Artist Spotlight - Chris Heil


Welcome Chris.  How did this all kick off?

I basically started out playing flute when I was about 5 or 6 years old, then switched to guitar when I was somewhere between 7 and 8. We had a school band which was completely and utterly useless but great fun. My school mate's father had a studio which was just a mile away from my house. I got interested in the idea of working in a studio so I just trotted over there, rang the bell and said "Hey, do you need an assistant?" and the guy said "As a matter of fact, in six weeks time I have to record a band that I just don't want to record."

I now know why…

It was Death Metal and we're talking the 1980's. So Death Metal was straight out of hell, noise beyond human comprehension. The guy--who was more into R&B--just didn't want to do it. So he said "If you can get acquainted with the equipment here (which was a Trident 80 Series and a Lyrec 532, I think it was called) you can run the session". Since I had a bit of training in live sound from working with my cousin (who used to do live sound for a 30 piece Samba band), I had a pretty good idea of how a desk worked. I basically sat in the studio every day after school.

So you worked from the live sound of a 30 piece Samba band to Death Metal recording?

Yes, exactly.

That must have been a baptism by fire.

It most certainly was but it was great fun. It was very exciting.  It was so Spinal Tap and it was even more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap! Because when the band arrived, I expected long haired, freaky-looking guys and the guys that walked in looked like bank clerks. When they started playing the first song, it was all these heavy guitars and the really, really horrible, horrible low grunty vocals. And I said "Oh yeah right, I understand the noise you are making.  What's the album going to be called?" He said "Bienvenue A La Cour Royale” (Welcome To The Royal Court). It was slapstick, these guys in suit and tie, doing this awful noise back then. It was just so Spinal Tap.  Unbelievable.

It sounded like if you didn't take drugs, it was a good time to start.

Picture courtesy of Christian Pleines

Picture courtesy of Christian Pleines

It was just great fun. I started working at the studio and as I found out years later, this first album I did must have done really well in Japan.  I've never seen or heard of the guys again but it was fun. As I went on to work, the studio was sold and set up in a different town. So I had to travel a bit and by the time I was 16, I just quit school. I knew that I wasn't going to go to University to learn engineering. Because in Germany, you have a university degree in sound engineering. As far as I know it was the only country in Europe at the time where you could actually study that. But since I was useless at mathematics and couldn't play piano (a pre-requisite to be accepted at the University), I just did the good old tea-boy-and-pizza-at-2am job. And this is how I got into it. By 1986, I started working at one of the biggest studios in Germany called Sound Studio N. From there I went down to Munich to Union Studios which was one of the rather famous studios in Germany and all across Europe.  They did 'The House Of Blue Light' by Deep Purple. Stevie Wonder also worked there so it was a great experience for about 9 months. Then I got a phone call from Dieter Dierks Producer of The Scorpions.  The producer called and asked me to come to Cologne. And that's where I stayed for about 6 years before I started working all around the globe.

So you basically engineered The Scorpions?

I came at the end of the collaboration between The Scorpions and Dieter Dierks. They came back years and years later for one more album. But I just got there in 1988 so I got a little bit of The Scorpions. I then went on to do a lot of mobile live recording and worked for people like Harry Belafonte and Bryan Adams, Huey Lewis & The NewsTin Machine and David Bowie as a solo artist. So it was a pretty good mixture of live recording and studio work, and it was also a great palette of musical styles. That was fantastic. That's when I decided that--rather than setting up my own studio--I would want to travel the world and work in different places and get to know as many people from as many musical styles as I could possibly could. Because that's the only way you can get new inspiration to  what you already know in order to expand your knowledge and tweak your craft.

A lot of people ditched big consoles and tape machines in the 90s and early 2000s because of Pro Tools. But it seems that you recognise the value of those things.  Is that a good way of summarising it?

I couldn't have summarised it any more precisely than you just did. But the point is that, not only did people ditch the old console/tape recorder combination because of Pro Tools but also because of the decline of the music industry and their budgets.

Just running a studio of that capacity was a huge energy bill.

Exactly but there are just a couple of things in life that always remain great. It's the little black dress for the ladies; it's the grey suit; it's a Rolls Royce and a black Steinway piano. So many classics remain timeless and so it is with real recording equipment. It's real musicians sitting together in the same room exchanging ideas and playing off one another: this is something that's never going to change.

