A versatile, Emmy-winning mixer and engineer (and composer!), Guus Hoevenaars is a Holland-born producer who has had an enviable career in the industry. We chat to him about his experiences and his setup, as well as his advice for those planning on embarking on a similar career…
From working with the likes of Scissor Sisters, The Feeling and The Pierces to engineering the sound for Emmy-award winning TV shows. Guus Hoevenaars has experienced a great deal of professional success in his time behind the mixing desk.
His career has also taken him to many studios all around the globe, from working at Trevor Horn’s Music Bank, Jools Holland’s studio and Manfred Mann’s Workhouse Studios in London to co-designing and working out of A-list pop star haunt Soapbox Studios in Atlanta and now, taking up an in-house position at Newmarket Studios in Australia.
Along the way he’s worked with a vast range of artists in varying genres that spans jazz to pop and even classical. He’s also one half of electronic double act HVMNS.
Aside from music, Guus has composed for advertisements and been part of the Emmy-winning sound teams for acclaimed documentaries and TV shows. We talked to Guus about how he landed this most sought after of careers…
How did your interest in music production begin?
It began when I was young. I grew up in the Netherlands and I remember that one time when I went to a local radio station, I saw a mixing desk there and it was literally love at first sight. That triggered it off! I was about 13 then.
Musically speaking, at my secondary school my music teacher played The Beatles and Supertramp’s Breakfast in America which really opened my mind, because I didn’t really grow up in a household with a lot of music around. That was my first introduction to a broader scope of music.
My parents suggested I play an instrument early on and at 16 I started my own band. It was a pretty big, eight-piece outfit and from there I started getting more involved with music technology. We did our own arrangements and demos. I also started doing work for a local live sound company, eventually doing bigger gigs and arena-size venues, this really helped me in the studio later. From there on I went into music production.
What studio do you operate from now? Do you have a home studio and how did you set it up?
Yes I have both really. In my house here [in Melbourne] I have a studio room, it’s primarily a writing/mix-room setup. I did treat it acoustically, of course. Back in London I had a studio designed by famous acoustician George Augspurger.
He’s a legend and I learned a great deal from him about panel design and how to treat a room. When you are in the ‘near’-field it’s not that difficult to control acoustics as you mainly need to control first reflections.
Isolating your speakers from the floor is a must to clear up your mono-phantom image and low-end coupling. I can’t stand the look of those grey foam acoustic panels, so I always build my own panels – they look and sound better and are less expensive.
How would you define yourself, as a composer, a producer, an engineer or all of the above?
Well I wouldn’t really call myself a composer as such, though I have written music for television. I’m really a producer/engineer. It started with live audio production and that then led into my focus on music production.
When you compose for television, how do you normally begin that process? Do you look at the script?
Yes I’ll take a look at the script. I used to write for commercials primarily so the storyboard was an important factor too, if it hadn’t been shot yet. Otherwise I would talk to the director to get a feel for what they wanted. I find in general though, that you have to just follow what you think is right.
Of course you need to take onboard the nature of the project and what the brief is. In my experience directors don’t always know what they want and it’s a music journey for them so if you present something you believe in, it has a greater chance of succeeding.
When working on mixes for artists, do you seek them out or do they come to you?
That’s really a mixed bag. I do like to find people and work with them. When moving to a new country you will have to be proactive and find projects.
It’s not my most favourite thing to do as I’d rather be spending my time in the studio recording! For anybody starting out, I think it’s important to build a network around you. Go to industry events, start a band etc.
Technically speaking, what gear is the cornerstone of your setup?
My mind is always split in two things – one is production, the other is mixing. I have two separate sets of tools for those things.
When I am producing and working on ideas, sketching out songs and tracks with MIDI, virtual instruments and synths, I tend to start in Logic. When I’m producing a recording in the studio with a band I will either work on analog tape or Pro Tools. Monitoring-wise I’ll be using full-range speakers. When you get to the mixing stage and you haven’t checked the low-end and the phase etc then you’ve missed the boat.
When I’m mixing, I focus on the mid-range, hence smaller nearfield speakers. I use Dynaudio Air 6s and NS10s. Ultimately all my work will end up in Pro Tools.
So when recording, what are your go-to microphones?
Well, it’s interesting. Because I had quite a lot of classical training at the start of my career, I tend to think quite a lot about classical recording techniques. I use a lot of DPA stuff, 4006, 4011 & 4060 (which are incredible for the price).
I’ll use common microphones like various AKGs (D112 / D12 / D20) and Shure (SM57 / SM7) Royers, RCA for kit-mic’ing. Recently, Aston Microphones have come on the market and their Origin is great as an outside kick-drum mic.
