Understand The Entire Music Production Process... as if it were as simple as making a cake.

What even is mixing? and why do some people say "mixing and mastering"? is there a difference? Why do some people say "tracking vocals" and others say "recording vocals"? How do all of these things fit together?


This industry SUCKS at helping talented new artists get a firm grip on things. There's so many words that only make sense to engineers, there's all these systems and rules, and tons of complicated information on YouTube that just ads to the confusion because no one even agrees on what to call things, let alone how to do things.


I'm going to give you the answers right here - right now.

Using the delicious example of baking a cake.


JUMP TO THE SUMMARY


Create a recipe

(composing the song)


Composing the song and putting it all together is the equivalent of creating a recipe for the cake. Once all the lyrics are written, all the instruments are pieced together, and it sounds good when you perform it live... you have an awesome recipe. Stick to it.


You need to start with the end in mind. In other words, you need to know what you want your cake to be like BEFORE you start to buy ingredients for the cake. Imagine spending $400 on chocolate frosting, cocoa powder, and chocolate chips and then realizing you don't want any chocolate in your cake. Walmart might accept returns but I promise you recording studios won't. So save yourself a huge headache and nail down the song before you even contact the studio.


I'm not saying you can't experiment. I'm not saying you shouldn't be creative a long the way. I AM saying you need to know what cake you're baking, or in music terms, you need to know the song you are producing.


You know you have a great recipe if all the lyrics are written, you have the instrumentals pieced out in your head (or a beat you bought online), everyone involved can perform their parts well (including features), and you have a good idea of what you will want the song to sound like in the end.


Quick Notes for deep learners:

  1. This stage is referred to as "production" or "composition" pretty interchangeably.

  2. In today's era, the modern term "Production" or a song "producer" usually refers to the person who helps you create the recipe. At the very least they are beat-makers, at the very best they are song writers who help you put together all the instruments, all the vocals and lyrics, and help you nail the sound you want before recording.

  3. This stage includes some stylizing. You'll want to know about how much auto-tune, or delay, or reverb, will be on your song eventually. Although this can be finalized in the next stage.

  4. Some musicians have the skill and money to create the recipe while they're gathering the ingredients - but this is rarely done in a studio (unless you have thousands of dollars to blow on studio time). If you have a home-studio and your creativity is fueled by hearing the song come together, you might be one who should create the recipe and gather ingredients at the same time.


Gathering the ingredients

(recording/tracking)


Next up, get the ingredients. The point of having quality ingredients is to ensure you have the foundation to a quality cake. You're not going to get a 5-star-award-winning cake from a $3 Walmart cake mix. Equally, your bedroom recordings with a low quality microphone and no acoustic treatment are going to sound like a low quality song with bad acoustics. There's no way around it.


Use good ingredients. I mean it.

Would you rather have a 5-star-award-winning song, or a $3 Walmart song?

I don't want rotten eggs and sour milk in my cake, and yet all the time artists send rotten recordings to a mixing engineer expecting the song to sound better than rotten eggs - it never does.


Never listen to the lying voice that says "it will get fixed in the mix".

I'll tell you right now the only 3 problems that will get fixed in the mix:

  1. Muddy, overcrowded, or unclear because of instruments being too "busy".

  2. Vocals not feeling frontal or powerful enough.

  3. Song or particular instruments feeling too loud or too quiet.

If you're song has clean and clear recordings that match your recipe, but is suffering from the 3 problems above - then you're good to go on to mixing!


You know you've finished gathering all the ingredients when you have a great sounding "rough mix". A rough mix is when your song is all recorded, stylized, and sounding exactly how you want - except it hasn't been professionally mixed and mastered yet. This means that there is nothing to be fixed or added except what you simply CAN NOT do on your own. Your rough mix should include the stylizations you want including reverb, delay, auto-tune, distortion, etc.


If you've nailed the rough mix, then mixing and mastering will truly make your song come alive. If you haven't, mixing and mastering is just going to highlight the flaws in your song.


