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less is more, don't be afraid to mute tracks.

Discussion in 'Recording' started by hargerst, Dec 16, 2001.

  1. hargerst

    hargerst Active Member

    Jan 28, 2001
    I was on Al Schmitt's forum and I noticed one statement which really caught my attention, and I wanna quote it, and then talk about the implications. He said,

    "After the orchestra finished, we do some solo overdubs with flute and harmonica (which we end up not using) as well as vocals."

    This simple statement "(which we end up not using)" is what separates most of the great recordings from all the home brew stuff. YOU DON'T HAVE TO USE ALL THE TRACKS ALL THE TIME.

    Most bands (and a lot of home studio people) think of all the cool stuff they can put into a song, but pretty soon, the song is so full, there's no way to build, or change the dynamics.

    Don't be afraid to mute a track, or leave it out entirely, if it doesn't really add to the power of the song. Most verses don't usually need the full power of a chorus.

    Can you mute 7 (of the 8) guitar tracks you've recorded just for the verses and bring them in during the chorus instead? Maybe just 2 guitars for the first chorus and add more as the song progresses? Maybe drop out the bass and/or drums for the first verse? Save the guitar noodling for the second verse?

    One of the great exercises I show beginning engineers and people that wanna be producers is to chart one of their favorite songs. Listen to the song and then write down (on a separate line) each instrument you hear in the song. A typical list might look like this for a country song:


    Acoustic Guitar
    Backup Vocals
    Steel guitar
    Electric guitar

    Now, breat the song down into all the sections:

    Instrument:......Intro Verse-1 Verse-2 Chorus-1 Solo Verse-3 Chorus-2 Outro

    Acoustic Guitar X.....X.....X...........X
    Backup Vocals.....................X......
    Steel guitar......................X.....X
    Electric guitar...................X.....X

    Put an X in the appropriate part of the song when you hear the instrument. (The X's are supposed to all line up in their appropriate section, but my type font desn't work right - you get the general idea). It might surprise you to see how dropping out instruments during various parts can add to the dynamics of the song.
  2. Ang1970

    Ang1970 Well-Known Member

    Sep 5, 2000
    testing... how does this look?
  3. hargerst

    hargerst Active Member

    Jan 28, 2001
    Originally posted by Ang1970:
    testing... how does this look?Yes, thank you!! Something like that. When you chart out the instruments for real, you'll usually see a buildup in the choruses, then they'll back it down a bit for the verses, and maybe go for a big finish at the end.
  4. faganking

    faganking Guest

    You really do give great, practical advice (golf clap!). I learned a lot of amazing stuff as a producer, from the first engineer I worked with: Lincoln Clapp- Media Sound, NYC. We worked together for six years. I wrote a little story in a reply to a thread on George Massenburg's forum:
    Lincoln Clapp was an engineer at Media Sound in the seventies and eighties. I worked with him when I first started out as a producer; from 1979 thru 1985. Oh, man...so many great things I learned from Bob Clearmountain, Michael Brauer, Michael Barbiero and Lincoln.
    We had been working on a mix for quite a few hours. There were several people in the room. Big Neve. No automation. The engineer, Lincoln Clapp, suddenly reaches up and, with both forearms, pulls ALL of the faders down. I thought I was going to faint. I said, "What the ^#$% are you doing!?" He said, "Look around. No one is tapping their toes." I'm telling you...this is HUGE. And, awfully easy to put into practice.
    Another one of Lincoln's *tricks* was for us to get up and go around in front of the console and sit on the couch. There was a pair of these great A/R speakers sitting on the ledge. He would pick up two magazines and hand me one. We were to sit and page thru the zine while listening to the mix. Not really reading...not really listening. Sort of a 'Zen' thing (HA!). If something 'jumped out' at you...well, you get the idea. Works great. I do it everyday.
    Anyway...your topic brings back HUGE memory's from this same period. Lincoln would always start a mix for a few hours without me in the room. (after all...how could I be objective if I heard it from the ground up?) When I came in to listen invariably there would be many things muted.
    So...it took me all of this time to say, "yeah...mute stuff".
  5. Harvey, Absolutely!!!

    I've found that when I'm mixing a song and it just isn't grooving for me it often/usually helps to mute or significantly reduce the presence of a particular instrument - usually one or more of the plethora of guitars in a mix.

    I describe these kinds of mixes as just "heavy" or "thick". The life suddenly springs back into the song with the mute button.

  6. RandomGuest

    RandomGuest Guest

    Feb 10, 2001
    I love this stuff!!! One of the beauties of the success of hip-hop is the making the "breakdown" (i.e.: muting a whole lotta $*^t) as a legitimate part of the basic song form. I love to find ways to place odd little breakdowns into all kinds of music (four bars of just vox and congas, or two bars of just flute and tambourine, etc.)

    And for years I've been telling my clients the mix ain't done until it makes me dance. Not that i ever claimed to be the first with that concept, but i think i arrived at it independently - all my clients get a real chuckle when that final moment comes and i actually jump out of my chair: "He's dancing! We must have a mix!" :D

    And, by the way, re: your chart, Angelo. You've got waaaaay too much time on your hands! ;)
  7. sryan

    sryan Guest

    Great thread! And what a common pitfall with newer bands. "Somethings not right. Lets add some <insert favorite percussion instrument here>."

