A songwriter, producer, mixer, engineer, multi-instrumentalist, director, and actress, Hill Kourkoutis is based in Barrie, a small town outside of Toronto, Canada. In addition to her recording and production work, she creates music videos and mentors emerging artists. In 2022, Hill was awarded Canada's JUNO Award for Recording Engineer of the Year. She recently chatted with Lisa Machac, of Omni Sound Project, about her career, her studio (The Lair), and her plans for the future.

Feature Photo: Hill Kourkoutis Photographed by Laura Joy Photography

I know you're a musician, first and foremost. Was that how you entered audio engineering?

Absolutely. When I was younger, I started out with guitar, got into piano, and also writing my songs. Because I wanted to play everything on the demos, I started to teach myself how to play bass. I was like, "How much harder can this be? It has two less strings than a guitar!" [laughter] Then I taught myself how to play drums as well. My studio has a bunch of random little instruments in it, so whatever I need to pick up to get the job done, I will. It doesn't mean I'm proficient on it. My first producer for my first band ended up bringing his PC and full computer tower over to my parents' basement. Up until that point, I thought you had to go to a recording studio to make music, so that was a big “wow” moment for me. It opened up the possibilities of being independent in music-making. That's what sparked it. I ended up getting this software called Cool Edit Pro [by Syntrillium Software, now Adobe Audition]. I learned how to record into my computer first. It was the computer mic, and then that graduated into a Shure SM58. As I dove in deeper – and began working out of other studios – the gear and the software became more sophisticated.

I went to visit my cousin in New York back then, and he had a brand new Mac. He was like, "It's got this thing called GarageBand." He was using just the keyboard, not even a MIDI keyboard, and programming all these beats. I was like, "What?"

It's incredible! It totally opens up your world. That was the first wave of bedroom production. I found it inspiring. It's definitely what informed my future trajectory into audio engineering. That, and not having the budget to record my songs in studios with producers.

You started playing when you were really young?

I did. The first thought I can remember is that I wanted to play guitar; I think I was three years old. We'd go to a lot of these free cultural events in Toronto. On this particular day, there was a Greek band playing on stage and I apparently weaseled my way up there. I grabbed a tambourine and started playing. I remember I wanted so deeply to be a part of this band and play music with them, even though I didn't know what I was doing. It was always this thing in me. I didn't necessarily come from a family of musicians, but I came from a family of music lovers. That might have fed it. Every step that I've taken in my life has been working towards this goal in some way or another; or at least that's how it's felt. A lot of opportunities came to me that I wasn't necessarily planning on doing. I always imagined myself being an artist. I didn't necessarily imagine that I would be in a studio, or become a touring musician, or any of that. That naturally came forth as a result of me not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to learn.

When you were starting as a musician, was your goal to perform?

Initially it was being on stage, but I quickly discovered that being on stage terrified me. It still does. I'll do it, but it's not necessarily the thing that feeds my soul. I do love connecting with people, and that is a beautiful moment to have when you are performing. Music is a conduit for expression. As a kid, when I started writing my first songs, that was my way of trying to process the world around me. It was therapeutic and cathartic. Music became another voice of expression to process the world around me. That's where the initial spark came from. It's just different forms of expression. It's being able to articulate myself through different colors and voices.

Has your family always been supportive of you carving out this little space for yourself at home since they weren't necessarily musical?

They were definitely supportive. They initially were hoping that I would go down a "safer path," but they always were supportive. As long as I adhered to my studies and I stayed on the honor roll, they were happy to support what I was doing. My mom and dad would drive me to my gigs in Toronto, on a school night, and drive me back at one in the morning; I'd always be on the last slot of the bill. They helped me put together my first studio, and they invested in my first instrument. I owe a lot to them, that they let me explore this passion of mine.

From there, where did opportunities take you?

Once I was playing in Toronto, I started to meet this incredible community of artists that opened up the world to me. I was tagging onto these other bills and playing more shows. Eventually I was getting asked to play in my friends' bands, as a musician for hire. Then, through those relationships, I began to co-write with other artists. I started to tour when I was around 17 or 18. I simultaneously was producing myself around that time. After a couple of years of getting used to that, and finally getting demos that didn't sound like complete crap, my friends began asking me to record them. Because I could play a bunch of instruments, write songs, and produce, my friends were coming to me to get their demos done. Eventually the demos turned into singles or albums, and that's when other people heard my work and came to me for production.

