In the summer of 2007, roughly a year after The Pool was built, Miloco sat down with record producer Ben Hillier – a man central to the room’s design and realisation – to discuss many things, amonst them: the unique ideas he had behind the studio’s design and musical aims; the artists, producers and engineers who have worked in there over the last year; and much, much more. Here’s the first instalment of the Ben Hillier Producer Interviews at Miloco.
MILC: So how are you, Ben?
Ben: Yes, fine thanks.
MILC: Enjoying the British summer?
Ben: Well I am now, now that it’s decided to be summer at last. Although I enjoy a bit of rain actually…
MILC: Easier for cycling I guess…
Ben: Yeah it’s a bit too hot now… tiring me out!!
MILC: How’s the work schedule looking? Are there any projects you are currently/soon-to-be w orking on that you’d like to tell us about?
Ben: Yes I’m very busy – got lots of things that have all come together. I’ve got The Rascals in this week, The Courteeners next week, both doing EP’s, and then I’m starting an album with a new band called The Leashores.
MILC: So The Rascals session is going well this week…?
Ben: Yeah really well. They’re really good actually, enjoying it.
MILC: You of course have a very close working relationship with Miloco, having played a hugely pivotal role in the creation of Miloco 8: The Pool, which of course contains large amounts of your own personal equipment. What inspired you to become so heavily involved in transforming our former ‘storeroom’ into the unique live tracking room it now is?
Ben: It was the fact that I couldn’t really find any inspiring studios to record in, in London. There are lots of great mix rooms, and lots of well set-up recording rooms, but nothing with a really inspiring space. So, I’d collected all this gear over the years and was taking it all around the country, the world even, and setting up studios in spaces to create an exciting studio environment. You know, an unusual studio environment, something a bit more creative than your average studio. I just got a bit fed-up with being away from home, to be honest. I had a small studio in Brixton, and I spent about two years looking for a building to set up a larger studio with a few other producers. But with the state of building prices in London, it meant that things were just being sold for flats, so I couldn’t find anything. I’d used this room before, and just spent a while discussing with Nick about turning it into a studio, and we eventually did it. It just let me create that really interesting environment.
MILC: So the concept of the room was to mainly build something a bit different…
Ben: Yeah. The idea was to create a studio with more of a musical emphasis than a purely technical one. The reason that studios are traditionally built the way they are is to control the sound, and to separate the control room from the live area, purely from a technical point of view, you know, so you can hear things more easily in the control room and you can hone-in on sounds. Live rooms are built to control the sounds, making separate spaces to put amps and drums and vocals in so you can record each thing individually, which from the technicians point of view is all very good, but from a musicians point of view it’s often quite difficult to really relax in that environment. Musicians are used to playing in rehearsal rooms and on stage, where they can all hear each other and see each other and interact physically with each other, so the idea really was to remove those barriers that were there for technical reasons and create an artistic space instead of a technical space. I find that you can get away without having a separate control room and record stuff perfectly well, and what you gain in communication and work-rate is amazing. I think The Pool is ideally suited to this way of working, because of its size and incredibly clear acoustic, spill between instruments is easy to deal with, you can have all the instruments close to hand, with the mics ready to go which makes it really quick and easy to try out ideas. It makes for a faster recording experience which is less frustrating and more creative for all involved. The fact that the room has a great, and very versatile acoustic is also a big plus.
MILC: The Pool is not of course the first studio you have built. When working with bands such as Blur, Doves and Futureheads, it has been noted that after planning the record with the band, you located a suitable location (be it Loch Ness or Morocco) to build a temporary studio specifically for the good of the record. When it came to The Pool, were there any pending records which you had in mind during the conception of the studio?
Ben: Yeah, there was stuff pending but it was more really that I’d been looking for a place for a long time, and it was the desire to do it in London. The other problem I find with doing stuff outside of London is, unless you’re near where the band is, then everybody spends a lot of time traveling and everybody spends a lot of time away from home, not always ideal for bands who spend so much time touring. I could still do that if I wanted to, but, recording in London in this sort of environment was impossible.
