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.
Evaluating The Many
Muting a full group of channels is equally beneficial in assisting with volume and EQ work. Muting an individual channel might not be enough to help fix a problem.
In some cases, the problem exists across channels. By pulling out a group of channels, the source of the problem can be found. Group muting enables focusing on larger areas of the mix such as low end, guitars, and backing vocals.
My standard console configuration includes five mix groups: guitars, vocals, piano/keyboards, drums, and low end (kick drum and bass). Pulling out the low end and the keys groups, one hears the primary sounds of guitars and vocals that drive most songs.
Any time a guitar-centric mix isn’t coming together, drop all groups except the guitars and vocals. As long as those two sound good, the others can be reintroduced, one group at a time, to identify the problem area – usually it’s in the overall backing vocals or the overall drum mix.
Drum group muting can work in two different ways; it depends on the reason for the muting. Need to hear the difference in the mix with and without the drums? Use a single group mute. Need to fix a problem within the drum mix? Use the group concept but apply it to the channel level as follows.
Start by muting all the drum channels, leaving the group level un-muted. Listen to the mix without the drums. Next, introduce the kick and consider how it sits in the mix. Continue through all the drum kit pieces from the low-end kick up to the highest-pitched tom and then the snare. Optionally, add the snare after the kick and then work through the toms. Finally, add in the cymbals.
Another method for tweaking drums, rather than muting, is boosting the volume of the kit piece, adjusting the EQ, then lowering it back to the proper volume. The benefit of the mute method is allowing the brain to imagine what it wants to hear and then mixing to match that sound.
Sound techs working with the same band all the time should have those sounds imprinted in their heads and can use either (or both) method(s). To them, I suggest giving the mute mix concept a try.
Muting groups also helps pinpoint a channel problem. For instance, a low-end frequency problem due to a bad keyboard EQ can be narrowed down to the keys by dropping out the low-end group containing the drums and bass. In this case, the low-end from the keyboard would stand out in the remaining mix.
The process of group-mute mixing enables one to identify a volume or EQ problem related to a group of channels. It also speeds up the investigation into a single channel-related problem by quickly eliminating many channels at once.
Meanwhile, the process of channel-level mute mixing enables one to easily correct volume and EQ problems. It also leads to an overall mix improvement.
In contrast with mixing paint, audio mixing allows us to mix and re-mix as many colors as we want until we find the right combination. Dr. Frankenstein created a monster in his lab, but he did something far more interesting: he gave his creation life. I’ll let you draw the parallels.