The 4 Fundamentals of Mixing Music

I stole this idea from a photography class from Ming Thein. There are four fundamentals of photography that so closely resemble the requirements of a music mix, I couldn’t help but notice it.

In photography, they follow as:

1. Light—because a three-dimensional object becomes two-dimensional in a photo but the photographer must find a way to make it feel 3D.

2. Subject—it tells the story and has to stand out from the background through color, size, shape, contrast, etc. Be it an apple, a person or a pack of cards.

3. Composition—the scene makeup and relationships between objects.

4. Idea—what does the photographer want to say? Is it happy, sad, violent, peaceful, etc.?

Hopefully, my photograph of a dragonfly is a good example. Free photography lesson aside, this is so much like creating a good music mix.

The Four Music Mix Fundamentals

1. Dimension

The mix has to have depth. A common mistake I’ve heard is “all channels at the same volume.” One might say the mix is two-dimensional. Nothing stands out.

A good music mix is three-dimensional with instruments pushed to the back and pulled to the front. Backing vocals might sit behind the lead vocal. The lead guitar stands in front of the bass. All depending on the song arrangement of course. But the mix has dimension. That’s the important piece.

Dimension is added through differences in volume, EQ and effects.

2. Subjects (Primary Channels)

Who is the lead vocalist for the song? What is the lead instrument? Does another instrument ever come to the forefront?

The subjects are the major roles in the song. Without them, the song lacks something key to its essence.

Subjects are pulled to the front of the mix with volume, or in some cases, a competing instrument is pushed back.

A lead vocal that’s covered up by electric guitars or drums can’t lead. It can’t fulfill its required role.

3. Composition

Composition is dimension plus subjects and then some. The subjects tell you which channels are in the front of the three-dimensional mix and how all channels are related.

What better place to talk composition than classical music? That’s a rhetorical question.

Going back to 1984 (a year to which I oft return), a movie about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart showed a fictional account of the relationship between Antonio Salieri and Mozart.

Salieri reflects on a particular score from Mozart:

“On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. And then suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”

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Chris Huff is the author of Audio Essentials for Church Sound. He also teaches all aspects of live audio production, from the technical fundamentals to creative music mixing to keeping your sanity. Find out more at