Miles Walker is a Grammy Award-winning engineer with countless hits and multi-platinum records sold worldwide. Best known for his work in hip-hop and pop, Walker has racked up credits with Top 40 heavyweights like Beyonce, Rhianna, Katy Perry, Usher, Lupe Fiasco, David Banner and many more.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Miles for our 20 Questions series. Read on to learn about the incredible story of how Miles moved to Atlanta with nothing but the clothes on his back, in order to follow his dreams of working in the music industry. He also breaks down his favorite plug-ins and outboard gear, serves up some of his best mixing tips, and dishes out some powerful advice for aspiring engineers.
1. How did you get started making records?
I’ve been a musician all my life. I went to Berklee College of Music as a bass player, but I really loved studying all of the behind-the-scenes stuff. I discovered that I liked engineering just as much as I liked being a performer. Helping people make records is just as much fun as making them myself as an artist.
I came up in a time where it was common to intern at a big studio and learn from people around you, so that’s what I did. I got my start in Nashville right out of school, thanks to some connections I had with the Berklee Alumni Network. That was a great experience. I learned a lot about tracking really amazing players, but the music that I loved to make was more hip-hop and pop, and they just weren’t making that at the time in Nashville.
So, I decided to move to Atlanta because there was a mix engineer there named Leslie Brathwaite who I really looked up to. He was mixing all of my favorite records and I really wanted to learn from him. He worked at Patchwerk Studios, so that’s where I went. I was like, “I’ve got to get on staff here, whatever it takes.”
Even though I had some credits in Nashville as a tracking engineer and as an assistant, when I came to Atlanta it was like I hit the reset button. I had to go back down to being an intern and start all over, but I know that it was still the right choice from me because I was close to Leslie and I got to learn from him. I worked under Leslie for several years and got some more experience on the mixing side of things, developed my network in Atlanta and eventually set out on my own.
2. Wow, you just packed your bags and left? You didn’t have a job or anything?
100%. I didn’t have a place to live. I didn’t have anything. I just wanted to go down there and interview with Patchwerk for the opportunity to work for Leslie. So I drove down and they were like “You have great credits and good experience. We’d love to hire you but we’re all full up right now. We’ll keep you on file.”
So I started driving home and when I got to Chattanooga, which is about halfway between Nashville and Atlanta, they called and said, “One of our guys didn’t show up, so he’s fired. Can you come back tonight for a session?” I was like “Absolutely.”
I turned right back around and drove to Atlanta and worked a session with David Banner that night. It was great. I was still wearing the suit that I interviewed in because I didn’t bring a change of clothes or anything. David Banner was like, “You look crazy, man.” But he was a super-great client. I assisted for him on a lot of his sessions at Patchwerk. He’s a really good dude.
It’s just funny how it started like that. I was excited that the interview went well and I knew that I would end up at Patchwerk eventually, whenever they cycled through their staff, I just didn’t think it would be five hours later.
I had a friend here in town who let me stay on his couch because I didn’t have a place to stay, I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t have anything. So I just stayed on his couch and kept working for about a month before I could go home to Nashville and get my stuff, but the other interns were really cool and helped me out.
3. Tell me about the studio you’re in now.
As recently as July, I’m now over at Westside Studios, which is mostly a post-production facility. They actually have three post rooms that focus on VO and ADR and that kind of stuff. But, I really like the room because it was built by the same architect and room designer that built my previous room.
For years, I was at Silent Sound Studios, but as of Friday of last week, it was sold. I loved the sound of that room, and I wanted a similar-sounding room, so when I saw that Russ Berger had built a post facility I was excited to get over there too.
I actually knew the studio owner here at Westside, too. This studio is owned by Steve Fisher, who was the head engineer that hired me at Patchwerk. So I knew Steve very well, working for him for many years as an intern. He gave me my first job. He’s literally the person I’ve known in Atlanta the longest. It just kind of seemed like a cool, full-circle moment.
