Mixing and Mastering Audio: Here’s What You Should Know

Mixing and Mastering Audio

Regardless of your level of expertise when it comes to mixing and mastering sounds, you've probably noticed that not all audio is created equal. While some audio is perfectly clean and crisp, other times you might notice it to be echoey, quiet, muffled, distorted, or completely masked with background noise. 

So, what’s the real reason for such a disparity between different types of audio, how does mixing and mastering work to solve it, and what does it mean for your next video? 

The Reason Behind Variance in Audio Quality 

Sound quality disparity or audio inequality can be attributed to two primary factors: recording setup, and post-production processing. 

Recording setup

Recording setup is fairly straightforward and accounts for somewhere around 60% of the audio quality equation. In order to produce high quality audio the sound must be recorded on a high quality microphone into a high quality audio interface. The mic must also be located close to the sound that's being recorded in a location with relatively little background noise and echo. 

Post-production processing

At a high level, audio post-production is everything that happens to sound after it has been recorded. This can include removing unwanted background noise, repairing damaged audio, adding other elements such as music and sound effects, and ensuring your audio isn't too loud or too quiet. 

Understanding Mixing and Mastering 

Mixing, in its most fundamental form, is the art of layering sounds on top of each other and ensuring volume levels are appropriate so that all sonic elements are audible. 

In advertising it’s common to have music and sound effects in the background with a voiceover as the focal point. It's a delicate balance though; if the music and sound effects are too quiet then the voice sounds naked, but if the music and sound effects are too loud, the message is lost. Mixing also involves "sweetening" or "refining" of existing audio elements. 

"Sweetening" typically refers to the use of audio processing to make a recording sound more pleasing to the ear. This can range from total repair (taking muffled, distorted audio from a Zoom call and making it sound more palatable) to a gentle improvement on already pristine audio. 

The example below contains two instances - one where the dialogue is completely raw, and another where the dialogue has been "sweetened." Have a listen. Headphones, earbuds, or high quality speakers are recommended.

The Evolution of Mastering Sound

Once the audio is mixed, it is time to master. Mastering is the art of processing audio to achieve a consistent volume level and it’s something that has come a long way over the years.

If you listen to music released in the 60s or 70s it’s likely you’ll notice some songs are really quiet while others are quite loud (unless you're listening to remastered versions, which will adhere to modern loudness expectations.) The reason for these differences in volume is that before 2010, there was no universal standard for loudness. Every Mastering Engineer had their own volume goals, along with every radio station, television network, and record label. 

In 2010 the European Broadcast Union created EBU R 128, which was a recommendation for broadcast loudness and introduced a new unit called LUFS or LKFS to replace Decibels. A few months later, the FCC in the U.S. passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, which was the first legislation to enact a loudness standard for broadcast aimed at ensuring commercials could not be louder than the actual programs. This allegedly came about when a loud commercial interrupted a senator's dinner party. When Spotify rose to prominence, it became the first music delivery platform to apply a loudness standard to music (they chose EBU R 128), which gave musicians a much needed reprieve from "The Loudness War" of the early 2000s. 

Today, audio is mastered to meet the loudness standards of the chosen final delivery platform. YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and most other social media platforms follow similar loudness standards, along with music streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. 

Television, radio, and cinemas on the other hand have different loudness standards more suited to their specific applications. Cinemas generally require the quietest audio, while radio stations generally require the loudest audio, though each company has slightly different standards. 

Post-Production Processing for Higher Quality Audio

While loudness standards have helped to solve the variance in volume, having consistent audio levels goes beyond adhering to a set of rules. 

If audio is uploaded to YouTube or Instagram without adhering to their recommended loudness standards, audio can become damaged, or can be too quiet to discern. It’s also important from a branding perspective to have consistent volume across all deliverables. 

Viewers notice bad audio, but they don't always notice good audio. If a viewer is watching branded content and notices that one video is much louder or quieter than another, they can easily perceive this as amateur (consciously or subconsciously) which ultimately impacts their perception of the brand. 

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day higher quality audio and achieving the perfect audio loudness will make for a better video overall. That’s why we have a Mastering Engineer at Maven who can ensure the audio in each and every video is clear, concise, and the perfect audio loudness for the chosen platform. 

Ready to get started on creating your very own high quality video? Get in touch with us today!

Written by Edison

Written by Edison

Sound Designer & Editor