Interview: Producer/Mixer – Mike Hedges

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mike hedgesMike Hedges’ resume stretches pretty far, as you’d expect from someone with 4 decades of time in the music industry. As a producer and engineer, his credits are littered all over the place, from working with underground bands to mainstream elite, and even on movie soundtracks. Even the world of audio plugins has been shaped by his involvement with Waves Audio, resulting in the creation of the acclaimed NLS Non-Linear Summer. I had the chance to chat with Mike recently about his many years in the business, as well as about his work in the plugin world.

In addition to your work with lots of acclaimed UK acts, you’ve done a lot of international work as well. How do you go from working with mainstream UK names to being in demand internationally?

I think it’s experience. As of August 15th this year, I’ll have been doing this for 40 years. I started as a tea boy, moved on to tape-op and was producing 2 years after that.  I was very aware in my early years that the engineers and producers I was working with specialized in a certain field, and only did one type of music. I never wanted to do that.

Your discography shows that you’ve done a lot of work with both mainstream and underground names. Is there any reason why moving into the 2000s, there aren’t more consecutive albums with names you worked with in the 80s and 90s, despite them being popular?

I always used to say that 3 albums is more than enough with one artist. By the time you get to the 3rd, the familiarity involved with you and the band means you get stuck and do similar things to the last records. I did 3 albums with The Cure and 3 with The Associates. Then I went on to do a lot of records with Siouxsie and the Banshees, and it was at that point where I thought I had to mix it up a bit. You can get to become very good friends with the bands you work with; you hang out with them, go clubbing with them, etc, and the producer-band relationship breaks down along the way, which makes it harder to be tough on them and to lie; sometimes producers have to lie. So they know when you’re lying, and you can’t be tough with them, haha.

So there’s no commercial appeal in returning to working with a band like U2 when their album, “All You Can’t Leave Behind”,  sold 12 million and Texas’ “Greatest Hits” sells 3+ million?

I still stay in touch. There’s different reasons for different bands. With a band like U2, it takes a long time to do a record. As a mix engineer, you only get paid per track. Because such albums can involve a lot of producers, royalties aren’t plentiful either. Even though the kudos of working with really big names is fantastic, it’s not always the most profitable thing to do. Two of the smaller bands I’ve worked with are Manic Street Preachers and Travis, and I’ve frankly made a lot more money from working with them than the bigger names, because I get a higher percentage. They may sell 3 times less records than other bands, but when you’re getting 4 times as much, it makes a huge difference.

When you get to mix an album like “Texas 25″, how do you deal with the fact that their arrangements sound very sparse? Is it a struggle to inject life into arrangements that don’t have a lot of tracks to work with?

With Texas, it’s down to the playing. They’re good players, with a good rhythm section. They’re not the kind of band that’ll record a keyboard line and spend 3 days editing it. They play it until it sounds right; 2 or 3 takes tops. So they know how to make live music sound good. In addition, they’ll always have a get-out-jail-free card with Sharleen Spiteri. She’s one of the best singers ever. When she does vocal takes, every one is good. You don’t get a bad one. She might vary her technique on each take, but you’re not going to do 10 takes and try to find the good one.

With the studio version of “Inner Smile”, the vocals are very upfront. Do you need to layer things up to get that, or is it about vocal technique?

It’s a lot of things. “Inner Smile” isn’t one of mine, I don’t think. But to get that, you need a great voice. There’s no processing involved; her voice actually sounds like that. It’s old school knowledge that when a great vocal is involved, you could strip the backing to virtually nothing and it’s still a good track. With other tracks, when the vocals aren’t strong enough the music has to carry the track. I generally don’t work on that type of music though.

You’d mentioned that working with big bands can take time. Was there pressure when you worked on U2′s “All You Can’t Leave Behind”?

