I've Mixed and Mastered Over 5000 Songs. Here's what I've Learned.
As a small business owner and music lover, I always look for ways to combine business with passion projects and to take the opportunity to talk to successful freelancers and business owners whenever I can.
Today, I sat down with Mike Rende, a 15 year music mastering and production professional and 1/2 of the EDM Duo RCKT PWR. We talked music, business processes to success as a sound engineer, niche plugins he uses, and the importance of a good work ethic.
Hi Rende, give us a brief introduction about yourself and your experience.
Rende: Yeah sure thanks for taking the time to speak with me. My name is Rende it's actually my last name but that's just what everyone calls me by my first name Mike.
I have been doing this music thing for I guess almost 15 years now and I started out by getting into DJing. Then production actually followed shortly after that. Then from there really mixing and mastering became a huge interest and importance to me.
I do production for dance music as well so if dance music doesn't sound good no one going to listen to it. So there was really kind of a demand for me to learn how sound engineering worked.
Jumping forward to that was I had a project that ended up taking me out to LA where I kind of really found that my niche was more into mixing and mastering.
Then the pandemic came around and I found out I can't tour anymore so it ended up the timing just ended up being right to go all in on mixing and mastering and it ended up kind of blowing up.
You mentioned that you've mixed well over 5,000 songs. Out of all the songs you worked on what would you say is the most common mistake you often see artists make when mixing and when passing a song off to be mastered?
Rende: I think when it comes to mixing I think artists kind of have this idea that the engineer is going to fix everything. Don't get me wrong to some extent that is my job.
But when you come to me and you're like “I want a song like it sounds on the radio” those artists have put in the time to make sure that they have the best samples possible and they have the best performance possible.
When it comes to what the engineer can bring, they bring the creativity and knowledge to really kind of bring your track to life. It’s not really about sitting there trying to fix little things or trying to adjust certain errors in the mix that could have just been avoided by a simple re-recording or really trying to nail the performance.
Different artists are at all different kinds of levels. But I think that really the most important thing is to really try your best to get the best kind of sound possible from the beginning.
So if you have a demo that's great and you're like “I really want the reverb to sound like this and this song” that's where I can come in and help be like cool I know how to make that kind of Reverb.
Justin: I also think a lot of artists don't get that a lot of those popular tracks on the radio and Spotify have teams working on them.
I remember I messaged Mutt who's one of my favorite producers and said “Hey how do you get your sound so crisp?” and he says “oh I have a team of four guys at the label that work on everything” and it's like cool man that's great.
What would you say is the hardest thing you had to learn when it comes to mixing and mastering techniques?
Rende: I think it's just more of an overall concept honestly but less is more. I can't tell you how many videos I watched for how many years of these guys adding all these different plugins and EQs and all this compression saturation whatever you're going to add to it to these different tracks to get them to sound a certain way.
I didn't really realize that they had a very specific end goal in mind. It's not something you really need to do to every kind of sound.
I think even in the last year my channel strips have gotten lighter. I'm literally only using the things that I know make a difference as opposed to trying all these other little things.
Don't get me wrong. Every once in a while, I'll step out of the box like “oh I really wanted to sound like this” and do something crazy but I think that my biggest thing is keep things simple when you can.
For instance, if the kick drum sounds good just leave it alone. Otherwise you’ll keep mixing and then all of a sudden you're like “oh well you know what the kick is actually fighting with the Bass a little bit now” so I think having that context is really helpful.
In your experience, what role does understanding the genre play in successfully mixing and mastering?
Are there any genre specific techniques that inspiring producers should be aware of or is there a more universal approach that could be taken to a lot of mixing and mastering?
Rende: I think I'm lucky enough to have been in the position for doing this for a long time and I learned mixing and mastering from producing dubstep.
So in order to get those sounds and everything to sound the right way you really need to understand compression and saturation and when too far is actually too far. But knowing the genre definitely helps.
Right now I'm doing this guy's whole Indie album. It isn't going to require all that extra saturation and compression like in Dubstep so I'm able to kind of take a step back and go “oh well it just kind of needs these little bits of light things.”
I know for me personally hip-hop and dance music are typically kind of the main things I work on. I do some rock and Indie stuff as well but that's just been the last year or two really.
I think it's a fun challenge to take on but whenever you're mixing anything it's just kind of a general tip to always ask for a reference or a demo mix that's in the same genre and the same kind of world that they're going for.
As long as I have those things I can figure out what the artist wants.
