In high school, I held a stressful job: paint mixer at the local hardware store. The equipment looked like it was from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab – and I was Igor. One extra drop of dye could turn Orange Ruffy into Tangerine Dream, and there was no going back.
I learned two valuable lessons from that job: don’t rush a delicate process, and always check your work. On that second point, after the new color was mixed, a small wooden stick was dipped into the paint and then blown dry with a hair dryer – if it matched the color swash, it was good.
Years later, I’m applying the same concepts to audio mixing. It’s truly a building process. What starts as a bank of muted channels ends as 18 (or more) live audio channels. Color upon color is added to the base, and eventually, it’s regarded as finished.
But is the mix the desired color? We do ourselves a disservice by assuming it’s right – time to pull out the metaphorical stick and hair dryer in examining an audio mix for what it is and what it should be.
Not hearing can be good. Through muting an instrument or singer, the mind of a good sound tech can imagine what he wants to hear once the channel is un-muted. This gives the brain the opportunity to compare “what should be” against “what ya got.”
Mute mixing, for lack of a better phrase, enables volume problems to be fixed, EQ oddities to be corrected, and the overall mix to be improved. This process happens in two ways: channel-level muting and group-level muting. Let’s start with single-channel muting.
Volume balancing is an integral part of mixing, and by muting a channel it’s easy to evaluate the volume level. Start by listening to the whole music mix. Give it some time to sink in, and then mute a channel, such as rhythm guitar. Listen to the mix without that channel.
Next is the biggest step that has improved my mixes. Un-mute the channel, and it will be instantly noticeable if the volume of the channel is too loud, too soft, or just right. Make the appropriate adjustments and then move on to the next channel. This can be done for overall channel evaluation or fixing specific problem channels. For anyone new to mixing, definitely use this process for channel volume evaluation.
EQ correction via muting is similar to volume balance correction, with a twist. Imagine the electric guitar riff that starts the classic rock song Layla, where Eric Clapton’s riff has a very distinct sound. One could listen to five alternate lead guitar mixes and still know which one was from the original recording. We know what sounds right for a song.
Enter muting for EQ correction. Listen to the overall mix, and then mute the problem channel, such as the electric guitar lead. While listening to the mix without the lead guitar, imagine how it should sound if it was present in the mix. Un-mute the guitar and decide if it meets the expectation or not. If it doesn’t, make the necessary EQ tweaks. (And sorry, getting a different guitarist isn’t an option.)
Muting also helps to identify the natural room volume of an instrument. This can be applied to drums, brass instruments, and any instrument using a stage amp. In the cases of drums and percussion, using groups makes this easy. Any sound emanating from the stage with enough volume can affect the house mix. In some cases, one discovers the stage volume is greater than what is sent through the house loudspeakers.