January 13, 2024
Mike Hillier has a career spanning almost all elements of audio engineering. Beginning as a journalist at Music Tech Magazine, and working his way up from night receptionist at Metropolis Studios, where he now works as a mastering engineer, Mike's career has taken steps into touring sound, lecturing, recording, mixing and even analogue equipment building and repair. Lately he has been heading up Metropolis' immersive audio suite, mixing in Dolby Atmos and Sony 360RA, and developing new techniques for immersive audio mastering.
I've been fortunate enough in my career to work with some amazing artists on some really incredible songs. One of my absolute favorites for a long time has been a little-known early EP, from 2013, by Sophie Jamieson titled "Where". I think it was off the back of this EP and subsequent recommendations that I was able to work with so many musicians from the London folk scene around that time, and which eventually led me to working closely with Josienne Clarke on "A Small Unknowable Thing" and "I Promised You Light" and two up-coming projects, who is a phenomenal talent. Whilst some people were initially skeptical of "Atmos", I've always been fascinated by surround sound, and so when the immersive suite opened at Metropolis I was among the first few engineers to dive in, and initially at least, the only mastering engineer at Metropolis to do so. To begin with I was only getting a couple of singles, and live versions to work on, but eventually I got to work on the "Never Enough - Studio Version" EP for Disclosure, which I'm told was heard by Simon Green aka Bonobo and was the reason I was asked to mix his most recent album "Fragments" in Atmos. From there things have really taken off and I find myself increasingly in the immersive suite rather than my usual stereo mastering room.
Whatever the job, my role has always been to try and convert the idea that is in the artist's head into sounds coming out of speakers in a room. I'm very much more of a technical engineer rather than an artistic one, and so I'm not trying to impose my own vision on anything. I think that's why I eventually gravitated towards mastering. Working in immersive is a little different, and does allow me the freedom to be a little more creative, but my goal is still to realise the vision that exists inside the artist.
Like, I imagine, everyone in this industry; music has pretty much always been a massive part of my life. I remember as a kid owning a dual-cassette recorder with a built-in microphone. I would wander around the house recording as many different sounds as I could, whether that was my own piano performances, the toilet flushing, or my uncle snoring. But I didn't think I thought I could make a career out of it until much later. I was always a nerd at school, and I think everyone expected me to go into science or computing. Instead I opted to study psychology at uni. Which is where I found myself doing my first bits of audio engineering - I did front-of-house for the uni theatre company, helped out on the uni radio station, and was editor of the university magazine (despite the school being best known for its journalism course!). It was this extra-curricular stuff, which led me to get a job straight out of university at Music Tech Magazine. And in turn, it was writing at Music Tech that led me to believe I could make a career out of audio. So, obviously, I quit the magazine, and moved back to London to get a job at a studio.
On my first day working as a night receptionist at Metropolis, so long ago I care not to mention, I was sat late at night watching Arsenal v. Wigan on the tiny TV, when Ronnie Wood came in. He was working in Studio E with the Stones, but rather than go up to the studio he asked if he could watch the game with me and sat himself down behind reception to watch. He was incredibly friendly, and for 45 minutes or however long we sat watching the game and chatting as if we were old friends. It was an incredibly surreal experience. At one point Mick Jagger lent over the balcony to ask the score, and Ronnie nudged me and said, "you tell him." Instinctively knowing it would mean more for me to speak to Mick than him. At the end of the night just before they all left, Mick and Ronnie stopped by reception again for a quick chat. This was my first day! That was when I knew I was here to stay.
The most difficult thing I found early on in my career was knowing what the right direction for something was. I spent quite a lot of time learning how to do various techniques, how to use various bits of equipment, etc. But knowing which technique to use, which piece of equipment. That stuff took me a long time. I remember spending a lot of time just doing A/B comparisons of different EQ curves or compression settings, and often not having a real idea of which one sounded "right", or when no further treatment at all was necessary. These days I don't even touch a piece of equipment until I already know what it is I want it to do. That way you know in advance what you want it to sound like, and so you know it as you try to get there if it is right or not.
My mastering chain changes with almost every project. Some mixes need a lot of processing, and others just need a tweak. Some mixes sound best through a variety of analogue equipment, and others sound better done entirely in the box. The concept that any one piece of equipment, or plug-in, has to be on everything goes against the way I work, and think. It's also quite rare for any new tools to make their way into my go to list. Probably the most recent processor to do that though was the Newfangled Audio Elevate limiter. I tend to work with two limiters, and use some combination of Ozone, FabFilter, Sonnox and UAD Precision to get the sound I want, but with Elevate I found I could do something different. It has some really interesting and quite complex multi-band processing as well as expansion built-into it, which on the right track can get me a level of punch that I couldn't easily get with any of the others. So that's been a bit of a revelation.
I think you'd have to be mad to pursue a similar path to mine. But the big takeaway would be to keep an open mind and follow every lead. I think if I'd just set out on day one to become a mastering engineer I wouldn't be where I am now. I got here via a circuitous route, but that was what made me the engineer I am, and is why I was able to go from mastering in stereo to mixing and mastering in Atmos and 360RA so easily. There are dozens of avenues open to explore within the audio world, I've walked down quite a few of them, but there are still many more I haven't explored at all, which may end up being one of the paths you take.
In the stereo world headphones are tools I only really turn to for very specific tasks, such as de-clicking. I prefer to work almost exclusively on the main PMC monitors in my room, and only rarely even check things on near-fields. When working on immersive formats headphones become as important (some may even argue MORE important) than the speaker mix. My back of an envelope suggestion is that 95% of listeners to immersive music, are doing so on headphones via the binaural fold down. It's probably even more than that. So making the immersive mix sound incredible through the speakers can't be the end of the job. You absolutely have to make sure that it also sounds incredible on headphones.
The Audeze LCD-XC's are at the very centre of everything I do in the immersive room. For now at least almost all of the consumers listening to Atmos mixes will be doing so on headphones. So whilst I may get to enjoy a room with 24 speakers, I need to know that the mix will translate onto headphones. I've tried a number of different models, and I have several options in the room at any one time. But the LCD-XC are my favourites, and the ones I like to hand to clients whenever they come in. I also have a pair of LCD-X in my mastering room, and a pair at home in my garden mix room. I don't use them on every project like I do when working in immersive, but they are incredible at helping me to see inside a mix when I need to. Especially useful when trying to de-click or de-noise something.
Having a pair of LCD-XC headphones as my primary reference headphones when working, especially in Immersive Audio, has given me the confidence that what I am mixing is going to translate in binaural onto as many other headphone systems as possible. Binaural is such a new and fascinating world for the consumer, and different headphones will all produce a different sounding result. This means that as well as listening to the music on as many popular headsets as you can get your hands on, that it's important to have a flat reference set that you can simply trust. It's no use making a mix sound great on one brand of headphones, if the consequence is it sounds terrible on another. There has to be a reference set, and the Audeze LCD-XC's are that for me. The LCD-XCs are used on everything I mix here, so if I've been involved then it's been using the LCD-XCs. This includes Calvin Harris & Ellie Goulding's recent number 1 single "Miracle", and albums for Geese, Claud, Yaeji, Ben Howard & Slowdive.