Koen Heldens: The Flying Dutchman
Henrik Andersson Vogel, September 2013

Despite his young age, Los Angeles based mixing engineer Koen Heldens has already worked on multi-platinum winning recordings with artists such as Beyoncé, Lil Wayne, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Rihanna and many others. We caught up with him for a few words.

We googled you and found a remark saying that you have developed a signature sound as a mix engineer. Do you agree with that, and if so, how would you describe it? What's typical for a Koen Helden mix?
Generally I tend to think that us mix engineers leave our mark on the records we mix whether it's intentional or not. In regards to my sound, I have been praised for my hard hitting, aggressive forward leaning sound with an "in-your-face" presence and silky top end. I love to paint a 3D picture of sound.

Tube-Tech Classic Channel is in my opinion the very best plug-in emulation of a real hardware unit. It shines on lead vocals and acoustic guitars.

Some mix engineers and producers miss no opportunity to mention their signature sound, while others take great pride in not having a signature sound. What's your take on that?
In my opinion, our job as the mixing engineer is to take what the producer has created in his rough and bring that vision to the next level. All mix engineers have their own "sound" and no one sounds the same. Our taste at the end of the day is what makes or breaks our career. As Dave Pensado famously quoted: "It's better to sound new than to sound good. But the great ones do both."

Do you have a routine way of approaching a mix, for example always starting with the drums?
I'm very organized when I work. I won't start a mix until I have completely organized the session including color coding every single track and audio region. While I do that, I listen to the producer's rough mix for the very first time and try to capture the emotion and vision of the record.

Tonelux Tilt is everything I need to start off my mixes. Whenever a sound is too dull or bright, I'm capable of fixing it in a split of a second rather than minutes. Tilt should be a mandatory tool for every single DAW!

Starting the actual mix, my golden rule is to always start off with the vocals. I won't do any fader rides at that point. I leave those for the end of the mix. It's the emotion the singer has recorded that makes the song a song and it's my task as the mixer to make the singer shine like a star.

The vocals are followed by the drums and bass, which are followed by the lead instrument. From there on I'll continue to fly other instrumentation on and off in the mix to see what works in the bigger picture, where to place them and what won't work until I have a solid final mix version.

Where do you usually work? Do you have your own studio?
I'm fortunate enough to be blessed with my own spot. Acoustically designed by myself as well. It allows me to work with more freedom. However from time to time an artist or producer might have me mixing in a commercial studio across town.

On some of the pics we got of you, you're sitting by a large format analog console. Do you actually use an analog console while working?
The recording industry has changed drastically over the past few years. Thanks to software developers as yourselves, plug-ins nowadays sound virtually like their analog ancestors. I've worked without a console for over a year now. Plug-ins also make it a lot easier for us, mix engineers, to work on multiple sessions at the same time. With little to no recall times. Something that was impossible just a few years ago.

The FET Compressor is just in a league of its own, even though I've used the analog hardware unit for years.

So here's this Dutch kid that moves to the US, gets mentored by Dave Pensado and starts working on multi-platinum records. How on earth did that happen?
Some say by fluke, I call it destiny. From a very early age on my parents knew I was going to be involved in music.

I remember reading one of Dave Pensado's first interviews in a magazine. He left his personal email address at the end of the article and encouraged readers to email him but with a disclaimer that he would only respond back if it sparked his brain. I think I wrote a dozen emails before I got a reply back, but we've been friends ever since and I've learned a tremendous amount of knowledge from him.

My move to the US happened when I was an inhouse engineer at a commercial studio in Holland and I worked a session for an American producer. He liked what I did and invited me to come to New York for a few weeks to intern, and the rest is history.

Any unfulfilled dreams about the future that you'd like to share?
I'd like to change the recording industries current business model.

How so?
The recording industry has never accepted the day and age of Internet. Piracy is at an ultimate high and most teenagers don't grasp the fact that downloading without paying is stealing.

There are some revenue models that are very lucrative for creators of music to make a decent living. Ad based and manufacturers. Via these ways we are able to hand our music out for free to the consumer but put the bill towards the companies and manufactures. Music has become the new business card.

The Dyna-mite is a hidden gem, a secret weapon and a forgotten legend.

We're glad to hear you're working with Softube's plug-ins. Please share a bit on what your favorites are and how you usually use them.
Tube-Tech Classic Channel is in my opinion the very best plug-in emulation of a real hardware unit. It shines on lead vocals and acoustic guitars. The Tube-Tech PE 1C "Pultec" Equalizer is also perfectly suited for bringing out massive solid low end on the kick drum. It's therefore found exclusively on the parallel "Kik Lo" chain of the kick drum in all of my mixing sessions, using the famous "Pultec trick" of boosting and attenuating the same amount of dB at exactly the same frequency. There's no other equalizer like this out there!

The Tube-Tech ME 1B Mid-Range Equalizer is great to bring vocals forward in the mix. I also love it on the parallel "Snr Mid" chain of the snare drum, it really brings the snare to life. And the Tube-Tech CL 1B Compressor is by far the best vocal compressor I have ever heard. It's extremely smooth yet controlling, and this one can be found exclusively on my lead vocals in 90% of all my mixing sessions.

The Summit Audio Grand Channel is also very nice. The Summit Audio EQF-100 Full Range Equalizer is my favorite carving tool for bass and the Summit Audio TLA-100A Compressor is ideal to control bass or vocals, much like its cousins LA2A and LA3A. Just set and forget.

Tube-Tech CL 1B is by far the best vocal compressor I have ever heard. It's extremely smooth yet controlling, and it can be found on the lead vocals in 90% of all my mixing sessions.

But what got me to like Softube in the first place was the FET Compressor. It's in a league of its own, even though I've used the analog hardware unit for years. It's my go-to compressor for backing vocals. Knocking off 6 dB gets me a thickly compressed sound with tons of texture. It also works great as keyboard and bass parallel.

The Valley People Dyna-mite is a hidden gem, a secret weapon and a forgotten legend. There used to be four of them in Clearlake Audio when I worked there, and they're just great for adding kick drum punch and also on the snare channel. I normally use the limiter set to AVG on the kick and PK on the snare, both in parallel.

Last but not least, Tonelux Tilt and Tilt Live is everything I need to start off my mixes. Whenever a sound is too dull or bright, I'm capable of fixing it in a split of a second rather than minutes. Tonelux Tilt and Tilt Live should be a mandatory tool for every single DAW!

Freelance writer.