Editing, mixing and mastering are the final stages of recording a song. Recordings won’t sound professional without editing, mixing and mastering so it’s good to know what is actually happening.
Editing, mixing and mastering are all different steps that are taken by mixing and mastering engineers in a recording studio. It involves improving the sound quality of individual tracks, balancing them and creating a final master recording.
This can be expensive in a studio but you’ll gain access to high-quality equipment and a team of experienced professional audio engineers. This can be the biggest difference between a professional studio and a home studio and to many is worth the cost. This process can be hard to understand so hopefully we can clear things up for you.
What is the difference between mixing and mastering?
Mixing puts the puzzle pieces of a song together whilst mastering will give your song the final polish. This step involves optimising the overall sound of your track by making stereo enhancements and adjusting the overall song to ensure it is clear to the listener.
Mastering looks at making the final mix sound clearer, louder and more professional. This compares to mixing, which focuses more balance and processing of individual tracks.
Studios can vary tremendously in size and can include live rooms, isolation booths and control rooms. This is where the editing, mixing and mastering often take place.
Equipment will usually include
- High spec PC or Mac capable of processing large files
- Industry standard DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software
- A large mixing console or mixing desk capable of recording multiple channels
- Selection of microphones
- Reference monitors (speakers) that provide a flat frequency response
Recording in a live room or isolation booth can affect the sound of recordings and affect the final product. It’s good to know the difference between the two so you can make the right choice for recording.
What is a live room at a recording studio?
A live room is a recording space for vocals and instruments separate from the main control room. This means the recording can be made in isolation, without other sounds interfering. A good live room will have a reasonable amount of acoustic treatment to reduce unnecessary reverb. This helps the studio record a dry sound that cuts through the mix.
The microphones and instruments connect to the main studio room via a Wall Box, commonly known as a ‘snake’. This can also connect multiple rooms to each other. This means some studios can have a band recording together but with the players in separate rooms.
Is it important to have a live room at a recording studio?
It isn’t always necessary to have a separate live room. Some instruments such as bass and guitar can be plugged straight into the mixing board or soundcard. On occasions, vocals are recorded in the control room, but this is dependent on the size of the studio.
Live rooms can be quite big and can accommodate multiple recording musicians at once. Some studios even have rooms big enough for a whole orchestra. However, there are some important factors you need to consider when recording in a live room.
When multiple musicians are recording at once, the sound from one instrument, such as a drum kit, can end up bleeding into the recording of another, such as a vocal track. This recording spill from the drums could be louder than the actual vocals if they’re recorded at the same time. This can’t be changed through editing, mixing or mastering.
It is important to make sure you only record instruments together if you really think it is necessary or if there is suitable acoustic separation. Examples include recording a piano as you sing or certain instrumentalists together, such as drummers and bassists.
Recording in a Live Room
You should also consider the size of the room and how this affects the sound. Rooms have a distinct sound, try clapping in your bedroom and bathroom to hear the difference. Bigger rooms can often make a sound linger after it is produced, known as reverb.
Reverb is the reflection of sound waves that can make a track sound more spacey. It can be appropriately added as an effect in mixing but can’t be taken out of recordings. Therefore, you should some individual instruments and vocals are often better suited in an isolation booth.
What is an isolation booth at a recording studio?
An isolation booth records a single instrument or vocalist in a small insulated room.
Isolation booths are acoustically treated to ensure the best recording possible. Acoustic treatment is used to either diffuse or absorbs the sound so that the microphone doesn’t pick up any unwanted reverb whilst recording. Effects like this are easy to add in post-production but difficult to remove if present on the recording.
Most vocal booths tend to be smaller than a live room and are designed to eliminate the kind reverb found in larger recording rooms. They are perfect for recording vocals because the sound comes through cleanly and can be better edited afterwards. Isolation booths can also make your vocals more prominent. Removing room reverb can make recordings sound less distant in the final mix, giving them more clarity.
Isolation booths are also be used for recording guitars and smaller orchestral instruments. They can even be assembled and built in a live room with portable soundproof shields. It’s more effective to have a separate room but you may set on recording alongside instrumentalists.
Although isolation booths can lead to a better final recording, some studios have great sounding rooms that will make vocals and instruments sound amazing. It’s like how singing in the shower usually sounds better than in your room because the reverb sounds nicer. Hearing a high–quality recording of your voice can make you feel more confident and deliver better performance, so it’s worth talking to your engineer about what they think the best rooms are for recording vocals.
What is a control room at a recording studio?
A control room is where the audio engineers and record producers will monitor and adjust the sound. This is the heart of a recording studio. It is where the main computer, speaker monitors and audio mixing desk or console can be found.
A computer is an essential part of the studio because you need to use recording software, known as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Examples of these include Pro Tools, Logic Pro X and Ableton. This is where the sound is recorded onto tracks and it is also where editing, mixing and mastering happen.
Speaker monitors aren’t big bassy hi-fi systems designed to make your songs sound amazing. In fact, they are designed for clarity and to reveal any kind of mistakes or problems with the sound. Don’t be concerned if the recording through the monitors doesn’t sound amazing at first. If an engineer can mix it to sound good on these speakers, they’ll sound great on everything else!
A recording console can be the grand centrepiece of a studio. In some studios, it can be the most expensive piece of equipment. It processes the sounds that are recorded in the live room and has sliding faders for each track. This makes audio mixing more intuitive for the engineer. Famous consoles made by Neve and SSL can boost a studio’s profile because their processing instantly helps a recording sound great.
Finally, some studios will have something called outboard gear in their control room. These are pieces of equipment in a rack that helped engineers mix and master sound before computers. Many audio mixing effects on a computer are designed to mimic famous outboard equipment. However, many engineers swear that a computer simply can’t do as good a job as vintage equipment.