What was that setup like when you first were recording others?

I was still recording in my bedroom at my parents' house. By that time, I'd graduated to a laptop. I had worked out of other studios in the city, and I noticed everybody had Pro Tools. I thought, "Okay, if I'm going to be serious about this, then I need to get Pro Tools." So, I went to Long & McQuade, our music store here in Canada. They had a sale going on, and they had a [Digidesign] Digi 002. It was what I could afford at the time. I was still recording with SM58s and 57s. It was in that year too that I ended up getting my first condenser mic, a Neumann TLM 49, which I still use to this day. It's one of my favorite mics. It was a very basic setup. I had these Yorkville monitors, and my Digi 002 rig that I would plug in directly to, record sounds, and figure out how to manipulate them afterwards. That's also when I got into soft synths, because they were finally starting to sound amazing, like the early versions of the Arturia synths. I was also using early Native Instruments software, like Absynth and Massive.

It was a good time to be entering into music and audio.

For sure. I came into it from a digital perspective. It's been cool over the years to find myself going into an analog world. I have a bit of a hybrid setup at home now, but at the time I was strictly digital. It was in working in other studios that I got to pick up on the analog way of doing things. In particular, the tape machine is something I use more as an effects thing. It's there to play with. I love tape delay, so that's how it's set up right now. I always have the option of recording to 1/4-inch if I want to, but I don't always have the luxury with deadlines to start messing around, especially now that there are some great plug-ins that do tape delay effects. I use analog more for colors and textures. A lot of the time I'll record through a preamp, or whatever, but I use a lot of analog gear in the mixing stage. I'll use it almost as a re-amp situation. We're balancing a lot of projects now, and I don't think I'd be able to recall everything on a console every time I try to do something. There's way too much happening. I love being able to use the older analog equipment as character pieces, adding little bits of color and character here and there, but also while still being able to work in that digital workflow. There's been such a huge acceleration in the technology, even in the last few years. I'm constantly blown away by all the UAD plug-ins. I've had friends who have A/B'd actual analog units with their plug-ins, and there is no difference with a lot of them. It's pushing the envelope, technologically.

You have a degree in film, too?

I do, yeah. I got the film bug when I was a teenager. I lived in a small hamlet, and my weekends were spent watching movie marathons playing on cable. I was becoming obsessed with film. Then an opportunity came up when I was 16 years old to be on a television series [Radio Free Roscoe]. They were looking to cast a young girl who could play drums. I wasn't really an actor, but I went to the audition, and I ended up getting the part. Being in that environment was inspiring, and I got to see how TV and films are made. I was interested in the technological aspect of everything, so I remember hanging out with everybody I could and asking them questions on set. I'd be hanging out with the audio guys, the director, the assistant director, and the producer. When I wasn't on camera, I would be watching everything behind the scenes. That influenced and propelled me towards wanting to get a degree in film. My parents wanted me to go to university. We were entertaining a medical degree, but it didn't feel like the right path for me. I already knew that I wanted to be in the entertainment industry, and in music specifically, but I didn't necessarily want to go to school for music. I was bad at practicing, and most university programs for music are performance-based programs. I learned classical piano and voice growing up, but it wasn't where my heart was. As much as I appreciate that music, I wasn't schooled that way. I told my parents, "If I'm not going to do that, then I definitely want to go to school for film." That's when I went to Ryerson University, which is now called Toronto Metropolitan University. I spent four years getting my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Studies. In my second year, I had some friends who asked me to make some music videos for them. I feel like I've gotten into everything accidentally. That's how my whole life has gone. I saw an opportunity again, and, as terrifying as it was – because I didn't know what I was doing, – I dove in. I also had a part-time job as an executive assistant at a music video production house in Toronto. They ended up taking me on as a director, and repped me for a few years while I was focused on directing music videos.

I recently interviewed Isabelle Banos for Tape Op. She is in Montreal. The Canadian art scene, from an American perspective at least, seems so supportive; like everyone is making an effort to give a lot of people opportunities and include all genders. Is that observation accurate, in your perspective?

