Mastering is the most important process when releasing your music, but it can be hard to tell whether to get a professional mastering engineer to work on your track, or to try it out yourself. That's why we decided to lay out our 7 years of experience to answer this question, and help give you an idea of how long it takes to master a track, how long it takes to mix a track, and what the process involves. So, read on to find out how long mastering takes, the process mastering engineers follow, and some extra bonus tips that will get you on your way to becoming a pro mastering engineer.
How Long Does Mastering Take? (TL;DR)
For a professional mastering engineer, the mastering process takes anywhere between 30-90 minutes. For an amateur engineer, this can take anywhere between 2 hours – a couple of days, or weeks, depending on their level of skill.
These time frames may change a lot depending on the engineer and the particular project, however.
For instance, mastering an entire EP or Album may take much longer than a single song; the client might have asked for stem mastering; there may be more problems to fix at the mastering stage.
All of the above are track dependant, and no two masters are the same or will follow the same processing chain. However, many mastering engineers will follow a similar procedure to one another. We're going to cover that below.
What Does The Mastering Process Involve?
Mastering is the process of taking a mix to commercial db levels and standards. The mastering engineer focuses on balancing the frequency spectrum, controlling the dynamics, and achieving loudness without distortion or squashing the signal.
To do this, mastering engineers use subtle processing, combining EQ and dynamics to improve the balance and movement of a song, in a way that it sounds consistently good across different playback devices and platforms.
The idea is that you want your final master to have a consistent listening experience on all devices and your music to sound the best no matter whether it's played on a HiFi, a club system, or a pair of $1 earphones from the dollar store.
Every mastering engineer will have their own way of doing things, but typically, they will all follow a very similar process, which will go deeper into below, using our own mastering sessions as an example.
Step 1: Importing the mix and references
The first thing you want to do when mastering is, find a reference track. Using reference tracks will tell you whether you're in the right ballpark or if you're taking the wrong turn, which by itself can save you hours of bad work.
Comparing your music to a professional mix and master, will give you an idea of where you need to go, and what you need to do to compete with a record of that quality.
Naturally, finding good references is equally important, and you can either find them on streaming services, CDs, or online platforms where you can download high-quality WAVs or MP3s.
Quick tip: Don't take your references so literally. Use it for general aspects like tone, balance, and loudness, but don't try to make your song sound exactly like the reference track.
Step 2: Setting up your work environment
When you're sitting down to master a song you need to have a clear perspective of what things sound like.
If you're mixing, you need a listening environment that allows you to perceive the frequency spectrum as clearly as possible. The ideal setup is to have a completely flat frequency response so that you can hear the audio with no color or character.
Doing this helps you to pick up on the problems with your mix and master. There are many apps like Sound ID Reference 4 that can help calibrate your speakers and headphones to flat frequency curves if you don't have a good setup, but these aren't entirely accurate.
Most of the time, you can usually get away with a less-than-desirable listening environment when mixing (if you know your way around it). That doesn't apply to mastering.
You really need a well-treated room to properly master music. However, if you're doing it in an untreated room, or mastering in headphones, there are some recommendations for software to use, which we'll list below.
As we said above programs like Sound ID Reference and CLA NX will be able to flatten your frequency response and simulate a studio environment. These are fantastic tools and really do help in the decision-making of a mix or master.
We personally use both Sound ID and CLA NX. Using them both especially helps to gauge bass on headphones and helps you pick up on resonances you wouldn't have heard without them.
A free option for this kind of software would be Sienna Rooms by Acustica Audio.
Besides this, it's important to have visual feedback. Using visual tools like metering plugins, or stereo analyzers can help you make more informed decisions (especially if your ears aren't trained).
Being able to see a frequency spectrum or stereo field, while listening to the differences, really helps to pinpoint and identify problem areas in both mixing and mastering.
Step 3: Listening to the track with no interruption
It's time for playing the mix and identifying problems that need to be solved.
While you're listening to your mix, it's a good idea to have a notes app up, or your notes section in your DAW open. Jot down what you can hear and what needs to be changed to get a professional sound.
