Christopher Vernon (Belle Haven, Better Half) talks mixing & producing

When he’s not yelling behind the mic in Better Half and when he’s not throwing his guitar around in Belle Haven, you’ll often find Christopher Vernon locked away in his studio; working with bands, producing records, and mixing tracks until some ungodly hour. Outside of his two bands, Christopher’s name comes up in a lot of the press releases KYS is sent for local bands in terms of engineer and producer credits. But rightfully so; he’s been at this role now for seven years and pulls out some really solid mixes for plenty of Australian rock and pop-punk bands, especially from the Melbourne scene. Talking recently with Christopher, the engineer and producer was incredibly honest with me about his workflow, gear usage, plug-in preferences and even his rates as well. (A topic that you don’t always see much forthcoming towards from those in the audio world.) And so we both stuck into a host of different mixing, producer and engineer-related topics, the results of which you can find in-full below!

So for those who don’t know, Christopher, how long have you been doing studio work for? What was your first gig?

I started doing my first work with clients in March 2012, so coming up on seven years now. My first engineer gig was mixing a Queensland band called We The Relentless, who have broken up now. My first producer gig was with another band that’s now broken up called Ambrosia, who a few of the members now play in The Great City.

How did you learn and hone your craft? Did someone teach and mentor you, or did you go at it solo and learn all on your own and from past studio experiences with Belle Haven and Better Half?

It’s a mixture of a few things that helped me get to where I am right now. In terms of being a producer, working in the studio with Callan Orr and Matt Goldman helped me a lot to see how to “run the show”. But in regards to the engineering aspects, Declan White helped me more than I could ever thank him for when I first started out – he stills helps me out regularly to this day and quite regularly engineers drums for me. Ermin Hamidovic wrote a mixing guide called ‘Systematic Guide to Mixing’ that helped me out over time and my other final big help was just messing around with clients until I started to find “my” sound. Better Half has always been me producing/mixing except for the very first single, and I’ve only ever done some writing and co-producing for Belle Haven, never really mixed or engineered much of it myself. I’m working primarily myself on all of our new content, though.

When did you first consider yourself a professional at these roles? Or has that moment maybe not arrived in your own mind yet?

People have different ways that they define “professional”, but I’ve considered myself a professional for quite a few years now purely because I’ve lived off of the money from being a producer as my only source of income since early 2016. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be an A-list mixing engineer; but I’m extremely confident in my songwriting/producer skills and can work efficiently.

Which producers and engineers did you look up to early on the most? Do those people still inspire you now; where does your creativity draw from these days?

I’ve always looked up to Chris Lord Alge’s sound in terms of mixing, but early on, I just tried to make it everything sound like Joey Sturgis or Declan White because that is all that I knew. These days I’m a big fan of Will Yip, Brian Hood, CLA (still) and Carson Slovak.

All great engineers there! What other interests in the audio world do you have other than recording and mixing that people may not know about?

More than anything, I really enjoy writing with artists and creating vocal harmonies. I feel like it really brings a vocalist to life in a modern way. I look back on older record I did before I really started singing and understanding the basics of harmonies myself and it bums me out.

Harmonies are pretty sick, let’s not pretend. What would you say was the biggest hurdle for you to overcome in your work – mic placement, frequency knowledge, treating a room, signal flow, getting the mix just “right”?

The biggest hurdle was most likely just my own brain and ears. I think it all genuinely comes down to making your brain figure out what sound makes A sound like B, and make those connections in your head with what you hear and create in the session. Right now, I’m trying to work on making the low-end of my bass guitar mixes tighter sounding, as that would really give my work more energy.

I reckon you’ll get there yet! In talking about improving things, which band or release do you feel was the trickiest for you to pull together?

Stuck Out’s ‘You Won’t Come Home’ EP had a lot of mix revisions and I’m still not super stoked with it. But it’s mostly because of confusion in direction from the band and myself. It came to a good point in the end, quite a few of my engineer friends helped me out with that one by some what ghost mixing it with me.

Stemming from that last question, do you think that a mix is ever fully done? Do you feel there’s always that uphill battle of changing very tiny things even when the artist is happy with its current version?

I’ve learned to be strict with myself and commit to the mix being finished when the band is happy with it. It’s their product, so if they’re stoked, then my job is done. If it’s up to me though, until it craps on anyone else’s work, it would never be done [laughs]. I’m sure a lot of engineers could relate to that one.

Likewise, do you have those moments when a band thinks that the mix is “done”, but you personally know that it’s not there yet? How do you handle those kinds of moments and work it in with the current budget and schedule? 

Over time I’ve learned ways to stop these sort of moments happening, but I remember this happened really badly during the mixing of Stuck Out’s third track, ‘What We’ve Come To Be’. By the 2nd mix they were stoked and I think I did another three revisions just off my own notes and it got to the point where Joshua Walker was basically just like “Bro, it’s fine, just send us the finals. You’re going to make it worse.” Nowadays, I will always do a few revisions myself on a few systems before sending it to a band and the client is generally stoked within the first few mixes. Speeds the process up heaps and makes the client infinitely happier quicker too.