    I've also found this to be a very valuable concept if applied to EQ. Muting (by filtering) overlapping frequencies in tracks can really clean up a mix. I've especially found this to be true if the band isn't that tight to begin with.

    But Angelo, You have no vocals in the either Chorus...?
  8. Ang1970

    Ang1970 Well-Known Member

    Sep 5, 2000
    It didn't take that long, and it helps me learn how to use this office software. I had just discovered the table feature before reading Harvey's post, so thought I'd give it a try.

    syran, what are you, the songwriting police!?! We don't need no steenkin vocal in the chorus! LOL

  9. Nate Tschetter

    Nate Tschetter Active Member

    Feb 28, 2001

    While recording a singer/songwriter by the name of Paul Lewis, we were listening back to a number of percussion tracks and after awhile, it became quite tedious. He finally looked at me and said, "you know, this part is not necessary." And we eliminated the whole lot.

    Now, when facing an endless barrage of superfluous parts I ask myself and my clients "is this NECESSARY?" The first time they hear me say that, it really makes them stop and think. More often than not they say "no, it really isn't...let's move on." Then it comes to the point where if you have to ask that question, the answer is always no.

    Excellent topic, Harvey. I love "Zen Songwriting" conversations.
  10. Ang1970

    Ang1970 Well-Known Member

    Sep 5, 2000
    Originally posted by Nate Tschetter:
    "is this NECESSARY?" ...if you have to ask that question, the answer is always no.

    Satori at its finest! :)
  11. Brainwash

    Brainwash Guest

    I have had a little different experience with the other end of things. Being a musician being recorded by a producer. What I was laying down was drums and it was in a metal style of music. The engineer obviously wasn't a drummer. I was paying attention to every detail to make sure it was all right, affective and accurate. And he kept bringing that up saying it sounded really good (when I clearly totally botched up the double kick so it wasn't even a clear roll.... hell no one should rock out in the morning time when they just woke up!)He kept asking me if it was really important and I said...well yes it is. Well I finally just gave up after the insisting that he kept doing and well to this day when I'm discussing my performance on the cd and other people can surely tell there are errors.
  12. Brainwash

    Brainwash Guest

    oh yeah...and not all good music has to follow the verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus standard formula :p
  13. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Moderator (Distinguished Member) Resource Member

    Nov 25, 2012
    Akron/Cleveland, OH
    Home Page:
    @Kurt Foster @audiokid @pcrecord @paulears @Davedog @dvdhawk @kmetal

    I realize that this is an ancient thread, but I gave it a bump because I think it's just as valid now as it was then... perhaps even more-so?

    DAW's are wonderful tools... the ultimate samplers. We have the ability to record, at ultra high resolutions, more tracks than anyone ever thought possible even just 20 years ago.

    But, this limitless capability is a double edged sword... because there are those who feel that just because they can record 99 tracks, they very often do. But what are they filling those track up with?

    Are they tracks/performances that compliment the song? That have an integral meaning or purpose?

    Or, are they just "fluff"? Incidental sounds that aren't of primary importance... or those things that don't help to even support the song?

    If you think about what we used to work with, and what we achieved with 24, or 16, or heck, for that matter, even only 2 tracks, it brings home the message that more is most certainly not always better.

    Guys like Kurt have been saying this all along.

    I must admit that I do like the freedom to have enough tracks to do alternate takes, or to be able to hear one part against another - for example, using a variety of different guitar parts playing different arrangements or voicings, and being able to compare them, back and forth, to see which one works best... but that doesn't mean that I'm going to end up using all those guitar tracks...

    I suppose, in the end, it's all contextual, it's all project dependent... Perhaps there are projects that do require higher track counts, and if each of those tracks serves either a primary purpose or a supportive one, then by all means, use the technology to your advantage. But don't over-inflate a project just because you have the ability to.

    When I think about the music I love to hear, or the songs that I loved growing up... and knowing now how many tracks were actually used on those songs, it reminds me that quantity isn't the key... it's the quality of the performance(s) that counts.
    And very often, that quality can be found in a song with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and vocal, or a piano and vocal, or a solo cello...

    Without a doubt, there are also songs I love that are more complex - songs by artists and bands like Alan Parsons, Todd Rundgren, Pink Floyd, Queen... but even for as complex as some of the songs that those artists recorded were, the parts that were recorded served a purpose... they did something good for the song... they belonged there.

    By all means, use the modern technology and tools to your advantage... just try to remember that the song itself is what is most important, and, if there are parts that have been recorded that don't serve the song, get the razor blade, and get rid of them. ;)

    IMHO of course. ;)


  14. kmetal

    kmetal Kyle P. Gushue Resource Member

    Jul 21, 2009
    Boston, Massachusetts
    Home Page:
    This sorta brings me to the old 'what do they sound like live?' Line of thought. A lot of really mediocore recorded songs come to a new level live, and vice versa.