As you listen, try to keep an ear open for:
- Balance issues
- Mono/stereo issues (change between and listen)
- Phase issues
- General dynamics
- Squashed dynamics
- Any annoying resonances
Step 4: Applying corrective EQ, effects and processing
Once you've listened through and made notes, you'll have to actually start solving these problems. Mix and mastering engineers do this in many ways, and we'll discuss them now.
Commonly things like subtractive EQ and corrective dynamics, including transient control, soft compression, dynamic EQ, and multiband compression are used to work on the master and to get it to a professional-sounding level.
This is the part of the process that's the most time-consuming, because you'll likely need to play the mix a couple of times to troubleshoot it, apply your processing, and move forward.
Here's where metering plugins can save you a lot of time and stress because, the visual aid they provide, helps you identify all sorts of issues a lot faster and much more accurately.
Step 5: Adding creative flair
Once you troubleshoot the mix, you can finally have some fun and focus on improving the stereo image, adding some harmonic exciters, using some mid/side processing to create depth, coloring the track with complex saturation and distortion, and more.
A couple of fun things I like to do at this point is to use Ozone's exciter and add tube saturation exclusively to the high-mids. It's great because the tube warmth sort of tames down some of the harshness, and gives the track a nice tone & presence, making it feel a bit punchier and exciting.
Doing this exact same thing, but exclusively to the sides (in a mid/side processing situation) will cause the instruments to feel more present and give them more definition. You can also do some EQ or volume rides at this stage.
Step 6: Coffee break, double-check & export
Once you've done all of the processing, it's time to get the track out of your DAW so that you can send it to your client or start planning your release strategy.
Make sure to let the track rest for a while, so that you can be sure you're not making terrible decisions due to your ears being fatigued without you realizing it. Additionally, it's good to take short breaks from time to time to clear up your perspective.
Once the break is over, give it a final close listen looking at the readings from the meters, and comparing them with your reference tracks. You can also compare with the raw mix to see how it changed and the improvements of your work.
Finally, if everything adds up, load a nice limiter and proceed to lift the volume so that it reaches its maximum loudness potential.
Sometimes a series of limiters will be used at this stage to maximize the loudness and reduce the load that a single limiter has to take. This is much like using compression in series and you can additionally use different limiters to add different characters.
Quick tip: A fast and easy way to see how loud your track can be is pushing the limiter until you can hear the distortion and then taking it down until you can't hear it anymore.
Make sure that everything is right and label your master file with a meaningful name so that you and your client can distinguish it from other tracks during revisions.
Additionally, you want to ensure that dithering is on to avoid any quantization distortion in your final piece.
How Long Should it Take To Mix A Song?
Mixing a song is an extensive process and can take anywhere from 2 hours up to an entire week. This all depends on the intensity of the project and the artist's wants and needs. However, for a professional engineer, 1-2 days is more than enough to complete a professional mix.
For an amateur engineer, mixing a song would take much longer due to the lack of skill and ear training. To get a decent mix, it could take anywhere between 1-2 weeks for the amateur engineer, and even then, they may not be able to get the mix to sound professional.
In many cases, it can take an amateur engineer longer. This all depends on their level of skill. If they are more skilled, you can expect to see a turnaround time of 4 days – 1 week. However, if their skill level is lower it may take much longer, and you may ask for many more revisions than if you were to get a professional engineer.
What Does The Mixing Process Involve?
The mixing process involves taking a number of sounds and blending them together in a way that's cohesive and balanced. Differently from when you master a song, mixing is meant to solve problems between elements so they work together in the song, and have space to be heard.
All engineers have their own workflow and “system”, which can usually take many years to develop.
Here is a step by step of my process to complete mixes in less time:
Step 1: Prepare your mix session
It's important to prepare your session before you begin with the mix itself. Although it can be a lot of hard work sometimes, skipping this step will end up with you chasing your own tail because you'll spend all of your time fixing editing problems rather than mixing.