There was a lot going on, and a lot of producers and mixers were involved. I became involved fairly close to the end of it. One of things that can happen when a band is nearing the end of their album is that artists start rethinking tracks. They may have recorded the track months earlier, but when things get to the mix stage, other tracks might start to sound better to them. So the band will just scrap a track and re-record it. One evening we were all sitting at the dinner table with another mixer, and U2 got up said “We’re off to do a backing track” to particular song they were redoing. The other mixer turned to me and asked “What did they say?“, and I said “‘they said they were going  to work on that track“, and he said “I’ve been mixing that for 3 weeks….” So they’re not scared of throwing things away and redoing them.

You also worked a bit on the “Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire” soundtrack. How did that come about?

Well, that was unusual because it was only a part of the soundtrack. I brought in the band that’s playing live at the end of the Yule Ball. Two of the members were from Radiohead. Lead guitars was Jonny Greenwood, and the drummerwas Phil Selway. The songwriter and vocalists was Jarvis  Cocker, from Pulp. They can actually be seen playing in the final version of the film, though wearing heavy make-up.

How much does mixing a soundtrack differ from commercial music? If I’m not mistaken, soundtracks allow for more dynamic range than music made for radio, right?

Absolutely. Mixing for radio nowadays allows for almost no dynamic range. You can look at the stereo file and tell that it’s mixed for radio. One of the reasons that movie scores focus on having such dynamic range is the sound system it’s coming through. Movie theaters have some of the best, high-end sound systems in the world. You can almost feel the low-end at 20-30 cycles. So the sound can go from nothing to very loud, all of which makes the music integral to the film. If you turned the music off, you might not even be able to follow what was going on.

Having dabbled a bit in film, it wouldn’t be my favorite thing to do.

Why is that?

Because there’s too many people involved, and too many have a say, which means that the goal-posts keep moving. With that said, the producers on “Harry Potter” in particular were absolutely masters of their craft, which made working on that fairly simple. But on other projects, you make the music, and they come back and say “I’m not sure….could you make the music fit the voice of the guy on the other end of the telephone that you can’t hear, who’s not sad, but not happy, but somewhere in between?“. So you make another piece of music, but then they say “It’s too unhappy now. Could you change it?“. And it goes on. One particular piece of music for a film that will remain unnamed was done 27 times. It’s pointless to me, and all because no-one could make a decision, because there’s so much money involved in projects like this. When they need to be worrying about the music, they don’t, and when it’s finally almost done, no-one can make their mind up.

What a lot of film companies want these days is big sync anyway. It’s all about syncs: tracks that people know and love. Legacy songs that we’ve all known since we were young, and modern songs that are big hits. So they’ll spend $100,000 on the score, and $400,000 licensing songs. It’s a funny business. Not really my field, and I’m too old for it now. If I did another big film, I’d probably be dead before it was done anyway, haha. That’s how long those things can take.

Haha, I understand. Let’s move on to talk about your famous recording console. You own the Mark IV. Do you have experience using the other 3 Mark desks?

I have. The Mark I has very limited EQ, made up of bass and treble shelves, and was built as a follow-up to the REDD desks at Abbey Road. Actually, it wasn’t that popular with engineers at Abbey Road because it used germanium transistors instead of valve ones. Had they tried to build a bigger valve desk than the REDDs, it would have only overheated. I guess you could compare it to someone who’s used to working on analog consoles, and forcing them to work on a digital one. I’m not a fan of digital consoles myself. It’s just the way I’m trained. I’m used to tape compression and driving consoles. To suddenly have everything be about not being able to clip is too different for me, and takes your mind off what you’re meant to be doing, which is listening to the music. Instead, you’re distracted by meter watching, which you wouldn’t have to do nearly as much with analog consoles, simply because if you overload tape, you can hear it. To make a Studer machine clip is fairly difficult, and even when it does clip, it’s not always unpleasant.

The Mark II had a lot more EQ. The adjustable frequency options molds the way you think about instruments. The bass is 80Hz, which is close to the low-end of a bass drum. The mid’s are 160Hz, which is the low-end of a bass guitar. 240Hz is the low-end of a snare, and then you have 1Khz, 2Hkz and 3Khz , which are the high-end of a bass drum, the edge of the snare, and vocals. So it limits your choice of frequencies, and forces you to think of mixing in a certain way. It also had an adjustable “Presence” knob for mids and highs, with broad Qs.

