The Pool - Producer Ben Hillier Interview
It's been a good 4 years since we sat down to chat to our longterm business partner and good friend, Ben Hillier about The Pool recording studio: the tracking room we've been running together for several years at Miloco's HQ in London. Since then the Pool has been through a major transformation, and, most recently, had another vast injection of analogue gear thanks to the arrival of a new partner, Johan Ekelund. Ben has also worked with everyone from Depeche Mode to Graham Coxon in that time, as well as a selection of new bands and artists such as Beth Jeans Houghton, Dennis Hopper Choppers, Nadine Shah and Plugs. As such, we all agreed it was high time to reconvene...
So how is everything going?
Good thanks. I'm running around finishing projects off before our first baby arrives, then I can have a few weeks off and not sleep properly!
You're currently working with a band called Plugs. How's the record shaping up?
Good thanks. We've just finished mixing it, so we're a couple of recalls and mastering away from a full album. Really good musicians and strong songs, and although this is their first album they feel like a much more experienced and established band.
It's been about 4 years since we last sat down to talk all things Pool. There's been a fair bit of water under the bridge since then! What's been your favourite projects you've done in there over the last couple of years?
Well, I did two albums with Graham Coxon. It's always a joy to work with someone as talented and inspirational as Graham and we got a lot of the modular synths out and made outlandish sounds! I also did an album with Beth Jeans Houghton. Beth's got a really broad sonic palette so it was great to have all the different instruments available for her to experiment with, and we had choirs and string sections and all-sorts in. More recently I finished an album that I've been co-writing and recording with Nadine Shah. She's really talented and very open in her approach to both writing and recording so we could build a very special album from the ground up. She also happens to have one of the best voices I've heard in ages, which is handy!
Two years ago we of course completely restructured the studio to include a brand new control room and booth. You of course prefer to use the traditional layout of having a no-separation room to work in with a band, but speaking to other producers who have used the control room conventionally, how successful do you think the new design and layout has been?
It seems to have been very well received, it's nice to see a few different faces coming in, people who weren't comfortable working without a control room, and it makes the studio much more flexible. Having extra booths is very useful and the whole place feels more comfortable and finished, which is nice!
The reconstruction gave producers and engineers more options when recording. By moving the control room equipment into the live space you make the control room itself available as an additional booth. How do you make use of the space and what sort of sound does the room yield?
The studio now works exactly how I wanted it to. I can set the band up around the control area so the communication is fantastic, no-one has to be locked away out of sight, everyone's in touch with what's happening, and I've got 2 big booths and an amp box for separation. So when we're recording a full band we all work on headphones, we hear what the band hear so it's very easy to notice anything that might be putting them off their performance. When it comes to over-dubbing I've found that most bands like to be in the control room so they can hear the best possible mix. We can separate any amps and have lots of room near the speakers. There's also loads of room to set up all the synths and other stuff and it not get in the way.
And have you been pleased with the results you've got from the new drum booth?
It's a surprisingly versatile room. With the main room acoustic being so well controlled I always felt I needed a booth that could have a really active acoustic, somewhere you could put a drum kit or percussionist and it would just explode. So we took a slightly unconventional approach and made the room really live, but put easily removable absorbent panels on the walls to deaden it down when you need a more controlled space. So with the panels up and the carpet down it's a nice tight sounding booth but then take all that out and I've even used it as a reverb chamber.
A large, custom-built amp box was built when the whole studio was remodelled. What was the idea behind this particular creation?
It's just to make isolation easier when we're tracking. We've made an almost sound-proof box big enough to put an Ampeg 8x10 in, close the door and it won't spill on to your acoustic guitar mics!
Of course the studio is now entering another brand new stage in its life with a whole load of gear arriving thanks to Johan Ekelund. Talk us though some of the gear Johan is bringing and what most excites you about his collection?
Well there's a big collection of classic Neve pre-amps, nine of the 1079s (class-A amplifiers with a 3-band EQ similar to the 1066) and nine of the super-fat 1272s. So put them together with my Neve 542 side-car and you can easily record a whole session without straying away from the vintage Neve sound if you want. All the EQs are also very useful and was one area where I thought we were lacking before. I'm also really enjoying the vintage digital effects, the Ursa-major and the EMT reverb are getting a lot of use. And the UA176 really pumps, a really amazing vintage compressor.
Is there any of your own recent purchases now on the spec which you've had particular joy with and which you'd like to tell us about?
I've been adding to the drums quite a bit. I've had most of the snare drums renovated, so we have a Ludwig 402, and a 1940s Slingerland Radioking as well as a vintage Mitchell steel-shell (a great clangy-sounding early Japanese slingerland copy, very Meters). We're also the proud new owners of a great 1964 Premier kit and my old Hayman kit is soon to be returned from long-term loan. We should be covered for drum kits then!
The EMT console was acquired after we last spoke. How did you find this rare desk and how has it benefitted the studio?
The desk came from a studio in Berlin, we had to hire a van and drive all the way over there to pick it up. A friend of mine had a 10 channel version and he loved it, the EQ sounds great and when you drive the mix buss you get this great saturation. Our one is a 30 channel, 8-buss console and we've modified it to give direct outs, so you can use the very nice mic-pre's or bounce any EQ or balances if you want. On Graham Coxon's album we liked the sound of the roughs so much that we ended up doing the final mixes through the EMT, the mix buss sounds really amazing!
Do you have any future additions to the spec and studio in mind?
I quite fancy getting a few more guitar amps, it'd be nice to be able to offer a bit more variety on that department. Maybe even some more esoteric guitars, a semi-acoustic perhaps. And I think we might add a few more mics.
Due to the extremely popular demand for The Pool, you've moved into your own private smaller room at Miloco's Leroy Street, which you work out of when The Pool is booked. Tell us about that setup and what you've been working on in there...
