Bad Answers To Good Questions About Music-Making—Part 1


We're living in an unprecedented time when so much of our collective knowledge is freely available to anyone with access to the internet. Of course you may have also noticed that a lot of the information being spread online is vague, contradictory and, in some cases, just plain wrong. Finding good answers to your music-making questions is no exception and it can be frustrating, especially when you don't know what you don't know.

I spent a lot of time trying to learn about recording and mixing music. Life happened and I walked away from music-making for a long time before having to relearn a lot of it in a new age of digital audio, plug-ins, and iLoks. Like many of you, I've had to question my own assumptions and often wish someone had set me straight before I wasted precious time and money on bad advice.

Over the last few years I've found some really helpful information online but also saw a pattern of misinformation—myths and half-truths being perpetuated, often unwittingly, by people like you and me just trying to help each other out. I certainly don't claim to have all of the answers and would always recommend that you do your own research to validate what works for you and your musical goals. Most importantly, apply what you learn to separate truth from fiction. We learn a lot more from doing than from watching YouTube.

That said, I'd like to share my responses to some of the common questions about music-making that I've run across in hopes that it helps you and your music get to the place you want to be, sooner rather than later. Since there's no shortage of good questions and bad answers, I hope to make this an ongoing series to revisit every now and then.

As always, if you find this information helpful, please share it via social media and within your music-making circles.

#1 - What's the difference between mixing & mastering?

Bad Answers:

  • They're both the same process of fixing the song and cleaning up the raw tracks for release

  • Mixing is fixing—we can fix it in the mix

  • Mastering is the final stage of mixing, when we make the mix louder. If your mix is already loud you don't need to master it

Good Answers:

Mixing and mastering are two different and equally important stages in the process. In fact, "fixing" anything ought to be done as early on in the process as possible, so that ideally you're performing like there's no editing, recording like there's no mixing, and mixing like there's no mastering.

Mixing is not editing. Many mix engineers will do some minor editing to serve the song but will also recommend (and rightfully charge for) a separate editing session when necessary. Mixing is primarily about balancing individual parts of a song to create a cohesive stereo mix of a seamless performance that also sounds good in mono. Mixing is enhancing what's awesome and reducing what's distracting, creating a 3-D space of frequencies, panning, and depth.

Mastering is not just making the mix louder, it is about balancing the final mix of each song and balancing multiple songs to fit together as one collection on your album or EP. Mastering ensures a solid mix will translate well (i.e., sound good) on just about any set of speakers or headphones by fine-tuning what's already there, not re-mixing the song and certainly not adding additional production. Mastering ought to take into consideration the distribution method that will be used. Releasing to vinyl, CD, digital downloads, and streaming can all have an impact on the mastering engineer's decisions—share your plans with them upfront.

#2 - How Loud Should I Make My Songs?

Bad Answer: Louder songs always stand out above the rest so always make yours as loud as you can!

Good Answer:

There's a difference between volume and perceived loudness but more importantly, there’s a huge difference between music with good dynamics and music with little or no dynamics. Dynamic range is the difference between the quietest parts of your song and its loudest parts. Even aggressive and “loud” genres, like rock and heavy metal will benefit from a healthy dynamic range if the parts can be properly mixed and mastered.

Music with little or no dynamic range only causes ear fatigue, when the listener simply can’t stand to hear any more and changes the station or skips to the next song. For most artists releasing their music, this is the last thing you want your audience to do!

Did you know that most streaming services now level-match all of the songs being played? Spotify, iTunes, and others will turn louder songs down in volume to match the other songs. This means you're not gaining any advantage by trying to make your songs louder than everyone else’s—in fact, you're only sacrificing dynamics and probably encouraging your listeners to skip ahead to the next song.

If your raw tracks have been performed and recorded well, you shouldn’t need to squeeze the life out of your song when mixing and mastering—and this is often what happens when artists try to turn everything “up to eleven”.

When you’re writing and recording your songs, recognize that you can create more energy and movement in your performance with dynamics. Yes, you can (and often should) get loud when the song calls for it, but be sure you leave some room to get there and some room to go back to.

Both your mixing and mastering engineers will likely need to tame or control certain parts by reducing the dynamics here and there but they will be able to do it in a way that still preserves most of the dynamic range you’ve given them to work with.

#3 - When should I hire an engineer?

Bad Answer: Never. You're not a true musician if you don't write, produce, mix, and master your own material.

Good Answer:

There's no rule that says you have to do everything yourself. In fact, many incredibly talented artists probably could do it all by themselves but are smart enough to realize this one simple thing:

People fall in love with the music, not the microphone or the mix.

You can often get better results with your songs much faster by letting a few knowledgeable specialists each focus on a specific aspect of the process so you can focus on being a musician. A good engineer will always listen to you, the artist, and work with you to better serve our mutual customer, the song.

If you couldn't easily answer the first two questions in this post, you will likely benefit from collaborating with an engineer in the recording, mixing, and mastering stages. That isn’t meant as a slam or a put-down either!

Having a dedicated engineer to focus on the technical tasks simply allows you to focus instead on the artistic and creative elements of the music-making process.

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Matt Recio

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