The Humble Mute Switch

/November 15, 2014
Let’s face it, they’re not cool, they’re not flash, they’re certainly not new, and I think it’s safe to say everyone knows what a mute switch does. But when it comes to recording and mixing, mutes remain one of the least utilised tools in the shed.

And it’s easy to see why. They’re not exactly funky, complicated to use or compelling like delays and reverbs, and as a topic of conversation mute switches are right up there with federal politics and nappy rash as one of the most boring topics on the planet. Hell, I’m bored talking about them already…
But before you abandon this article, bear with me a sec.
Mute switches fall right into that ‘almost antiquated’ category of controls that too many engineers overlook – either because they deem them too simple, too boring or somehow out-of-mind/out-of-sight. But let’s be blunt here: to ignore this switch is to miss out on the benefits of one of the most powerful controls on any console.

Apart from acting as an automated protection mechanism or manual silencer for those occasions where an unexpected event takes place – a punter grabs the vocal mic at a festival or feedback flays your ears off in the control room – the humble mute switch performs countless other more creative functions.
In the studio mix environment it’s an epic switch, so epic I almost don’t know where to begin talking about it… seriously!
But let’s start anyway, not by listing off the obvious things they do –cutting single channels, groups, sends and returns etc – but by investigating how they can be used to maintain focus, and provide a deeper insight into where a recording or mix is heading. After all, most good recording sessions and mixes come supplied with healthy doses of fresh perspective at different points along the way; this method supplies it without taking a break or imbibing of caffeine.

Particularly when you’ve laboured over a mix for 12 hours, let alone two or three days, mute switches are brilliant at refreshing your perspective. When your brain goes foggy and your mix has turned to pea soup with croutons, yet you still can’t think of a single thing worth changing to spark it into life, mutes help rescue the situation.
Like a double shot espresso, mutes help you orchestrate new arrangements when things have lost their dramatic spark; determine which sounds seem lacklustre in a mix even when they sound great soloed; which mics on that three-mic guitar setup are adding nothing but phase artefacts to the mix; and where a sound really sits in the stereo image.
They speak plainly and bluntly about how good, bad or indifferent instruments really sound in the mix, unlike their rival control – the solo switch – which tends to flatter. And like no other switch on a console, mutes provide a clear perspective on a sound’s volume, particularly when you’ve grown immune to it thanks to too many hours at the helm.
By muting ‘Sound X’ for a brief period of time and then dropping it back into the mix, you can instantly appreciate whether it’s too loud, too soft, too dull, too wet, too compressed and so on. It’s essentially an A/B switch, providing the best clarification available to your tired mind.

So the next time you’re scratching your head about a main vocal’s volume for instance, try muting it for five minutes while you work on some other aspect of the mix. By taking the vocal out altogether while your focus is elsewhere, not only do you gain a fresh perspective on countless other aspects of the mix – dominant vocals in a stereo image can often mask other problems you never knew you had – later, when the vocal is returned to the mix, its volume (amongst other things) will suddenly seem obvious. Now the vocal is clearly too loud, too quiet, too dull and so on. It’s a fresh perspective akin to taking a break, but without the loss of precious time.
The mute switch is also a past master at aiding in the cleanup of soupy mixes by helping you determine which channels of audio are contributing to the confusion. By simply muting things from the mix and then reinstating them – either two seconds or two minutes later – it becomes obvious which channels are to blame for the mess. Rather than reaching for the solo switch (which isolates sounds from their context), a mute switch removes sounds from the mix, allowing you to easily hear if things grow clearer and more defined without them. It’s amazing how often you can unwittingly tolerate a woolly, inarticulate sound in a mix while crazily adding reverbs and hacking into everything with EQ in a vain attempt to add definition. If only you’d tried muting a few things first to work out which sounds were the guilty parties.
Mutes are also brilliant at helping you determine where a sound sits inside a stereo image. Like spotting a light amongst many on a distant hill, it’s easy to spot the one that’s switching on and off when all the others are static. And let’s face it: we all make mistakes. Panning automation anomalies, incorrectly applied aux sends and various other stuff-ups are easily revealed with a simple flick of a mute switch, often revealing that stray mic channel or extra duplicate you forgot all about in the confusion of mixing 150 others.

One of my favourite roles for the humble mute switch is when it acts as a ‘mute group’. Conspicuous on my Neve console as a row of bold red switches but rare amongst other consoles, a mute group is any combination of instruments you care to switch on and off as one. In a DAW environment a mute group is essentially no different from standard groups or VCA masters, except for the fact that that in some cases they might be some other more specific combination of odd-ball bedfellows that you wouldn’t normally group together.
I’ll often have mute groups made up of things like ‘kick drum and bass guitar’, ‘all the hard panned instruments’ or ‘everything that’s side-chained’… that sort of thing. Mute groups encourage you to listen to the mix in different way at the press of a button. It’s all about clarity of perspective.

During a tracking session, mutes are great for determining phase coherency, as well as establishing mic choices and balancing stereo image. It’s amazing what you can hear disappearing from a pair of speakers when that second or third mic you’ve setup in front of the electric guitar cabinet is added or removed from the group. Mutes help you quickly ascertain whether your mic positions are perfect, close, or way off the mark. And the longer you can remain critical of mic placement rather than content with their combined mediocrity the better.
So, don’t forget the mute switch! It’s powerful and informative, and keeps you on your toes. By all means keep this subject away from dinner party conversation lest your guests drown in their soup, but that’s no reason to ignore them at work.