In the professional recording world, audio engineers typically specialize in one of 3 areas (even 4 areas if you count those who do live audio): the recording engineer, the mix engineer and the mastering engineer. It isn’t because one person can’t do the job of all three; it’s because each plays an important role in the recording process and can focus on one given task. When you can specialize in one area, you can typically do a much better job and the end result will be sensational as opposed to just okay.
In the pro world, record companies and big-time producers can afford to hire three different services for these things, which allows the engineers to specialize and still make a living doing it. But where does this leave the solo home recording folks like most of the folks reading this? We are going to have to do all three jobs ourselves. But just knowing about how the pros specialize can still help us. The “take-away” is that we should treat the different phases of recording differently, putting on a different mindset for each, which can help us attend to the different things that are important for these different tasks.
As the name implies, this person is responsible for setting up all of the microphones and recording all of the sounds. Their sole focus is to make sure that they get the absolute best sounding audio possible, with clean and accurate tones, recorded. They will record multiple tracks, working directly with the person or band being recorded (of course). This part of the process typically takes a long time as the engineer and “talent” work together to create all the necessary tracks need to crate the final product. The engineer will then typically create a rough mix and then export all the audio so that the mix engineer can open all the files and have them already be in the proper tracks with the proper timing. This is much easier to do these days, especially if both he/she and the mix engineer use the same program (Pro Tools is pretty much the industry standard). In the old days when everything was on a great big thick reel of tape, the logistics were definitely harder. But once the transfer is done, it’s time for the mix engineer to take over.
This person is responsible for creating the final version of the song or whatever audio is being produced. Once all of the sounds, instruments and voices have been recorded by the recording engineer, he or she ‘mixes’ the elements together, producing a balanced piece with volumes of vocals and instruments balanced together and frequencies for each sound tweaked on each track. They are also responsible for other factors such as effects and pan positioning (meaning that some sounds are made to sound like they come from the left, and vice versa). They then render (or mix down) all the different sounds and tracks into one stereo (usually) audio file.
The mastering engineer (for a review of what “mastering” means, see our article Mastering a Song – What Does It Mean?) takes the product that the mix engineer has created, usually in the form of a single stereo wav file, and using specialized gear (along with pristine listening rooms/spaces) and polishes the mix into the final product mainly using such techniques as EQ and compression. These folks use highly specialized (and usually quite expensive) gear that the other types of engineers usually don’t have). The goal here is to create a masterpiece that is ready to be heard by the consumer. They will enhance or reduce frequencies where needed and make sure that the file (already mixed-down/rendered) has the proper energy and ‘punch’ in the right places, and also that any problem frequencies and imbalances in the final mix are fixed.
In an ideal world, all three jobs would be done by three different professionals. The reality is though that in a home recording situation, the solo home recording engineer has to wear all three hats. If this is the case, then it’s important to understand the goals of all three jobs. In order to get the best results possible, perform the recording engineer’s tasks first. Take a break before mixing the material, and take another break before mastering the final product for the client/end user. If you try to do everything at once, you may lose focus and miss key elements of each task.
Now go forth and create a useful split-personality.