    I think it's about making sure there is a purpose to the idea, unless it's a random just for the sake of it things. It's funny how people's desire to indulge a million ideas and tracks morphs, when they are paying for time, and when they are not. I think a lot of recordings on all levels, were deemed 'finished' simply because of a budget/time reasons. And maybe it's not a bad thing. Then there's the Bob Rock approach to the black album, which imo is a masterpiece of hard rock, and really just sounds like a band in a room, but took like a year, of obsession (not the perfume D ;)), and re tracks and re mixes.

    I think purpose and direction, are areas that could use some focus for a lot of people who are working exclusively alone. Also song arrangement is an often lost art, which is a big reason for all the 'what if' tracks on records.
  15. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Moderator (Distinguished Member) Resource Member

    Nov 25, 2012
    Akron/Cleveland, OH
    Home Page:
    IMO, arrangement is paramount.

    Things like having an actual bass line, as opposed to a guy playing bass that amounts to nothing more than what the guitar is doing, except an octave down, or a layer of 4 guitars all playing the exact same part... so often, a song can be so much easier to mix when there are defined parts that already separate parts from each other.

    If you listen to 70's funk/dance music, songs by bands like EWF or Kool & The Gang, those bass players had distinctive parts, bass lines that stood out, but that were still supportive of the groove and the song.

    Paul McCartney's bass work on songs like Paperback Writer or Penny Lane are both perfect examples of bass played with melody and counter melody, as well as counter rhythms - syncopation - yet still completely supporting the song on the whole.

    There was a time when there were actual arrangers who were hired to score music that was going to be recorded; Big Band music is an example, where master arrangers would come into the picture at some point- before the recording - and lay out the parts for the instruments to play.

    This did carry over a bit into some rock and roll, it can be heard by guys like Brian Wilson, or George Martin, but it's not as popular as it once was. And, I'm not sure that those kinds of arrangers are as necessary on "rock" songs as they were on songs that had horns and strings, but still, someone has to lay out the song in an arranged form. There are exceptions, of course... I don't believe that bands like The Ramones needed a "dedicated" arranger, but I'm willing to bet that someone still took over the reigns at some point and said "okay, let's make that next chord a G"...

    These days, we do have the ability to arrange - or even re-arrange - a song through a copy-paste-cut editing, and, we can even change the pitch of notes and chords,too. But IMO, that's not the same thing as having a song already laid out, with the songwriter or the producer saying "can we make that last chord a Major 7, and can we have the bass player put a 1st inversion there instead of the tonic?"

    All that being said, I'm by no means against those spur of the moment, "magic" parts that can happen.

    Over the years, a lot of very cool stuff has been thrown in impulsively, and much of it has worked wonderfully - that's the cool part about working with musicians who like to stretch out a bit. I live for those sweet - but all too rare - moments to happen. Although, by the time we heard the song on the record or on the radio, we weren't hearing all "those moments" that didn't work. I'm positive that there's a gigantic hole that exists somewhere, with a sign in front that says "please bury all clams here".
    And in that hole, are all those musical "spur of the moment" ideas that sounded terrible. LOL

    Also, rehearsal is becoming less prominent. I remember recording bands that had their songs down, and it was pretty much just me getting tones, moving mics and hitting the record button... but there were many who would often use studio time to rehearse, or even worse, to write the song, and generally, it sounded like that's what they did.

  16. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

    Feb 7, 2014
    Lowestoft - UK
    Home Page:
    I'm very guilty of filling up 'holes'. A song that sounds good, yet on the screen, nothing is really happening - big gaps, so I find myself filling them up, and usually I'm happy - yet if I fall over these old tracks later, I often have trouble making them play, because I might have lost a few of the wav files, or maybe the sampler I used for a few tracks isn't available any longer, but quite often, if I disregard the warnings of the missing features, it still sounds good, and I can't remember what the missing sax actually was doing. Sometimes I can see a guitar doing something, but it's very low in the mix that it's hidden.

    I wish I had the courage to leave the gaps. There is of course another reason songs are too busy. It's because people are paying, and when they spend their money, they mistake simplicity for bad value for money. Loads of tracks is complicated, takes time, so MUST be better!
  17. dvdhawk

    dvdhawk Moderator Resource Member

    Dec 18, 2008
    Western Pennsylvania, USA
    If you're struggling with the mix, uncluttering things is definitely a good way to back to the heart of the song.

    If you've hired me to mix your band live and your part isn't any good, or just muddying up the song, I do not feel compelled in the least to put you in the audible mix unless your wife/girlfriend is right next to me. (If you brought your wife AND your girlfriend to the same gig, I'm even less likely to put you in the mix because you've got bigger problems than the FOH mix).

    If you've hired me to engineer your recording project I may try a lot harder to shoehorn your part in there, because now it's for posterity. I might pitch my suggestion(s), and if asked will definitely tell you what I think (as diplomatically as possible). But in the end, it is your baby and you're paying me to capture your artistic vision, not mine. If there's a 3rd party producer this is their time to set up.

    If you've asked me to co-produce, that would free me up to voice more opinions about the arrangement side of things. But hopefully if muting tracks starts to bring the song forward, everybody will hear it the same and be able to put ego aside. But we all know that isn't always going to be the case.

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