Producing, mixing, and mastering. What’s the difference? We hear these terms a lot when jostling about in a music community, but many are still a bit confused as to what each role is or entails, and where they fit in when producing music.
So I’m going to try to put some lose definition and understanding around the who’s who when it comes to music production.
Production is basically the entire process that you go through when creating a song and getting it recorded. So it includes pre-production activities, such as the writing, arranging, and rehearsals, then you have the actual production activities, i.e. recording the song, and lastly the post-production activities, such as mixing and mastering.
In general terms, it’s the producer’s job to manage this process with the intention being to achieve the artist’s vision for the song and to make (produce) the best product that they can (a record).
So the role of a producer can involve giving input in the writing and arranging stages, getting the right musicians on board for performing and recording the song, directing the performance, and directing the mix engineer to make sure that the song is sounding as needed in order to achieve the vision, among other things.
The producer is basically the person who will be responsible for translating the artist’s vision for their song into an actual finished product, i.e. the master sound recording.
Mixing is what happens once you have all of the instruments and vocals recorded. So, we got vocals, guitars, drums, bass and keyboards down, now the mixer goes to work to balance it all out and add effects and wot-not to get that coherent sound and hit all the emotional buttons that will make the listener cry!
Back in the day, when people had to go out and pay for a recording studio, it would also be the typical case that the mix/sound engineer would also be responsible for capturing the sound, i.e. mic’ing and recording the drums, guitars, etc.
However, when it comes to the online world and home recording, this is less likely to be the case. Artists often record themselves and then upload the track for the mix engineer to step in and do the mix. So things are a bit different in that respect.
Historically, I believe, mixing is considered to be more of a technical job, hence the related term I assume, audio or sound ‘engineer’. So the mixer is more about using the technology in-hand to get the sound that the producer/artist is looking for, as well as dealing with cables, tapes, software, and machinery, etc.
To put it another away, there are really two aspects to mixing. One being the creative side, and other being the technical side. If there is a producer involved, it will be more the producer’s role to direct the creative side of a mix; though, it is not uncommon for one person to be both the mix engineer and the producer.
Once the mix is done, it moves on through to the next stage, which is mastering.
Mastering is where a mastering engineer takes the original ‘source’ – the mix – and prepares a master copy that will be used for replication of the song onto its various formats before finally being sent out to the wider audience and the world, i.e. distribution.
A key role of the mastering engineer is to ensure that the recording is being faithfully reproduced when it goes to print on the target distribution format. By format, I mean, making it ready for distribution on vinyl, tape, CD, or digital download, such as an mp3. Each media type has its quirks, so it’s the mastering engineer’s job to make it sound as good as possible on the target format.
The mastering engineer is not ‘mixing’ the track. So they are not going to put the guitar up and bring the vocals down, but on the other hand, they may need to fix problems that have arisen from a mix that is perhaps not as good as it could have been.
A favorite motto of the mastering engineer is, “do no harm”. Which basically means, only do things that improve the recording and nothing more. If the mix is already good, then the mastering engineer doesn’t have to do much at all.
A couple of key attributes of a mastering engineer then, would be: 1. having access to an awesome monitoring environment, 2. an in-depth knowledge of his tools, and 3. golden ears. And, as opposed to mixing, I would say that mastering really is a more technical discipline, rather than creative (some may disagree!).
So, to sum it up (pun intended!), your producer works with the artist to realize their vision and directs the mix and mastering engineers to create the right vibe, sound, and emotional impact and to bring it all to life and create the final product – a record.
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