On the bright side, if you edit, color code, and organize your session, you'll probably end up doing a better job because you'll be able to focus on the things that actually matter to make a clean, professional mix.
For instance, you should color code your tracks, name them, group them, and of course, route them.
When I'm mixing music, my usual color code is:
- Guitars = light green
- Pianos = dark purple
- Bass = pink
- Drums/percussions = light blue
- SFX = yellow
- Vocals = red
- Synths = light purple
- Auxiliary tracks = dark green
You also want to make sure you name your tracks right, so you can recognize them later on. For this purpose you'll have to shorten some names, like “GTR” meaning guitars, or “VOX” for vocals, to name a couple of examples.
This step can take from a few minutes to more than an hour, depending on the size of your session, but it'll save you tons of time when you're actually working because you'll end up doing it anyways.
Another thing you can do is set up groups and route tracks. This helps to streamline the mixing process and means you can control the dynamics, volume and spectrum of all instruments at once.
Step 2: Static mix
First of all, you need to familiarize yourself with the track in order to understand the style, and the course that it needs to take, understand the arrangement, prioritize the elements, and do the first diagnosis of what problems need to be solved.
At this point, you just want to adjust the gain structure of the mix to make sure you're leaving some headroom, before adding any processing. This prevents clipping.
Once everything is set, hit play to start listening to the track and start adjusting levels and panning as you see fit. This should be the first balance of your mix. If you're working for a client, you should request a rough mix when possible and adjust the levels and pan as it is.
If you're mixing your own music, this is the part where you start leveling your tracks to make them sound like one song.
Now, this part of the process should be the fastest, so don't overdo it and just adjust the levels and panning to whatever feels right, then move on to the processing.
Step 3: Processing the mix using audio effects
Everything is set now, so you'll want to process your audio to sound cohesive. Most beginners mess up here because the first thing they do is load up an EQ and start cutting and boosting things and see what happens.
Here are some tips on how to process instruments:
Keep your EQ curves simple, unless there's something terribly wrong with your audio you'd typically want to preserve the quality.
If you overdo EQ you'll end up causing phasing, masking, and unwanted distortions, so a little goes a long way
If there's something wrong with your audio, stack different instances of the EQ and adjust them with different settings to address each problem separately. Various instances of an EQ will work better than just one doing it all because it allows them to be more focused, making them more efficient.
When using compression, avoid reducing more than 4dBs to your signal. If you need to do that, combine different compressors to reduce a small amount of gain, like 1 or 2dBs, so that you can keep the dynamics under control without destroying your audio quality.
Process different elements of instruments, together as one. For instance, drums and guitars could be processed together. They'll typically need similar adjustments, and usually, they'd feel more cohesive if you process them as a group rather than as individual tracks. It's also more efficient and less consuming for your CPU.
When you're working with vocals:
Keep it simple, there's nothing worst than a stuffy vocal on top.
Tame sibilances with gain automation. This is a pretty old-school editing trick that you could do during prep. Basically, you need to solo the vocal, listen for harsh sibilances, and tame them down using gain automation in the clip. This will control the overall tone before you start processing.
EQ your vocal effects, whenever you use sends or any form of parallel processing to avoid unwanted frequencies from being processed with effects. This will keep your mix cleaner, as well.
Processing is a particularly important part of every mix because it'll define the tones and the overall sound quality of your work. It's important to get this right if you want to have a professional mix.
Make sure to gain match your processing so that you're not fooled by the changes in volume and actually make the audio sound better. Use the bypass button each time you load up a plugin and adjust the output to match the unprocessed signal.
Step 4: The 80/20 rule
The 80/20 rule, A.K.A. Pareto's Law, is a phenomenon that states that about 80% of your result will be caused by 20% of your work. So, this is a really good time-saver because it's perfect to define priorities.
Let's face it, the listener will not care about the kick sound you spent 20 minutes working on, nor the sample you used for your drums, they will care for what they listen to as a whole.
Even then, they'll hear some things more often than others; these are your 20%. Usually, these are leading elements of mixes, like vocals, guitars, lead bass lines, pianos, kick and snare, and anything else that appears with regularity during the song.
