Mike Harrison was one of 20 producers to attend the first BeatCamp. He runs professional mixing and mastering facility Apex Mastering and also produces electronic music as Calimba, winning the best track of the London Electronic Music Event for two years running.
We talk to him about the dark sonic arts and running a music post-production business…
How long have you been mastering for?
The business has been going for 2 years now – I can’t quite believe how quickly the time has flown by!
How and why did you get into it?
I’ve produced for many years and used to send tracks off to mastering with somewhat mixed results. I always found it hard to get any mix feedback from mastering engineers, and so when I got a disappointing master back, I didn’t know whether it was my mixes that were at fault or whether it was an unsatisfactory mastering job (or a combination of both). Therefore I decided to learn a bit more about mastering and booked myself onto Point Blank London’s dedicated mastering course. I studied under Milan Adamik (Masterworks, Sony) and really developed my critical listening skills and learned some incredibly useful mastering techniques over that time.
Mastering is often described as a ‘black art’, what exactly would you say the job of the mastering engineer is?
One of the key roles of a mastering engineer is to provide an objective second set of ears to a mix and in doing so identify what needs to be done in order to help the client achieve their goals for the track. From there, the mastering engineer needs to achieve balance (both dynamic and tonal) within a production so that it sounds optimal on all of the target audio playback systems.
After my previous experiences as a mastering client, I decided that I wanted Apex Mastering to have more of ‘partnership’ type relationship with clients. A great mix is the most essential ingredient of a great master and so sometimes I will suggest to a client that a better master would be achieved if there were a few tweaks made to the mix rather than trying to ‘fix’ issues during the mastering process.
Increasingly nowadays the mastering engineer will play a key part in the creative process: for some genres, the type and intensity of processing applied at the mastering stage can be a defining characteristic of the genre. It is also important to remember that the mastering engineer is the last person in the production chain who is able to effect change in the ‘feel’ of track.
What’s a typical day like?
I usually start a day in the studio with a listening session: I’ll begin with some reference tracks in the genre that I’m working in (often these are provided by clients but I have a few of my own favourites). I then listen back to the masters that I’d been working on the day before – it’s good to come back the next day with a fresh pair of ears. Once I’m happy with the previous days masters I prepare the audio files in the requested format(s) and send them back to the clients. I then get cracking with the current days masters…
At what point did you decide to start your own mastering business?
I started offering mastering services for free on social networking sites (such as Reddit) and after a while people started offering me money to master their tracks. Having your own business offers certain benefits when it comes to purchasing new equipment, which is very helpful indeed.
Is this something you’d recommend?
Mastering takes a lot of work and patience and is most suited to someone of a perfectionist (and slightly obsessive!) mind-set. Although it can be a lot of hard work, getting great feedback from a client is a fantastic feeling.
Do you find it difficult working with other people’s art and did it take a long time until you felt comfortable doing this?
To begin with it was terrifying – especially with projects that are going to straight to the CD manufacturing plant! Being the last person in the process before manufacture can feel like a lot of pressure. However, I work very closely with the clients to ensure that they are happy at every stage of the process and getting great feedback from a client really does help with the confidence going forwards!
What’s the hardest job you’ve had?
I love to work in all genres, but one recent project that I did find a bit of a challenge was an EP for a Norwegian death metal band for whom there was no such thing as too much distortion…
What equipment, software and toys do you use?
In terms of monitoring, I’ve just acquired a new set of PMC monitors which sound amazing – very unforgiving, which is what you need when mastering. I really love the UAD plugins – they have some great vintage EQ’s and compressors. Brainworx have some really nice mid/side processors that are often very useful in mastering. I also have the majority of the Waves plugins with their linear multiband compressor being a highlight.
If you were shipwrecked on a desert island what one piece of kit would you take with you ?
It would have to be my favourite compressor – the Elysia Alpha mastering compressor. I use it on nearly every track I master as it is so versatile and makes every track that passes through it sound ‘better’.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting into mastering?
Ensure that your listening environment is as optimal as possible. High quality monitoring is essential. It’s extremely important to get your listening environment properly acoustically treated – if your budget can stretch to it get a professional in to do some proper analysis and treatment.
There are some online services springing up now offering automated mastering – have you tried these out and what do you think of them?
I haven’t actually tried any of these but from what I understand they use some pretty advanced artificial intelligence learning algorithms that will continue to improve over time. So I imagine that in the future they could start providing some very stiff competition! However I feel that the one thing that they may struggle to achieve is giving feedback to clients on their mixes which is what will help their clients achieve better masters in the longer term.
Do you take special precautions with your hearing and do you insure your ears ?
I’m very careful with my ears as without them I’d be stuffed! I don’t often go to gigs nowadays, but when I do I make sure that that I wear hearing protection. I avoid too much headphone use and always try to listen at a low level. I don’t insure my hearing although perhaps I should!
You also produce your own tracks – do you find the two things fit together well?
Composition and production are two things that I’m very passionate about. The great thing about mastering is constant exposure to new music, which can sometimes be very inspirational when it comes to my own productions.
Do you master your own music?
I don’t master my own music as I really value having a fresh and objective set of ears listen to my track as they might spot something that I may have missed due to over-familiarity with my own track.
You have won the best track at the London Electronic Music Event for two years running. How do you describe your style and what do you think makes your work stand out ?
It was quite a shock to win 2 years in a row but a great honour. Pretty much all of my music is instrumental electronica. Perhaps for EDM I’m slightly unusual in starting my tracks with the melodic elements and then building the percussive and bass parts around them. I also like to play with time signatures and generally like a lot to be going on within my tracks – which can be a challenge when it comes to mixing!!
Where can we listen to your winning tracks ?
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring producers?
Learn to take criticism well especially if it is constructive and from a respectable source. It can be hard to take initially but if you’re getting feedback from people who’s opinion and judgement you respect then constructive criticism is essential in taking your music to the next level.
Mike will be at the next BeatCamp and Apex Mastering are offering discounted personal mixing and mastering services to all BeatCamp production teams.