Christopher Vernon, well-known lover of cats. PC: Daniel Marinakis.

At least you have that eye for detail, though. On that intensive approach, do you ever listen back to your old mixes and update them with your current knowledge and experience, for your own leisure? Or do you avoid your old work as to not get too engrossed in the past?

Not really. Sometimes I go back and mix songs from projects that I engineered but wasn’t asked to mix on them, just to see if I can top the mix the mixing engineer did. Sometimes this has landed me mixing jobs with that client just by showing them my rough mix. So it’s been helpful in a business and leisure sense also. I’m always trying to move forwards anyway, never backwards.

What does your current set up consist of now? From the monitors and DAW(s), to outboard gear and plug-ins, to even the acoustic treatment of your room(s)?

I have some reasonably cheap 27-inch screen, Yamaha Hs80m’s for monitors and Reaper for my DAW. I have a dbx163x Outboard compressor that I use very rarely, an Apollo Twin Duo interface, a Radial Passive JDI Box, and an sm7b microphone.

Plug-ins wise, I have a LOT! But my main ones that I’d struggle to work without are TSE x50, TSE BOD, PSA Sansamp, Fabfilter Pro q2, Waves C4, gClip, Slate Trigger and SSL Compressors by any company.

I use pretty cheap acoustic treatment because as long as the room is pretty dry and dark, then I’m happy. I just don’t like reverb and basic reflections.

Right on, some good gear and plug-ins in there. Waves’ C4 can be really handy and the TSE x50 is very cool. Do you work solely in the box or do you prefer to use mixing consoles, if available, for certain sonic characteristics?

I work in the box basically 100% of the time. I remember a few years back I used to land certain projects cause basically everyone was using Amp Sims and I always used live amps. As sims got more realistic sounding, I switched to a basically 100% digital rig – never gone back or regretted it in the slightest. I’ve always wanted to have the chance to mix a record or a song on a console. Was thinking of getting an intern to convince his school teacher to let me mix a track on a console in front of their class as a sort of “mixing masterclass” – even though I think it’s a bit of a big call to call it that – as a way to get to mix a song on a console.

[Laughs] whatever works, mate. Similarly, what are your go to mics, plug-ins, outboard gear that you may use on a mix? Or do you not adhere to that “template” approach and use different plug-ins and gear for different bands/different releases? I know some people will ALWAYS drop in a Neumann mic or throw on a CLA plug-in, Neve EQ or a SSL compressor any chance they can get. 

I’m definitely a template-heavy kind of guy. I believe that the focus of a song comes from the songwriting itself and not just how incredible the mix is. If the bass guitar sounds like a bass guitar when I chuck it in a template and the band likes it, then that’s the bass guitar. What I really care about is whether the bass is played well or if the bass line fits the song more than getting the bass tone 20% better. Some fresh engineers worry that using templates makes mixes sound clinical or repetitive or some other negative term. But every instrument hits the templates slightly differently and so even the same template with different tunings, string gauges, different bassists or bass guitars alter the sound straight away. But it gets you 60-80% of the way there instantly every time instead of needing to start from scratch. So many of my favourite mixing engineers work in this manner also, so why not?

Christopher head-banging during a 2018 Belle Haven set. PC: Oversimplified Complications.

Great point there. Are you quick to try new products and new software from your Waves’ and your Slate’s? Or have you found what works best for you now in terms of workflow, sound and quality, and just wish to stick with that?

If something especially catches my ear as sounding notably better than what I’m doing already doing then Ill give it a whirl. But I’ll always put the song-writing above any fancy plug in if I can already get something people are happy with.

Of course! Stemming from that, what are your thoughts on the signature plug-ins from mixers and producers like CLA, Steven Slate and so forth? I know that Andrew Scheps brought out his new Omni Channel strip plug-in last year or so. If you could have your own CV branded plug-in, what kind would it be? 

So many of them sound so good and I’ve heard them on a lot of records and been genuinely very impressed. So no hate from me if it actually sounds good.

I would probably start by selling my own drum samples or something along those lines. I’ve actually been thinking about making a programmed drum cymbal pack as I’m not super stoked on a lot of the cymbal packs I find on the internet at the moment.

I say go for it. You may find there’s a higher need for it than you think! Straight up, Christopher, how much do you think you’ve spent on mics, gear, studio time and software over the years?

Most likely $10-20k. Because some of my more recent gear is more expensive and been getting plug ins I’ve wanted for ages.

Well, likewise, how much do you charge for recording, mixes and masters these days? If you don’t mind answering, that is?

