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Rethinking The Solo Button

Brandon Drury —  July 16, 2011 — Leave a comment

It’s pretty much a given that every beginner to home recording starts by soloing each track, processing it, moving on to the next solo’d track, and then ends up with a big wad of tracks that blend in the oil/water vein.  This form of mixing is almost never effective because it’s kinda the opposite of mixing.  It’s separating….(The irony of that is “separation” is something most of us consider a GREAT thing when MIXING…..Interesting.)

It’s also pretty much a given that every person who gets passed that beginner phase then moves on to the phase of avoiding the solo button.  That’s the method I’ve employed for years.

Here recently I’ve been watching the hell out of  Pensado’s Place.  (I’m in one of my burn-out recovery phases and keeping it on in half-background/half-foreground has been eye opening on many levels.)  I noticed that when Dave is illustrating some of his concepts on Into The Lair (the part of the show where he gives a quick mixing tutorial usually) that he uses the solo button quite often and seems to have no problem getting pretty detailed about the kind of processing he does for the drums and vocal.  In particular, that processing always seems to hold up when he ditches the solo button.

Note:  Some of this may be due to the tutorial-nature of the show, but I’m convinced that dude uses the solo button more than I do….proceed.

On a mix this week I decided to be more aggressive with the solo button.  I said, “Is there any reason that I shouldn’t use this microscope to get this track to be exactly what I want it to be?”  Why not zoom in 5x just to make sure we don’t have any nasty bacteria growing in an individual.  The merits of this can be debated.  After all, the only thing that matters is what any given track sounds like in the context of all the tracks.

The real question is: Can we improve the sounds IN CONTEXT by utilizing the solo button more often?

Do Tracks Really Sound Bad When Solo’d?

This popped up in a post by Paul999 this past week on the RecordingReview.com forum.  He was basically making the point that he couldn’t remember ever hitting the solo button and going “Yuck!!” and then saying “Ahhhh” when unchecking that solo button.  Come to think of it, I can’t either.

When I’ve nailed a mix, I can’t remember ever being shocked by what I hear when using the solo button.  All those amazing sounding samples I utilize in my MIDI productions work quite well in a well-arranged mix.  It stands to reason that nailing the great sound you are looking for early is never a hindrance.

Sure, there are times when we thin out the acoustic guitar to make it fit in a full band setting.  Really any instrument can get thicker when it’s by itself and has to tighten up when fighting 120 tracks.  When I listened to that thinned out acoustic, I don’t say, “Yuck”.  I say, “It’s thin for a reason but it still sounds good.”

The Oops Moment

I’m big on on “purpose”.  Every track in a mix must have a purpose.  It must have a goal that it’s trying to achieve.  You see a lot of local rock bands who decide that want “production”and randomly pile 50 tracks on top of their full-band recording (which worked as is) and these new tracks have no purpose.  They have no intent.  They have no desired effect they are trying to squeeze out of the listener.  They are just tracks.  Just sound.

This purpose business also makes sense on an engineering level.  A rock band using an Ampeg bass amp and an overdriven Fender amp with a Telecaster is telling you right up front that the purpose of the bass is the low end and the purpose of the guitar is the midrange.  (This is in stark contrast to the many modern rock bands that dial in huge low end into the guitars and the bass.  It’s not clear what the purpose is for either, necessarily.)

In the context of a mix, I’d argue that one of the largest roles of the mixer is to focus purpose.  Get a track doing everything it’s intended to do and nothing it’s not.

For example, I’m listening to this right now:

The purpose of this bass is not to give you the shake-your-balls low end that this does:

One way or another, MGMT and their engineering dudes have pulled all the low end of the Phil Collins song right out.  (Most likely on an amp or emulator….who knows which….or hell maybe it’s a sequenced sample….again, who knows!)  The purpose of each bass is entirely different.

So what happens when you’ve got a giant low-end kick and also a giant low-end bass.  Both of them can’t have the same purpose.  (There’s only so much purpose to go around and that’s easy to hear in the context of the mix.)  So maybe you start rolling off the bottom to move the bass in the direction of the MGMT bass.

I find that I’m often conservative when tweaking in the context of the full mix, particularly when cutting.  Once the full mix has said, “The purpose of this bass is NOT giant subwoofer low end”, when I solo that bass that I’ve already worked on I’ll still hear WAY more of this non-purpose subwoofer crap than I want.  Since the full-mix purpose of that bass is now defined, I can say, “You know what?  Screw ALL the subwoofer stuff” and nuke it all when solo’d.

