Mike Hedges’ resume stretches pretty far, as you’d expect from someone with four decades in the industry. His production and engineering credits are all over the place, be it underground bands, mainstream acts, or movie soundtracks. Even the plugin world has been shaped by his partnership with Waves Audio to create the NLS Non-Linear Summer. I had the chance to chat with him recently about his many years in the business, as well as about his work with Waves.
Hi Mike. The list of bands you’ve worked with has extended well beyond local UK artists. How did you become so in-demand internationally?
I think it’s a result of being experienced in the industry. As of August 15th, I will have been doing this for 40 years, having started as a tea boy, graduated to tape operator and was producing for bands two years after that. I was very aware in my early years that the engineers I was working with only specialized in a certain type of music, and I never wanted to do that.
Is there any reason why there aren’t more consecutive albums with the names you worked with in the 80s and 90s, despite them being popular, like The Cure?
I always used to say that three albums is more than enough with one artist. By the time you get to the third, the familiarity between you and the band means you get stuck and do similar things to the last records. I did three albums with The Cure and three with The Associates. I also did a lot of records with Siouxsie and the Banshees, after which I thought I had to start mixing it up. It’s easy to become good friends with the bands you work with by hanging out with them, clubbing with them, etc, and the producer-band relationship breaks down along the way. That makes it harder to be tough on them and to lie; sometimes producers have to lie, but the problem is now they know when you’re lying (laughs).
Is there no commercial appeal in returning to mix for a band like U2 when “All You Can’t Leave Behind“, sold over 12 million copies?
I still stay in touch with them, but there are different reasons for different bands. With U2, it takes a long time to finish an album, but as a mix engineer you only get paid per track. Because albums like that 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 made a lot more money from working with them than the bigger names, because I get a higher percentage. They may sell three times less records than other bands, but when you’re getting four times as much, it makes a huge difference.
When 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 who record a keyboard line and then spend three days editing it. They play it until it sounds right – two or three takes tops. So they know how to make live music sound good. In addition, they’ll always have a get-out-of-jail-free card with Sharleen Spiteri. 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 ten takes and try to find the good one.
On 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?
“Inner Smile” isn’t one of mine, but to get that type of sound you need a great voice. There’s not much processing involved because her voice actually sounds like that. It’s old school knowledge that you could strip the backing to virtually nothing and a great vocal will still carry the track. With other tracks, when the vocals aren’t strong enough the music has to carry things. 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. A lot of producers and mixers were involved, and I was brought in near the end of the process. One of things that can happen when a band gets to that point is that the artists start rethinking tracks. They may have recorded a song 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 sitting at the dinner table with another mixer, and U2 got up said “We’re off to do a backing track for a song we’re 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 “But I’ve been mixing that for three weeks…“. So U2 aren’t scared of throwing things away and redoing them, even though that can create pressure for other people in the team.
You also worked a bit on the “Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire” soundtrack. How did that come about?
Well, I only contributed to a part of the soundtrack by bringing in the band that plays live at the end of the Yule Ball scene. Two of the members were from Radiohead. Lead guitars was Jonny Greenwood, and the drummer was 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 mixing commercial music? 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 tell by looking at the stereo file that a song was mixed for radio.
One of the reasons that a movie score focuses 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 Hz. So the sound can go from nothing to very loud, all of which makes the music integral to the film.
Having dabbled a bit in scoring film, I can say that it’s not my favorite thing to do. There are too many people involved, and a lot of them have a say in the film, which means the goal-posts keep moving. With that said, the producers on “Harry Potter” were masters at their craft, which made working on that film fairly simple. But on other projects, you might play your score for the producers and one of them say, “I’m not sure. Could you make the music fit the voice of the guy on the other end of the telephone, who’s not sad, but not happy, but somewhere in between? “. So you make another piece of music, but then he says, “It’s too unhappy now. Could you change it? “. And it goes on. I know of one piece of music that was changed 27 times…the film will remain unnamed (laughs). But things like that are pointless to me. And it’s all because no-one could make a decision because there’s so much money involved in the film. 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 released anyway (laughs). That’s how long those things can take.
I understand. Let’s move on to talk about your famous recording console, the Mark IV. Do you have experience using the other three Mark desks?
I have. The Mark I had 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. But had they tried to build a bigger valve desk than the REDD, it would have only overheated, so they opted for germanium instead. 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; I’m used to tape compression and being able to drive a consoles. To not be able to clip the signal is quite foreign for me, and it takes my mind off what I’m meant to be doing, which is listening to the music. Instead, I’m distracted by watching the meter, which I wouldn’t have to do as much with analog consoles, because I can hear if I overload tape. Also, making Studer tape machine clip is fairly difficult, and even when it does clip, it’s not always unpleasant.
The Mark II had a lot more EQ, and the adjustable frequency options were meant to mold the way you think about mixing. The bass shelf was at 80 Hz, which is close to the low-end of a kick drum. For mid-range, it had bands at 160 Hz, which is the low-end of a bass guitar and 240 Hz, which is the low-end of a snare. It also had bands at 1 Khz, 2 Hkz and 3Khz, which are equivalent to the high-end of a bass drum, the bite in a snare, and vocals. So the console limits your choice of frequencies, but forces you to think of mixing in a certain way. It also had an adjustable “presence” knob for mids and highs.
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 added bass frequencies.
Have you found that the desks differ in sound from each other when mixing 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 colored 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 talk about tube mics and outboard gear being the best in the world, it wasn’t always like that. In the early days, we had tube equipment and not much else. When decent microphones like the Neumann U47 and U87s started coming, we actually preferred those. The reason many people today think tube gear is the Holy Grail is because their chain is so colorless; digital has no color at all.
You said in another interview from the 90s that you would never use a hard disk to store music because it wasn’t superior to tape at the time. What are your thoughts on tape recording today?
I remember a tech engineer at Abbey Road saying, “Twenty four-track will never become popular. We’re currently using 2-inch tape on sixteen tracks. Why would you cram another eight 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 needs for additional multi-tracking was greater than the preservation of the sound quality.
When you’re working on tape, you have to use it to your advantage. You don’t just set everything to -3 dB and then record. You have to first record the kick drum, then 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. And even when you’ve set your levels, the band will eventually start to play with increased intensity and the overall sound will change, which you have to be prepared for. 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 sixteen-track and then transfer into Pro Tools? “. It simply sounds better.
If you were to run stems from Pro Tools through a sixteen-track tape machine, would that be the same as if you’d record straight to the tape machine, sound-wise?
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.
What are your thoughts on double-tracking guitars? Sometimes layering up sounds in can 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 when you layer sounds, and so you lose 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 three different amps. One amp is clean, the second one is driven a little, and a third 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.
Thanks for that. Let’s wrap up by talking about your work with Waves. Can you tell about the NLS plugin.
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 with the Mark IV – 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 sounds together.
Are you a fan of other Waves products?
I couldn’t live without the C6 Multiband Compressor. Their reverbs are great too, and I use one of their basic EQs all the time. Soundshifter is also fantastic. I like it for tuning things, especially vocals and strings.