While Silent Sound was an excellent era for me and I did a lot of fantastic records there, I knew that going forward I wanted to be in a place that would suit what I’m doing right now, and also be an amazing-sounding room. I knew that I could get that here because everything sounds really good, even though they’re set up for post. The rooms here are all really quiet, clean, accurate and flat. It’s been a great fit.
4. You don’t use a console or control surface, but you have tons of analog outboard gear. What made you decide on a hybrid setup?
I’ve been that way for many years. I use analog summing mixers. I love the SPL Mix Dream, I actually have three of them chained together for 48 channels. As far as I know, I’m the only dude on the planet doing that. I love the way it sounds, and I love the connectivity I feel using it.
It’s all analog with insert points in the patch bay, I can put different pieces of gear across different channels very quickly and easily. It lets me build my console per mix. I can go really Neve-heavy for a vibey song and lean on my Neve EQs and compressors. And the next one might be clean, slicked-out pop, so I’ll use the API EQs and compressors. It lets me insert different pieces of gear so I’m not stuck with just one sound.
5. If you had to choose one or the other (mixing from tape on a large format console or entirely in-the-box), which would you choose and why?
I think I’d fall exactly where I am, not to dodge the question. I see tremendous benefit to certain pieces of analog gear, both the way they sound and the analog headroom. You don’t clip analog, you can overdrive it, you don’t clip it like you do with digital, which sounds rough.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not the guy who’s hating on plug-ins at all. There are some fantastic plug-ins out there and I use them all the time. The recall-ability and the automation is so much faster in-the-box. When I work hybrid, I can leave all of my analog gear set up and do more nuanced automation or crazy effects stuff that you can only do in the plug-in world. There are plug-ins that exist that could never be replicated by a hardware piece of gear, and that’s rad too. I like having the full toolbox to be able to pull either-or.
6. You mix on Barefoot Sound MicroMain 27s and Yamaha NS-10s, right? What is it about those monitors that you like?
I did an album with Coldplay called Head Full of Dreams, and they really love the Barefoot stuff. That was the first time I had heard about them. They put a pair in my studio because they wanted to hear the mixes on those monitors and I was fine mixing on whatever.
At the time, I was just like an NS-10 kind of dude, but after spending a week on the Barefoot monitors, I bought three pairs right away. I have a pair just waiting in a box in case anything happens to mine because I truly love them. I think they’re unbelievable. They have really clean phase and you can work for long hours without burning out your ears, which is a tremendous benefit.
They produce low-end really well, even at low volumes. Which is great, because most of the time you can’t tell what the low-end is doing on a speaker until you turn it up, but once you turn it up, the low-end is interacting with the room. So how much of the speaker are you hearing versus the build-up of the room? But with Barefoot monitors, you don’t have that problem. You can hear what the low-end is doing even at really low volumes, so you know it’s not interacting with the room, it's just a true representation of your mix.
Plus, Barefoot has really great customer support. Tedi over there is fantastic. I had some questions about room size and Thomas was talking to me directly. They’re really nice guys and I appreciate that level of support.
7. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
These days I like to work in more of a set schedule. Of course, I’ll always accommodate my clients if they want to work a little late or even super-early because I also do a lot of international work. So sometimes I have to figure out when the client is available based on timezone changed and stuff like that.
I have a great crew and an assistant who’s been with me for like five years. Ryan Jumper is amazing. He’ll help me out by getting stuff set up the night before so that when I come in I can start on a mix fresh. There’s a real benefit to that because it’s all creative work and you don’t burn your ears out just setting things up.
I’ll mix maybe one or two records in a day and towards the end of the day, I’ll go through my email and do updates and address any notes. If new songs come in I’ll feed them to Jump again and he’ll get them set up. Then we rinse and repeat. We do that Monday through Friday.
8. Which do you prefer: starting a mix or finishing a mix?
Not to dodge the question, but I can see tremendous benefit in both. The nice thing about starting a mix is that there are infinite possibilities. You can do anything that comes into your mind. You haven’t been bogged down by your own analysis paralysis or demo-itis from the producer. That’s an amazing feeling. That level of freedom is the reason I wanted to become a mixer.