You're known as a kind of renaissance guy, and this is probably because of necessities in the modern recording world. But you engineer, you produce, you mix. If you could choose only one, which would it be?

Most certainly it'd be mixing because I can listen to the music as loud as I like, without anybody complaining. I did a session with David Garrett last year and he just came into the room and he was "Oh man, my heads falling off!" So basically I just finished the mix and he came in and listened to at a level he liked.  

First of all, if I'm mixing music that people are going to listen to--either on a big stage or in a club--I want to have the same vibe tweaking the song that people will finally have consuming it.  There's of course things like balances which you want to check on, on lower levels. And it also depends the style of music that you mix. But the reason I would choose mixing is because it's just like painting.  Painting is something which brings something on to the canvas that hasn't been there before and it is a very private and intimate moment. I just love the creative process and the time it takes: the going back and forth, and choosing, which is something I'm very comfortable doing. Then it's also a great thing that moment when the artist comes in and hears the results for the first time.  I remember mixing a record for the producer Peter Wolf.  I mixed a Danish artist by the name of Gitte Haenning.  We had an amazing set of musicians so we tracked the entire album in two days and then when I finished the mix on the morning of Christmas Eve. 

The artist came in, sat down and listened to her album and by the end of it the artist with tears running down her face just hugged me and said "This is the greatest album I've ever made".  This is one of those moments when you feel you have the right to exist, you've contributed something worthwhile to mankind even if mankind was just one person.

Chris with Bertram Engel, drummer with Robert Palmer, Udo Lindenberg & Peter Maffay

Chris with Bertram Engel, drummer with Robert Palmer, Udo Lindenberg & Peter Maffay

Let's talk more about hardware.  As a mix guy, you've reached for a lot of reverbs on your journey.  What have been the milestone markers and reverbs in your career?

Well the first major reverb that I got in contact with was an EMT 250-1. Then we had a 200 [Lexicon], then of course the next one was the very first generation 224s which I still love today, which I also love as a plug-in. What I still love to this very day is an Space Station which is just a fantastic piece of gear. I would grab as many Yamaha units as I can possibly get.

Chris with Bertram Engel, drummer with Robert Palmer, Udo Lindenberg & Peter Maffay

So when did you start moving into in-the-box reverbs?  Which ones have you been using previous to Exponential Audio?

I've started using computers at a pretty late stage to the full extent of what they're capable of doing. Because in the early days, they were basically a waste of time. Everything took so much longer, as compared to just taking a piece of regular hardware gear.  So, prior to using Exponential stuff, I would use the Lexicon stuff, the UAD stuff and whatever the studio would pick up. That's basically it.  Whatever was available at the studio at the time, I would just try to make work.  I'm not a fetishist as such but if I can get a couple of Lexicons going, that's great, that's usually the trick for me. But with the advent of Exponential Audio, they've just grabbed my attention so extensively and excessively that I love to use them.  It's so interesting because if there's something that you like on a certain instrument, then you're keen to find out what it's going to sound like on something else, oboe or flute or horns. You just keep going back to it and if it's a great, versatile product, then you start finding out step by step that it just basically sounds great on anything. That's something that applies to the Exponential Audio stuff, as far as I'm concerned. 

A regular comment we get from artists who own them is that they find that you can stick an Exponential reverb on a mix and it just does it, you don't mess around with EQs and filters to make it sound right in a mix, Is that your experience too?

Absolutely. I couldn't agree more.  You just slam it on there and you bet it sounds great.  Like I said, if it's right, it's right. It's got this natural quality so that that you don't need to tweak and bend anything. And this is what I probably try to say: the more instruments you mess around with and you put the reverb on, you'll find out that it sounds great regardless of what it is.

You've got a huge discography, you're one of the few people working and making a living out of it these days, what do you think has made that happen?

Curiosity and persistence.  That's the two things that keep you in the business because it's a roller-coaster for everyone. It always will be. You've got great years and you've got shitty years. So you just have to be curious and you just have to love music.  If you're in this for the money, then you'd better do something else, be a banker or be a lawyer.

Or be a banker and start a thrash metal band?

Well maybe I should re-consider my answer here.  Be a banker in a thrash metal band.

Thanks so much. It's a been pleasure talking to you.

Find out more about Chris and his work here