You should treat your song with the highest respect. It's your passion, your emotional getaway, possibly your future career, treat the recordings that way!


Quick Notes for deep learners:

  1. This stage is referred to as "recording" or "tracking" interchangeably.

  2. "recording" is used because you are literally recording your instruments to a track. "tracking" is used because you are recording your instruments to a track.

  3. If you have the right gear and acoustic environment, tracking is the easiest part and can often be done in a home studio with very little training. (click here to see if recording at home is for you)

  4. "Acoustic environment" is the way that sound interacts with a room. A small, square, and fairly clean room is literally the worst place for recording. Sound will bounce everywhere. That's why bedroom studios aren't a good idea unless you can buy "acoustic treatment".

  5. "Acoustic treatment" is physical product you can buy to place in your room to control the way that sound interacts with your room. These can be made of foam, wood, fiberglass, and each kind of "treatment" can serve a different purpose.

  6. "Sound proof" is a popular term that is often misused. Sound proof means that sound can't get in or out of a room. Just because your room is sound proof does not mean that the sound IN the room will sound good. For good recordings you need both a Sound Proof room AND an Acoustically Treated room.

  7. "DAW" is another need-to-know term for tracking. DAW (digital audio workstation) is the software that you use to record your music onto a computer. This can be Pro Tools, FL Studio, Logic, Reaper, etc.

  8. Believe it or not, the DAW that an engineer uses has nothing to do with their quality. Every DAW does the same thing, they just have different workflows and cater to certain types of music. If an engineer is bragging about their DAW and not their sound, I'd immediately assume they have more money than they have skill.

  9. One of the main benefits of working with a Tracking/Recording Engineer is getting a second pair of ears on your song. If you can find a good tracking engineer who is patient, helpful, respectful and willing to coach you then you will see immediate improvement in your music as they guide you through small adjustments that will make a HUGE difference on your song. Unfortunately, the honest truth is that very little Tracking Engineers are good at this. The majority belittle the artists they work with - probably on accident, but it still happens. Engineers at SOS Productions are skilled at handling your music respectfully and providing helpful advice while upholding your dignity.

  10. Tracking yourself may cost you ~$700 in tracking specific tools. People are often deceived by thinking they only need a microphone. Remember that you will need a budget microphone ($100-$300), a budget audio interface ($150-$300), a budget mic stand ($30), budget cables ($15), more than likely a sound shield ($50), a budget DAW ($60), and acoustic treatment ($300). After $700, you'd be getting a budget quality recording. That doesn't include any style specific plugins you might need, extra acoustic treatment if you need to soundproof your recording space, etc.

  11. Working with a traditional recording studio, recording a song would cost about $300-500. This would not include mixing or mastering fees.

  12. At SOS Productions, recording with a professional engineer costs $160 including all the mixing and mastering. If you'd like to record yourself in our professional studio, you can record your own song for $100 on our professional equipment in our studio - and we will mix and master your song for free.


Mixing the ingredients

(mixing)


Now that we've got all the ingredients and just the right amount of each has been put into the bowl it's time to mix it up and get a super nice batter.


Up to this point, you wouldn't stick your finger in anything (except maybe the sugar) and go "MMmmmmmm", but once we've mixed everything together our ears really should be enjoying what they hear.


Normally, this is the point where you seek professional help. I've been in this industry for over a decade and I honestly still can't mix my songs as well as any of the mix engineers here at SOS Productions.


Good mixing engineers rely on a great set of ears. They have spent years fine-tuning and training their hearing to pickup on exactly what a song needs.


The Mix Engineer's unique talent is to hear the purpose of each instrument in the song and find the best way for that instrument to serve it's purpose.


They will use your rough-mix as a roadmap to guide them as they use EQ, compression, limiters, and other unique tools to accomplish this unique talent they have.