Control room tour:
Typical session process at a recording studio
You need to make sure your recordings are at their best to get the most out of editing, mixing and mastering. Recording studios commonly use a multitrack recording process, which involves recording each instrument separately and will later be combined in a process called a “mix”. By recording each sound source independently, engineers have greater freedom to play around and optimise each instrument or the vocals without affecting anything else.
It will also serve to enhance the quality of each element in the song, allowing you to dedicate your full focus on each singular instrument or vocal recording. It drastically minimises potential error as each sound source will be carefully chosen and combined for the final song, known as comping.
Also, imagine if you get the perfect vocal take but another instrument makes a horrible sounding mistake. This can come through on the take and ruin the otherwise perfect recording so it’s best to keep things separate.
Watch Amy Winehouse’s original recording of ‘Back To Black’ in the studio with Mark Ronson:
Editing the audio simply means cleaning the recording up. This removes any unwanted noises and cuts out or moves sections of songs to help them fit the song better. The extent of this phase is entirely dependent on how fruitful your recording session was.
An engineer will also go through the takes and sometimes combine them to get the best overall performance, known as comping. An engineer can also go through takes and adjust timings to ensure all instruments are perfectly in time with each other, resulting in a tighter recording.
Recording studios will often charge by the hour so in order to save yourself any needless expense, try to keep the editing process to a minimum by coming to the studio well-rehearsed and with a clear vision.
Make sure that you re-do any parts that you’re not satisfied with. Re-recording a section is often done much faster than fixing any mistakes later in the process.
The final mix is created by balancing and processing all of the audio tracks. This process has a high amount of creative input and can result in the original recordings sounding completely different. When mixing, it is always useful to have reference tracks so that the engineer has a clear understanding of your vision for the record.
What is EQ?
The keywords you will probably hear related to this are EQ (equalisation) and compression. This is where processing gets quite technical but put simply, it helps different tracks sound better together.
Here are some common effects used during mixing:
- ‘EQ’ which is boosting or removing certain frequencies,
- ‘Reverb’ which puts a sound further back in the mix,
- ‘Delay’, where a sound is echoed or repeated
- Compression, which reduces the ‘dynamic range’ between the loudest and quietest part of an audio signal.
These effects and more enable the sounds to blend better with each other in the mix.
EQ can adjust the bass, mids and treble (or high end) sound frequencies of different tracks. It is important that the EQ is balanced across the whole recording. Too much bass can reduce the clarity of everything else and too much treble make a recording sound thin.
Compression balances the dynamics of a track. For example, if you are singing verses quietly but shouting your head off for the chorus, there is going to be a big difference in volume. Without compression, you won’t hear the verse and the chorus will be too loud, so it reduces the dynamic range, making the quiet sounds louder and louder sounds quieter.
The main purpose of mastering is to ensure the record sounds good on all devices that it is played on. This includes clubs, car stereos, headphones or any other speaker.
Professional mastering engineers use high-quality equipment to refine the smallest details and make the biggest improvements. Mastering tends to involve the use of expensive outboard compressors and equalisers a lot more than mixing and requires great ears to hear the subtle differences.
If you are producing an entire EP or album, mastering will make sure that your songs sonically fit well together from start to finish. Once complete, the studio will then convert your tracks to their appropriate sample rate/bit depth. (MP3, AIFF & WAV being the most common)
More often than not, this process is done by a third party, who is not close to the project, have fresh ears and owns specialist mastering equipment, hence why mastering services are usually offered separately.
Some artists who record by themselves choose to skip this step as it requires extensive technical knowledge. However, many argue that it is the most important step in making your record come together and stand out.
How to learn mixing and mastering
Don’t be afraid to ask engineers questions when you’re in the studio find out how they got started. You might find that you’re more fascinated by the mixing and mastering process than anything else and I’m sure other engineers would be happy to help you.
There are also great resources online, such as music technology magazine Sound on Sound and esteemed mix engineer Dave Pensado’s YouTube channel called Pensado’s Place, which has some great interviews and advice.
Famous Female Audio Engineers
The majority of engineers in the music industry tend to be men. However, there have been some really talented and successful women who have been changing the game. They have also helped make some great music in the process.
Marcella Araica studied Audio Engineering at a school in Florida and after interning at the Hit Factory, became an assistant engineer and eventually mixed for Timbaland, Britney Spears and Missy Elliott.
Aubrey Whitfield is a British multifaceted engineer who also works as a producer and songwriter for Little Mix, Kelly Clarkson and James Arthur. She also offers an internship for aspiring female engineers in the UK.
Ann Mincieli is Alicia Keys’ longtime engineer. She set up her own Jungle City studios in New York and has worked with heavyweights like Drake, Jay Z and Mariah Carey.
Tips from experts
“If possible, do liaise with the recording engineer in advance of the session. It gives them a chance to prepare the studio before you arrive for the exact line-up, which can save valuable time on the day. Don’t be afraid to ask for their advice, they know the studio area, microphones, equipment etc. and if possible do visit the studio in advance, it is always beneficial.“
– Frank Barretta, Studio Manager at Angel Recording Studios, Islington, London.
“Be as prepared as you can! Make sure you have completed your lyrics and if possible, have them printed out (at least 2 copies are good – one for you and one for the engineer). But also, be prepared for the unexpected. Things don’t always go to plan once you start recording and the vibe might take you somewhere you weren’t expecting.”
– Luke Henderson, Producer at Fluke Productions, East London
Have you made music in a recording studio? Post your tracks and where you recorded in the comments below.