MILC: So you couldn’t find what you were after in London, but were there any other studios outside London that you had worked in prior to building The Pool, that heavily influenced the construction, or was it in fact a strong originality you were seeking, due to not finding exactly what you wanted anywhere else?
Ben: Well, yeah all those ones that we set up. Even with Elbow we used to build a lot of stuff even though we were working at Parr Street. Parr Street’s a very big space. The live room at Parr Street is very similar to The Pool actually – high ceilings, a very dead, tight acoustic. So we used to build all sorts of things in there. We built two different studios for Blur, and we built a studio for Doves and a studio for The Futureheads. And The Pool is inspired and informed by all of them. Every time we’ve built a new studio somewhere we’ve learnt more about what you need and what you don’t need. We actually got to the point with The Futureheads, for instance, where we were using so many outboard mic pres, and changing between tracks quickly, that we didn’t really need a desk, except for monitoring. So we were only using eight faders of a 48 channel desk for headphones and monitoring. So in The Pool we decided to get a high quality line mixer (for monitoring) and a good headphone distribution system, it takes up less space, and seems better suited to the way we work in here.
MILC: Nevertheless, one point every engineer and producer who has worked in the room has made, is how original and unique it is as a recording space, with features such as the combined control room and live room. Could you explain what it is about the room’s recording process and methods that does separate it from the crowd of more conventional tracking rooms?
Ben: The way it’s set up basically is a bit like a very advanced home studio in some ways. We’ve got a really good selection of largely vintage mics and some modern ribbons as well, and then a big collection of mic pres and a couple of small side-car desks. They’re all high-quality mic pres and they all go through the patch bay direct into the Pro Tools inputs. We’ve got a high-spec Pro Tools rig, and HD3 Accel. You can record through the good mics and great mic pres direct into Pro Tools and then you monitor it back through a Chandler line mixer based on the old EMI TG mixing boards, which sounds great. So you can use that for monitoring.
MILC: You of course own a lot of the equipment in the room. Was the selection of equipment, such as the combination of vintage mics and mic pre-amps with Pro Tools, carefully picked-out to fit the room’s concept, or was there more of an emphasis on having a less-specific and more general range of gear?
Ben: Well it’s been put together very slowly really. The collection of gear has come about from the stuff I’ve bought because it sounds great, or stuff I’ve needed to solve technical problems or shortfalls in whatever studio I was working in at the time. I’ve been collecting vintage Russian mics for, well, I first tried them about ten years ago. They were great, so I started buying them then when they were really cheap – they’ve gone up a bit now unfortunately. I was turning up with mics like that because a lot of studios didn’t have them. Studios were providing you with 57’s, 58’s, U87’s and maybe one valve mic, and that was about it in those days. It’s come on a bit now, but generally you’d turn up to a recording studio and they’d have basic mics which is what you want, but I would be complimenting that collection with my own mics. When I set The Pool up, I actually had to go out and get all those “normal” mics because I didn’t have them. So like, SM57’s and all that because I had never needed them as everywhere I worked always had them, So I actually had to fill in the more normal and expected parts of the equipment list to make the studio viable.
MILC: Are there any pieces of gear in The Pool you have become dependable on for the projects you have worked on, ie. are there any gadgets which appear on all your records made in the studio?
Ben: Yeah, probably. I use quite a lot of analogue synths, like the ARP 2600, and the VCS3 which I use a lot for treating sounds, to get the sounds exactly how I want them; to create something a bit more unusual. And then I use the Chandler gear a lot, the Chandler mic pres, and have used them for quite a while just because they sound great. A lot of Russian mics and all the things I’ve been carrying around for quite a long time – I know they’ve all got fairly quirky sounds but they work great. There’s one which sounds really bright above a drum kit which is great as it makes the drum kit sound really exciting. There’s one which is really warm and round which you can put in front of a bass amp and has an amazing sustain and body to it. So it’s probably the quirkier elements of the equipment selection which I personally use the most.
MILC: With that in mind, when speaking to other producers and engineers who use the room, do there seem to be any general favourite bits and pieces?
