SoloIn the last article we took a look at the problem of EQ-ing without really listening to the track. The opposite, however, can be just as bad for your mix.

What if you listen to the track TOO closely? What if there was a way to isolate that track and only listen to that track and mute all the rest? Wait a second. Yep, that’s called the solo button.

EQ-ing in solo, in my opinion, is one of the hardest habits to break. Think back to the very first song you ever mixed. What did you do first? You solo’d the kick drum, messed around with EQ for a while. Then you solo’d the snare drum, played around with EQ for a while. Then you solo’d the bass… You get the picture.

How did that work out for you?

The Problem with Solo

The Solo button is VERY useful. Don’t get me wrong. But to mix instruments in solo, more specifically to EQ in solo, is very counterproductive.

But why?

Imagine you’re baking a cake. If you’re like me, you need a recipe. There’s no way I could bake a cake without specific instructions. Let’s say you decide to bake it without a recipe. You know what ingredients you need — flour, eggs, sugar, etc. — how hard could it be?

So you get out the eggs, and you focus REALLY hard on them. You make sure you crack them perfectly, and you don’t let any shells get in the batter. Then you focus on the flour. You sift it like crazy, so your batter won’t have any lumps. Then you move on to the sugar…and so on.

You combine all your ingredients and what do you get? A pretty disgusting cake. You had no idea what the proportions should be. You used too many eggs, not enough flour, and WAY too much sugar. Who cares if you spent a bunch of time working on each individual ingredient! Nobody’s going to eat your cake.

It’s the same with your mixes. All these tracks were meant to be combined together into a stereo mix. What they sound like by themselves really has NOTHING to do with how they’re going to sound in the mix.

  • That kick drum could sound amazing in solo. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t hear it in the mix, or if it’s overpowering the mix.
  • The bass guitar might be HUGE solo’d, but when you put it in the mix, it just makes everything muddy and boomy.
  • The lead vocal might sound perfect with the solo button pressed, but then you listen to it in the mix, and you can’t understand a word he’s singing.

The Solution

I’ve heard great-sounding mixes where the lead vocal, when solo’d, sounded really thin and harsh. But in the mix it worked perfectly. The mix is the ultimate goal. You make sacrifices and compromises to make the MIX sound great, not the individual tracks.

The best way to do this is to simply stop pressing the solo button. If you’re working on drums, listen to the entire drum kit. EQ the kick drum while listening to all the other drum tracks. It’s all about context. As much as you possibly can, mix your tracks while listening to all the others. It will force you to make decisions that will benefit the MIX, not the individual track.

While listening to the electric guitar in solo, you may think it needs to lose some harshness around 3 kHz, but then when you drop it in the mix, you notice that it sits perfectly. Had you done a cut at 3 kHz, you would’ve made the guitar more difficult to hear. You would have HURT THE MIX.

You may be asking, “But Joe, do you never use the solo button when you mix?” I do use it. I’ll use it to quickly hone in on that frequency I’m looking for, if I’m having trouble finding it, but then I immediately drop the track back in the mix to make adjustments. Or I’ll make a few adjustments, then I always listen to it in the mix again before moving on to the next thing.

What happens? I almost always have to make adjustments after hearing the track in the mix. No matter how perfect I think it sounds in solo. I might think I “nailed it,” but then I listen in the mix and have to make a few more adjustments.

Comment Time!

Your turn. Do you agree or disagree with me? Do you EQ in solo? Do you think it’s helpful or hurtful? What are you going to do about it?

If you struggle with how to EQ tracks and want to learn how to stop randomly twisting knobs and start EQ-ing quickly and effectively, check out Understanding EQ.

  • Alan Craig

    I’ve heard this advice many times and ignored it until about 2 weeks ago. Dang. Now I wish I had listened sooner. My mixes have been so much better. This has forced me to do whatever it takes to make the track sit right in the mix. Sometimes this means cutting more low end than I would in solo. Sometimes it means compressing it differently so that it cut through like it should. Thanks for the article. Keep up the great work!

  • rsimon8

    Hi! Thank you very much for the article! Really really useful! I used to be stuck for this reason… And lose very good musical ideas…

    But how about loop tracks? What’s the principle to build tracks for live loop sets?

    (if my english is bad, sorry!)

