Mike Cave, an engineer, mixer, producer and mastering engineer. Mike Cave is a man of several very well fitting hats. He talks to Russell Cottier about listening rather than watching what you are doing.
Mike Cave started out as a musician, cutting his teeth in Liverpool bands on guitar, keyboards and drums from the tender age of 12. By 15 he was already engineering sessions for his own bands and others in the area. Mike went on to study Music Theory at the London College of Music but he cites his real education as stemming from his band The Sunlites being signed to Mercury. This put Mike in the studio for two years with top class producers like Jeremy Wheatley, Mike Nielsen and Bacon & Quarmby.
Six years as in-house engineer in the prestigious Parr Street Studios, Liverpool followed. There Mike worked with heavyweight producers such as Ken Nelson (Coldplay) and the great Brendan Lynch (Paul Weller, Primal Scream). Moving onwards by going freelance Cave’s now certainly built up his fair share of clients, having a stream of diverse artists under his belt including Professor Green, The Coral, Elvis Costello, Noisettes, Tynchy Stryder, James Vincent McMorrow, John Martyn, Yuksek, The Charlatans, The Zutons and Echo & The Bunnymen.
Cave now has his own studio named The Loft, an old converted Manhattan style loft in the centre of Liverpool. Gold, silver and even multi-platinum records hug the walls as you enter. It was here that we met with Mike Cave, acclaimed mixer, producer and mastering engineer. He is a man of several very well fitting hats.
So what was the very first thing that you ever recorded?
Oh my God, we are going to go back to when I was a kid, I don’t think I got into 4 Tracks until I was about 12. It would have been stereo cassette and probably pretty shameful as well. [Laughs]. After my dad bought me a guitar for my 8th birthday, I was pretty swiftly into seeing what it sounded like recorded.
Did you do an apprenticeship? Where did you learn your craft?
To be honest with you my apprenticeship recording-wise was probably just from being in bands through my teens, doing demos and watching other engineers, how they were working and just picking it up as I went along. I was 16 when I started working as a tape-op at The Pink, a studio which is now called The Motor Museum, in Liverpool. That was my first proper tape-op job but I really just wanted to get into Parr street because outside of London it was really the place to be, they had two big rooms, a Neve and an SSL, and a few other little studios. I just annoyed them to death until they let me in the door.
So what have you been up to recently?
Well there has been lots going on. I’ve just finished mixing the new Noisettes record. Before that it was Tinchy Stryder and Professor Green. I’ve been mixing a brilliant new band called I Am A Camera who’ve just been signed to Columbia in the states, they’re going to be on fire next year.
So we are in The Loft, why did you set the studio up?
Well it was sort of out of necessity really, I was at Parr Street in-house and I was starting to get little freelance jobs here and there, but at some point I had to take the leap of faith and leave Parr Street. The type of jobs I was being offered were mostly Pro Tools jobs and bits of programming for other producers, it just grew from there. It was back in the day when we still needed big expensive studios to make quality records. The Loft was initially setup as a programming overdub space, however I soon realised how much could be achieved outside of the “big” rooms. I brought more equipment in and eventually, as you can see, it grows into something where you don’t need to be elsewhere really. I never did like having to book a room to do a job where someone else is booked in the next day, you are rushing to finish, up all night. It never made sense to me to compromise in that way. Having your own studio is just a lot more relaxed, a lot more flexible. There’s no going back for me in that respect.
Your monitoring setup is rather unusual; can you run us through what you have here?
Well basically I’ve got the Genelecs with a sub, so I have a full range from them. Obviously the things you would expect to see, NS10s, Aurotones. I have my mix bus going five or six different ways at all times to little things like this iPod speaker. I’ve got it linked to the TV in the lounge, it’s even going into my laptop where I have Garageband on input all the time, so I can quickly listen as i’m mixing. I work mainly on these little things with the odd reference on the big speakers.
I can just tell straight away when stuff’s not right on those little systems. I think beautiful speakers can fool you sometimes into thinking that things are all fine when they’re not. Sitting in front of a desk mixing away, I don’t listen the same way as I do when I am out of the studio, even just turning my chair around away from the desk I listen differently. It’s a subconscious thing, it is almost like you are listening to a record and you are not working on a record. I have to fool myself in to thinking I’m not actually in the studio when I’m working. Its not a natural environment and records tend to sound different once they’re out in the world. Even just walking out of the room for a little bit and listening to something playing back…it’s different perspectives isn’t it.
You have mentioned about working blind turning monitor screens off haven’t you?
Well yeah, I do a lot of that and the desk really helps because for a time I was actually using the mouse with a ProControl, and of course you rely on the screens a lot more. I find you slip into that zone of watching what you are doing rather than listening to what you are doing, there is definitely something to be said for that. I just try and limit my visual feedback. I want to be listening as much as possible, so I don’t really need to see all that information flashing away in playback. I don’t really need to see interfaces or plugins, I would rather just try and take that out of the equation and listen. That’s where the desk becomes a real bonus.