Those tools are easy to use, so watching 'how-to' videos online can deceive you into thinking you will get a great mix by yourself with little-to-no practice. If you've been gifted with great hearing, you might be one of the lucky few who can get a decent sound on your own - but don't feel bad if you're not. Most people are not.


If you want to mix your own songs. I absolutely encourage you to start now, but recognize that it might take a while before you start mixing songs you're happy with even if you do have good ears. In the meantime, working with a professional mixing engineer will allow you to compare and contrast what they did to your song with what you were able to do - that will accelerate your learning process and help to fine tune your ears.


Whether you mix your own songs or you work with a professional, keep in mind that the purpose of this phase is to hear the purpose of each instrument in the song and find the best way for that instrument to serve it's purpose. That is done by combining all the separate tracks and making sure they all sound great together.


Read this article to see the.....


Quick Notes for deep learners:

  1. "mixing" and "mastering" are two separate processes. Many studios will do both, but they shouldn't be done at the same time. If possible, you want to avoid having the same person do both the mixing and the mastering. Here at SOS Productions, we always make sure there are two set of ears on every project.

  2. be very cautious of advice you receive from YouTube 'how-to' videos. I've had awesome advice that has greatly improved my mixes, and I've also had terrible advice that made my mixing worse until I unlearned what I had been taught.

  3. One of the main benefits of working with a Mixing Engineer is getting a pair of fine-tuned ears on your song. If you can find a good mix engineer who is patient, helpful, respectful and willing to coach you then you will see immediate improvement in your music as they guide you through small adjustments that will make a HUGE difference on your song. Unfortunately, the honest truth is that very little Mix Engineers are good at this. The majority belittle the artists they work with - probably on accident, but it still happens. Engineers at SOS Productions are skilled at handling your music respectfully and providing helpful advice while upholding your dignity.

  4. Want to impress the mix engineer? PLEASE read this article. It will save you so much time, money, and effort. It will also make you sound so much more educated to the mix engineer and will honestly impress them.

  5. Mixing yourself may cost you ~$200 in mixing specific plugins.

  6. Hiring a traditional Mixing Engineer will generally cost you $300 - $600 per song.

  7. Working with SOS Productions, you'll get access to our professional mix engineers for only $100 per song.


Baking the cake

(mastering)


If you're not happy with the cake batter, DON'T put it in the oven. You have to get new ingredients and re-mix it. Likewise, if you're not happy with the mix, DON'T master it. You might have to re-record somethings and re-mix it (or sometimes find someone else to mix it.)


Mastering does not "fix" anything. Infact, a mastering engineer doesn't even have access to all your tracks. When a song is mixed, it is sent as a single WAV file to the mastering engineer. The only adjustments a Mastering Engineer makes, are adjustments that affect the entire song.


What does an oven do to a cake? It uses heat to rise a well mixed batter into a fluffy, solidifed, and yummy cake.


What does mastering do to a song? It uses subtle tools to rise a well mixed song into a solidified and full-sounding song that will match the volume and EQ properties of similar songs on Spotify, Apple Music, Radio, etc.


When you're streaming your favorite music, are there any songs that require you to ALWAYS turn-up or turn-down the volume? That song was simply not well-mastered, or was never re-mastered for the particular streaming service you're using.


Songs have to be mastered differently dependant on where people will listen to it. Radio has different standards than Spotify, Spotify has differen't standards than Vinyl, and so on.


Songs are even mastered differently dependant on genre and timeframe. A song released in the 90's will usually sound much quieter than music mastered today - unless it's been remastered for modern listening.


Okay, so what do you need to take away from all of this.

Do you know how to master a song so it sounds like a new song, instead of a song from 5 years ago? If the answer is no, you probably want to get your song mastered by a professional.


Do you know how to master a song so it will stand-out amongst other songs of your genre, without annoying people because it's too quiet or too loud? If the answer is no, you probably want to get your song mastered by a professional.


Do you know how to master a song so it will exceed the streaming services standards? If the answer is no, you probably want to get your song mastered by a professional.