Ben: I don’t know, I think generally people get off on the processes in there. We’ve got so many toys in there that some people I think find it a bit overwhelming. There’s so much stuff that people don’t know what it is!! But they usually get to try a few bits out and like them. But I think it’s more the working process and the fact that you can all just be in the same room and that things can happen very quickly and very spontaneously. It’s so easy to do in that sort of environment.
MILC: The room has indeed grown very popular with both engineers and musicians – the growing wall of musicians’ artwork reflects the enjoyment they get from being in there! Why do you feel the room has become so popular so quickly?
Ben: Yeah it’s interesting. The artists always seem more willing to try it than the producers. But once the producers have been in they tend to love it and then want to come back. It can be a little difficult getting them in there in the first place, I think people are worried that they’re not going to get what they want, but of course they get past that, and the bands love it because it’s such a relaxed atmosphere.
MILC: Your collection of equipment is at large in analogue formats. Do you think as digital tools become more and more prominent in studios, your assets and overall work will too become increasingly orientated around digital, as I guess would The Pool itself?
Ben: I’m not sure. As computers get more powerful there’s generally more of a ‘one computer solution’, if you like. The workstations are becoming more and more powerful, the software can handle more, operating systems can run more stuff. The Pro Tools rig is very advanced in The Pool – we’ve got a lot of stuff, a lot of plug-ins and everything. But, to be honest, although it’s great and very powerful, I find it all a little bit boring. It doesn’t really inspire me. I can’t work without it, it would be difficult to work in The Pool entirely on tape mainly because we haven’t got a desk and need ProTools as a mixer. We do have tape in there and we do use it for the sound, but it’s more for treatment really. So whilst the digital workstation is the core of the working method, there’s only so many people you can get around a computer screen. I prefer to do things out of the box, you can get more hands-on, everyone can see what’s going on and get involved. People interact and come up with ideas, things go wrong and do things you don’t expect and stuff happens that you can’t control. I find that far more interesting. Also, the more you get right into the analogue domain the better it sounds in my experience. It’s not that you can’t get good sounds within the computer, and I’ve done records which have been very computer-orientated, but I find it’s a bit more of a lone approach to making music. I like to be more inclusive and get everyone involved in it. Where ProTools really excels is sorting out the stuff you’ve created, you can make a nice big creative mess and ProTools makes it very easy to cut out the bad bits.
MILC: Since The Pool opened, you have been in there with many artists, amongst them The Horrors, The Maccabees and Stephen Fretwell. Having grown so accustomed to working in there, has your approach changed when considering projects to work on, with regard to how suitable you think the studio would be for each individual project, or do you feel it is important as a producer to weigh up all your options and consider other tracking studios too?
Ben: I like to work in The Pool because it’s how I want it. Some bands it probably won’t be suitable for. Generally I find if it’s not suitable for bands it’s because they live somewhere else, it’s usually a Geographical thing!! And to be honest I can’t remember the last time I went to a conventional studio to record an album, quite a while ago. With Depeche Mode we were working in a conventional studio, but we ended up setting up our own version of The Pool, in that although there was a control room we worked in the live room and didn’t really use the control room. So I do tend to do that wherever I go anyway. But generally when I work, if I can get people to The Pool I will, because I know I’ve got all the stuff there I need to make a good record, and it’s an inspiring environment. But I choose bands, really, on the merit of their music.
MILC: Are there any future plans for the room in mind at all?
Ben: We’ll keep on buying equipment because I’m horribly addicted to that – that’s my weakness!! We’re talking about maybe building a booth in there as an extra option, because we’ve got a large amp box which we use for bass quite a lot, so maybe a separate booth would make live recording a bit easier – of course you don’t have to use it. But it will probably be more adding equipment and expanding the collection.
MILC: Regardless of the studio you use, are there certain methods you always employ when working with an artist, resulting in each record being left with a definite ‘Ben Hillier Stamp’ on it, or do you prefer to treat each project as completely individual and approach it with a complete openness?
