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Mixing 101: The Mute Button November 5, 2009

Posted by ConnorSmith in : Digital Audio Workstations, Mixing, Project Studio , trackback

To make great mixes, you need great ears and knowledge of your processing gear/plug-ins – but one of the most simple and most important mixing processes comes in the form of the mute button.  In my opinion, the mute button is often more important than any plug-in, whether its the Compressimaxer 40000 that cost $5,000 or a simple DigiRack plug-in.When I refer to the “mute button”, I’m actually referring to any process that mutes audio, whether its the mute button on a channel strip, physically editing out a region of audio, killing volume through automation, etc…  One quick note on this – my favorite way to mute items in mix projects (in Pro Tools) is to mute regions in the time line, rather than automating mutes/volume in the mixer.  You can do this by selecting a region and then pressing Command+M.  The region will gray-out, and no audio will play when it passes.  Click and Command+M again to unmute the region.

Being a mix engineer is a a lot more than calling up plug-ins and twisting knobs until things sound better.  Granted, that (oversimplified summary) is a big part of mixing, but the musical influence of the mix engineer is just as important.  Think of muting as an ultimate multi-effect process.

Result #1 Spectral Flattery

Let’s say you are mixing a song with a big guitar solo in the middle of it.  The guitar solo is backed by the usual drums+bass, as well as 2 rhythm guitars, a keyboard, and a synth pad.  Its likely that the solo, the rhythm guitars, the keyboard, and the pad are all sharing some frequency range (specifically perhaps upper mids).  Once approach may be to load up some EQs and make strategic cuts to the accompanying instruments during that solo.  While this is a great start, and may be just the fix in some situations – consider the mute button.  Do you really need all 4 of the accompanying parts during this solo?  As a mix engineer, assuming you have been granted this freedom by the client/label/band, it is your job to make these mix-level arrangement decisions.  Muting an unneeded track will always clear more space than an EQ cut.

Result #2 A Better Arrangement

This concept also doesn’t just apply to just solo sections with a highlighted instrument.  When you first start your mix, listen through a few times and get a feel for all the parts.  If there are 9 guitars tracked, that does not mean that you need all 9 of them! (Especially in today’s session where its common to record a few mics on an instrument, leaving the final decision up to the mix).  Now, that being said, this is not a hack and slash process.  Use your ears and musical knowledge (as well as conversations with the artist/producer) to identify the most important elements of the song.  Muting conflicting tracks will save you a lot of time and energy during mixdown.

Result #3 Cleanliness!

When an electric guitar isn’t playing, its track is likely full of amp hiss, foot noises, etc…  When a tom isn’t being hit, its track is a sanctuary for cymbal and drum bleed.  At the beginning of your mixdown, it is a good idea to spend a few minutes in the Edit window cleaning up your tracks.  Cut out regions where instruments aren’t playing, decide on a tentative ending and start for the song, etc.  This short process will save you time later as well – as you won’t have to search through the mixer, solo tracks to figure out where the random noises are coming from.This process does take some discretion – there are plenty of times when manually-gating your toms like this is not a good direction.  Additionally, there are times with amp noise is a cool addition to a song.  Use your ears and musical discretion!

Expect an update on this article soon – my recording rig is currently out on a gig, so I was unable to add screen shots or audio from relevant sessions.  Hopefully by this weekend I’ll be up and running again.


The Studio Files


1. Chakali - November 23, 2009

Mute button is one of the most important features when I use Logic because when I have lots of tracks I can select the ones I want and I can here them in groups. I also find mute button useful when I want to hear certain instruements together in order to hear of frequencies fight each other especially kick drum and bass.

2. Dialashop - May 12, 2010

I think the mute button is useful, but I use another method which achieves the same thing. What I do is I use the solo button and I mult-solo the instruments. I usually mute the tracks which I will not use again. I suppose its back to front method. This method not only applies to tracks, but busses also. I find mute useful when I can hear a noise so I can track it down.

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