Mixing Vs Mastering – What’s the Difference in Audio Production

I do daily audio mixing tutorials and offer mixing services here at MusicGuyMixing.com, but I ALSO offer audio mastering services at my sister site, MusicGuyMastering.com. Both are essential steps and stages in the world of audio production, but what’s the difference between mixing vs mastering?

Mixing Vs Mastering

mixing vs mastering

Simplifying things as much as possible, audio production really has three stages: recording, mixing, and mastering (in that order).

The recording stage is obvious; we record the many individual tracks which make up our song – that part is obvious.

What about mixing vs mastering?

Let’s cover each one individually, mixing then mastering.


After we’ve recorded or have all of the recorded tracks which will make up a song, the mixing stage is when we put all of those tracks together to arrange that song.

The mixing stage typically is much more involved than the mastering stage, so let’s go over the things accomplished in mixing.

Level Balance

The many tracks which make up the song need to have their volumes adjusted so that they gel together and have a sense of cohesion and balance. It’s unlikely that the tracks were recorded in such a way that no fader volume adjustments are necessary, so the mixing engineer adjusts the fader positions of each track to achieve that balance. Some tracks will need to be louder relative to the other tracks, and some will need to be brought down.

This both ensures that no tracks are awkwardly sticking out and that the tracks which should be in front of the rest of the mix like the vocals are placed as such.

Part of the level balance also involves being mindful of gain staging.

gain staging cheat sheet

Ideally this was done during the recording phase, but if it wasn’t or the person mixing wasn’t present at the recording stage, adding gain plugins at the start of every track ensures that each track has an ideal level both for feeding into plugins plus it ensures there’s no audio clipping on any tracks if any of the tracks were recorded too hot, meaning with too much gain.

Gain staging also helps to keep the overall volume of the mix from clipping and leaves more mixing headroom which is useful in the mastering stage which I’ll explain later.


Audio panning is the process of adjusting the various positions of every track relative to the stereo field.

My audio panning guide gives a snapshot suggestion of a setup which works well:

audio panning

Taking advantage of the full stereo field in spacing your tracks out helps to keep the mix sound clean and open.

The most important tracks should be kept in the center to ensure that their level and presence is consistent across the stereo field regardless of where or how your final mix is being played back after its release. These include the vocals, kick, snare, and bass.

Mixing in mono is also a good idea for forcing every track on top of one another to hear if any tracks get lost; this suggests a frequency conflict with another track which should maybe be addressed via EQ as part of the effects/processing step in mixing.


Arguably the most time consuming aspect of mixing is adding all kinds of processing in the form of plugins to sculpt the sound of the tracks to ensure that they sound their best.

A few of the most common types of effects/processing used in mixing include:

audio effects explained


EQ, or equalization, relates to adjusting the frequencies of your track typically to remove what isn’t working and prop up what does sound good.

Check out my EQ tutorials or grab my free EQ cheat sheet for in depth and specific guides for EQing every instrument in your mix.

Compression/Multiband Compression

Compression relates to attenuating the dynamic range of your tracks so that there’s less of a difference between their quietest and loudest points. This makes them easier to set their fader volume position in relation to the rest of the tracks in your mix, and it gives that track more energy.

Check out my compression tutorials or grab my free compression cheat sheet for in depth and specific guides for compressing every instrument in your mix.


Saturation or distortion relate to adding harmonic overtones to your tracks to add frequency information which wasn’t there before. This can be done to warm up your audio or add clarity or excitement on the top end.

Either way, these types of effects fill out needs in your sound which you can’t replicate with EQ.

I’ve talked more about saturation in mixing in the past on its own and also part of my overall audio effects explained guide.


Spacial based effects like delay and reverb help narrow tracks to fill out the stereo field and become more prominent in the mix. They also add depth, allowing you to take advantage of the third dimension of space in your mix and giving you more places to situate tracks to add to that feeling of openness and clarity.


Mixing automation is the process of changing certain elements of your tracks to help give them more life which in turn makes your mix more interesting and keeps your listener engaged.

Volume automation is the most common form of automation in raising or lowering the volume of a track as the mix progresses either to keep that track in front of the mix, or simply to emphasize a certain track or mix bus.

Once level setting/automation, gain staging, panning, and all processing of tracks is done, the many tracks are rendered/mixed down to a single file which represents the entire mix.

