be neutral to your gear. Any adjustments you make to the song will become permanent once you start mastering, so it’s better to iron them out now than later.

Fix Elements that Need Repair

Never expect your first takes to be perfect right out of the gate. Even professional artists will have the infamous ‘studio magic’ applied to their production process. It’s a part of making a track sound good, and that means doing some necessary maintenance. 

Start by looking out for any mistakes in the rhythm and pitch of your song. Not even a seasoned musician is safe from having minor foibles enter their sound. Playing well and sounding polished are two different things. Ideally, you should aim for both. 

For minor fixes, you can apply quick fixes like pitch correction or time-stretching to salvage your tracks. But if the takes are too far gone, you might have to go and re-record them from scratch. 

Next up, you want to eliminate any noise that made it past your initial noise removal process. Things like ambient drones, resonant frequencies, and cycle hums can be very sneaky, but they’ll mess up your sound all the same. 

Lastly, make sure all your effects and layers are working as intended. If a plugin decides to crash or a cable gets snagged loose, then you’ll have to try and fix it before you move on ahead. It might be the bane of your existence, but it doesn’t have to be the bane of your listener’s experience.  

Balance the Combination of Tracks

One of the biggest pitfalls of mixing audio is realizing just how sensitive a blend of sounds can be. It’s not uncommon to write out the perfect instrumental takes only to find they sound muddy when played together. It might even lead you to question your compositional skills. But luckily, it’s something that a little balancing can quickly remedy. 

It’s best to start by thinking about your song in 3d space. Try to imagine where you would place each of your sounds if you were in a concert or live performance. That’s precisely what you should be aiming for in your track’s soundstage. 

When you mix your track, you want to think about assigning your sounds to a binaural field. For example, bass and vocals are usually panned dead center, guitars are replicated in left and right channels, drums are placed behind the listener, and strings sit on the edge of each channel. 

Effects like panning, reverb, and stereo widening are designed to tackle tasks like these. Stereo width will help you create separation between instruments, while panning will help you shift sounds between channels. Reverb, on the other hand, will help mimic acoustic space.

You can experiment with these effects by applying them individually to each sound. It’s something that hinges on your creativity and your choice of plugins. Everyone will have their own preferred plugin suites, but you can get by with some popular choices like Waves, iZotope, and FabFilter. 

Equalize Your Sounds

Equalization is an important aspect of mixing in your audio. Once you start adding more and more sounds into your mix, you’ll find that it starts to get hectic fairly quick. With so many different frequencies fighting for the same frequency spectrum, having them stay tamed becomes a priority. 

You can think about equalization a lot like volume control but on a finer level. Instead of one volume knob, you’re handed anywhere from 8 to 64. This, of course, grants you the ability to be very specific with what kind of sounds you want to accentuate or take away. 

Where this really comes into play is when you’re throwing a bunch of different instruments and samples in your music blender. Many sounds start getting overlapped over the same frequency range, and the mix ends up sounding busy and fatiguing to the ear. 

Luckily, an EQ can help tone the bulk of that sound down and make your mix sound pleasant again. To use it, start by analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each sound. 

Your guitar tracks might handle the mids well, but any unnecessary low-end will compete with your bass. Similarly, string sections might live in the high end, but their sound can leak into the mid-range to fight against a vocal performance. 

With EQ, you’re essentially carving out a bit of sonic space for each sound to sit comfortably in. It’s a lot like packing a suitcase; you might not succeed in cramming everything in, but a little focus on making things fit can help you out.

The great thing about the equalization process is that there’s an immediate bump in the quality of your mix. Your track will stop sounding like a rough, unfinished project and more like a professional piece of audio. 

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Finalize Your Mix

By now, your mix should start coming along nicely. Although the end might be in sight, there will still be some last-minute tweaks before you can finalize your mix.

The first item on your agenda should be to optimize your mix for consumer equipment. This means being able to create a mix that sounds equally good on your studio monitors and a pair of Airpods. 

A great way to do this is by playing your music on a large variety of audio gear. Play it on everything from a cheap pair of earbuds to a home theatre system and even your car. You don’t want your mix to favor one or the other; you want it to sound equally as good across the board. 

Lastly, make sure you normalize all your audio levels. You’ll notice that some of your sounds will be quieter after having gone through processes like equalization. Boost them back to their original volume, so your mix isn’t unbalanced. Voila, you have a completed mix. 

Analyze the Sound

Once you’re happy with your mix, you should take some time to listen to it. It’ll give you a chance to weed out any potential faults before you head over to mastering. 

Make sure you give yourself time to walk away from the track before you come back to analyze it. You don’t want to get your ear too fatigued or familiarized with your track. Besides, it’s much more beneficial to judge your mix with a fresh set of ears. 

Give your track a listen or two to get a feel for it, and have a notepad handy. Try taking down notes as they form in your mind. At this stage, you want to hear the kind of problems that managed to slip under the radar, especially if it has to do with elements that you were too pre-occupied in mixing to catch. 

If everything holds up well, then you should have the green light to go ahead. However, if you end craving for more drastic changes, then it might be wise to go back to the mixing process. 

Master the Finishing Touches

Mastering will be the final piece of the puzzle to make your track whole. This is the part of the process where you’ll be using that 1% to make your track sound elevated. 

Unlike mixing, the changes made during mastering will apply to the song as a whole. And there’s no better place to start than by adding in some compression. Use your DAW’s built-in compressor to add 2-3dB of gain reduction and tweak your release to your liking. This will create a better blend for your sounds.

Next up, you’ll want to use your limiter to balance volume and avoid clipping. You can use a brick wall limiter with a setting anywhere from -0.5dB to -1dB. Adjust the attack and release until you feel the sound taper off. 

Last but not least, you can do with some saturation to your track. Think of it like a tone color that’ll make your song sound less clinical and more lively. It’s something that’s very subjective to personal taste, so make sure you explore the different options of available plugins and tape emulators. Just be wary of oversaturating the mix too much, which will probably drown out your song. 

Final Thoughts

Mixing and mastering may seem like a chore, but it’s an essential precursor to hitting ‘export’ on your DAW. It contributes just as much to the creative process as composition, so it makes sense not to sleep on it. 

If you’ve been following along so far, then you should have all the know-how to mix and master your own song. Now all you’ll need to do is bounce your project to a 16-bit file and call it a day. 

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