The full mix is good at defining purpose, the solo’d section is good at showing the extreme details that allow you to focus importance.  Technically, if a person 100% knew the exact purpose of each instrument (a luxury we have with the full mix) they could have nailed the tones perfectly during tracking with the right tools.

Of course, all these solo-button actions are still pending.  You still have to untick the solo button and hear what you’ve got in context.  You may toss out half the things you do with the solo button engaged.  I’m finding that FOR ME, doing a little additional investigation with the solo button on after I have a clearly defined purpose for each track in my brain is helping me improve my mixes.

Wrong Or Right?

The point of this article is not to tell you to use the solo button more.  I’m simply telling you that it’s working for me and helping me work around all my shortcomings.  Your style will be different and only you can decide if this solo button business provides any benefit for that style.

Conclusion

I’m digging the results of increasing my use of the solo button when mixing.  Every decision you make, solo’d or not, must make sense in the context of the song, but I can no longer recommend you ignore that included free telescope.  Good luck!

Saved Comments


fHumble fHingaz – 07-12-2011, 07:33 PM
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What can I say? – another great article, Brandon… I actually spend quite a bit of time soloing stuff for this very purpose, but always with the “bigger picture” in mind. A good example is when you need to get rid of a resonant frequency on the snare, or eq the mud or “metallic” sound out of a reverb… In these cases, the solo button is invaluable to me.

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paul999 – 07-12-2011, 10:17 PM
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I pretty much use the solo button as you described. The never use the solo button idea never worked for me and I never really got the concept of how to do it. When I am setting compressor settings etc. I can’t do nearly as good of a job when not soloed. I can set release times to get it almost acting like a noise gate on snare and kick but I can never do that when I hear it in the mix because I can’t tell what is going on in the release as well. I toggle back and forth to finish details (sometimes details are finished with the mix sometimes soloed).Often times at the end of the mix I be looking to trim fat from places. I’ll ask myself “what can I sacrifice” then I’ll solo that track taking away what I can.Often times with low end I’ll cut with a wide cut and HPF while solo’d. I then put up the mix adding back in what it can take. Lastly I can find “spikes” far easier from individual instruments when soloed. When you get these handled on their own you get much less frequency clashing in the mix. Often times zero. Great article! It made me want to vent

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Jurado – 07-13-2011, 04:10 PM
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Nice thread! I was expecting the bass comparison between the 2 songs to be based on MGMT (and their producers) ussing samples from Mr Collins?

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shackman – 07-14-2011, 02:07 AM
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You omit the one function for which I have always needed the solo button.In about ten minutes, I’m back to the studio for a couple of hours of “tidying”.I’m working on a track which has a very beautiful and emotional acoustic guitar solo, and similar acoustic guitar fills throughout.I have no plans to try and process it (EQ, comprsssion etc) with it soloed, BUT the work I’m doing now is tidying.I’m using automation to trim out the excess noises between plucks. I’m losing the occasional Shackman sniff where I snorted as I pulled off a difficult note change. And I’m using automation to drop out the low level noise. A gate could do that, but never as smoothly or naturally as automation.So, for the next couple of hours, I’ll be firmly under the solo button. When mixing, I have often used the solo button to “find” that bad note or that strange sound. I suspect that those who are happy to duitch the button completely are happy with such thing s muddying their mixes, or believing they remain inaudible to the general audience. They may be right, but I can’t listebn to a track I’ve engineered if I KNOW there’s a bad noise “hidden” at a certain point.WHoo.

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mightymusic – 07-14-2011, 05:58 AM
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Another good debate Brandon. I think there’s probably both non-constructive and constructive ways of using the ‘S’ button. What you describe in the beginning of your post about soloing each instrument, making it sound killer one by one then expecting all to mix well is definately not constructive. I remember Frank Zappa talking about the band as “one instrument with one sound” in an interview I saw years ago, which supports your ‘purpose’ theory. Putting a frequency analizer on the master bus and soloing tracks to ‘see’ what part of the spectrum they occupy and how best to place them accordingly is a constructive use of the ‘S’ button, as you can build up a mental picture of the mix in terms of what goes where. Khaliq talks about this in his EQ course in some detail. The ‘S’ button definately is a purposeful and helpful tool when used constructively, but it can also lead your mix astray when used unconstructively. (note i never said “wrong or right” )

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TonyB – 07-14-2011, 06:49 AM
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Good article. I also use the solo button in pairs, most of the time the kick and bass to see what they’re doing TO each other or FOR each other.You hit the most difficult instruments as well….kick, bass, and guitars.

