Mix Preliminaries: the Essential Mix


In this phase we must first construct an essential mix containing only the primary and essential elements of the arrangement.

The Stages of the Mix

In this phase we must first build a essential mix containing only the primary and essential elements of the arrangement.

This mixing must be done with the utmost care, placing the few elements that make it up side by side in a precise and balanced manner in terms of volume ratios, dynamics, timbre, even taking care of the ambient effects, with the highest possible sound quality, as if it were the final mix.

The purpose of this operation is to build a sound fulcrum solid, around which the other secondary elements can later be glued.

It will then proceed through 2 processing steps:

  1. Essential mix
  2. Final mix - which we will see later

Dividing the processing of a very complex mix into 2 steps will facilitate the mixing approach in no small measure for the following reasons:

  • it will be much easier to achieve a good mix in a short time when the ingredients are few and when each of them occupies a precise space and a complementary role to the others on the sound front
  • it will be much easier, later, to add the remaining elements, proceeding one at a time, from the most important to the least important, trying to use the right volume for them, shaping the most appropriate sonorities in order to favour the maximum tonal and dynamic interlocking, without encroaching too much on the space of the ingredients of the main mix, and without having to modify any of their settings


As a reference for additional adjustments to be made to the tracks, it may be inspiring to preview the following sections on source treatment.

Identification of essential traces

So what are the most important tracks to fine-tune in this essential mix?

To answer this question, it is first necessary to make an analysis of the track and its content.

Suppose, for example, that we consider a hypothetical song in the pop genre.

Listening to the various tracks, among them we should identify, in order of importance, the following (if any):

  • the soloist main and secondary soloists - suppose for example a voice and a saxophone
  • the instrument (or instrumental section) that most constitutes the rhythmic harmonic structure of the piece - suppose for example a piano, or a guitar or a string quartet
  • I rhythmic instrument par excellence - suppose for example a battery
  • the instrument that performs the bass line


In reality, there are many criteria to choose from and the above is just one example.

In truth, these criteria differ to an extreme according to the musical genres taken into consideration and according to the sound arrangement.

There can be mixes consisting of so few ingredients that the essential mix coincides with the final mix.

In other cases, on the other hand, where we will proceed in two steps, the only real criterion is the determination of the few essential elements, while also trying to choose elements with very different and complementary functions.

When the elements of the essential mix have been carefully chosen, it will sound like a possible finished mix.

A listener unfamiliar with the final draft of the arrangement, listening to the essential mix should not perceive any element missing, but rather the result should appear to him as complete, balanced and enjoyable, as if it were a finished work.

The preliminary levelling of volumes

As we know, the essential mix must be performed with tracks that have previously undergone the mix preliminaries referred to in 'Chapter 8', in order to obtain clean, precise sounds that are full and clear and free of defects.

The first thing to do is to open the tracks and level them without making any adjustments in order to achieve the greatest possible balance in volume.

At this stage, automatisms should not be used, but simply set the adjustment criteria in the average, thus valid for the entire song.

However, the volumes of the various segments recorded on the same track can be levelled out, to eliminate any imbalances that may have arisen during the corrective recording of performance errors.

Another feasible intervention in the essential mix phase is the levelling of entire musical periods with respect to others.

For example: it often happens that the lead vocal is noticeably and consistently louder in the chorus than in the verse.

In this case, it may be advisable, after having found the right average volume for the verse, to slightly lower the volume of the choruses; not too much, however, because such an intervention must not sound false (ideally, the hand of the sound engineer should never be felt by the listener).

In this respect, a few small interventions of 1 to 3 db will certainly suffice.

In the essential mix, which is always relatively rarefied due to its few elements, it will not be difficult to achieve this important balance.

In any case, the primary aim is to determine a balance of volumes such that listening to the entire piece appears absolutely balanced.

Only when this balance has been achieved will it finally be possible to use processors, timbral, dynamic and ambient, and finally automations, to further refine the sound result

At this point, you can start with the corrections, acting only where you see the possibility of a real improvement, understood above all as the achievement of better sound and dynamic connections between the tracks.

Levelling compression

Generally, I would suggest using dynamics processors and specifically compressors first, in order to create more levelling in the tracks to prevent temporarily too high dynamics from overpowering the other tracks, or conversely, temporarily too soft dynamics from disappearing.

Remember to compress the minimum necessary to achieve the above, in order not to extinguish the expressive dynamic range of these sources too much.

In particular, the preservation of dynamics is important for the soloists and the instrument (or instrumental section) that forms the rhythmic-harmonic framework of the piece.

It will, however, be possible, in general, to enhance the compression a little more in the instruments with a rhythmic support function, especially those with a lower range such as the bass drum and bass guitar, and those that constitute the dynamic support point of the song's rhythm, such as the snare drum

Mix equalisation

Subsequently, one can proceed, only where indispensable, with minor equalisation retouches.

At this stage, equalisation should:

  • give prominence to sources that tend to merge with others
  • improve the overall balance of the tonal range resulting from the sum of the sound of the sources in the mix

Improving tonal balance and sound aesthetics should not be necessary if you have carefully performed prior equalisation.

Environmental treatment

For the setting, start with the main soloist.

Establish for it the most suitable ambient field to create the right expressive suggestion for the main element of the mix.

In doing so, use all the necessary resources, be they reverberation, echoes and/or other, until the best result is achieved, the most functional to the sense of the piece.

Then assign the fields to the other sources in the mix, taking care to vary the feeling of presence and depth of each source appropriately, in order to build a mix in which a broad horizon and a wide spatial location of the elements is perceived.

You will obviously take care, with some exceptions, to assign maximum presence to the solo elements and gradually less presence to the other elements.


Sound elements with a low extension and/or sombre timbre, such as bass and bass drum for example, should have less proportional ambience, in order to maintain a good presence, to counter their natural tendency to be perceived less than instruments with a higher texture.

Once you have completed the Essential Mix, which, I repeat, must sound perfectly good, as if it were a finished mix, you can finally get into the action with the Concluding Mix, during which you must 'glue' onto the Essential Mix, one by one, the remaining tracks, starting with the most important and ending with the least important.

Between the two phases, however, take a sufficiently long break in order to regain freshness.

Introduction to the final mix

Up to this point we have considered the advisability of performing a so-called essential mix, in order to build a solid and perfect sound architecture which, including all the main elements of the piece, would also serve as a reference point for the insertion of the other sound sources which, although secondary, act a bit like salt and pepper, capable as they are of giving the arrangement and ultimately the sound a more captivating and complete flavour.

Before performing the Final mix you should read the following chapter on the specific treatment of sources.

It lists preventive and posthumous treatments to be carried out source by source, in order to provide a practical reference guide.

Subsequently, in the Chapter 11 on the 'Final Mix, you will find a detailed description of the Mix operations to be performed after the Essential Mix, which include:

  • the insertion of secondary tracks
  • their volume levelling
  • their tonal, dynamic and environmental adaptation

Then, with appropriate refinements, the mix will be finalised.

But let us proceed step by step with the next chapter devoted to the 'Source treatment'.

For more on Digital Audio Mixing


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