Pre-Emptive Shh: On The Power Of Muting


“It’s what you don’t hear, more than what you hear, that makes something clear.
It’s the absence of junk.” – Steve Duda

In music production, I’m often busied with everything I can hear, rather than everything I can’t hear. I get carried away—in mostly productive ways—with the details of what’s sounding in the mix: 

Is that part clear?
Is that noise too loud?
Is that effect audible in just the right way? 

I make what feels like endless adjustments to the sounds in relation to one another, bringing this sound up and that one down, or that one up and keeping this one as is. I make these adjustments in cycles of adjustments over hours, days, and weeks, moving around the mixes in deliberate passes, but also sometimes jumping from one part to another, putting out sonic fires. Ever so slowly I’m bringing each of the hundreds of elements in each track into better alignment. As far as refining what can already be heard, this method works, as long as you have enough time to get the mix’s relations as close to ideal as you can tolerate.

The problem with this approach though, is that it proceeds from what’s sounding, rather than from what isn’t sounding. Put another way: sometimes you don’t know what you aren’t hearing until you begin muting most of what you are.

At this point in the production process, since I have ample material to work with, my task is not to expand on it anymore but rather compress it by making it do more of what it can with less of what it is.

Recently I was listening to a breakdown section in one of the pieces, busying myself with making some ever smaller adjustments to one of the bass parts: 

I’ll just up the level of the white noise on it to bring it out a bit…

The bass was sounding better, but something about the moment was becoming irritating—as if I had too much of a good thing, or I had lost track of what was important. The bass wasn’t the only sound in this section: there was also a drum part, some hi hat pulsations, a pad floating in and out, and the marimbas. Actually, there was quite a bit going on—and that was precisely the problem. I wanted the music to do more with less. And then, I had two thoughts:

How about I just mute the bass completely?
And also the drums?

I muted the parts and suddenly the section was more interesting—it was better in every possible way. 

I didn’t want to believe that the section sounded better with less, in part because of the sunk cost-induced feeling of having worked on something that I was now eliminating. So just to make sure, I listened a second time with the parts back in, then a third time with them out again. 

It’s unmistakably better without bass and drums.

I was re-learning muting’s timeless lesson: 

when you mute a part,
another formerly half-hidden part jumps to the foreground.

To my ears at least, the effect of this tiny adjustment on the music was immense. I wondered if there were places in all of the tracks where I have too much material, sections that could benefit from being pared down via muting, music production’s pre-emptive shh. Next week I’ll look for things to mute, compressing the music so it can do more of what it can with less of what it is. Then I wrote in my notebook, all caps:


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