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feegs – 07-14-2011, 06:34 PM
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I find i bounce between the solo button , drums and bass to start with usually, then full mix and what ever is bugging me..NOW off to a Mastering Studio! Yeehayyyyy! rock on!

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brandondrury – 07-14-2011, 07:16 PM
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The thing that has surprised me here recently I had the view that the “hidden” stuff in a track had secret value. In other words, lets say we are doing a Blink 182 type production and we want maximum click in the kick. Sucking 250Hz out is necessary for this sound. Before I’d cut it in context of the mix to get it down to the point that sounds good, but there is still SOME 250Hz in there.Now I’m finding that in order to tighten my mixes up to the level I’m liking these days, I want ZERO 250Hz. In the MGMT bass example, I say put a high pass on it as aggressive as I can get away with. Screw using a shelf to pull down the low end. Just kill it. I’m killing anything without purpose and I’m finding that I like this sound better. The full mix makes it easy to identify purpose and the solo button makes it easier to kill everything with no purpose.YMMV

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fHumble fHingaz – 07-14-2011, 09:22 PM
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I’m killing anything without purpose and I’m finding that I like this sound better.
Yep, I totally agree – become a serial frequency mass murderer! Like CLA says – get that Dodge Viper & park it in a tiny parking spot!

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dudermn – 07-15-2011, 06:58 AM
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Ahm. Brandon ?? How bout live you don’t cut out what you don’t need with a cross-over? Any old school-modern home cinema has a crossover, either digitally built into the speaker cabins or rushkii style with a pa that does cross over, though shelving isn’t crossover, it’s don’t crossover ) It’s a vintage technique .
I want a maserati !

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irawan gani – 07-15-2011, 12:03 PM
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the question is, solo button or not, why is Phil Collins standing in the middle of a Tron/Xanadu esque triangle?

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brandondrury – 07-17-2011, 09:45 AM
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A crossover and a high-pass filter are pretty much identical, for all practical purposes, depending on design. The crossover lets you send the low end one place and the high end the other. In the case of mixing tracks I don’t really need to send the low end anywhere when I’m trying to eliminate it. Multi-band compressors have built-in crossovers to allow individual compression on each band.
the question is, solo button or not, why is Phil Collins standing in the middle of a Tron/Xanadu esque triangle?
Why not?

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Danny Danzi – 07-19-2011, 07:13 AM
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I dunno, as usual, I’m the weirdo in the thread. I never use solo unless I am having an issue with an instrument or literally need to hear the effects of a change I’ve made in solo mode. That said, if I can’t hear the change in “all on” mode, solo is not going to make much of a difference unless there is an artifact that I am trying to pinpoint. I asked my friend, Beau Hill his take on “the solo button” and here’s how it all went down.

Danny: Do you eq individual instruments to make then sound good by themselves first, or do you set up all your levels in the tune and then eq so the instrumentation fits the mix? Most people I talk to eq the instrument individually to get a good sound first and then tweak it within the mix. Are they wasting time doing it this way since it will need to be fixed to accommodate the mix as an entity?

Beau Hill: What a great question Danny….I don’t think that there is ‘one correct way’ to do it, and it’s taken me ages to embrace that concept…..Since I get songs to mix from artists around the world, I rarely have any advance notice of what’s coming in the door or what shape the ‘patient’ will be in when I open it up……this has taught me to be flexible…very flexible ! On occasion I will get a track that sounds soooo good that I dare not touch it, and then the adjacent track will sound like ‘ass’ and needs some ‘life support’ to even turn it on(so I eq a bit at that point)….

Slight digression: Mixing is like putting together a giant puzzle…making all the pieces fit. Sometimes in order to make one piece fit into another you must find the areas where the frequencies are not competing for the same space and in so doing one instrument may sound a bit bizarre when you solo it (meaning it just doesn’t sound like it normally would). But, when you listen to them together they really work well and complement each other…..If you eq everything individually to sound ‘RIGHT’ you may inadvertently be causing another problem when you hear the mix in it’s totality…..”Everything sound great when I solo them”….sometimes various components of the mix need to fill an unusual ‘space’ in order to compliment the entire mix, which is completely acceptable in my opinion. The short answer is to be really open in your approach, because it’s usually going to be a bit of both..

