Tracking is essentially the process of recording songs. The name comes from the fact that each instrument is recorded individually and given it’s own “track” in the mix, so that the balance and sound of each can be controlled later. Originally, “track” referred to a thin width of analogue tape, today it usually means a file on a hard drive. Performances can be “live”, with all the musicans playing at once; one instrument at a time; or a mixture of the two.
The most important goals of tracking include:
- Record in a great space – often a recording studio
- Get the best sound for each instrument or voice via a good choice of microphone and it’s placement
- Avoid “spill”, ie. get good separation between the instruments to allow plenty of control in the mix
- Most importantly – get a great performance !
If you are recording yourself, or even if you are planning to record in a studio, you might like to read this post:
(Don’t be fooled by by the title, it really is about tracking !)
Mixing is the process of blending all the individual tracks in a recording to create a version of the song that sounds as good as possible – the “mix”.
The process can include:
- Balancing the levels of the tracks that have been recorded
- Fine-tuning the sound of each instrument or voice using equalisation (EQ)
- “Panning” the tracks between speakers to create a stereo image
- Adding reverb, compression, and other effects to enhance the original recording
Mixing often also includes a good deal of editing – choosing the best bits of every take of a song, and sometimes even building musical elements from scratch. Sometimes there is so much editing involved it forms a separate stage in between tracking and mixing.
Mastering is the process of turning a collection of songs into an album (or single, or playlist, or podcast…) and combining them to create a final master for manufacturing. Or – it’s making your music sound the best it can be.
In mixing you are balancing the instruments to get a great mix of each song, in mastering you are balancing songs against each other to get a great sequence. This can vary from being a very subtle process, involving minor tweaks to polish the existing mixes, through to occasionally being a complete rescue mission for problem songs, or where detailed restoration is needed.
I’ve written a lot about mastering here, but briefly the process involves:
- Balancing (not matching) the level and tonal balance (EQ) of songs
- Controlling the dynamic range – how loud and quiet each section is, for the right musical balance of variety and power
- Editing “tops and tails” – the beginning an end of each song, and the gaps, to create a compelling sequence
- Fixing any outstanding problems from the mix, if possible
- Creating a secure, reliable manufacturing master, including PQ information, UPC/EAN codes, ISRCs, CD-Text
For more information on getting started with mastering your own music, check out this post:
Having said all that…
In reality, the boundaries between these different processes are frequently blurred to the point where they don’t really make sense any more !
Starting in the late 60s with artists like the Beatles, mixing gradually became a more and more creative, interactive process in its own right. It’s now commonplace to do a great deal of mixing as part of the tracking process, and often editing and mixing actually help shape the way songs are written and composed.
So, tracking, mixing and even mastering may now all be part of the same session. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t still useful to know the difference : )