Recently I saw many blog posts, tweets, shorter and longer articles that suggest the Solo button is against us, the use of it literally ruins your mix. The reason behind this is when you listen to something in solo, you take that sound out of context while adjusting it, then try to make it fit into the mix, and this is the wrong way they say. And there’s some truth to it. Some.
Solo is your friend
In my opinion solo is actually one of your greatest ally. Or to be more precise, it can be, if used wisely. For example during a fast paced sound-check the only way you can isolate and identify problem spots is to use solo. This is probably the most obvious usage. Nevertheless it’s an important one.
During mixing as we progress towards the final mix we tend to use solo less and less and this is a very natural progress. As every building block start to achieve its final sonic shape, adding to the final soundscape it would be a mistake to overuse solo. But don’t rush it. Until that you might need it more than you think.
During a big mix solo is the fastest and most precise way to properly identify problem spots, frequency build-ups, nasty resonances, clashing instruments, phase problems. With it you can quickly check suspected problematic things like hum, buzz or other errors.
But it is not only there for using as a magnifier glass for the smallest things like instruments. It’s also very useful to quickly check groups of instruments, effect balance, stem balance. If your mix utilise some audio sub groups based on certain selection of instruments, solo is a great way to re-set internal balances or just to remind yourself what parts are coming through a particular stem. At first this might sound a bit funny, but for example on a huge score mix with 7-15 stems and hundreds of tracks sometimes things are not that obvious.
When solo becomes your enemy
With all that said solo definitely can be your enemy. The most obvious thing is relying on it too often and too much. A common mistake to judge final eq and compression decisions isolated from the mix. It is almost always bad.
Fiddling with tiny things too much in solo also can lead to loose perspective. Solo tend to be addictive make us work on things until we feel they’re perfect. But remember, what seem to be perfect in isolation might fail miserably in context. The most common issues usually too much or too little of something. You might think that you achieved the most perfect, thick guitar or kick drum sound, until you hear it in context to find out that it’s too boomy and lack clarity.
The same in a score mix situation when the high strings has some mid-hi resonance. This example may seem a bit of an exaggeration but actually it is based on many real life events. The engineer hit the solo button on the first violin and find that it has a 2.3kHz nasty resonant sound so grabs the EQ and cut a healthy 5-6dB at that frequency and the nasty part of the sound disappears. But after the moment he releases the solo, it become obvious that the other violins has that nasty resonance too. In today’s DAWs it’s ridiculously easy to copy the first violin’s EQ to the other channels. The resonant frequency now eliminated completely. Well only to find out in the next few bars that he probably killed of too much mid-hi and lost the clarity of the whole violin section. If he would have EQ the violins in context, then it would’ve been obvious that a 2-3dB cut could eliminate the most annoying resonance while still retaining ample clarity.
I’ve seen fellow engineers to completely ruin otherwise perfectly fine effects fine-tuning them in solo. It’s so tempting to make everything smooth and beautiful, but it’s counterproductive.
To solo or not to solo…
Well, as in most other things the solution is find the right balance. Use it when it’s necessary but don’t overuse it. The hard part is to learn when you don’t need it anymore. It’s a moving target. Every mix is so different you can’t make a proper formula to tell anyone how much and how often it should be used. It’s bit like learning to walk, there’s no shortcut, we have to fall, stumble many times before we can safely walk. And still, there are certain days when we’d stumble on something no matter how careful we are.
Probably the best way to find the right balance is to pay attention and always evaluate the use of solo. That way it won’t be your enemy, it can become your great help in achieving the prefect mix.