Ralf Christian Mayer is counted among the top music producers in Germany. Many of his colleagues describe his sound as distinctive – and his sound is one of the reason a lot of musicians are choosing Ralf as their producer. For Ralf, however, it’s very hard to characterize his sound but he tells us about the skills and experiences that contributed to his successes and he explains why every mix is a still a challenge.
Mark Forster, die fantastischen Vier, Clueso, Massive Töne, Cro, Afrob, Fury in the Slaughterhouse, Zimmer90 and many other well-known artists already worked with Ralf Christian Mayer and a lot of them also celebrated crucial successes with him.
Successes measured in records and emotions
Success is defined differently for a lot of people: For some it’s awards and vast recognition, for others it’s the creation of something that touches lastingly. When the latter leads to the former, the best of both worlds is achieved. In his career of 34 years, the skills and talents of Ralf Christian Mayer as a music producer, mix and mastering engineer did often lead to both forms of success.
Despite all the “official” recognition Ralf received, for him the more significant ones are those that allowed him to truly connect with an artist. The emotions that are inspired by such encounters can create music that “grabs you with the first chord and you instantly want to know how the story continues. These are often no technical masterpieces but emotional ones”, as he describes it.
Between a chaotic person and tradesman
Ralf’s path started out with him being a trained retail salesman at a music store and being part of a band whose music he recorded with a tape recorder. By coincidence he met the owner of the Tucan studios for whom he mixed advertising music. One thing led to another and today he runs his own studio in Berlin. “It took me quite a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew it the moment when I started to record things in the studio. Back then, I never would have believed that I would be where I am today”, says Ralf.
Ambition, courage and curiosity led him on his path and are still qualities that drive him every day. “I always look for new ways. I try a lot and think that you have to have this burning to be successful in this business. On one hand you have to be a chaotic person to allow creativity to flow, and on the other hand you need the characteristics of a tradesman to be able to plan and be reliable.” Soft skills and artistic sensitivity are a crucial part of his job too. He explains: “In my life a few tragic things happened but I needed them in order to do my job the way I do it today. They gave me the depth to feel music like I do.”
Trying ideas with a focus
Ralf wasn’t aware of his talents and skills for a long time. “Some people liked what I did. Even when I was working with die fantastischen Vier, I was oblivious to my skills. I was always terrified – when I was mixing something for Herbert Grönemeyer or when Sting came to my studio to record the vocals for “Deep in the meadow” – I had a migraine for two days prior to that.” Today, he’s aware of his skills and calls himself an alpha. “I can be a strong alpha when I sit at my mixing desk with musicians sitting behind me but I always keep a sensorium open to everybody in the room. I can feel it when there is a dissonant vibe going on – even when nothing is said. I have to try things first before ideas are talked down. It’s very important to try ideas and that there is room for everyone to contribute them but to address every idea immediately would cause that a lot of them get lost – I am focused and once I present the result, everyone is welcome to criticize.”
About demoitis and crutches
Despite his vast experience, for Ralf every mix is still a challenge. “When an aspiring producer – who are often well schooled musically and are talented – hands you a mix with a huge amount of plug-ins in the sum then it already sounds quite good. But only by working on the single tracks, I can achieve 100%. The path to a final mix can be very difficult. Sometimes a final mix that’s cleaned up and consistent, doesn’t necessarily sound better than the rough mix. Most labels or managements listen to the demo more often than to the final mix. They have something like a ‘demoitis’ and like the demo better because there might something be missing from the final mix – most of the time it’s actually an emotion. You have to say ‘fuck it’ if you have to leave the idea behind of getting 100% out of the sound in order to go more towards the roughmix. The most important thing is that the mix feels good.”
When mixing, he has high demands on himself but no fixed strategy. Ralf says: “A lot of producers and mixers are doing the same thing every time. I always do things differently and I seldomly use the same plug-in for the bass drum or use the same microphone. It can help to have a basic setting but to stick with it is more like a crutch for me. I prefer to start everything from scratch – it can happen that I start a session and don’t remember which EQ I used the last time. I own a lot of plug-ins.”
Smart plug-ins in selective action
One of the plug-ins Ralf uses constantly in his workflow is smart:limit. “I use smart:limit everywhere. I even mix over it. Meaning that I let him do his thing in the genre and turn down the level a bit, so it doesn’t hit the limit of Spotify. Then I work over it. That way he already glues together the song a bit.” This technique allows him to get a fairly good idea right at the beginning of what the final mix will sound like.
Ralf uses the intelligent processing of smart:EQ 3 in the specific case when he wants to highlight something characteristic: “Due to smart:EQ 3 creating a balance, I analyze what it does and turn it in the opposite direction. Sometimes I manage to accentuate what makes an instrument or voice very unique with this approach.” Although he takes a critical stance toward automatic processing – especially when EQing – Ralf appreciates the possibilities the smart plug-ins by sonible offer: “There are cases when a recording is so bad that it’s very hard to fix the voice. I let smart:EQ 3 learn, listen at what its suggesting and go from there.”