Ben: I’m pretty open about how I do things. I’ve got certain things that I don’t like doing; I’m not particularly into very long-winded boring processes when I’m recording, I’d rather get people to do a lot of playing. So I guess that has an influence on the sound of the records I make. Yeah I’m not big on disappearing into Pro Tools editing and doing all that kind of stuff, I find that extremely dull and actually detrimental to the music. I try and get people to perform – that would be my main thing. I guess I usually go back to using the same mics for the same thing. I try not to, but quite often you end up saying, “no go back to that one, I know it sounds great”. That probably influences the sound a fair bit…
MILC: Back in the earlier days of your career, you worked with such rock producers as Flood and Gil Norton, but also with more dance-orientated guys like Steve Osborne. Would you say the contrast of producers you worked alongside played a significant role in the formation of your own renowned style, of blending old-school analogue techniques with digital programming?
Ben: Yeah I was very lucky when I started out engineering and programming, because it was at the beginning of, I guess you could call it, ‘the digital revolution’. When I was first using Pro Tools, we were some of the first people to be doing it. And so to use it with those producers who have so much experience, and have learnt so much before digital was an option, I obviously learned a huge amount off those guys. Every single producer I worked with, even if I didn’t think they were very good – which wasn’t very many, I learned a lot from just because of their experience. They’ve made a lot of records and been in a lot of situations. To be honest, the majority of skills as a producer is interacting with the artist and making sure that their vision of their music is relaised in a way that they’re happy with. It’s more personal skills than anything, and all those guys had great personal skills. But it was good to be in that period where we had been always recording on tape and then bits of Pro Tools stuff starts seeping into the studio and you are running them simultaneously and bouncing stuff between Logic or Pro Tools and back onto tape. It was always ridiculously complicated, thankfully it’s a lot easier now.
MILC: Looking back over your already illustrious CV, it is highlighted with credits on some truly memorable records. Is there any one record you worked on which you look back on with the fondest memories, and also see as being particularly important in your development into a top producer?
Ben: I guess when I did Think Tank, that was a big turning point for me, because although there was all sorts of nonsense going on at the time over who was producing it, when the record came out it said it was me. It was great fun to do as they are really nice guys and it’s great to work with people as accomplished as them. Damon is an amazing talent, and Dave and Alex are great, and well I’ve done a lot of stuff with Graham who’s a brilliant musician. It’s really good to work with musicians of that caliber because you can learn so much, and also they had spent much of their life fighting to get to the point where they could do what they wanted so were very open about trying things, which was very inspiring.
MILC: Of course you all hopped off to Morocco for the sessions. I am sure many people would love to know how you came to interestingly choose Morocco to make the album. Care to let us all know…?
Ben: Well it was Damon actually. He’d been to a music festival there and really loved it and really got off on the way that music was treated in Morocco. It seems to us when we were there that, whereas in Britain there always seems to be a radio or background music wherever you were, they’d always have a band and people playing live music. It was a very inspiring environment – very noisy and bustling and exciting. Also at the time it was during the beginning of the whole Iraq war scandal, and we wanted to work in a Muslim country to make some point or another. And also to get out of the whole sort of ‘oh you can’t go there cos it’s too scary and you’ll die’ and all that sort of nonsense.
MILC: Are there any records you look to again and again as a type of text book of music production, to source methods and form ideas from?
Ben: Not really, I’ve got to admit, no. I mean there are songs that I’ve always loved, but it’s more with exciting new records that come out, for me.
MILC: Similarly (annoying a question it is, apologies), if there was one artist or producer you could work with, who would it be and why?
Ben: God, there are loads of them! Er… At the moment I think Nick Cave is doing some amazing stuff, both on his own and with Grinderman. I think the LCD Soundsystem stuff is wicked as well. I think they’re both really exciting, but they are both producers in their own right as well.
MILC: When did you realise that a career in music was the path for you?
Ben: Ah, when I got bored of building sites!! Well I’ve always been into it, I’ve been playing since I was ten, so…
MILC: Finally, any ideas of what you could have ended up doing, if it weren’t music?
Ben: Carpentry maybe, I like a bit of carpentry!!
Ben Hillier was talking to Miloco in the summer of 2007