I think referencing on good headphones and good monitors is important because if you're just listening on Airpods they're fine but it's still not going to get everything exactly the way it's supposed to be heard.
I took Dolby Atmos class to get certified in Atmos mixing and the main engineer for Atmos Studios uses Airpod Pro Maxes to reference every mix.
Justin: I think Snoop Dogg did something like that. He says every song he mixes he's got it on his $30,000 system but also, they just put the cd in a $10 little CD player and see if it still sounds good to make sure they don’t miss anything. Because they want it to sound good for as many people as possible.
With advances in tech there are countless plugins and tools available for listening, mixing, and mastering.
How do you stay updated on the latest tools and how do you decide which ones to incorporate into your workflow? Are there any underrated or lesser known plugins or hardware that you find particularly useful?
Rende: So when it comes to like the newest and brightest plugins and stuff I think it's really a matter tastes. I know some Engineers that really just buy everything and dive into every plugin and just really tear it apart. For me, I found the plugins that I like and I just stick to them.
I get ads and I'll try demos of different new plugins like some of the AI based ones just to see what they are like but for me it's mostly things like the Fab filter stuff the sound tool stuff the isotope stuff.
I work in Ableton so all Ableton stock plugins are really great and then I think most of my reverbs I use Valhalla. Those are kind of like the tools that I've really used over the last five years because I know how they sound so I can get almost any sound out of them.
That being said, as far as underrated plugins go that I really like I use this plugin called Stereo Tool a lot. It's just a free plugin but it just does panning so well in like a natural way and Ableton actually doesn't really have like true panning like that so I have to find a way to do it anyway.
It’s just the cleanest panner I think I've ever heard. I haven't really heard another plugin or even panning in another DAW that sounds as good or as clean as that.
In the context of mastering, how do you approach loudness in the age of streaming platforms with their own loudest normalization algorithms?
What advice do you have for musicians who might be tempted to overly compress and limit their tracks in an effort to compete?
Rende: To be honest it's I think a bit more about the genre but I get that the streaming services are going to normalize everything to an extent.
If you listen to like a dance music song that hasn't been mastered on Spotify you could still kind of tell the difference. So for me I always do what I think sounds best even If it ends up being a little quieter, especially if it's not something like EDM.
If it's something like hip-hop or rock or something where you have a little more wiggle room and the mix sounds great and it hits really hard just leave it. Trying to get that extra DB out of it just isn't worth it.
How important is it to have different masters for different streaming platforms?
Rende: For me I don't even really create different masters for streaming just because there's so many different variables that go into it. Unless you're one of the big labels you don’t really get that level of insight into how streaming services do their mixes.
so I come up with one master that sounds good on everything. I could play it on a CDJ in a club and it sounds great, I could play it on a cell phone and it sounds great, and that's kind of what I work with.
You've obviously seen some success working with a variety of genres. Let's say someone is ready to start offering mixing and mastering services.
What would be the best way for them to get started and what can they do to ensure they can grow and get more clients?
Rende: I don't like to do things for free. Over the years I've seen artist get taken advantage of for doing things for free. Same with engineers and it's also happened to me.
To really get started you need to have a reasonable price even if it's just like 20 bucks or something for a hip-hop mix and master. Show what you could do for $20 and go all out by doing the best you can.
I think it's kind of a little bit on a case-by-case basis but I would say I don't I think that when I first started I was selling myself short.
Justin: I think what people also underestimate is the power of reviews when you're first starting. Money will come and go but a review will almost live forever and that’s a big deciding factor for people that are willing to pay more. I think once you have 5 to 10 solid reviews on a platform you want to up your rates.
Networking is essential, in the music industry especially. What advice do you have for aspiring producers on building meaningful connection with artists, other producers, and industry professionals?
Are there specific platforms or events you recommend for networking with the music production community?
Rende: For me the way I did it is I would go and meet people in person. For example, with dance music, just because again that's kind of one of my focuses, I just go hang out at shows.
When I was first getting started and I would hang out at shows I might have a drink or two, but nothing crazy. I would walk around and just start talking to people and eventually I ran into the owner of a venue, and eventually I then ran into the talent buyer, or I'll go talk to the guy working at the sound booth you know if I get there at 9:30.
I also think it's important to not just ask for things from people right away when you meet them. You just explain what you're doing and if they ask then you talk about it. Otherwise, you find ways to add value.
