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Mixing: The “Don’t Solo” Mindset - EMusician

Mixing: The “Don’t Solo” Mindset

Like most decades, the 1980s could be brilliant or ridiculous, but if you were a recording engineer who dug blasting out sounds fast and loose, you risked going crazy or never working. The studio status quo was pushing the envelope of audio production—no argument, there—and that envelope was typically moved forward at a wounded snail’s pace. This was the era of spending hours to mic a snare, months to record a vocal, and eons to mix an album.
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Like most decades, the 1980s could be brilliant or ridiculous, but if you were a recording engineer who dug blasting out sounds fast and loose, you risked going crazy or never working. The studio status quo was pushing the envelope of audio production—no argument, there—and that envelope was typically moved forward at a wounded snail’s pace. This was the era of spending hours to mic a snare, months to record a vocal, and eons to mix an album.

It was also a time when, as an anxious and up-and-coming musician, I’d constantly find myself sitting on control- room couches behind engineers who soloed every single track on the board, tweaking sounds in isolation. I got a lot of reading done on those couches, but being of a temperament more suited to fighter pilots or Formula One drivers, the monotony of seeing the yellow Solo light reflected in the engineer’s face while my band listened to nine hours of floor tom was edging me perilously close to a padded room. I had to break free. After all, there were songs to write, girls to kiss, and air and sunshine and joy. Eventually, I opened a commercial studio with a buddy, and gained a reputation for mixing songs within two hours or less. Although my speediness freaked out a few musicians (“What? You’re done? That can’t be right”), on the local-band level I posted about the same percentage of successes and failures as others who disappeared into their studios for weeks to craft so-called masterpieces.

One of the reasons I could work so fast was that I never soloed a track unless I was searching for hum, buzz, distortion, or other aural anomalies. Even today, I always make adjustments with a complete mix up. I do not solo to dial in sounds or effects. I do not solo to check compression settings, noise gates, or EQ. If Solo buttons were zapped into mist by aliens, I wouldn’t even attend the funeral. For me, soloing impedes the flow of creativity, and it invites paranoia, selfdoubt, and incessant tweaking.

Of course, only an idiot would deny that a lot of engineers who constantly soloed tracks made historic albums. This is proof that there’s no one path to bliss. But if you’re a fellow traveler on my road—someone suspicious of DAWs with unlimited track counts that temp musicians towards bloated mixes—here are three simple guidelines for avoiding solo-itis.

• Make sure the song is great and vibey and emotionally affecting before you record and mix it. No amount of toil, trouble, and studio tricks can transform a crap song into an epic work.

• Assess all elements in the context of a full stereo mix. Your audience is going to hear your song as a complete work, so sweat over making the “whole” sound utterly fabulous, rather than wasting time soloing tracks and breaking the magic of your musical spell.

• Don’t stress out over infinitesimal details few fans will give a hoot about. If your chorus is explosive, who cares if the tambourine is a little too soft, or if you should have doubled an underpinning acoustic-guitar pad? Listeners will be seduced by the vocal—end of story. Try to stop thinking like a musician, and slip momentarily into the headspace of a studio-clueless music fan. Trust me, those fan types aren’t going to pull out a spectral analyzer to determine whether there’s enough of a boost at 3.5kHz on the lead vocal.

This is more of a “thought piece,” and I’ve written about this subject before in EQ, but I keep seeing sessions where musicians start their mixes by soloing tracks, and then end up unhappy with the final results. For these frustrated mixers—and, possibly, for you—the art of keeping one’s paws off the Solo button might mean the difference between euphoria and disappointment.