That said, it’s also great when you have a whole bunch of mixes or a big project and you work with a producer and really help them get the sound that they want. When you’re done and you’re printing down the final passes for mastering—that’s a real sense of accomplishment.
It’s kind of like, which side of the brain are we feeding? The creative side, or the analytical, checklist, accomplishment-driven side? I really like them both. It’s the middle where you can get lost, but the beginning and the end are really fantastic points for different reasons.
9. What EQs do you reach for most often?
In the plug-in world, I’ve been a big fan of the Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ ever since it came out. I think that algorithm is super-clean, but the dynamic EQ portion is what really makes it fantastic. UAD ported it over, so it’s nice that it’s part of the UAD architecture, but even the native one sounds great. If I’m just trying to clean up some frequencies and control stuff, I like the Oxford.
I also like the FabFilter Pro-Q 3. It’s always been a good sounding algorithm, but adding in the dynamic and making it available per band is great too. They have a great visual interface. I love that you can use a zero-latency, dynamic phase or linear phase versions of the algorithm in the same plug-in depending on what you’re trying to do. Those two are my favorites for just working on sounds.
In the analog realm, I tend to use analog EQs on bus elements. Either the whole master bus or instrument busses, I don’t typically do individual multi-track stuff because it’s tough to recall. If I EQ something in a way that a client doesn’t like, it’s very easy to change on a plug-in. But if I hit it on the hardware, I have to recall everything. So I tend to like nice EQs with subtle settings across busses.
On my drum bus, I always have the Maag EQ4. That low setting is amazing. It gives a little more body to any kick. It’s not even frequency-dependent, it’s just good bottom-end. Likewise, the air setting at the top is great. I usually have it set at 10 or 15 kHz to put a little more sparkle on the hi-hats and a little more crack on the snare.
10. What about compressors?
In the plug-in world, I think some of the UAD hardware models are really fantastic. If I’m going for a vocal, I love their 1176 line. I think it’s so good and they really nailed the tonal differences between the Rev A and the Rev E. The Rev A has a great high-end and the Rev E is fantastic for that gluey thing. That’s my favorite for vocals.
Likewise, for hardware compressors, I take a similar approach by using compressors in a subtle way on the busses. For my two-mix, even though it’s technically for mastering, I really like the SPL IRON. I actually have two. It’s so unique. Once I started using it I was like, “Oh my god, if I don’t have this, everything is going to fall apart.” So I just got another one and I leave it in the box. I like the tubes almost more than the compression. It has so many settings and parameters. It can get pretty aggressive but since I’m using it on my mix I tend to keep it pretty light. It keeps the center in focus in a really cool way. The vocals just stay where they need to be.
11. What are some of your favorite reverbs?
Reverbs are a little bit different. That’s one of the things I think about a lot based on what the client is looking for in the mix. Some people get really married to their rough mixes and when they do, you kind of get forced into using their reverbs. You can tweak levels and maybe EQ them, but if you’re going to change the algorithm, it’s really jarring because that’s such a big part of the sound. So a lot of people don’t want to do that. When that’s the case, I can’t really re-do the reverb. I can work with what’s there and change the color or the wet/dry, but I need to use that algorithm.
But if it’s a mix where they’re open to more creative stuff, I can pull out my favorite reverb, which is the Bricasti M7. There’s not really a plug-in that does exactly the same thing. I’ve heard some pretty good impulse responses, but the Bricasti is a very big machine doing nothing other than reverb, so the algorithmic reverbs on that sound really good. They also sound really modern, which I like.
I have a theory on reverbs, actually. Reverb kind of went out of fashion around the time when everybody started going in-the-box because, at the time, there weren’t any good plug-in reverbs. Everybody had a 480 sitting right on the SSL, so of course they used it—it was right there. But as people started going in-the-box, there were no plug-ins that sounded good, so delays became really popular.