That being said, I usually start with drums because, for me, percussive elements are the most important components of a song, as they make it move forward and establish the groove. So, I'd start from there and go from the most important components to the least.
A few things to keep in mind that can also save you hours of work and improve your results:
- Mix in context, “solo” mode is only good to spot and solve specific problems, like awkward resonances or distortions.
- Take some breaks so your ears don't get fatigued and compromise your decisions.
- Focus on the art, mixing is about enhancing the mood and artistic expression of the song. Although it's important to take care of the technical stuff like EQ, compression, and whatnot, the idea is to bring the song to life, not just make it sound good.
Step 4: Automation
They say mixing is an artistic and technical process, and it's pretty real. Here's where the artistic part of it kicks in and requires you to flow with the song. In a way, the automation stage is like the engineer's performance on the song.
It's a bit hard to explain how to do this part of mixing because it's pretty much a matter of interpretation, but the ultimate purpose is to make the listener feel emotions.
A great example of automation is taking the instruments or vocals up a few decibels when your track comes to the chorus section, then automating them back down for the verse to come in again.
This creates tension and loudness, making the chorus feel more energetic than it is.
You can use this volume automation trick throughout your mixing sessions in many different ways to create a more artistic, coherent piece.
How Long Does It Take To Mix & Master an Album or EP?
How long it takes to master an album entirely depends on the length of it. For a professional engineer, it takes anywhere between 30-90 minutes to master one song, and 1 day to mix a track. If you had a 10-track album, this would take a total of around 10 days and 15 hours to complete professionally. However, album mastering can take up to 2-4 weeks to complete properly.
When you mix and master an album time can vary depending on how many songs it has, the genre, how many stems are there for each song, whether or not you need retakes, the quality of the material, the recording gear, and the list goes on and on.
On your end, your experience with the genre, your workflow, how you interpret reference tracks, or even your computer's specs, can cause delays in the process, too.
Also, revisions can take longer than you might think depending on how many people are involved in the project. For example, if you're working with a band, you'll need the approval of all members before moving forward.
These can all become bottlenecks in the process of completing a professional mix and master.
A 5 track EP could take a professional engineer 5-6 days to complete. However, this time entirely depends on the needs of the artist, the number of stems per track, and more factors that are simply impossible to predict. EP mixing and mastering should take no longer than 14 days to complete.
When you're mixing and mastering an EP, the only difference is that you have fewer songs to work with. However, it's the same procedure, so delay causes are going to be the same.
Even if you nail the first song, each one is different, so you can reference from the first track, but each track must be treated individually. Mixing and mastering an EP or album won't take a few days, or a week, it can take even months to complete properly.
Tips For Mixing and Mastering Faster
Create a mastering chain and save it for future use
Whether you have a particular workflow or you're learning from someone else's, you can save the tracks, plugins, and settings to use them every time you need to master a song. It'll save you time and sometimes even some effort.
Create mixing/mastering session templates
You might have different settings depending on the genre you're working on, so saving those will save you tons of time.
This is also very practical if you do different things, like music production, mixing, and mastering.
You could have a dedicated template for each and just load it up whenever you're going to work.
Organise your sessions and color code your tracks
Most beginners waste a lot of time searching and finding tracks in dense mixes. A good way to prevent this is to assign different colors to instruments and label them meaningfully to make them easier to identify.
Save plugins as favourites
Let's face it, even if you have a bunch, you always end up using a handful. Save those as favourites so that you can access them quicker.
Reducing your options might also reduce your mixing time. Choosing can be daunting if you have an excessive amount of options. That being said, it's usually better to stay with what you know it'll work.
Make presets of settings you tend to use to recall in the future
When you're working on an album or an EP you want all the songs to sound as if they belong to the same record.
Some things, like vocals, tend to be similar across tracks, so treatment might as well be. You can save these settings and have a headstart.
Some other times, you might have specific settings for an effect that you like, so you could also save it as a preset to use on later mixes.