Absolutely. We're lucky to have grant bodies here that allow artists to make records. That has been important in the growth of our community. We do have a diverse community of artists here. That's why I haven't restricted myself to working in one genre of music. There are so many amazing and inspiring artists. That has definitely fostered this incredible community.

Do you see what we're seeing in Austin, [Texas], in the sense that both Austin and Toronto are growing as a tech hubs, and that means the rents are going high enough to where the artists are being pushed out? Is your city doing anything to protect that?

It's been crazy. The rent in Toronto is one of the highest in North America. It's rivaling a lot of American cities. It's hard to be an artist in a city that is essentially pushing us out. There have been a lot of other cities that artists have been moving to, that are then creating another scene of music. Toronto's changed a lot since I started. We don't have as many venues to perform live at anymore. A lot of those shut down during the pandemic. I moved to Barrie, about an hour north of Toronto. It feels like a small town vibe, after being in a bigger city. Everything's also close by, so I can drive ten minutes and be in complete nature, or I can walk ten minutes down the street and be in a little downtown hub where there are clubs. When I made the decision to move out here, I brought the studio here. I've always felt comfortable creating in a home-type environment. I find that the artists I work with prefer that too, because we're able to be on our own time. We're not worried about the clock and how much time we have left. It's a safe environment to be able to explore and find sounds. It was important to me to find a space that can house my studio. My studio now is essentially a room, but I have the entire house to record, so I can run cables into any room.

Is anything sound treated or is it just an older home?

It's an older home with tall ceilings. I've never really treated the rooms I've been in. I know that might sound bizarre to some people, but, for me, I've always gotten to know the rooms and what they sound like, and I've always been able to work in those environments. If I know my monitors and room, I know what it's supposed to sound like. I love that a space can be transformed. I love that if I want to make use of my tall ceilings that I can do that. It's not the first time I've made a vocal booth out of mic stands and blankets; whatever's going to serve the record. That's part of the fun in recording, finding ways to execute the things that I'm hearing and experimenting. I like having that flexibility in my space.

Are people willing to travel to you to record?

For sure. I wanted to make sure that I was still accessible. I'm right on the GO Transit train line that goes right into Toronto. Even if an artist doesn't drive, they're able to get here easily. If I had moved several hours out of the city, it might be a little more difficult; but the accessibility factor was important to me, and it was a part of my decision-making process when I decided to move.

Has the move been beneficial to your own creativity as a musician?

For sure. It's hard, because when you're doing your passion for a living, there's not a great boundary for when you shut it off. It's always running. Finding ways to replenish that well of energy that's expelled when I create is important. I try to take the time to have other hobbies that fuel my creativity, without having an expectation attached. As much as I love what I do every day, there is an expectation attached to it that I have to deliver something, as well as to keep people happy. I'm gardening a lot. I have a quarter acre to work with, so I've built some garden boxes and I’m growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers. I love spending time in my yard. It's a meditative space for me. I become hyperaware of the little ecosystem that exists back there. I recognize the same birds and the same squirrels every day. That's become important for my mental health, and for my creativity. I love to cook, so that's a huge part of my life. I like to take time at the end of the day to make a proper meal and nourish my body. I also take that time to listen to other music, or listen to the music I've been working on and have a different perspective on it.

Hill Kourkoutis
Photo by Laura Joy Photography

What do you consider yourself these days? A producer, engineer, or musician? Do you feel like you're doing all of them simultaneously?

I had to narrow it down. I wanted to find a way to exercise as many of these as possible within one framework. Between the production, engineering, songwriting, and being a multi-instrumentalist, that's where I've found my home. It keeps my days interesting, because I'm always using those skill sets, but some days I might be focusing more on the songwriting aspect. I don't necessarily exclusively engineer something. Usually, the engineering is part of my production work. I'd say that all those are symbiotic for me at this point. Most of the time I'm seeing a project through from beginning to end. There are some records where an artist comes to me with a body of work that's already been written, and other times I'm involved in the writing process. A lot of the time that's how I end up working with artists. We'll have written a song, and I'll produce a demo. If they like it, they'll come to me to finish it. The majority of the time I end up mixing those productions. There are also some cases where I'll be working on a pop record where there are multiple producers, and they're taking everything to one mixer to make everything cohesive. I want to serve the project at the end of the day, in any capacity, and I'm happy to be a part of it.