This is typically a WAV or AIFF uncompressed file format (see my guide to the many types of audio formats) and typically in a 24 bit depth and 44.1 sample rate format (see my overview of what sample rate and bit depth should I use). The highest fidelity file type should be sent to the mastering engineer, hence the WAV file.

So now that we’ve covered everything we do in the mixing stage, you might wonder what’s left to do in the mastering stage?


Relatively speaking, the mastering stage is much less time consuming than the mixing stage. This is in part due to the fact that we only have that single mixed down file to work with.

Nonetheless, there are still a few important jobs to be completed in the mastering stage.


First, the mastering engineer listeners to the mixed down track to hear any last minute enhancements which can be made.

It’s often ideal to have a different person master your music versus who mixed it as this gives the song a chance to have a second set of ears to give it an objective listen to pay attention for anything which might be missing.

Typically the adjustments in the mastering stage are minor because they’re affecting the entire mix at this point. We don’t have access to individual tracks, so if there are any problems with any instruments within the mix at this point, it’s oftentimes better to go back to the mixing stage and correct them there if possible rather than in the mastering stage.

This is again because any changes made in the mastering phase are affecting the entire mix, so it’s difficult to fix one problem without negatively affecting something you don’t intend to.

One of the most used effects in the mastering stage is multiband compression because this allows you to slightly change the frequency balance by attenuating or boosting large frequency ranges (see my ideal multiband compression mastering settings).

Stereo imaging may be used conservatively at this point, as well, to add a little more size and spread to the entire mix as a whole.


Boosting the volume is the act which is most synonymous with audio mastering to the point that many people joke it’s the only thing mastering engineers do.

Still, maximizing the volume to place the song at a competitive level upon release without adding palpable clipping or distortion is an important part of the process.

Admittedly squeezing every last decibel out of a master isn’t quite as important as it once was with virtually every audio streaming service offering a normalizing audio feature so that most users don’t hear a notable difference in volume.

Still, it’s important that any headroom be used so that a master isn’t quieter than it needs to be, so this is still an important aspect of the process. Speaking of which, see my tutorial on what LUFs to master to for more information.


Audio dithering is the process of lowering the bit depth typically from 24 to 16 bit. This is typically done because the CDs as a format have a 16 bit limit. Also, many music streaming services require 16 bit audio for submissions.

Regardless of the reasoning, if the recorded and mixed 24 bit format needs to be dropped down, a process called audio dithering is required.

As I explained in my bit depth comparison, 16 bit depth doesn’t allow for the precise amplitude cataloging that 24 bit can accommodate.

In other words, forcing 24 bit depth audio in to a 16 bit package results in quantization errors which manifest as noise. To compensate for this, audio dithering introduces a low level white noise in place of the quantization noise so that it’s virtually undetectable and, as such, the transition from 24 to 16 bit depth audio is seamless.

CD Metadata

If music is being released to CD, the mastering engineer creates a special set of files called a DDP which the service which replicates the CDs en masse uses.

This file set contains the audio, tracklist, and information about the album including credits and tracking information for royalty purposes like ISRC codes for the various tracks and a UPC code for the album.

The engineer creates this file set to ensure that when the CD is replicated, all of this information is included on the disc which can be read by computers… assuming you still have a computer with a CD drive.



Similar to how mastering for a CD is a slightly different process, mastering for vinyl is different because it too has a number of limitations which a digital release doesn’t. This includes being mindful of the stereo image particularly the bass/low end frequencies and the overall level of the music as these can cause issues with the playback.

Being mindful of the sequencing is important, as well, as the closer you get to the center of the record, the smaller the grooves become. More dynamic and louder tracks will typically need to play earlier in the sequencing as a result, with the softer/quieter songs playing at the end as the record is getting closer to the center.

This is why you’ll sometimes see the tracklist being different for a vinyl release versus a digital or CD release because it’s done out of necessity as a reflection of the dynamics of the songs themselves.

Mixing Vs Mastering Reviewed

That was a fairly in depth comparison of mixing vs mastering.

The long and the short of it is that mixing is a much more involved process of organizing the individual tracks and getting them sounding as good individually and together as possible.

Mastering, on the other hand, is that final step in the audio production cycle which involves making sure the mixed down song sounds as good as possible with any last minute enhancements. It also involves ensuring the album is ready for its release across multiple platforms and mediums and paying special attention to the requirements each might need.

Both are essential steps in the audio production process in ensuring your music sounds as good as possible before it’s released out into the world.

Hopefully this comparison helped to demystify mastering and specifically explain the differences between mixing vs mastering.

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