Wait...What's Mixing & Mastering?

We continue our breakdown of music making fundamentals by answering a reader email about how to mix and master music.
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We continue our breakdown of music making fundamentals by answering a reader email about how to mix and master music.

In an age when all the world's information is seemingly only a Google search away, admitting you don't actually know something, anything, is considered a cardinal sin. Which is a shame because everything I know worth knowing came from admitting that I didn't know something and asking a question.  

It's in that spirit that we've been breaking down some of the more confusing aspects of the music industry (like publishing and reference tracks) and so when the email below landed in my inbox, it seemed like a good opportunity to tackle another subject - mixing and mastering. I took out the person's name, but otherwise, this is the verbatim email I received: 

Hello Nathan, my name is [redacted] though I go by the alias, [redacted]. I've been browsing the internet on what the keys are behind creating a mixtape and I stumbled upon reading your article "Is Paying a DJ to Host Your Mixtape Worth It?” 

I have a few questions I was wondering you could help out on basic knowledge as I'm very new to music and need to know more specifically about how a mixtape is made.

1. I see that old songs are used in mixtapes, not original tracks (although they can be too) but how do artists get the songs remixed so that the song/sample they used is different from the original version from the original artist?

2. Is it possible to find an instrumental, not alter it in any way, record your own vocals, and just add your vocals onto the completely original track, then have it mixed/mastered? Or do all songs that you use off other artists/instrumentals have to be remixed to use on your own mixtape? For example, I find a good song on youtube, record my verses, add it onto the track, and put it on a mixtape. Can it work like that? 

Hey sir, thanks for writing. First, goddamn, frankly I had forgotten I wrote that article. Right off the bat, in just the three years since I wrote that, DJ-hosted mixtapes have become rarer than a picture of Kanye smiling. It's now even less of a good idea to pay a DJ to host your project than it once was, no one's trying to listen to music interrupted by a DJ in the year of our Lord 2016. On second thought....at this point, it just might have come full circle and be cool as a retro-throwback thing. 

Anyway, onto the topic at hand. Really, the core of your question is about how to mix and master songs, and what that even means. I'm certainly not a producer or a mixer, I couldn't load a Pro Tools plug-in if my life depended on it, but I've spent more of my life in a studio and mixing sessions than I'd like to think about, and I've at least learned enough to break down the basics. (For the record, one of the first lessons I learned about mixing sessions is that they're excruciatingly boring. To be a good mixer you need a level of sustained, laser-like focus that my brain could never handle.) 

Ok, let's walk through this one step at a time: 

1. Forget about mastering. At the stage that you're currently at, it's not even worth thinking about. Mastering is the step after mixing, where you ensure that every song on the album is consistently calibrated and the music sounds great whether you play it in a huge club or on your computer speakers (a harder task than it might seem). If you want to be taken seriously as a professional you need to master your music, but one step at a time. You need to learn how to build a house before you worry about what color to paint the walls. 

2. No, it's fundamentally not possible to truly mix a song with an instrumental you pulled off YouTube or have an MP3 of. Every instrumental is made up of several, separate parts: the snare, the bass kick, some small synth sound that comes in right before the chorus, etc. Even a seemingly simple beat has far more layers than you're probably conscious of. Jake One's beat breakdown videos are great at driving this home. 

3. Mixing is the process of adjusting the levels of all those components. Maybe the snare should be louder in the intro then quiet down for the verses so they don't overwhelm the vocals, maybe that synth part is drowning out the hi-hat, maybe the bass just isn't hitting right and sounds more like "hmpph" than the "boom" you're looking for. Adjusting the levels of all the separate components, including your vocals, that's mixing.   

4. An MP3, or even a higher quality file like a WAV or a FLAC, is only one static file. You can only make the whole thing louder or softer, not any of the separate components, so you can't really mix it. For that you'd need the "session files," the beat with every component "tracked out," or separated. Likely only the original producer has those files, and while a producer might sell an MP3 of a beat for quick money or give it out to multiple rappers to try and get them interested in recording over it, they (should) only give up the session files when things get serious (ex. like Cardo and J. Cole).

5. On a final note, it seems like you might be confusing mixing, as described above, and a "remix." These days people often label someone rapping over a beat as a "remix," but there's no actual mixing involved there. As you now know, that's just someone rapping over a previously released beat. A true remix, in the original sense, involves taking a portion of a previously existing beat and then using that portion to build an entirely different song, which would require mixing and, ideally, the original session files. You're literally "re...mixing" the song, mixing it again. Hope that makes sense. 

Now, that doesn't mean you can't just go ahead and rap over an MP3 instrumental, plenty of rappers do it, especially when they're just "freestyling." It's not like Just Blaze handed over the session files to the eleven million rappers who did an "Exhibit C" freestyle

Just know that unless you're actually mixing your music, which requires original production, which requires some sort of partnership or agreement with the producer, you're always going to just sound like some guy rapping over a beat he ripped off, and then you're never going to be taken seriously. Even the casual fan can tell when the vocals sound like they're sitting "on top of the beat" instead of inside it. You'll always sound like you don't belong, even on your own songs, and that's obviously not going to earn you the fans you need to make music more than just a casual hobby.  

Proceed accordingly...