Maybe you meet an artist at this event, which has happened to me several times, and they say something like “Oh we just can't get this to sound right” you can respond and say something like “Oh I'd love to check it out for you. Maybe let's just do a quick session or something.”
You want to show them what you can do and then if they want you to finish the song you can say it's x amount of money. I know you can reach out to people on socials like Instagram and Discord, but I feel like there's a lot of noise to try to cut through on there.
Justin: Agreed. I think of the online platforms that Discord is probably the easiest one to connect and block out some of that noise if you're just starting. Especially since Instagram will straight just block your message sometimes.
I also agree with what you said about going to shows and concerts. think concerts are the easiest because you already have something in common because a lot of those artists are very passionate about what they do.
So, if you start asking things like “Hey I loved how you mix this and I love the way the base hits at this level. What made you inspired to do it that way?” They want to talk about that because they probably don't get asked that all the time.
When you ask them technical stuff, they're like “Oh cool, no one's ever asked me that before” and it comes off more natural.
The music industry is constantly evolving. How do you anticipate trends and changes in production styles and how do you adapt ?
Are there any recent trends that you find particularly exciting or challenging from a mixing and mastering perspective?
Rende: That's a really good question. When it comes to the trends, I think it's just important to still keep an open mind to different kinds of music even if you don't like it. For me the Mumble rap thing was not really something that I was the biggest fan of.
People will come to me and they want that style of music and I'm like “Well it's not my favorite but I mean I get it.” I don't have a negative connotation or anything towards it, it's just it's not for me. But I get why people like it.
It helps because you might learn something listening to that genre that you would have never thought of before. Like the way you could press the vocals, or the way that and artist side chains the vocal reverb and delay to it to get a clean sound that still like bounces.
I think it’s also important to be listening to older music too. Listen to the way old mixes sound, like stuff from like the 60s and 70s.
As technology has democratized music production it's has been allowing a lot of artists to produce music from home.
How do you think this shift has influenced the role of a professional music producer and what advice do you have for artists navigating the DIY landscape?
Rende: You know that's a really great question. I think that it's both good and bad because it's made it a lot more accessible for people which is always a good thing. But with accessibility comes saturation.
I remember when SoundCloud first came out and I used to be able to scroll in my SoundCloud feed and catch up every day because there would only be 5 or 10 maybe new songs a day. Now on Soundcloud if you go on your feed there's no chance you could catch up.
Because there are so many artists, I think when it comes to the DIY stuff it's important to kind of know how serious you want to take it. You need to understand a realistic budget for yourself.
I would invest in something like a pair of Airpod Pro Maxes and a laptop with some good software to get started. If you're producing at home I wouldn't buy monitors and stuff because your room’s not going to be treated. From there you kind of prioritize what you want based on the music you want to make.
Like if you're a rapper, invest in the headphones and interface and a decent mic and your laptop. You don't have to buy all the fancy plugins and everything either. You can get a good sound out of your DAWs plugins at least when you're getting started.
Justin: I think we had a saying in the rock community that the guy with a $5,000 guitar usually plays the worst. People think the equipment will make their songs better when the biggest issue is not getting the fundamentals down first.
Rende: Yeah that's same thing. So, you can get a nice tool but you don't have to buy the $10,000 monitors. That’s also just out of reach for so many people anyway.
What would you say was a piece of game changing information that you still think about when it comes to mixing and mastering?
Rende: I think that's it's kind of a twofold answer for me. The first is it is a bit hard to say this too, but it's just because you don't think something sounds good doesn't mean that someone else is going to think it doesn't. Within reason though because that's like a dangerous like you know like line to walk.
I think it's important to leave as much room for creativity with an artist as you can. But on a more technical thing what really kind of took my mixing and mastery to I think the next level was having a process.
Every single time I have a template built for me to just drop stems in. I always start with my kick drum and my snare every single time. It doesn't matter the genre then I do. Then the high hats and stuff and then from there I do just the kick and the base. Then from there I typically move on to either the synths or the vocals.
Thank you for your time today. Before we wrap up, do you have any interesting projects that you could talk about that you want to shout out?
Rende: Yeah definitely. I actually want to shout out my buddy's project. Me and him were a duo we were called RCKT PWR.
We were doing all this production stuff together and in the last couple of months he started his own project called Seth David.
I do all the mixing and mastering for it and to be quite honest it's a really dope project. He's a super talented producer and he just got picked up by a management company. So shout out to Seth.
If you would like to work with Mike, you can reach him at the link below: