Ben Hillier on Producing Blur, Mixing U2, and Priming Drums for Records

After years of engineering and mixing, Ben Hillier began his work as a producer in earnest with Elbow, a Manchester rock band with orchestral ambition that would later call its style "prog without the solos." The dense, dynamic arrangements Hillier executed would prepare him for a wide-ranging career that has seen him work with Blur, Depeche Mode, Nadine Shah, and more.

We had a chance to sit down with Hillier, who was gracious enough to share his recording wisdom and how it all got started.

Ben Hillier’s Beginnings

"I discovered the recording studio when I was a kid playing in an orchestra, which was being recorded. During a break, I followed the cables and was confronted with a control room and thought, 'Wow, this is amazing!' The engineers were really friendly, showed me around, and even asked if I’d like to assist them. I thought, 'Great!'"

Ben Hillier

Hillier continued the dream by enrolling in the University of Surrey's famous Tonmeister course, which offers a year's placement at a top recording studio. Hillier landed at London's Eden Studios, where he forged a great working relationship with producers Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold. He made such an impression that he landed the job of chief engineer at the facility.

"I ended up working with Steve for five or six years doing a lot of remixes," he recalls. "The first proper gig I did for him was remixing 'Lemon' by U2. A remix like that used to take a week—it was more complicated back then."

As Hillier continued to hone is craft, he worked with many big-name producers in the ‘90s, a list that includes Nellee Hooper, Gil Norton, Stephen Street, Flood, Alan Moulder, Mark "Spike" Stent, and Tim Simenon. Hillier was also helped by the fact that he was something of a go-to Pro Tools expert.

"On the Tonmeister course, I did a lot of classical recording with digital editing," he says. "When Pro Tools came into control rooms, I thought, 'Yeah, I can do this.’ But a lot of people were a bit baffled, as they'd spent so long working on tape. I got a reputation as someone who could make it work without too many hitches."

To Production and Beyond

It was inevitable that Hillier would step up to the production role, and when he did, he made an important decision that would hold him in good stead through the following years. "I chose to only work with bands who I respected or people who were asking me to do things which I thought could turn out really well."

The first of these was Elbow's debut album, Asleep in the Back, which Hillier describes as an amazing experience. His career exploded after that, and he was called in for many varied projects. Notable among them is Blur’s Think Tank.

"We recorded most of it in Damon [Albarn]'s old studio, which was called 13, as it was Unit 13 on this industrial estate," Hillier tells me. "It was like recording around someone's garage. He had loads of gear, and I took all of my gear in, so we didn't have space to set up amps.

Ben Hillier in the studio

"A lot of the guitars were plugged through synths, or we'd go through a tiny, little amp or pedals straight into the board. Blur liked to be creative and super fast and really aren't scared about recording with a heavily effected sound—they will play to that sound, as they are such good musicians."

Hillier now divides his time between two studios: the famous Pool at Miloco in London (which houses his incredible gear collection) and his own studio near Brighton.

"The Pool has an EMT A100 desk (one of my favourite desks), and in Brighton, there's a '60s Studer desk and loads of vintage outboard. That studio is built out of straw bales—it's great because you don't get standing waves, as the straw doesn't stop the low frequencies, they go straight through it. From a low-end point of view, it's the best-sounding mix room."

"Synth-wise, I have the semi-modular holy trinity of an ARP 2600, an EMS VCS3, and a Korg MS-20 that I use nearly all the time. I use them to shape sounds. It used to freak people out when I'd turn up with a VCS3 and plug DI signals into it."

Ben Hillier Talks Best Recording Practices

"When mic'ing up guitar amps," he says, "it's key to get an amp that a guitarist can play well through. Quite often, if you turn up and give them a lovely vintage amp or something you think is really good, they don't react well to it, because they're not used to it. So if a guitarist has a sound, try and keep that intact, and then work from there.

"Generally, I will close-mic an amp using a dynamic, like a Shure SM57. I quite like Shure SM7s, AKG D 25s, and D12s, too. A dynamic with a big diaphragm, like a D12, is great because it gets all the low-end. So it’s especially good if you have a heavier sound. If it's a rockier sound, I quite often use the Gil Norton technique: a Shure SM57 and an AKG C414 coincident at 45 degrees to the cone, nice and close.

"My favourite approach is to find a big room to record a guitar amp in," Hillier continues. "I'll often record it using a ribbon mic, maybe ten metres away, and it sounds awesome because it picks up all the low-end. On its own, it might sound unfocused, and if the room is bright and splashy, it won't work. But if you have a nice space with air in it, you can just fade up that single channel in the mix, and it sits in exactly the right place."

Hillier’s background is also in drumming, and his advice and approach when it comes to recording a kit is very interesting.

"I was obsessed with tuning my drums," he recalls, "but that stood me in good stead—it's key to get the tuning right. I also have a classically influenced approach to recording acoustic instruments, of which drums are the hardest to do. With a classical recording, you'll put an orchestra in a room where they will sound good. I have that attitude with drums. It starts with the kit—making that sound good—and the next step is getting the room to sound good and getting the drums in the right position, moving them around a lot.

"I'm quite sparse with my mics on drums," he adds. "I'll have a dynamic on the kick and a dynamic on the snare and sometimes have transducers on there as well—usually for treatments after, as they're so fast and clear. Quite often, I'll record the kit in mono with one mic that has a really great top-end, like a Lomo 19A19 or a Neumann CMV563 over the top pointing straight down over the drummer's head.

"I'll maybe have a stereo pickup sometimes, with ribbon mics or sometimes dynamics. With a bright sound, I'll go for ribbons, as the top-end on them is usually a bit lacking. Something that's bright and clear to catch the transients and get a focused sound is really helpful.

"You can even do it with a Shure SM58. If you take the shield off and dangle it above the drummer's head, you get quite good spiky transients. And then you have to get the room, so mic it up where it sounds good, and blend that in. I try to have the room not too massive. It might sound amazing, but you're not going to be able to mix a four-second reverb."

Hillier has some top advice for recording vocals, too, although your vocalists might not feel the same way.

"With all vocalists, I make them sing a lot at every stage of the process," Hillier told me. "When people hear music, the singing is what they focus on, so if you get the vocal right, you've done 50 percent of the job. The music has to fit the singing, not the other way around.

Hillier (right) in the studio with Depeche Mode

"On Depeche Mode's Delta Machine, I was driving Dave Gahan mad because I was like 'I want you to keep singing these songs.' Having worked with him quite a bit and seen him live and knowing what a great performer he is, it's the songs he knows inside out where he gives the best performances. He's an amazing singer, like an athlete playing live—how he keeps that energy going over two hours is astonishing."

And for all of those not yet into the recording game but thinking about getting started, Hillier has some sage advice for you, too, about how never to forget to first and foremost serve the artist.

"You should be passionate about the music you are producing. You can have strong opinions about it, but you have to remember that it's the band's music, and they are the ones who might have to play it in front of people for the rest of their lives."

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