The Aston Starlight’s are pretty awesome too. I have one stereo set and I tend to use them a lot on overheads, piano and even an 80-piece choir. I’ve used the Beyerdynamic M201 a great deal, which is a great microphone to stick on a snare or cut vocals with. On a budget I would buy a set of Starlights, a M201, a D112 an Aston Origin, and two SM57s. That would give me everything I would need to record.
For vocal microphones, I tend to use a classic Neumann U47, M149 – and the Aston Origin too, which is a very impressive mic for vocals. Of course I’ll use an SM57 on guitar or a Royer 121.
Do you have any mixing advice for those working with bands and artists?
When you haven’t recorded it yourself, and you’ve just been sent the mix, you definitely need to have a conversation to establish the creative intent.
My advice is to build a relationship with the artist. At the end of the day it’s their song and album. Listen to the rough mixes. But I guess the key advice really is just to be open. Also, don’t get offended by notes they might have, embrace it and explore the possibilities.
One specific tip: find a spot on your monitor volume control and mark it. You have to train your ears so that the low-end, vocal/band/track balance is at a certain level. Mixing is all about reference. Eventually you will understand what you hear in your own monitors and can make a good judgement. You also need to mix at a low level. I mix at about 73-75 dB. Why? Well our hearing responds to volume changes. The louder the source, the more low-end and high-end we hear.
Our ears love increased low-end and high-end as everything sparkles and sounds large. Basically if you mix quietly and have the right balance, your mix will only sound more open and get larger as the volume goes up. Visa versa your mix will become dull when you mix loud and turn it down. So you need to think about the physical mechanics of our hearing to make your mix sound better.
Could you tell us more about helping to design Soapbox Studios?
In London, I met a very accomplished producer/engineer called Darin Prindle who became a good friend. He is American and was in London for a project and he said to me, “Why don’t you come to Atlanta?”, so I did. He had an existing studio which housed post-production facilities as well as music recording facilities.
They decided they were going to build a new all-in-one music facility. So I got involved at that stage. I helped to design the various rooms and got involved with gear selection and treatment, that sort of thing.
We built two writing rooms and then a main studio room. All these amazing artists passed through Soapbox: Missy Elliott, P-Diddy, David Guetta, Bangladesh (Beyoncé), Novel (Leona Lewis), and many others. It was bliss. Cee-Lo Green had a studio next door so it was a real hub.
Which project that you’ve worked on are you most proud of?
That’s a tricky one. I’ve done quite a wide range of things. They all have their highlights really. I just produced a jazz saxophone solo album with an artist called Simon Pianta. I thought, “A whole album of solo saxophone? How are we going to do that?” It was a bit daunting, but doing weird things like that takes you out of your comfort zone and refreshes your views.
Of course I’ve worked with bigger names, such as the Scissor Sisters, and I’m very proud of that. I’ve mixed a few long-form television shows and films which have won Emmys, so I’m obviously very proud of that. The first Emmy was for a show called America: The Story of the US, I was one of the two sound mixers on that.
The other Emmy was awarded to a film directed by a very close, dear friend of mine called Deeyah Khan. She’s Muslim and has experienced a lot of prejudice. She is really fighting for Muslim women’s rights and in 2012 directed an acclaimed documentary called Banaz: A Love Story. It was great that this important work was acknowledged. I’m very proud of her and to have been involved in this remarkable project.
On the flip-side, what would you say was the most challenging project you’ve been involved with?
Because I’ve had an extensive background in production, recording and mixing, there’s very little that catches me out on the technical side, but when you’re in the studio working on other people’s music, emotions can run high, so I suppose what I find challenging is whenever there’s drama in a session.
You just have to say, “It’s OK, it’s all going to be alright.” It’s all part and parcel of being a producer – managingpeople, keeping everyone on the same creative page and keeping the train going.
Is there anything you’d like to do in your career that you haven’t done yet, or anyone you’d like to work with?
There’s loads of people that I’d really love to work with. I mean it’d be amazing to do a session with U2 or Coldplay! I think that artists like that really have such a vast knowledge of making music and, from what I hear, they really value producers as part of the process.
In general, I just like to sit in front of speakers, come up with a concept or an idea with whoever has the ability to be self-critical and cool enough to throw the lot out if it doesn’t work or keep working at it till it does!
Being in the studio is an addiction really and when I try to explain to people how it feels, I tell them about the movie Billy Elliot. There’s a scene where Billy goes to an audition and after he finishes they ask him why he dances and he says, “Because I forget everything.” That’s what the studio does to me.
So what’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m finishing building this large writing room, I just need to sort out some wiring, general maintenance, headphone mixes etc. I’m also working on my indie-pop project HVMNS, which I’m working on with Australian artists and I’m lecturing at The Australian College of the Arts (Collarts) which is a lot of fun.