Recording, Mixing & Mastering - A beginners guide.
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Many musicians contact me not knowing where to start when it comes to the world of production. Particularly with questions such as "what is mastering?" or "can mixing & mastering be done in the same studio?". With that in mind, here is a brief guide to help you get started.
Where to begin.
So you've written a song that you are incredibly excited about, and you're ready to share it with the world. It's time to book your first studio session.
There are many different ways to capture your new song and share it across the globe but how you go about it will depend on a number of things such as budget, location, logistics and more. Each will depend greatly on your needs and requirements but where do you start?
If you’re passionate about learning the recording process, you may decide to use your money to buy some basic home recording equipment and record your first "demos" in your home. This is absolutely fine and can be a fantastic entry point to learning about the world of production whilst also capturing your new music.
Equally you might have a large budget, a song that is to be used commercially on a global scale and you may want to book the country's top recording studio, 2 producers, a recording engineer, mixing engineer and mastering engineer. Great! But that level of production is unlikely the route you’ll take for your first recording or if you’re reading this beginner's guide.
So – let’s have a look at the basics of the traditional recording process.
In its simplest form, the process of producing a song can be broken down into three main sections: Recording, Mixing and Mastering. But what are they?! Let’s have a look…
Arguably the most self-explanatory of the three, recording is the moment you capture your audio. It may be on your own if you are a solo artist, or with a band, but either way you are going to need to get yourself into a space with some recording equipment and perform your song.
Whether that space is a stunning recording studio or your friend’s bedroom with a basic audio interface – that’s up to you, but if you can, I highly recommend you book yourself into a recording studio to record your song. The quality of your recording will be much higher and recording music in a studio can be a fantastic experience for any musician. Go ahead and enjoy it!
Tip: If you or your band can’t afford to hire a high-end recording studio, try connecting with a local college or university that has a music production course. These colleges and universities tend to have some great recording facilities and the students normally need to practise recording artists/bands as part of their course so it can be a great way to get some free recording. The downside is, that you are relying on an audio engineer with very little experience to capture your song so don’t expect too much. They’re still learning, just like the rest of us.
Also check out my blog “Preparing for your first recording session” for tips.
So, you’ve recorded your song, all the audio is captured, so what now?
Your song needs mixed. This is when an engineer takes all the individual pieces of audio from each of the microphones used and begins creating your mix.
Essentially, in its most basic form, mixing a song is taking all these individually recorded microphones and inputs and blending them together. This includes balancing all the channels so all of the audio can be clearly heard and making adjustments such as adding more bass frequencies to a kick drum or adding reverb to a vocal.
At the end of the mixing session, your song will no longer be multiple recorded pieces of audio, it will now be one piece of audio. Your song, balanced and hopefully sounding excellent.
The mixing of a song is an incredibly complex and intricate art form undertaken by exceptionally talented people, so don’t be fooled by my basic explanation. But an in-depth look at the world of audio mixing is not what we’re here for. We’re just dipping a toe in for now.
So where do you get your song mixed and who does it?
This is entirely up to you. The studio you recorded it in may offer mixing services as part of the deal. Your friend who recorded it in his bedroom may also want to have a go at mixing it too. Or equally, the internet gives you endless options now with online mixing being incredibly accessible. You can send your files to some of the greatest studios in the world to be mixed and sent back to you, but again, this will all depend on your budget and your needs.
If you are having your song mixed somewhere other than where you recorded it, you will need to ask the the engineer/student/friend who recorded your song for a digital copy of the recorded files. This way you can send them on to whoever you have chosen to mix it.
It is important to note that the mixing engineer can have a huge effect on the sound of your completed song, so if there are any particular elements of the final sound that are important to you – tell the engineer in advance. For example, you may want the drums to be very prominent with an “80’s feel”, you may want the guitar solo to be huge with a big reverb and so on. Whatever your needs, discuss it with the engineer in advance of the mixing session.
This tends to be spoken of like a dark art for those who are new to the world of production. You’ve heard it's incredibly important but have no idea what it is?!
Well, you’ve heard right, it is incredibly important. Your mixed song should sound great but will likely be low in volume to anything you hear on the radio and lacking energy.
Unlike the mixing engineer who is working with individual audio files such as multiple kick drum microphones, snare drum, bass guitar, vocals and tweaking each one to perfection, the mastering engineer is working on the song as a whole. The mastering engineer will have one file, the mixed song, so anything they do to the song, such as compression, eq etc. changes the sound of the whole song, not individual instruments/aspects.
Some also refer to mastering as adding the ‘final sparkle’ to your song and they wouldn’t be wrong. Your song will likely come back sounding louder, with more energy and that added 'sparkle' as they say! Again, just like with the mixing process, it is an art form in itself and I’m overly simplifying it for the purposes of this post.
So, who masters it? Of course, the recording studio may have offered this as a package with the recording and mixing, your friend who had a go at mixing may want to have a go at mastering, or you may wish to go to a designated mastering studio with your finished mix. All these options are fine and will depend on your own budget/circumstances.
Online mastering services are a fantastic option, you can have world class mastering engineers working on your song without leaving your house. There is one huge advantage to mastering compared to mixing – it is a quick process.
I don’t count that as an advantage because we’re in a rush. It’s an advantage in terms of cost. For example – you may find your ideal mixing engineer is £100 per hour. Fine but mixing a song could take 12 hours or much longer. This quickly becomes expensive.
Your ideal mastering engineer may charge £100 per hour. Great, because mastering generally takes around an hour, sometimes even less. This means you can go big on your mastering engineer without breaking the bank.
To summarise, there are no right or wrong answers on how to capture your music but it is important to understand each area of the production process to enable you to work out what will give you the best outcome.
If you are booking with a studio, mixing engineer or mastering engineer, have a listen to what they've recorded in the past to see if it's right for you. If they only normally record folk music, are they going to get the best sound for your heavy metal band? Or if they predominantly work with jazz artists, are they going to do your dance track justice? Doesn't mean they can't or won't but certainly worth considering.