Anyone can appreciate a good song, but not everyone knows how much work goes into creating a produced track. That’s because you are not a master engineer… yet. You may pick up on the subtle differences between a live version of a song and its album version, but many songs are actually created through the production process and this version is what artists and their teams work to reproduce on stage.
The true tone of the song—how it makes you feel—is typically created (or co-created with the artist) by a producer, mix engineer, or DJ who put in some serious time into the music production to create the final product at a digital audio workstation in a high-quality recording studio.
To produce a decent sound quality and a great track, producers working in all genres of music typically record each element (instrument, singer, etc.) or small groups of instruments and vocalists separately, and then painstakingly combine these disparate elements into a single track.
The production of a track from recorded elements is complex process comprised of two methods: Mixing and mastering, both performed by an audio engineer. These two methods together are typically referred to as ‘post-production.’ Once each song and the album, as a whole, go through post-production, the music is ready for distribution. It is these produced versions of the music that you hear on the radio when you purchase an album or even stream via an app like Spotify.
Why is Post-Production Important?
You may be wondering why you can’t just record the song as its played in one recording studio by all the required instruments and vocalists. The truth is that you can, but the quality of the sound is compromised.
Take the example of a live album, for instance. The songs on live albums have an entirely different sound from the same songs on produced albums. Typically, someone has even gone in and post-produced the live recordings to try to achieve the highest quality possible—but it’s still not the same.
Recording all of the various sounds in a song at once produces muddier audio quality than songs in which each element is recorded separately and masterfully layered together with the other instruments.
In post-production, an audio engineer maneuvers, adjusts, eliminates, and applies effects in order to create a harmonized product, using audio software and a computer. Audio engineers typically mix and then master each song as part of post-production.
What is Mixing?
At its most basic level, audio mixing is the act of taking the separate recordings of each instrument and vocalist and, well, mixing them together.
Each element is treated separately to ensure optimal quality. At this time, flaws or disparity in volume across a track can be addressed before it is then combined with the other instrumental tracks to the produce the desired effect of the song.
One of the primary roles of mixing is to moderate the volume of each element throughout the song so that the desired instrument or vocals stand out or come together nicely.
However, mixing is more than just adjusting the volume levels of an individual instrument and vocal tracks. There are several sub-methods of mixing that help to produce the finished product.
Mixing engineers decide where in the stereo spectrum to place each instrument, in what is known as ‘panning’. In a typical ‘stereo field’ there are left and right speakers (or headphones) and each instrument can be placed at a particular space in the stereo field to create the desired effect. This can help to provide balanced sound across both sides or to create an effect in which the sounds filter in through one side but not the other.
Audio engineers also address the song’s “EQ” or the loudness of specific frequencies. This adjusts for the muddiness mentioned above when many instruments are recorded together. The same muddy quality can occur when separate instrument tracks are mixed together without taking EQ into account.
By varying the frequency of each instrument, a better, cleaner sound quality is produced.Instrument volume, placement, and EQ are often adjusted to different levels throughout the song to create a specific sound experience.
Mixing also provides the engineer with the opportunity to incorporate effects and automation so that the song sounds as rich as possible, and that specific choruses stand out consistently, for example.Once the mixing engineer is happy with the combination of each element he can then turn to mastering the track.
What is Mastering?
During mastering, the audio engineer, sometimes known as the mastering engineer, will work on the combined version of the track and treat is as a whole to create a more professional sound. The three main focuses of the mastering engineer are the overall sound of a track or album, consistency across all tracks on an album, and preparing for distribution.
With regards to sound, the mastering phase uses several tools to produce a more complex track with increased depth: Equalizers, reverberation (“reverb”), compressors, and expanders.
Each of these tools affects the tone and frequency of the track in its entirety. The audio engineer will also correct any issues with song’s balance to create a polished end product.
The audio engineer will also take into consideration how each song sounds in its particular position on an album and make any adjustments to allow for smooth transitions. To keep listeners from constantly needing to adjust the volume, levels across all tracks are checked for consistency.
In the last phase of post-production, an audio engineer prepares the song or album for download by converting it to the delivery format that the listener will purchase. Different formatting options require different tweaks to maintain quality sound.
Delivering A Polished Product
Without audio mixing and mastering, we would have far fewer options when it comes to the complexity of our music and much lower quality in recorded products. The audio post-production process essentially allows for the crafting and delivery of a specific sound experience to the listener.
This makes it just as exciting as the actual playing and recording of the instruments and vocalists themselves! Dedicated audio engineers are instrumental in delivering the artist’s vision for each song and album to the listener.