Producing, mixing and mastering
Wait, what? Is it different steps?
Yes, I would like to say that it is. And again, in below reasoning, I tend (as always) to over simplify things, just to make things really clear and distinct. And on top of that, the process look different to different people. So this is my view and my opinion that I share with you.
To me, this step is including writing the song, recording individual elements and put them all together in the same audio project. Regardless if it is all software synths, with or without song or recorded instruments. It can be within a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like Cubase, Logic, FL Studio or reason, or it can be audio tracks in a porta studio or in a massive 48-channel recording device. My view on this step is to gather all the elements of the track, lay them as the should be played back, trim, tune, chop, add effects, compression, cut frequencies out (apply EQ or hi/lo-cut-filters), boost frequencies (apply EQ). The goal of this entire step is to have gathered all elements of the track in one place, and making sure that each element is as good as possible and is ready for use in the final track. This, to me, is all done in this step and while I tend to apply some mixing thoughts in this process, this is not where I do the actual mix, because that it the next step.
To me, the purpose of mixing is to place each element of the track where it is supposed to be (front, back, left right) by adjusting balance (L/R) and adjusting the faders (typically both faders and pan can be automated in a DAW, but it is not necessary – but perhaps desirable). When all elements are in their right place, it is time to “squeeze” them to fit together by starting to adjust parameters, this can be everything from faders and pan-knob to EQ, FX or compression. It is almost always a renegotiation of things and details you have already put your heart into for each individual element. But now your focus shifts from getting the best out of each of the individual elements to make them work together as a united sound mass, where it is no longer the individual parts that is in the spotlight, but rather the entire track and is combined overall expression. Like a detail in a painting can be allowed to be just a detail, while the over all focus is on something completely different, the detail is still a part of the painting, but the painting itself expresses far more than the detail, as it is the combined experience of everything in it. As we “see” the track with our ears, we are “seeing” the entire track, and the sum of all its parts. And it is this sum that we create in the mix.
Is mastering necessary? And is it more to it than just putting a multiband compressor with a fancy present on the stereo output and be done with it? Let me first state that I am in no way a master on mastering. It is an artform that I have yet to explore and learn the craftmanship of. I have full respect for all those of you who are skilled in this art.
To me, as a mere beginner in this subject, mastering is a way to create a unity of several tracks, much in the same way mixing is to create a unity of individual sound elements. To get an album, EP, or two songs on a single to create a unity, they need to be brought together. While mixing one track is just focused on bringing the best out of that track, mastering tracks to bring out the best of the collected songs in a unity. Of course, it is easy to claim that each song is an individual creation and should be presented as such. I cannot disagree with that. But at the same time, I can also not look at mastering without seeing the whole picture of the tracks that are supposed to be presented together.
Perhaps, a little history lesson can put things in perspective.
Back in the old days, when music was released on vinyl (which is still popular today, in some genres) it was important to master songs to fit within the physical limits of the vinyl playback. A bass that was too loud could actually create so much vibrations so that the needle would jump to a different part of the track, which would disrupt the playback of the track. A very undesirable feature. The same could be said for CD’s even if it did not cause actual vibrations when the laser read the one’s and zero’s off of the CD itself. But still limited in a way.
Then there is the broadcast perspective… often “kinder” versions of songs are created, to adapt for the broadcasters conditions. Both radio and video broadcast through ether waves have their limitations and is handled differently by each station, but in general, the final touch of sound processing is put closest to the physical transmitter, leaving a smoother signal to send long distances from the studio to the location of the antenna. However, this is not something I want to go in depth with.
Nowadays, when a lot of music is produced in a computer and released to various streaming services and consumed through a computer or smartphone or any other similar device, it opens up for other challenges. For example, consumption patterns today are very different from putting the needle to a vinyl, go over and sit in a chair and listen to the entire first side, go back, flip the vinyl around and repeat on the other side. Today it is more likely that you find a song, add it to a playlist full of other songs. If one track is mixed and mastered very loud, and the next very quiet, the listening experience may not be pleasant and it is likely that you would want to adjust the volume between the two tracks. Various streaming services handle this in various way, but in my opinion, the “loudness war” from the early 2000 is not quite yet over. (Me being one of the one’s guilty of keeping it going!)
So, to put the stakes at the table, moderate and modesty could (or should) be a leading star when it comes to mastering. And this where I only theorize and present my thought, and act completely different. I use mastering as an extended step of mixing, to get the most out of each individual track. But I am still learning and trying to avoid the “loudness war”. (But it is oh, so tempting, and I constantly fall into the temptation of pushing the sound just a little further in the mastering process….)
And as always, stay playful and curious!