For many, this is where the real fun starts. You’ve written your song, recorded the parts, and now it’s time to sit back, relax, and turn this track into a masterpiece. Knowing how to mix well is an art form that takes years of learning and practice. But that doesn’t stop anybody from doing it, and you should feel free to dive right in and start exploring the possibilities.
Mixing is the process of combining all the instruments you’ve recorded into a stereo 2-track mix (left-right or surround if that’s your thing). A good mix will let you hear all the instruments clearly and with detail. It will have depth and motion. It will sound good and support the intention of the music.
Mixing is a world unto its own and many people choose to focus on just this aspect of the music making process. I like to think of it as being the conductor of an orchestra where you get to decide exactly how everything is going to sound: which instruments will be louder than others, where they will be on the stereo spectrum, which will sound up front and which will sound far back, what effects will be used and when.
The amount of decisions that are made during the mixing process numbers in the thousands, and the final mix has an enormous impact on the way your song will be interpreted. A good mix will help people appreciate your song for the genius that it is.
Mixing is a subject that requires much more space than we have here, but a good start would be this video series where you can learn how to start mixing with plugins . If you’re a total newbie and aren’t yet familiar with the various effects used in mixing, check out Sound Basics – a video series to get you started.
We’ll get more into mixing in future articles, but even the first step of adjusting the volume of all your tracks so they blend well is part of the mixing process. Start there and the more you learn about how to mix properly, the more control you’ll have over how your final track will sound.
Mastering has traditionally been treated as its own stage. But for many bedroom producers, it’s simply become the last part of the mixing stage. For most of you reading this it’s probably the latter, but it’s still helpful to know how it came about.
When recording an album, artists sometimes use various studios, producers and engineers for different songs. The result is that each song will have its own sound, sonically. Mastering is the process of making all those songs sound coherent and part of the same album. A good mastering engineer has impeccable ears and equipment, and will correct any minor deficiencies in the mix that the mixing engineer might have missed due to the sound of his/her room. He’ll also raise the level of all the tracks so they’re “hot” (loud) and even in volume. By putting each song through the same mastering gear and adjusting to the same level, it makes them sound more like they are coming from the same album.
Since many bedroom musicians and producers record tracks individually without any intention to combine them into a longer album, the role of the mastering engineer is reduced as there is no need to make a collection of songs sound coherent. The function is then boiled down to making the final mix sound accurate – meaning it will translate the sound as intended on different playback systems – and to bring up the level as hot as the artist wants it.
There are many software tools that allow you to master your own tracks. So unless there’s a budget for a separate mastering engineer, many people choose to let their mixing engineer take care of this last part, or do it themselves if they’re mixing their own music.
As with anything, a professional is always going to do the job best. But you can “fake it” with a good chain of plugins and the right presets.
I come from a more traditional singer/songwriter background and tend to think about music production in that way. Many electronic producers, DJs and hip-hop artists will probably have an approach that differs in many ways, but the concepts we’re talking about here are mostly universal. It doesn’t matter what style of music you make, there are still fundamental issues involved in making that music sound good. And no matter what your goals are, we can all agree that we want our music to sound good.
There are only two ways I know of to get better at making music: learning and doing. Whether playing an instrument or learning how to mix and produce, there is infinite knowledge out there and no excuse for not soaking it up. But it’s not enough to learn. You need to practice the things you’re learning. Make music without any intention. Press record and see what comes out. Then try and make it sound good. By doing this over and over, you’ll build up your technique and can work effectively whenever you have a message you want to get across.
Music production is simply the process of making music. The more comfortable you are with the process, the easier it will be for you to make the music, and to make it sound good.