You're totally self-taught, right?

I’ve observed a lot of people. I think that's the best way to learn, to ask questions and watch how other people work. Because this profession is an ever-evolving landscape technologically, we're always learning. I try to get out and talk to my producer and engineer friends about what types of gear they're using and what techniques they're implementing. That's how I learned a lot, outside of the trial and error of trying to figure out how to do this in my bedroom when I started out. I loved sitting next to other engineers. I watched every single thing that they did. I was interested in the hands-on process, and I wanted to soak up as much as I could, so I’ve learned a lot from my peers.

Do any studios come to mind that you’ve spent a lot of time in that were influential?

Sony had a studio here in Toronto in their label offices that I worked out of quite a bit. There's an incredible studio in Toronto I used called the Canterbury [Music Company]. Initially I had done a few sessions there as a musician for hire, and since then I've worked there as a producer as well. What's interesting about the workflow is that it's an incredible room to record live off the floor. I can still get some beautiful isolation, but, at the same time, you can get that feeling that you get with that live, off the floor recording. That studio's always been extremely inspiring to me, and the engineers that work there are incredible. They have this beautiful vintage [8026] Neve board, and I'm a sucker for a vintage Neve board.

Who isn't?

I know, right? That space has always been extremely inspiring to me. My friend, John Dinsmore, has a place called Lincoln County Social Club. It's got such a down-to-earth feeling. It's filled with vintage equipment, like broadcast compressors that he's running the drums through. He gets some great sounds. It gives everything a certain character.

You received the Juno Award for Recording Engineer of the Year in 2022. Were you the first woman nominated, or the first to win?


Congratulations! Are there other women who came before who inspired you?

For sure! My first idea of a female engineer came from reading the liner notes on Sheryl Crow's first few records. When I saw that she had produced her music, and that Trina Shoemaker had engineered it, I thought, "Wow. You can do this for a living?" I was blown away because I didn't realize that was something that women did. That's what put the spark in me. Obviously, Sylvia Massy [Tape Op #63] is also a legend, and she inspired me. I didn't necessarily have an example of a woman engineer until I met a fellow artist, Annelise Noronha. She's an incredible artist, a total badass, and an incredible engineer. She was working on these mega-sessions every time the superstars would be rolling through Toronto. On the production front, one of my greatest inspirations – who became a mentor to me – was an artist named Lisa Dal Bello, who goes by the artist name Dalbello. She started by producing her records in secret. She was signed to EMI, but created a pseudonym of a man's name because, at the time, I guess the label didn't think she could produce her own records. She produced the whole record, delivered it, and they're like, "This is great!" Then she said, "By the way, I produced this." She was doing this in the early '80s. She was my first professional co-write I ever did. Before I went into that co-write, I was aware of who she was and the music that she had made, and I was so excited and nervous.

What are you still looking forward to learning? What do you want for your studio and your career?

I want to be able to continue with the projects I've been working on with these amazing artists. I feel blessed to be able to choose to work on the projects I'm passionate about. I'm excited about the records that are on the schedule right now. I'm starting to work again with Leela Gilday, who's a dear friend of mine. We worked on her last album [North Star Calling] together. I've also been working with this incredible artist named Aysanabee, on the album Watin. On the studio front, I'm inspired by the analog side, and I'm always looking to acquire some fun gear on that front. I've been thinking about expanding my setup a bit, so I'm looking forward to seeing that grow over the next couple of years. I have been entertaining not necessarily getting a full console, but to get something to record through, getting some sort of sidecar setup happening here. Mainly for tracking drums, which I don't do as much here. When I'm tracking drums, the room is so important. I love the freedom of being able to find the right room for the record, to capture that character; but I also love being self-sufficient. I'd like to have more of that capability here, where we're not dependent on going to different spaces.

Do you see yourself staying in the Toronto area for a long time?

I think so. This is an incredible music city. If we're going to foster our communities, we can't leave them. We have to stay, and help each other thrive and grow. I love being here. I love being close to my family. We have such incredible musicians. We have incredible artists. I'm always going to see this as my home base.

Hill Kourkoutis
Photo by Laura Joy Photography

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More