This look at mixing and mastering gives you a brief overview of the difference between the two processes. If you want a more in depth look at record mixing and record mastering, plus advice on how to do it yourself, please visit About.com's Home Recording site.
Mixing and mastering are parts of the recording process that confuse a lot of people. If you're recording an album that you plan to sell, a good mixing and mastering job is a must. If you're recording a demo, you might be able to get away without mastering. Here's the difference:
Mixing - Mixing is basically tinkering with everything you have recorded to complete your songs. You'll do things like drop in effects, adjust fader, EQ your tracks and so on. Think of mixing as putting the puzzle together. You're putting together the parts of what you have recorded, making sure everything hangs together right, and putting some finishing touches on things. When you're done mixing your songs, you should pleased with the way the song sounds and feel confident that you don't need to add anything musically.
Mastering - Mastering is adding sparkle and shine to your music. In a very basic sense, when you master your album, you're making sure that song one doesn't blow out the speakers while song two is barely audible - in other words, you want the levels of the songs to be similar and you want a general sense of cohesiveness to your recording.
Does that explanation of mastering sound a little vague? That's because it is. Apart from correcting obvious differences in volume for each song, mastering is an incredibly subjective process. In some ways, when it comes to mastering, you either have the golden touch or you don't. For this reason, although there are programs that will help you master your recording yourself, paying to have it done professionally is a good investment if you plan on releasing your recording.
If you're planning on using your recording for a demo, mastering is not an absolute must. Mixing, on the other hand, is something you should make an effort to get done. You don't have to have a professional mix, but you should try to give your songs at least a rough mix when possible. Unlike mastering, you can do mixing at home. It requires practice and time, but you can get the job done with some dedication.