    • rsimon8

      You said some tracks may sound bad individually, but, in a DJ set (especially using a lauchpad), playing single loops may be preferred… I’m a bit confused

  • Etsudo

    Time to break a stupid habit, I guess 😉

  • Mk

    Hi, and thanks for your article!you’re great!
    I have only one question please:
    What is the exact sequence to do this?
    For example i’have recorded my drumset, my bass guitar and my vocals…
    All the pieces are on separated tracks into my daw with faders at 0db and no other!
    I want to begin from the drum, the kick for example…
    I think that i can do FIRST some basic volume balancing between all the clean tracks..

    But now that i’m going to add some eq on my single piece ( the kick for example ), what i have to do?
    maybe that the other tracks,still clean as they were recorded ( no eq, no compression etc..) , could alterate the eq work that i’m going to do on the kick?

    …for example the voice can be muddy or boxing …. the bass idem or too big…etc…and i think that all these frequences could do a wall of sound that can bring me to cut or boost wrong frequences on the kick drum…

    I don’t know if my question is clear 😛 but thanks for give me an answer!

    Mark

    • I’m not sure I completely understand, but what I like to do is set all the levels and panning first, then when I use EQ, I try to use it as much as possible while listening to all the tracks, not the individual track in solo. That way I know how my EQ changes are affecting the mix as a whole.

  • Gleventhal

    Very good point, and Yes… it is a very hard habit to break. 

    • It still creeps up on me from time to time, too. 🙂

  • CamBam

    I totally agree! I was, however, getting some boominess in my last project I solo’d the drum kit and it turned up. After doing a cut at around 200 hz on the kick drum, nothing was better. So, I started to solo the different drums and it ended up being on the floor tom! This is why I really like the solo button.

  • Brian B

    I agree totally. Most of the time solo for me is referencing the track/channel to the mix so I can be more informed about my decisions. In a live environment you usually don’t get the best mic position or the musician may be doing something out of your control. which for those wondering is why you would have something played by itself. Either your fixing a problem, which should never be the whole sound check, or tuning the problem areas out of the speakers. Anyway if you don’t have the time knowing your basic Eq Areas make it so you can produce a good mix fast with the band performing. In the studio you should have the best tracks you can obtain and be able to play them back in context as much as time allows. Joe is spot on and every part of the mix is built together. sometimes I think just siting down and working through one track outside of a mix down can give you insight into what to do when you have the mix pulled together. Thanks for all you post Joe, There is always something to take away no matter one experience level!

    • Thanks Brian! Thanks for the input, too!

  • J Willis

    That is a very interesting perspective. I am 100% new to mixing, I’ve always just been a player, so I can’t say for sure, but this reads as very sound and logical advice, and actually helps me to realize why I’ve been having such difficulty creating a good mix. Thanks Joe!

    • Hey J!

      Mixing is an ever-learning experience. Welcome to the rat race. 🙂

      If you want to get a lot of good practice mixing and feedback from me. Check out my mixing class over at http://www.mixwithus.com. You get the multi-tracks to 10 songs over 10 weeks and an hour-long tutorial about each one, showing you how I mixed it.

  • Great insights, Hector. You’re absolutely right, the success of a mix is largely dependent on the actual parts that were recorded. The arrangement plays a huge roll in the success of a mix.

  • I should just start a recording analogy website. 🙂 Home Studio Analogies Corner

  • That’s not a bad idea at all, Stephan.

  • Nice, Jimmy! That’s the best way to burn it into your head. Try it out! Nice work.

  • Terry Nelson

    Live sound ‘engineers’ – are you reading this and taking it in? No more ‘boom-boom’ and ‘toc-toc’ for 15 minutes, please 🙂 Mix-in-context – it needed to be pointed out. Good job, Joe.

  • Arun S

    A little about me. I’m a composer for short films and documentaries and jingles. I also am working on a studio album with various artists. And YES, eq-ing and tweaking in Solo does not make sense unless it sits perfectly into the entire mix. I usually switch between solo and solo defeat. Another way of working around this would be to mentally imagine the sound you expect in the entire mix, and keeping an aural image of that, try to tweak the sound closest possible. Either way, switching to the main mix, to check if that is done, is imperative.

    Agree with Joe. 

  • this is interesting. I started as a live sound engineer and moved to recording. In live sound I almost always EQ’d with the solo. Whether right or wrong that’s the way I was trained (especially if I was mixing monitors). I guess that habit came naturally when I moved to recording. Now I probably won’t beat myself up to much when my EQs all sound awful in the mix after half an hour of straight EQ work

  • i used to mix with everything in the mix never solo when EQing now i solo and do minor EQing on every track to take away harsh frequencies and then everything i do is in the whole mix, but to try and get there without soloing would take forever! 
    this is the first and only time i have ever disagreed with you, haha. EQing before you mix the MIX is huge for me. just to clean up each track to its best quality, most of the time it won’t need anything because I’m smart with mic placement and room choice, but yeah, first time I’ve ever disagreed..