I've been using my small room for overdubs, mixing and writing. It's a bit like when I used to have a studio at home, more of a personal space. I can leave all my stuff set up, not have to clear away at the end of each session. I also spent a while on the acoustics and speakers to get to a monitoring system that works for me. I'm not very keen on mixing in the box so I spent a while trying to find a way that will work for me. I've ended up with a setup that is half in the box (using software called Reaper which sounded the best to me) and half analogue summing. It seems rather complicated but I'm happy with it and with it not being a commercial studio it's not a problem that no-one else can work how my studio works! It's very handy being in the Leroy street complex because I can share bits of gear with the Pool when they're not being used.
Dwindling budgets and closing studios have meant many producers have now moved into small private rooms, especially for mixing purposes. Do you feel that the commercial mix studio could be confined to history before long?
Dwindling budgets have definitely had a big effect, however, I think the concept of the mix engineer has also become more all pervading which I think is a mixed blessing (if you'll pardon the pun). I could write a whole essay on this but I'll spare you! Either way, mixing is increasingly done by specialist mixers who don't do anything apart from mix. It's a lot easier for them if they work in the same studio all the time because they can set it up exactly how they want it. So I think large commercial mix rooms will increasingly become private facilities as the amount of "all-rounders" diminishes.
A lot is said about the state of the music industry today, and there are many different opinions on what might be going wrong. What do you think should be done to improve the industry for everyone concerned?
Things have changed a lot in the last 5 years. I can understand that incomes have dropped but no-one seems willing to invest in making a good record. I find this very shortsighted, the music industry still makes a large amount of money from re-issuing old (usually high quality) recordings, but I feel the quality of a lot of recent recordings is being compromised due to budget constraints. A good album will be an asset for years, a bad album will stop an artists career before they've even had a chance. As producers (and studio owners) we're all working out ways of making records to a standard that we find acceptable but increasingly that involves more investment from us and less from the label. Either we're going to have to find a way of making that investment worthwhile for us or labels are going to have to start working to a more long-term model.
On a brighter note, what records have been released recently which you have found particularly exciting and which have stood out as being noteworthy productions?
I've been really enjoying the King Creosote/John Hopkins album "Diamond Mine" and P J Harvey's "Let England Shake" is a fantastic record.
You teamed up with Ben Nicholls to make the brilliant Dennis Hopper Choppers debut which has recently been released. How did this gig come about and what attracted you to working with Ben and the Choppers?
I've known Ben for more than 20 years, he's played on loads of recordings for me and a few years ago he did the first Dennis Hopper Choppers album ("Chop LP") as a one-man band. I thought that was a really good record and when he approached me saying that he wanted some help with making the second album with a bigger band I jumped at the chance. Ben's got a really talented bunch of musicians to call on and we ended up recording most of the backing tracks live with an 8-piece band over a couple of days in the Pool. Then Ben did a lot of the overdubs himself at his studio and we mixed it in my small studio.
Two other forthcoming albums you've been busy producing are the debuts by Nadine Shah and Beth Jeans Houghton, two more very interesting and original artists. Care to give us a quick briefing on what we have in store with these two records?
Both those albums are finished, Beth's signed to Mute now and the album we recorded is coming out in the new year. Nadine's is ready to master.
With Nadine's record we ended up with two different types of song, one based around piano and vocal and the other with a full band. We decided to record the album in two separate sessions. We wanted to make a very atmospheric, emotive record so we found a dark, creaky (and very cold!) warehouse in Newcastle with an amazing reverb and recorded all the piano songs up there, using only acoustic reverb. We then set up a 6-piece band in the Pool (with a full PA to really fill the room and get good internal balance) and recorded the band tracks live using mainly room-mics to get a sound that worked the same way as the piano tracks.
You also produced and mixed the forthcoming Graham Coxon album, which was done completely in The Pool. How might your role as producer differ between working with the likes of Graham, and then fresh, new names such as Nadine and Beth who have less experience of their own in the studio?
The main difference is that someone like Graham has loads of experience in the studio, knows and understands how it all works and its very easy to get a lot done very quickly. For a less experienced artist you have to remember to let them know what you're up to (whilst it might seem obvious to the more experienced artists that you're going to spend the next half-an-hour comping drums, and it might not constitute their most exciting studio experience, a newer artist can get easily bored and lose focus.) But often new artists have an idea of how they'd like to record their album, and whilst it might not be conventional it can often be quite enlightening.
You've had a strong association with Miloco for a while now, and have seen several Miloco assistants come through the ranks and become good engineers in their own right. What do you feel is the most important thing for young and aspiring engineers to get right when they set out at the start of their careers?
The first thing is to be able to slot into a team well, if the session requires you to do nothing but make tea then make really good tea at just the right time and don't feel like you're not contributing. They've got to get up to scratch technically as quickly as possible, they need to know how to problem solve and accurately find faults, they need to be confident with things like digital clocking and file management, because if you get that wrong you'll compromise your whole session, and they need to understand signal paths and patching, that way they can use any desk, any patchbay and theoretically any synth. Engineers need to be one step ahead all the time, always have an extra mic ready so when someone starts singing that really good idea, you can record it gets forgotten. But I think the most important thing is to work from the ground up. If you're recording a drum kit that sounds crap, tune it or change it so that it sounds good before you put any microphones anywhere near it. Make sure the artists have good monitoring so the can play in tune/in time before you start fixing it digitally, and I suppose the real trick is to try and work with the good artists, they're much easier!
Ben Hillier was talking to Miloco in September 2011.
Ben is represented by 140dB Management. To view his CV, Biog and more on Ben's work, visit the 140dB website: www.140db.co.uk/producers/ben-hillier