This is hard to give exact figures on because every project requires different services from me. EP’s cost anywhere from $2,000-8,000 and albums average around $10-14k. But parts of that go towards drum studio hire and paying people for editing if I’m SUPER busy. Some people feel weird about disclosing income, but it’s just a part of how the world works. I never feel guilty or feel like I’m over charging, nor do I specifically feel like I charge more. I work on a very supply vs. demand basis. I charge the rates I do to keep myself from being OVERLY busy with projects that are either sub par or expect ridiculously low budgets for large amounts of my time. Once I started raising my rates to give myself some spare time, I started noticing the quality of my work getting notably better because I never felt burnt out from sub par projects.

I really appreciate the honesty there. And for sure: if you do less and take on what you want, the quality will improve. Now, have you considered engineering and mixing/mastering the next Better Half release too? You also said before that you’d most likely do the next Belle Haven release as well. Do these added roles on top of already writing and tracking put too much pressure on the work flow; that you’ll lose sight of the overall vision if you do too much in one particular project? 

I’ve already been doing everything from top to bottom on all of the Better Half stuff (‘Maybe I Was Wrong’ is entirely DIY), but that’s easy because Matt Van Dupen [guitarist] co-produces with me. Or more like I co-produce with MVD. He doesn’t know how to engineer, but he knows when it doesn’t sound “right” and his mindset helped me get better at mixing/producing in recent years because he was the first dude that would always say to me “yep cool, sounds like a guitar, let’s record it.” And then when it would come to mixing, and he’s like “still sounds like a guitar, just leave it.” And so I would. And that was the guitar tone on that Better Half record [laughs]. Once it was dialled, I don’t think there was any additional mixing done to it at all. Thanks MVD!

The plan with Belle Haven is to have myself do it all. And if there’s something someone in the team isn’t enjoying, we can always get it mixed elsewhere or start from scratch as all it cost us was time, really.

Better Half, Unify Gathering 2019. 

What trends are you seeing lately from other engineers here in Australia? Do you keep those in mind as you work on new releases?

Right now, everyone uses a Dingwall bass guitar on every style for every artist and everyone wants to be either Nolly GetGood or Taylor Larson. None of that stuff is bad, but I just always do whatever I feel sounds best on the day. I don’t own a Dingwall myself and I don’t personally love Nolly or Larson’s work, but I’ve worked with a band recently that referenced a Larson mix as a rough ball park for spectrum balance and instrument volume.

Yup, the Dingwalls’ are VERY popular lately. What are your thoughts on online groups like Nail The Mix and The Recording Revolution? Do you think that they’re doing a good service that helps bring new people into the audio world or do you think that they’re maybe undercutting others like yourself and revealing too many secrets of the trade to public and amateurs? Would you start up a similar venture in due time for the local scene?

Anything that stops kids paying ridiculous rates for sub-par audio schools in Australia is a huge bonus to me. I’ve had multiple interns and assistants that tell me they wish they hadn’t paid thousands of dollars going to audio school only to find out 50% of it is out dated rubbish that is old industry standards that are not applicable in modern music.

I already did private audio lessons with a couple of dudes. They pay me for my time and I teach them whatever they want to know. I’ve found it super helpful for clients that are great at songwriting but don’t have any idea how to get that stuff onto paper. The other day a client of mine was suggesting I run my own personal audio school type venture from my new studio location as it’s much bigger than my previous studios.

Not at all a ad idea; knowledge is power. It only helps more people. Outside of your two own bands, though, what other work do you do? I notice that you do a few guest vocal spots as well, so from the outside looking in, it seems like you’re busy all of the time!

I used to do WAY more guest vocal spots, but after Better Half’s EP dropped, I get a bunch more requests, so I had to monetise it and start being much more picky with who I did guest spots for. But I am ALWAYS busy at the moment since the move to the new studio. I guess my hobbies outside of audio/band related stuff is just eating food and sleeping a lot. I genuinely don’t have time to do much else. That’s why it took me so long to get around to doing this interview [laughs]!

We got there in the end, though! So, what release has been the most fun or memorable for you to work on? What’s the release that you’re the most proud of and why? 

I worked on a record with Loose End mid-2018 that was heaps of fun. We spent heaps of time rewriting the vocals to be better and we would drink beers with mates after a few of the sessions. Although I don’t see him much, I have a huge soft spot for the vocalist, Smalley. He’s THE best dude!

It’s a big tie between Better Half’s EP, the new unreleased Earthbound tracks and Bridge The Border’s EP, ‘Congratulations.’ There is another project that I think is the best music I ever have been a part of in my life, but I can’t talk about it yet as it started as a solo project for a close friend of mine. But always because the band is stoked with the mix and I love the songs.

Nice, keen to hear it all! Now, forgive the final generic question, dude, but what piece of advice would you now give your younger self when he first started doing mixes and producing?  

Trust your gut, don’t over think everything, reference your favourite mixes if you’re stuck, and you’re not too cool for templates!

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