    • I’m not saying I don’t solo when I’m EQ-ing EVER. But I only do it to briefly identify frequencies, then back to the full mix.

      The problem with what you’re saying about taking away ‘harsh frequencies’ is that just because they’re harsh in solo doesn’t mean they’ll be harsh in the mix.

      I’ve done that before with electric guitar tracks. I solo’d each one and did a cut around 3-4 kHz because it sounded harsh. But then when I played it back in the mix, all the electric guitars sounded dark and lifeless. What’s “harsh” in solo might be perfect in the mix.

      • oh by harsh i mean frequencies that when you boost them they feed back, and then i just do a wide cut no more than 1-2dB  does that make sense? its mostly on acoustic guitars, and vocals… 

        • I guess I’m not sure what you’re talking about exactly. Are you talking about mixing live sound? Otherwise, I’m not sure how you’re getting feedback in your studio. 🙂

  • Mike Jackson

    I started in the world of live sound.  My mentor always drilled it in to me that I should always EQ a track in context with the rest of the mix and never in Solo.  In addition to all the reasons others have given for using the Solo button (noise, etc.), I would add one more.  Sometimes in a busy mix I use the Solo button to help me “find” an instrument’s sound in the mix.  Once I hear the sound of the specific instrument, I un-Solo and EQ from there. 

  • NICE! It’s definitely more difficult to EQ in the context of the mix, but you’ll get the hang of it. Let us know how it goes!

  • Gary Flanigan

    The solo button is useful mostly for correcting problems with tracks, such as noise, hum, leakage (sometimes).  So it is not entirely useless .  But you are on the money when you suggest it is a bad  practice to EQ solo tracks.

    • Absolutely. Solo is an invaluable tool for a lot of things.

  • There’s no formula for order. I tend to EQ the most prominent things first. Lead vocals, kick drum, snare, bass. But sometimes things DON’T need EQ. Remember, you shouldn’t EQ just because you think you should. Some tracks may not NEED any EQ.

  • You’re finished either a. when the deadline is up or b. when you’re starting to go backwards, meaning, it’s going to sound worse if you keep working on it.

    • dierock enroll

      That’s what he did, Joe! He tweaked the kick until it sounded great (soloed, of course), played it back with the rest of the mix… and then he started over, using different plugins, etc. 10 months on a single song. Axl Rose’s got nothing on me.

  • Great Article Joe! I think you hit on a great point here that often gets overlooked. I had a guy mixing a project for me years ago before I had started studying this stuff and he solo’d every instrument and would be super stoked about the sound he got for the drums, bass, etc….but once you put everything together it was a mish-mosh of sh*t.  I like to pretend the sonic canvas is finite, when you have a simple work tape, like maybe an acoustic guitar and vocal, each thing can sound huge because they have to fill the entire canvas, but when you’ve got a bunch of tracks you’ve got to massage everything so that it works together, so inevitably when you pull out just the electric guitar, or just the keys, they’re going to sound wacky alone, but they are only a piece of the puzzle.  A great mix is all about the forest, not the trees. 

  • I was having a hard time with EQ’ing a snare the other day. The problem? The solo button was pressed. It didn’t matter what I did, It just sounded thin. So I brought up the whole kit, and then started making adjustments. What do you know? It worked and sounded great! I do know you shouldn’t solo while EQ’ing but sometimes I do it anyway for some reason or another! Bad habits are hard to break…

  • dierock enroll

    I once worked with a producer who spent 10 months (!!!) soloing and EQ’ing every single track in a three-minute song. He was supposed to have all this experience, so I let him do as he pleased out of respect, but all he did was solo and EQ… I did the same mix without soloing THAT much. I finished it in 3 days.

  • Anonymous

    EQ in the Solo Position!? No Way! Ok, once in a while, but Only if I can’t find the solution. Occasionally I find that a certain frequency is obnoxious, If I can only find which track it is on, but can’t get it right, I will solo the track and sweep it with a very narrow Q to find the exact problem area. Then, I put the whole mix back up and widen the Q on the problem track, if I can’t fix the problem with a wide Q and only a couple of db +/- gain, I record it again. The more I record and mix, the less often I have to bother with this, but it has helped me learn to use an EQ…