If you look around the early 1990s when everything was starting to go in the box, delays were way more prevalent because I don’t think anybody had a reverb in the box that they were happy with. But, I think that’s changed again because now computers have caught up and there are some really fantastic models and plug-ins. So reverbs are getting cool again.
12. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound on a record?
I’m always open to trying anything. One thing I recently started doing is rendering effects returns, which has become really easy to do with the new commit and freeze options in Pro Tools. Once they’re pieces of audio, you can process them in different ways that would be impossible in a regular chain. Because it’s a physical piece of audio, you could nudge it, or chop it and stutter it, or make a cool side-chain that stutters as a build-up into a reverse. That stuff is really easy to do when they’re blocks of audio, but I don’t even know how you would do that in real-time.
There are great plug-ins like Stutter edit that use great combinations of plug-ins, but a lot of times I feel like you just get lucky when you find a preset that’s kind of what I wanted. With audio, I can arrange it exactly the way I hear it in my mind. I can put it on the grid and move it. I’ve definitely started rendering a lot of my effects and processing them in different ways. That’s one of the more creative things I do.
13. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
Watch Atlanta United play soccer. I love Atlanta United, I’ve been a supporter since they started here in Atlanta a few years ago and I was there when they won the MLS Cup last year.
The other thing I like to do is go to United games with all of my friends. Surprisingly, because it’s a relatively new sport in Atlanta, there are a lot of people who have never been to a game. Taking someone to a United game who has never been before is legitimately one of my favorite things to do.
I know how great it is and what to expect. The pandemonium is unbeatable. But watching someone experience that for the first time, especially soccer because not a lot of people grew up with it, they’re always like. “That was so much cooler than I ever thought it would be.”
I also like to spend time with my girlfriend and my friends. I love food and going to restaurants.
14. What are some of your favorite restaurants?
Atlanta has a great food scene because we have a lot of fantastic chefs, but we’re down South, so we just like to eat anyway. I like trying out new places. There are a couple of restauranteurs who are really good, like Kevin Gillespie, he’s got great places.
He’s even got a restaurant in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium where Atlanta United plays. He’s got a great chicken sandwich called the “Closed on Sunday,” which is a nod to Chick-fil-A. The name has come full circle now with Kanye’s new album. Kevin beat him on that one. Ye might need to credit Kevin Gillespie for that. I hope he’s got some publishing on that new album.
15. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
I like to read funny books. I think How To Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young is a good one. I also like books that are based on historical events, like The Big Short, which was turned into a movie. It was about the economic housing crisis of 2008. Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell were in it. The book is really fantastic because it gives a whole lot of factual information about how the economics of it all worked, while also noting the absurdity of it all.
16. Who's someone you look to as a constant source of inspiration, whether on a personal or professional level?
I’ve had different role models and mentors throughout my career. I mentioned Leslie, who is still a great personal friend. I was close to TK, the studio owner at Silent Sound. I learned a lot from his business acumen.
But I got a great piece of advice from my brother when I turned 30. I was going through it and he was like, “Look at all you’ve done yourself. You need to be your own role model.” This is my younger brother who told me this, and I was like, “Damn, that’s really good.”
So with that in mind, I like to hold myself accountable to make sure that I’m doing the best thing for myself. While I love to learn from people and I still do, I think I’ve kind of moved role models a little further to the background.
Everybody is different, so you need to be able to adapt to the world yourself. Learn from the people that you know have done a great job, but do it in your own way once you’re able to stand on your own.
On a personal level, I’ve always been a big fan of my family. They’re really wonderful and they always help me on the personal side of things. But on the professional side of things, I think it’s important to have a mentor when you’re starting out, but eventually, once you start cutting your own path, you need to be your own role model. You need to do it for yourself.
