Producer/engineer/songwriter Ben Hillier's work ranges from indie guitar bands to synth-driven music. He's produced the last three Depeche Mode records, singer/songwriter Nadine Shah, Blur's Think Tank, Elbow's Cast of Thousands, Graham Coxon, Doves, and The Futureheads.
Elbow's second album, Cast of Thousands, contains "Grace Under Pressure," a song with a stadium choir at the end. How do you get a crowd to pull this off?
After their first album [Asleep in the Back], they got booked to play Glastonbury. At the concert, Guy Garvey, their lead singer, decided out of nowhere to say, "Glastonbury, do you wanna be on our next album?" Off the top of his head, he made up a phrase for them to sing and got the drummer to do a click track. They all sang it, and so they had a recording of that and we sampled it. The band ended up writing a song around that sample.
Did you have problems with pitch and timing?
With a crowd that big, the pitch is so vague, so it isn't much of an issue. We did have to pitch it a bit, but they had been working with the sample when they wrote the song. I think Guy had played the chord before, so he had sung the line to the crowd in a key. And they were pretty close! It was more of an issue with the timing, which was pretty vague. When we made the album, the first thing to do was to get this section down. One of the concepts of the album was that everybody who had anything to do with the record, and anybody who came to visit them, had to sing on that section. So it was the Glastonbury crowd, plus 50 or 60 other people on top. We had that track record to go all the time.
What strikes me about the Elbow records are the guitar sounds, with their slight lo-fi edge.
The way they lay out their frequencies is quite good. The drummer is fantastic, and his tone is great, so you can get quite a big sound on the drums. The bass tends to play very low; there's not a lot of top-end. The guitarist's melodies are quite good at standing out on their own. You can make the guitar sound quite small and hard. And I got it to poke out quite a lot, because I wasn't relying on the electric guitar to set up the warmth of the track. It is usually the bass and the keyboards that are doing that. Listening to it on its own, it is quite aggressive; all the other frequencies are covered by the rest of the band on the track. Guy's vocal is also quite low-pitched and warm sounding as well. There's quite a lot of space in the guitar register, around 1.5 to 2 kHz, you can poke out really well. Craig Potter, the keyboard player, was very good at choosing his sounds. Quite often, keyboards are tricky in rock bands. They're difficult to blend in...
Since they can cover a broad range, from top to bottom?
Exactly. Normally the keyboards are trying to do everything. Craig is quite good at being minimal and keeping a sense of space in sound. As soon as you get those types of players and sounds, the rest is quite easy to sort out. A lot of the guitar sounds were recorded with a ribbon microphone 15-meters away from the amp! We worked in a large studio [Parr Street] in Liverpool, and the room was dry enough not to color the sound too much. But when you put that in the mix, it sits in there really nicely. I nearly always record a guitar amp with an [Shure] SM 57 on it, but that would be purely as a spot mic; it will be the focus of the sound. The "character" sound will be something presumably a long way away from it. I'm recording guitars with a lot of space on them. If the room's right, I can do 10- to 15-meters away. The close mic will give it the definition, but the sound will be the room mics. My studio, at the moment [The Pool in London], is in a great big open warehouse space. We have a couple of room mics at the ceiling, which is about 10 meters high. It's not very "wet" though!
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