Tracking is the act of recording sounds/music. In our case, the material is stored on electronic media. But there is more to recording than just setting up a microphone and pushing the record button. Recording starts by listening to the instrument/voice/etc and deciding how it should best be captured in the recording process. A microphone, or multiple microphones, are selected. Each microphone brings its own sound, so this choice is significant. The microphone (or microphones) are then placed in the optimal positions to capture the sound. These choices are made by having years of experience and by listening to the source through the microphone(s). The microphone is then connected to a pre-amp. Multiple different pre-amps are available to us, each bringing it's own color/characteristics to the signal. In some cases, a physical compressor and/or EQ are also inserted in this input chain. Each of these also add their own "color" to the recorded signal. Of course, the signal is adjusted to have the best signal to noise ratio and to avoid clipping. Both of those constraints are there to avoid any damage to the signal and get the best possible track recorded.
In addition, signal is presented back to the artist - usually via headphones - with the highest possible clarity and least latency [i.e. a delay caused by the electronic processing of signals]. This is typically referred to as a monitor mix, to which the musician is adding their instrument/voice/etc.
Mixing is the art of balancing the recorded tracks. The balance includes, but is not limited to: level, panning, EQ, compression, effects, etc. Each recorded instrument is adjusted so that it adds to the overall sound of the mix. Multiple takes of tracks are evaluated to determine the best performance. Some instruments/voices/etc. are dropped/added/repeated to enhance the experience. Certain effects are added to make the entire song sound unified and coherent. Effects include, but are not limited to: verb, delay, echo, distortion, doubling, etc. In the end, the song should feel all of one piece [i.e.: gestalt]. Proper mixing is a skill acquired through training and years of practice. Mixing usually occurs over multiple days so that the mixing engineer has a fresh ear for the material. It is generally the most time consuming part of creating a song.
Once a song is mixed, it goes off to a Mastering Engineer. The ME has multiple tasks to accomplish, which is typically described as making the song sound the best it possibly can. Levels are adjusted to meet radio and/or international volume level standards. If there are multiple songs being mastered for a CD or other release, the volumes are matched across songs. The EQ is further adjusted so that the song(s) is/are balanced to sound pleasing on all playback systems [e.g.: home stereo, car, ear buds, headphones, phone, etc.] as well as sounding consistent from song to song.
Also part of mastering is preparing the song(s) for distribution. This can include dithering, setting proper bit/sampling rates, adding metadata to the songs [e.g.: song name, artist name, ISRC code, cover art, etc.], exporting the proper format [e.g.: MP3, DDP, WAV, etc.], setting inter-song gaps, etc.
Loudness Units relative to Full Scale. This is a bit esoteric, but bear with us. LUFS is a measure of loudness that is used as a reference point for various playback sources. There are now international standards for how loud things should be. We at Larch Audio master our songs to try and hit the sweet spot of LUFS, around -14dBFS. Why be concerned about this standard? Various streaming sites will reduce the volume of songs to match their preferred loudness standards. As such, if a song is available through their site and is submitted to them at too high a level, it will be compressed down to where it is acceptable. This has serious consequences for dynamics and other aspects of your mix. Thus, to ensure that your music sounds best on all sites, we set our mastering levels accordingly.
If you have a song and want to test the "penalty" for it's specific loudness level, you can test it here: Loudness Penalty.