The Mark III was pretty much the same as Mark II, but with more channels.

The Mark IV was based on the Mark II, so they have the same mic channels. But it has more EQ, with more bass frequencies.

Have you found that the desks differ in sound when mixing things on them?

It was only the Mark IV that came into it’s own, I think. The Mark I, II and II were very basic consoles. The IV had compression and limiting on every channel, and had more routing options. You could still use it today to record and mix.

You mentioned in an interview from 1998, that the Mark IV has a shorter signal path than an SSL desk, which leads to a less coloured tone, which you preferred. Do you tend to avoid coloring your sound? Isn’t that something a lot of people strive to do?

Well, a lot of people today go on about tube mics and outboard gear being the best in the world. But things have changed. In the early days, we had tube equipment and not much else. When decent microphones like the 47 FETS and 87s started coming, we preferred those. The reason I think many people today think tube gear is the holy grail is because their chain is so colorless. Digital has no color at all.

You once said in another interview from the 90s that you’d never use a hard disk to store music, because it wasn’t superior to tape at the time. Can you talk about working on tape was and what you think of it today?

I remember a tech engineer at Abbey Road saying “24-track will never become popular. We’re currently using 16-tracks with 2-inch tape. Why would you cram another 8 tracks onto the same master tape and lose 30% of the overall quality?”. He was right in his assessment, but the change still came about because people’s need’s for additional multi-tracking was greater than the preservation of sound quality.

When you’re working on tape, you use it to your advantage. You don’t just set everything to -3db. You actually record the bass drum to tape, listen to it and then push the level until the compression is just right. So you’re adjusting your levels based on the sound, and you do that with each individual instrument. So when you’ve set your levels and the band starts to play with increased intensity, the overall sound changes. That doesn’t happen on digital.

If a band came to me today and asked me to record them, I’d ask “Can we record everything to a 16-track and then transfer into Pro Tools?“. It simply sounds better.

Out of curiosity, if you were to run stems from Pro Tools through a 16-track tape machine, would that give you a sound similar to if you’d record straight to tape?

Technically yes. But the difference is that the band can’t adjust their playing the tape compression. Under normal circumstances, they’d play a take, come into the live room, listen to it and make adjustments. That wouldn’t happen in this case.

This might seem like a random question, but can I ask what are your thoughts on double-tracking guitars? I’ve seen it done recently, and it sounded to me like layering up sounds in this manner can actually be counter-productive, because things become mushy and lose clarity, instead of becoming bigger and more upfront.

Absolutely. It’s the law of diminishing returns. You start getting problems with harmonic distortion and phasing, so you start losing clarity after a point.

I have a trick I’ve been using for years that I can share now that I’m nearing retirement. You record one guitar through 3 different amps. One amp is clean, the 2nd one is driven a little, and a 3rd one is smoking hot, usually in a separate room. You can then use the clean sound during the verse, and when you hit the chorus, you can slide in the distorted one, and so forth.

Another technique I use is to mic up the actual guitar where the player is playing, so you can hear the pick hitting the strings, which is great for adding nuance to the recording.

Awesome! Thanks for that. Let’s wrap up by talking about your work with Waves. I’m a big fan of the NLS plugin.

I’m glad you like it. I think it’s amazing. Waves spent a year on that. We tested every single channel on the original desk, and then Waves said that they’d changed the algorithm, so we had to test everything again, which it took a long time. The first time I heard the plugin, I was working in Stratosphere Sound, on an SSL. I was sitting in the back of room, vaguely jet-lagged, and one of the engineers said “Let’s try the NLS out“. He ran 32 channels of audio through 32 different Mike channels, and just for a second I thought I was back in my room; no joke. I’m really happy with how it turned out. Many live engineers have said to me that they love using it, as it makes things sound more 3D and knits things together.

Are you a fan of other Waves products?

I couldn’t live without C6 Sidechain. I love it. Their reverbs are great too, and I use one of their basic EQs all the time. Soundshifter is fantastic. I like it for tuning things., especially vocals and strings.

SamInterview: Producer/Mixer – Mike Hedges

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