I thought that was a pretty good answer. I also agree that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. However, it has taken me quite a long time to really understand the difference in what a good souhnd is solo’d verses a good sound that is not solo’d. When we solo something, we usually make it sound so good that it no longer fits in the mix. This is ok if that instrument will be all by itself. But if it’s going to be in the mix, I think the solo button can be your worst nightmare until you know what to listen for. Though I can do an entire mix using the solo button because I know what to listen for, I still like it better when I only hit up the solo button for a possible problem area. That’s just what works for me though.

-Danny

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paul999 – 07-19-2011, 07:26 AM
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Quote Originally Posted by Danny Danzi View Post
I think the solo button can be your worst nightmare until you know what to listen for. Though I can do an entire mix using the solo button because I know what to listen for, I still like it better when I only hit up the solo button for a possible problem area. That’s just what works for me though.

-Danny
I think this sums it up. If you don’t know what your listening for EVERYTHING is a nightmare. After all isn’t that the whole thing we’ve spent our time on. Knowing what to listen for.

On the other hand the better I get at using the solo button the less I need it as well.

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tedpenn – 07-19-2011, 08:59 AM
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I do agree that the constant emphasis on avoiding the solo button at all costs has gotten a bit out of hand. There are certain pearls of wisdom that seem to get regurgitated and chanted like mantras over and over in recording/mixing, and this is one of them. However, I must say that spending only the necessary time in solo seems to help me work faster toward getting a mix together.

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Danny Danzi – 07-19-2011, 10:22 AM
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Quote Originally Posted by tedpenn View Post
I do agree that the constant emphasis on avoiding the solo button at all costs has gotten a bit out of hand. There are certain pearls of wisdom that seem to get regurgitated and chanted like mantras over and over in recording/mixing, and this is one of them. However, I must say that spending only the necessary time in solo seems to help me work faster toward getting a mix together.
By all means Ted, use it if it helps you, brother. All too often though, those that over-use it, are not listening for the right things because…they haven’t developed themselves to know what to listen for. Most newer guys in this field can’t even tell that they have a bad print where us guys that have been doing it for 100 years know in an instant something will not work no matter how hard we push things or how much time we put in. That’s the key as Paul mentioned…knowing what you’re listening for…and if you do, use that solo button to your hearts content. If it gets your work done faster and you have great results, you’re right where you want to be.

-Danny

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richfox1 – 07-19-2011, 02:59 PM
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one thing to keep in mind is that every track in a mix has to have its own strength and performance so it should be able to stand on its own. u dont hide it in a mix. subliminally the weak track will pull the song down. this is not to say that every track has to be a ripping solo but must be supportive to the song or why have it? rich fox

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WellMixed – 07-19-2011, 10:19 PM
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Great bit of writing, Brandon. The Phil Collins YT example is a bit rough, but otherwise I think it’s great.

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cobretti – 07-20-2011, 10:27 AM
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Hey Brandon, great article! To nail the discussion, it´s a question of rethinking how to use the S button. In best case as just as that what it is, a magnifier. Feeling invited by this function to create a well sounding mix for each single track itself is plain and simple misuse. The S button itself shouldn´t be blamed for that.

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jay jay – 07-21-2011, 07:49 PM
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Some good points made above. I use the solo button a ton, and would probably be lost without it. Use it when editing. Noise out of guitar tracks before they’re suppose to play. When removing the bleed between tom hits. Sur I can get close without it, but solo’d I know I’m at the exact spot. I’ll solo the whole drum kit, and then each drum mic. I like hearing what each is giving me and what’s helping or hurting. I find the kick and bass blend easier to get into the ballpark solo’d. (O.T. – I won those Beyerdynamic headphones from one of Brandons contests. They are awesome for hearing the bass/kick relationship. It used to take me lots of listens on all different systems to get the low end close. Now, the headphones get me there fast.) I’ll solo the guitars when looking for amp sim sounds. Also, I like to solo double tracked guitars that are panned L & R. I can RMS meter them to see if they’re the same level. It’s a good check for my ears. I’m far from a pro and not up to the level as you guys, maybe that’s why I rely on it so much. I like to hear the “why” tracks work or don’t work together.

Chalo – 07-26-2011, 04:29 PM
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I agree, the ability to spot where is the thing with the frecuency or noise that is NOT good in the mix is the most valuable use of the solo button.

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miccimiao – 08-04-2011, 08:48 AM
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Interesting article! I have no time to read trough the comments right now (limited internet connection), but what I really liked is “Why not zoom in 5x just to make sure we don’t have any nasty bacteria growing in an individual”I can see the solo button work very well for polishing the sounds from any dirt they may have on them..Thanks Brandon!

 

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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