Just like mixing, the tools that a Mastering Engineer uses are easy to use, so watching 'how-to' videos online can deceive you into thinking you will get a great master by yourself.


With mastering, great hearing is essential but it isn't enough.

You need to know the standards of the streaming platforms you'll be publishing to (which is easy enough to research).

You need to know how to make your songs stand-out (which takes some practice).

And you need to know how to make your song sound like it was released tomorrow without losing anything you loved about the mix (which takes expertise gained by years of experience and industry understanding).


I'll let you in on a tiny secret.

There are inexpensive tools online that will do the easy part of mastering for you. These tools will bring your song up to industry standards for streaming platforms. They're not great at making your music stand-out (in-fact they make them fit in) and they won't do anything to make your songs sound fresh. BUT, if all you want is to get it "publishable" then you can use them.


My favorite online mastering tool is actually free. You can find it here.

We've made a comparison video between the free BandLab Mastering tool and our Professional Engineers, listen to the difference here.

(at the time of writing this article we hadn't yet published the BandLab video. Temporarily the link takes you to a comparison between a rough-mix and our mixed and mastered version)


When your song comes out of mastering, it should be hot, fresh, and tasty just like a good cake.


Quick Notes for deep learners:

  1. "mixing" and "mastering" are two separate processes. Many studios will do both, but they shouldn't be done at the same time. If possible, you want to avoid having the same person do both the mixing and the mastering. Here at SOS Productions, we always make sure there are two set of ears on every project.

  2. Mastering yourself may cost you ~$200 in mastering plugins.

  3. Working with a traditional Mastering Engineer, mastering a song costs about $100 - $300 per song.

  4. At SOS Productions, you get mastering included in our Pro-Guided Package for $160 including all the recording, mixing, and mastering for one song. If you'd like to record yourself in our professional studio, you can record your own song for $100 on our professional equipment in our studio - and we will mix and master your song for free.


Sharing the cake

(Publishing & Distribution)


Most people don't make a cake for just themselves. You've put in the time, effort, and money to make a masterpiece so let's throw a party!


Literally, a release party is a great way to get a satisfactory ending to all the work you put in. Even if it's just a small party with your best friends or bandmates, we recommend doing something to give you some positive closure to the music production experience. Post some videos, share your music on social media platforms, and enjoy your music.


Now, let's talk distribution.

Distribution is the process of getting your music where people will hear it.


Let me be clear, don't think of distribution as "just getting your song on Spotify". Unless you're doing this as a hobby and don't mind whether or not other people hear it, you want to get a mindset of distributing in a way that will attract loyal listeners.

(We talk more in-depth about how to get your music heard in this article, which isn't written yet haha)


Distribution is actually pretty easy when you realize it's a simple legal process. Thinking about it like it's as simple as uploading a song to SoundCloud or a photo to Instagram will give you the wrong idea. What you're doing is working with a group of lawyers who will copyright your song and publish it to streaming platforms. These groups of lawyers are called aggregators, and many of them have easy-to-use websites that make the process very simple and easy.

(Here's an article to help you decide which aggregator is best for you)



Summary and Conclusion


The music production process is a lot like baking a cake

  1. First you make a recipe by writing your instrumentals or producing your beat, writing all the lyrics, and practicing it until you know this is going to be a great sounding song.

  2. Then you gather all the ingredients into one bowl by recording all the separate parts and stylizing each aspect until you get a satisfying rough-mix.

  3. Next, you mix all the ingredients together by mixing your song so each instrument has a place and purpose within you amazing un-mastered song. (called a mix)

  4. Finally, just like baking the batter in the oven, you let the song rise and finalize with a professional master that will stand-out amongst similar songs while meeting all the industry standards of today's music.

  5. At last, you get to share your delicious song with everyone by distributing to platforms where people will listen to it and become loyal listeners.

This is a long article, I recognize that. But when you're dropping hundreds of dollars on your passion - don't you want to know what you're getting into?

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