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Billy Hickey is a GRAMMY-nominated recording and mix engineer based in the Los Angeles area. Best known for his work with chart-topping artists such as Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Usher, Hickey has recorded a wide variety of acts ranging from rock, hip-hop, jazz, classical, and more.
Last year, Billy upgraded his studio with an immersive Dolby Atmos mixing rig, powered by Kali Audio IN-5 studio monitors. We recently sat down with Billy to catch up on how he’s liking his new Kali monitors, some of his go-to gear, and what he thinks of mixing in Dolby Atmos.
How did you get started in the world of audio?
I started in high school playing drums badly in a band. At the time, I had a friend who bought an old Tascam Portastudio and one mic. Because I was the drummer, everything sort of got left at my house. Before long, I was more interested in how we were recording the band, not so much playing in it. I knew by the time I had graduated high school that I didn’t want to be a musician—I wanted to be an engineer.
Did you have a particular engineer earlier in your career that you looked up to? Maybe just an engineer that has always inspired you?
I’ve not met him, but I’ve always been a fan of Steve Albini’s work. I think the way he works (being strictly analog) stands out more today than it did 15 years ago; it forces bands to work a different way than they would with everyone else. I think his process makes great-sounding music.
What inspired you to upgrade to a Dolby Atmos mixing rig?
Atmos had been discussed in the industry for a little while, and I had already had a few projects that I worked on sent out to be mixed in atmos. A friend had recommended I download the atmos renderer and experiment, just on headphones to see what it was all about. I realized it's more than just about panning things around, but rather finding a whole new way to present a mix to the listener. I knew that if I wanted to be a part of this new way of working, I needed to go full-scale and get a full atmos setup for myself.
What's your monitor setup look like?
For stereo mixing, I switch between Yamaha NS-10s and Bower & Wilkins 805s. For Dolby Atmos, I thought it would be better to have the same monitor for all positions instead of mixing and matching, so I have a full Kali Audio setup consisting of IN-5 monitors all around with their Project Watts sub.
What drew you to Kali monitors specifically?
I actually have my VK sales rep to thank for that. Michael Carnarius recommended them to me when I first spoke to him about Atmos. He even set up a visit for me to the Kali audio showroom in Los Angeles for me to hear the monitors in action. After that, I was sold!
What are some of your favorite features?
There are a surprising number of helpful features. First off, the mounting brackets for the IN-5-C’s are really helpful since I know its properly built into to the speaker and not just something bolted on afterward, which is important for something hanging over my head all day. I’m also really impressed with their sound. They aren’t “hyped” like many other monitors these days. Instead, they sound very accurate, but also musical and easy to listen to. I know a big part of that is that they are actually a 3-way speaker while most of their counterparts in price and size are 2-way, but I don’t really care about that, just so long as they sound good!
What’s your go-to microphone for recording?
The ELA M 251. For what I do, it’s going to work a good 99% of the time. Compared to a U47, a 251 still has that upper midrange presence; the U47 is a little more hollow there, and it helps with harsh-sounding voices. The 251 has that nice balanced thing, where it’s present without being harsh, and still has a nice bottom to it. For what I’m doing, it’s perfect.
What are some of your favorite EQs?
As far as in-the-box, I love the analog-modeled stuff, like the UAD. It’s amazing. For problem-solving, I use that FabFilter Pro-Q 3. On the master bus, I love the Chandler Curve Bender sometimes. I’m also a fan of using things that aren’t EQ to achieve EQ-style moves. For example, the UAD ATR-102 plug-in has that way of bringing out the top end—it’s not an EQ plugin, but I’m using it for that EQ effect that it has, you know?
How about compressors?
If we’re talking recording, my first choice would be the Tube-Tech CL 1B. The runner-up is of course the 1176. What I like about the CL 1B is that it’s like, bulletproof. I like that you can just use it for control and keep it clean, or you can hit it hard and get some grit and body out of it. It’s really versatile. If we’re talking in-the-box, it changes every day.
You mentioned you do a lot of your work in-the-box—are there a couple of plug-ins you constantly utilize?
I tend to reach for SSL-style EQs because they’re really flexible and utilitarian and they work well. I use the Brainworx SSL J Channel model on vocals all the time. I love the TMT technology on theirs—it’s what sets them apart. The small discrepancies between channels like you get on a console—they were the first to nail that.
99% of my delays are Soundtoys Echoboy or Echoboy Jr, just because they’re fast. I love the “drag” feature. There’s something powerful about being able to set something up fast and having it just work, and those work that way for me. Another example, on “thank u, next” [by Ariana Grande]—that vocal reverb is Little Plate, the free one. It’s literally like one control. But it’s great.
Are there any gear pieces you’ve always wanted
If you’d asked me that five years ago, I would’ve said a Telefunken ELA M 251, because I have the rest of a great vocal chain—I’ve got a Neve preamp and a CL 1B. I came very close to pulling the trigger on my own 251.
Mixing-wise, I have no want. I have a few hardware pieces that I reach for every once in a while, but really I mostly work in-the-box. I’m not really big on trying to change up monitors often, so I don’t really lust after those much either. My setup has NS-10s, a set of B & W’s that I would consider my more full-res monitors, and I’ve had those for like 15 years, so I really know the sound of them.
I suppose honestly I’d say my answer would be my next computer. That seems to be the next step forward. If anything, the one thing I’d be most excited about is just my next studio build. I’ve got my current one where I need it, but I have a lot of ideas about how I would approach the next one from the ground up.
What does the average day in the studio look like for you lately?
I try to maintain about a 10 am to 6 pm schedule each day. I mix from home, so I’m also constantly being pulled aside for other things, but that’s actually good for me sometimes. Personally, I can only work for so long in one sitting—I can’t just sit for five hours. I’ll start with something first that I have notes on; I’m most productive midday, so in the morning it’s nice to start with something easy. By the end of the day, I’m usually cracking something new open, even if it’s just prepping for the next day.
What’s the most inspirational part of the music-making process for you?
For me these days, it’s definitely mixing. I’ll tell you why: as my career’s gravitated toward pop stuff, the recording aspect for me the majority of the time is just recording vocals. Really helping shape the tones of records is what got me into this field, so mixing allows me to go back to doing that. Plus, mixing in Atmos has been really exciting.
How do you think Dolby Atmos will change how we consume and create music?
That is a hard question to answer. At first, I doubted Atmos and thought it was just the second coming of 5.1, which was just the second coming of Quad, both of which were largely failed formats. But I think the key feature is the fact that it is based around an encoding and decoding system that's scaleable which means that you can listen on headphones, a soundbar, or a surround system, and enjoy the “atmos experience” to one degree or another.
With more and more people listening on those types of systems rather than the traditional “stereo” setup, I think atmos can easily be enjoyed by most of the public already. Unfortunately, I think music is still largely produced with just a stereo mix in mind and the atmos is often an afterthought, with DAWs like Logic incorporating Atmos rendering into their software, more and more artists will begin making music with Atmos in mind from the start!
Are you working on any exciting Dolby Atmos projects you can share with us?
Unfortunately, nothing I can divulge at the moment, but there are some fun projects coming down the pipeline. Atmos is meant to help the listener experience music in a new and different way and that's what I’m focused on doing.
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