17. What are some of your favorite albums of all time?
I really like albums that are ahead of their time, but you have to get it in the moment. It’s always easy to see that something was ahead of its time when you look back at it. But if you’re listening to it and you’re like, “People ain’t ready for this, but it’s still really good.” I think there’s something fantastic about that because they’ve hit the perfect blend of forward-thinking but it’s also working in the current market at least on some level. They’re challenging the listener to move forward. When you see an album that you know is going to change the way stuff is, that’s great.
The first album that really impacted me that way was Blue Lines by Massive Attack. That album was the quintessential mid-90s downtempo U.K. sound. Everybody started doing that. The thing was they did it in 1991 like literally several years ahead of all of that. Nobody started doing that until 1995.
The other one, shoutout to Kanye West with 808s and Heartbreaks. That dude put Auto-Tune on his voice and everybody was like “He’s not coming with the raps, he’s not hard.” I’m like, “Guys, he’s a million miles ahead of you. You won’t even catch up. He’s about to usher in an entire generation.”
It was one of his least successful albums commercially, but it’s still one of my favorite albums from him. Auto-Tune on raps? People just weren’t ready for that yet. And now we have Thug, Future, I could go on. Now people just call it rap but he redefined it literally over 10 years before it happened.
Those aren’t necessarily my two favorite albums. I have albums that I am more a fan of than these two albums, but I love what these albums did and what those artists can do. That’s the power of music. That’s when music is the strongest it can be; when you change the whole architecture of what’s to come.
18. What has changed most about your style or technique over the years?
In recent times, I found out that it’s more about the collaboration than it is about you. One of my favorite things about starting a mix is feeling like I can do anything I want. Now, I feel like people don’t collaborate in music as much as they used to. People are kind of on their own island now.
A lot of these new acts that I’m mixing records for, they’ve never had a record mixed before. They’ve never even worked with an engineer. They record themselves, they do the rough mix themselves and they produce it themselves. They’ve literally never had anybody be like “You should change this.” So they’re very protective of their own music. Rightfully so, they’re the artist and the producer, it should be the way they want.
What I’ve come to learn is, it’s not about what I think is right or wrong, it’s about helping them figure out what’s best for them. I approach mixes differently now, just like how can I make what’s here the best version of itself?
Instead of saying this reverb is trash, we should throw it away, I talk to them and find out why they like the reverb so I can make it the best it can be. I’ve changed my approach to help people perfect what they have, as opposed to tearing down what I don’t like and forcing ideas on them.
That can lead to greatness, but I can still collaborate with them in their own space. That’s a big thing that I do for my clients. I want to collaborate with you in your space. I don’t want you to have to come to me. I’m going to come to you and make it work in your space so you’re the most comfortable.
I don’t ask for stems. I just ask what they produce in and use that DAW. I’ll take the session and figure out how to make it work with my setup. I don’t want to make them come out of their creative moment. If they love the mix and they want to add a new synth, they can do that in their DAW. So the creative process, all the way through the mixing stage, is in the arena that they built it in.
19. What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without?
The iMac, man. It’s the brain. I’ve had tons of great computers over the years, but the iMac has been game-changer. When I switched to iMacs from towers I was like “I’m getting a lot of good computer for not a lot of money.” I’ve been really happy with that.
If it was anything other than that, it would be the Barefoots, for sure. Cause you can’t spend $100 million on a submarine and skimp on the latch. You want to make sure what you’re putting into it is what you’re getting out.
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring engineers?
Get close to the people that inspire you. Figure out how to work with them, under them, adjacent to them, anything you can do to learn from them. I love internet resources. I hope somebody gets something from this interview, but it’s not the same. Somebody like Pensado is amazing, putting resources online on another level. Most people online haven’t done it like he has. So there’s a lot of info out there that’s not as reliable as learning from the pros themselves.
If you have a guy or girl who inspires you, get close to them and learn from them directly. Because even if they do interviews and YouTube tutorial videos, you’ll only learn the real ins and outs if you’re close to them. Spend time with the people who inspire you and you’ll be inspired.
To hear Miles Walker's work in action, listen to the selected tracks below from Kygo, OMI, and NOTD below.