If you're stuck on an audio with a tone you can't improve, use smart EQ
Sometimes it happens that you just can't figure out how to make an audio sound better.
Luckily, technology has our back, so in these cases you can use a smart EQ, like the Gullfoss or Pro Q 3 to get to a tone that works for the track and move forward.
Don't test new techniques if you're not sure of how they work
Ever happened to you that you saw that trick on YouTube and you can't wait to try it out on your next mix? Well, you should try to understand how it works before using it.
Use VCA master faders
It has different names depending on what DAW you use. Essentially, a VCA master is like a master fader for an entire group.
These are great when you need to rebalance instruments, like drums because instead of going track by track, you can control all their levels at once.
Apply group processing
If you have several tracks of a similar nature, say 6 guitar tracks, you'll probably process them the same, so grouping them will make it feel more cohesive, save CPU usage, and most importantly, save time.
Take breaks every now and then to avoid fatigue
Sometimes stopping is more productive than keeping working. Knowing when to stop will save you countless hours of fixing bad decisions. It'll also help you regain perspective and deliver much better results.
Balance your mix using a spectrum analyzer
If you think about it, what's better for a balanced audio spectrum than referencing with an analyzer?
RTAs help you understand how frequencies are distributed and interact with each other, which means that you'll have better results controlling and adjusting them.
Analyzers are great to spot problems between frequencies, so you can benefit a lot from using them regularly on your mixes and mastering sessions.
Set up a timer and propose yourself a limit time (Parkinson's Law)
This is more like a mind hack, but it means that if you take a 2-hour task and devote 4 hours to finish it, you will spend the full 4 hours working on the task.
Manually ride your automations
Most DAWs let you automate with clicks by selecting regions and changing values or writing them in real time. The latter option is known as an automation ride, and it can help you automate in less time.
Keep it simple
To mix or master a song is not about fancy techniques and magic plugins, it's about making music an experience for the listener. Naturally, you'll need to process the audio, but most of the time, a little goes a long way.
Why It's Important To Get A Quick Mixing & Mastering Engineer
Because you don't want to spend so much time on it stalling your marketing strategy for the release of your album or single track. As we've already seen, mixing and mastering can take a while and you might not be entirely happy with the first final mix so you'll want revisions and that takes some time too.
The reality is that if you don't have your audio ready, you can't release your music or move on with marketing. If you have a strategy, you might have time expectations, so a quick mixing and mastering engineer can be critical to staying on schedule because he'll get your audio mixed and mastered in less time.
Nowadays, you can find several mixing and mastering services online for all budgets and pretty fast deliveries on sites like Fiverr, Upwork, Sound Better, or Airgigs, to name a few.
What's good about these sites is that, as an artist, you have access to high-fi audio quality for your music, which helps you find more opportunities for your songs to be heard by more and more people, and you don't have to spend a fortune to get things going.
Should I Mix & Master Myself or Get A Professional Engineer?
Both things are okay, in fact, many people do both. Devin Townsend, for example, mixes his own tracks, and so does Manuel Gardner from Unprocessed. By doing this, they have full control over the sound of their music, which opens endless possibilities for their recordings and sound.
So, that means that's not necessary to outsource as long as you know how to mix and master professionally?
Well, not necessarily. Even knowing how to properly master your songs, artists like Billie Eilish and Phineas still outsource mixing and mastering engineers to post-produce their records. That helps release some of the workload and lets them focus on what's best for their music from a production stand.
Outsourcing is always a good idea because an engineer would use his fresh ears to listen to your record, which would benefit your music because he wouldn't be attached to the song, so his perspective would be clearer.
On the other hand, if you're serious about music you might want to have full creative control, and if you hire an online service you won't be able to know what the engineer is doing at the studio until you get the final mix.
Javier is a mixing and mastering engineer who specializes in Rock and Hip Hop, and writes and produces his own music. He is additionally a TV, Film, and advertising audio editor who has been working freelance for 7 years. He loves sound design and is an avid expert in his field, having written hundreds of articles for other publications online about music production-related topics. To put it simply – Javier knows his stuff.