You have recently installed an ICON D-Control, why did you choose this console?
Well for me, aside from the hands-on benefits, it ties in with what labels and clients expect in terms of recalls. I think that once A&R have got onto the fact that you can recall mixes quickly, they don’t really want to hear that you can’t recall something because you are on another job. So I think it’s just a sign of the times that people expect you to be able to send another version of something the day they ask for it. You might be on another job doing something else but you can just take a 15 minute break to deliver what the other client needs. That sort of flexibility and speed doesn’t come with most other consoles and once you’ve learnt the finer details of how it works, it really does start to feel like your working on an analogue desk, but with all the power of Pro Tools. It’s proving to be an astoundingly good investment.
So you have 100% recall on this system but you also use analogue summing?
I haven’t got complete recall here, the desk obviously has full recall, which tends to be the main issue, but I use a lot of outboard gear as well. Some of this I’ll print back in to Pro Tools as i’m working, but my mix bus outboard gets stored the old school way and only take a few minutes to recall. The summing system is fantastic. I did loads of tests initially and tried every summing box under the sun just to work out what was going on with them. I ended up getting a bespoke system built which is integrated in to the patch bay, so I’ve got a 24 input passive summing system with a choice of amplifiers for different flavours and it works brilliantly. To my ears it sounds better than mixing in the box and I can’t quite give you the answer why that should be, but it just works. If there’s one area where this is really apparent to me it’s when using the mono inputs. So with things like kick, snare, vocal and bass it just sounds tighter, punchier, more coherent.
Do you mix from the vocal down or from the drums up?
Well 99% of the work that I am mixing is vocal led. Vocal is king with all of this stuff that I am doing so it’s always in there. I’ll tend to just leave it in Solo Safe so when I’m soloing other items the vocal just stays there and I can work around it.
Do you master many of your own mixes?
Yeah, over the last couple of years probably 90%, so a large chunk. I like to start mastering while i’m still mixing, adding what I call “mock mastering” to the mix bus. This just lets me hear what effect mastering will have on my mix. I’ll then go back in fresh, maybe another day and treat that as a mastering session. I’ll usually just master from the stereo mix file but now and again I’ll go back into the mix if there is something that I want to tweak. It’s good to have the flexibility of having the mix there if need be.
How much of your work is mixing?
About 80%. People are making records so differently now as you know. Many projects are started without an engineer on board, maybe sometimes without a producer, just artists getting on with it which is great. They’ve got plenty of time to record at home where they’re nice and relaxed and they’re capturing some amazing performances, but it’s just not recorded as well sometimes. So stuff comes in for mixing which really isn’t ready to mix and that’s where I come in with the additional production. These type of projects aren’t quick to finish, but it’s well worth the extra work once you get there with it.
When you mix is there backwards and forwards or is your word law?
No definitely not [LAUGHS] my word is not law. When I agree to take a job on, I am a real fan of picking people’s brains as to what they want from it. I love it when people send reference tracks as it really helps build a picture and makes sure we’re on the same page. I always ask to hear the rough mix. Thats what everybody’s been listening to and approving, so that’s my starting point. Most of my mix work is unattended, which can sometimes hinder the final tweaking process, so I’ve recently set up an online streaming system which allows the artist or client to hear my mix bus in real time as i’m mixing from the comfort of their laptop. There’s a talkback option and video link so I can be working with someone on the other side of the world and sort out problems quickly that would have taken about 20 emails.
What projects do you feel you have made the most contribution towards?
I’d say one project that would definitely fit into that category is the James Vincent McMorrow record. James tracked that record on his own with no recording experience whatsoever and he captured the most beautiful performances. When I heard the demos of what he’d done, they were just so magical I didn’t want to bring him back into the studio and record again, but in his words the sonics where a bit “shonky” It was too lo-fi for what we wanted to achieve. I wanted to keep the magic of it but bring the sonics up to scratch, so it made it a lot more powerful. So that was a lot of surgery in terms of not touching the performances, and letting them shine, but just reinforcing what was there to make it sonically a much bigger statement. But I’m really happy with how that turned out, it’s a beautiful record.
What is it that you think you bring to a project and that attracts clients towards you?
Within the mix engineer arena at the moment I think I approach things slightly differently. I’d like to think I don’t have a stamp although i’m more than happy to lead the way if that’s what’s required. A lot of discussion up front and a willingness to deliver exactly what people want. With a lot of mix jobs needing additional production, I tend to allow a lot more time than some of the other mixers. Basically constant communication to deliver what people need and then something beyond for that wow factor.
What keeps the spark of inspiration going?
It’s all about the music. That’s what I got into this for and that doesn’t ever go away. As long as people keep sending me music that I can vibe off then it’s never going to get dull for me. To be honest, the way I’m working, in my own studio, I’m enjoying it more than ever. The equipment is important, but i like to treat it as secondary so i can focus on the music.