Music production and mixing are two different things but they’re intimately related. You could argue that mixing is simply a part of the music production process, and it is, however, there are people in the industry who work solely as mixers and have no part in the actual creation of the music.
Many of these people are brought in after the music has been made, so what makes them different from producers and bedroom producers?
Music production and mixing are different in that “music production” commonly refers to the creation of the music, whereas, mixing more specifically refers to the adjustment of volume levels, dynamics, and effects to make the final musical project sound good before it’s mastered.
Music production is more of an umbrella term that can include many parts of the creative process, including the songwriting; the way it’s made with instruments and a DAW; or, instruments, microphones, and an old analog tape machine, which is how it used to be done in the past. Mixing, however, is a little bit more specific in the sense that it refers to the last stage of the process before it’s shipped off to the mastering engineer (how to master with Garageband in my guide)
Music Production versus Mixing – What Are The Main Differences?
1) Music Production Broadly Refers to Creating Music and Mixing is Mostly Dynamics
Essentially, the term, “music production,” refers to the process whereby an artist or a band creates music, in whatever way they choose to do it. Obviously, there are a ton of ways that someone can make music, and how it’s done isn’t relevant to whether a person refers to it as “music production” or not. With that said, the term does have certain connotations now.
In other words, now that digital audio workstations are so popular and readily available to anyone who wants to use them, the term, “music production,” brings up images of a person at a computer with a MIDI keyboard, a drum pad, and maybe a couple of instruments alongside an audio interface, usually a Scarlett 2i2 from Focusrite (on Amazon) or something from M-Audio.
Mixing, on the other hand, is a different part of the creation of the music, and it happens after the music has been made. Sometimes, if the artist isn’t happy, the project will have to be re-mixed over and over – more on this in the following section.
2) Mixing Happens After the Music Has Been Produced
The mixing engineer, which is usually just the same person who made the song(s) if it hasn’t been done on a professional level, then takes the project and does a number of things to it. A mixer adjusts the faders (the volume) on each individual track to make everything sound good together. The volume – among a few other parameters like panning (my guide) which we’ll touch on in a second – is the most important thing.
How this is done varies from person to person, but there are certain guidelines and practices that people typically follow to make sure the music is digestible to the public. While a mixing engineer could mix the album with total freedom and creativity and in ways that haven’t been done before, the consumers are the bosses, in the end.
By that comment, I mean the music has to sound at least somewhat familiar to the public if the artist and the label want it to be successful. There are times when the public is open to change on a grand scale, kind of like what Rick Beato talks about in his YouTube video on the early 1990s with Nirvana’s Nevermind, but for the most part, there is a certain way of doing things that is most likely to get the best results.
With that in mind, the mixing engineer will mix the record so it sounds good to their ears and according to their expertise, but the artist will also want it to sound a certain way which is usually informed by their own experiences with other people’s music in their genre. All of this is done, of course, after the music has been made and it’s a whole other part of the process.
3) Mixing Adjusts Dynamics, Volume, and the Effects of the Music
As it was briefly noted above, a mixer will adjust things like volume, EQ, compression, reverb, delay, chorus, flangers, and sustain. When I do mixes for a client, I also adjust the automation on dynamics and effects, particularly with volume which is the most useful on vocal tracks, in my experience. For more on what is done during this stage, check out my article on How to Mix in Garageband.
When one of my clients sends me a song to mix, one of the first things I do is add a compressor and an equalizer to the vocal tracks which brings so much life and power to the vocals. It takes a small, tiny, and unbalanced-sounding vocal performance and makes it huge and more importantly, just way easier to hear.
After that, I drop down all of the VU meters on every single instrument that way I have a lot of headroom to work with, and then I go through each instrument one-by-one, adjusting the volume levels and getting everything to sound good, occasionally going into the plugins to adjust EQ, compression, reverb, and delay.
From my experience thus far, I would say the brunt of the work done in mixing is in the following parameters: volume, panning, EQ, compression, reverb, and delay. After you’ve adjusted all of these parameters, the difference between the beginning of the project and the nearly-finished product is pretty big. I also find that it takes around 45 minutes to an hour to do one song, sometimes longer.
4) Mixing and Producing Music Require Different Skills and Aptitudes
There are many reasons why the label or the artist chooses to hire someone on the outside to do the job, but the biggest reason is that mixing is its own separate art and it requires its own set of skills, and some people are just way better at it than others. In the music industry, there are people who are hired specifically for this one thing.
Additionally, they need a new set of ears to hear the project as well, because people get used to their own work, and anything that needs to be changed might not be as obvious to them as it is to others because they’ve grown accustomed to the way it sounds thus far. A good mixer obviously has an ear for what sounds good and this is why they’re hired, even though they might not be the best musician.
The person who is the best mixing engineer might not be the best songwriter, whereas the best songwriter might not be the best mastering engineer, and the best guitar player might be a terrible songwriter, or maybe a great songwriter isn’t a very good performer. All of these vocations have their own needs and requirements.
In Bobby Owsinski’s book, The Engineer’s Handbook (on Amazon), he explains that mixing engineers tend to have a complete version of the song in their head before they’ve even started mixing the track. There is just a certain way that the song should sound to them, and then they adjust the levels and dynamics of each sound and instrument to bring their vision to life.
A mixer has to be a great listener, but they don’t have to be a good songwriter or a musician. Music production is a lot different from this because it’s its own separate thing. A music producer might be someone who just uses Fl Studio 20 on their computer (which goes for a good price on Plugin Fox) and a MIDI keyboard, and they just have a knack for making catchy riffs and melodies.
5) Mixers Use More Specific Tools Than Production
Mixing requires a different toolset as well. The music production phase might include tools like software instruments, guitars, midi keyboards, synths, microphones, drums, and the list goes on, whereas a mixer uses things like studio monitors like these iLoud Micro Monitors (get them on Amazon) to hear the music via monitors that at least aim to be balanced, and by that, I mean there is no boost in high or low-end frequencies.
In fact, mixers pay way more attention to their monitors than the average musician, simply because the final project is so important to hear clearly, and monitors make a big difference. How mixers listen to the project can vary quite a bit as well, with some of them preferring something like the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pros (also on Amazon) or the KRK’s that I mentioned above, although, a professional mixer will probably use the highest grade equipment available.
6) Every Song Must Be Mixed In A Similar Way
While you can make music in a number of different ways, for example, you could record yourself yelling and banging pots and pans together, mixing will typically be done in the same way. This means the mixer will probably throw the recordings into a DAW, add EQ and compression, adjust volume levels, and then things like panning as well. The process, while executed in slightly different ways, will fundamentally be the same.
Every song, it doesn’t matter what the genre is, has to be mixed at some point or another. It’s the second last stage of the process, and it’s the point where the entire song has been made already, but now it just needs to be mixed together via volume adjustments, the use of compression and equalization, and other dynamics processors. Most artists will have a vague understanding of this process because, at some point or another, they had to mix their own tracks.
Important Things to Note About the Differences Between Mixing and General Music Production
1) The Term “Music Production” is Far Less Specific
As you probably know by now, mixers are doing a completely different job, and a more specific job, at that. Music producers, more specifically, the artist who makes the music, might have to do a bit of mixing here and there, but for the most part, these are separate practices. But music production can also refer to mixing underneath its umbrella of meaning, so to speak.
YouTube Video Tutorial
All of these links take you to Amazon unless noted otherwise.
1) Bobby Owsinski’s The Engineer’s Handbook 4th Edition
3) FL Studio 20 (from Plugin Fox)