Depeche Mode producer Ben Hillier: “It helps that I’m not easily starstruck”
From electronic titans Depeche Mode to Britpop stars Blur via Mancunian indie heroes Doves and Mercury Prize-nominated artist Nadine Shah, producer Ben Hillier’s exhilarating career in sound is truly eclectic. Having expanded his creative palette into co-writing and performing with Nadine, Ben tells us how he works with some of pop’s most innovative talents and professes his love for the unpredictable sounds of the EMS VCS3.
Ben with his trusty VCS3, a go-to creative paintbrush with multiple applications
“Successful artists sometimes get treated in quite a childlike way but to me they’re all grown-ups. They know what they’re doing,” says producer Ben Hillier, with a laugh, as he dissects the psychology of pop and rock music production. Ben is well placed to offer insight. Many idiosyncratic musical characters have ended up on his couch. “No-one has given these acts success,” he adds. “They’ve all worked really hard for it. So as a producer, your job is to work out where their heads are currently at and where they’re most confident, and then to play to these strengths. It helps that I’m not easily starstruck.”
It’s a good job indeed – Ben’s career as a producer, engineer and songwriter has seen him recording, mixing and engineering the likes of Blur, Elbow, The Horrors, and even Depeche Mode. His innovative efforts have helped bring landmark records to life. “I find it exciting when songs are being created,” he says. “But I like everyone in the room to be a part of it. No-one should just be sitting there in awe. I want everyone involved and pushing towards the same goal.”
Down to earth
Ben’s assured studio skills and expertise stem from a lifetime immersed in music and the mechanics of its making. His initial flirtation with audio experimentation came from playing the drums and recording himself with mates on boombox-style tape machines before he joined a youth orchestra. “One of the pieces was picked up by Virgin Classics,” he says, “which gave me my first proper studio experience.”
Fascinated by the gear, Ben inadvertently ended up in a control room and was invited to watch how the sounds were edited by the studio team. “It just so happened that they were from Floating Earth,” he says, “one of the best music production and recording companies in classical music.” This early schooling in recording may seem slightly out of sync with the pop and guitar acts on Ben’s CV. But it provided him with the platform he needed to embrace the studio.
“You have to try and witness a classical music recording session, especially the final part. It’s too expensive to run over so in those last minutes, there will be an orchestra, engineer, producer and assistant all going at it like crazy, playing, trying to label everything, keeping up with the takes. It’s insane. But it was being part of this that made me realise how exciting recording could be. I wanted more.”
Getting the elbow
Following a stint at music college, Ben landed a job at Eden Studios in London, an indie studio where producers and remixer Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold were the main clients. Working as Perfecto, the pair had just tasted big success with the baggy wobble of Happy Mondays’ Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches.
“They had some hype about them and I tried to make myself indispensable,” says Ben. “I got on well with both, knew how they liked their gear set up and ended up working with them across a number of projects.” Back then, Ben’s experience in digital editing meant his skills were sought after, particularly when only a few audio professionals were aware of how to get the most from this fledgling technology. “I’d learnt how to use ProTools at college,” he says. “I’d used it from the beginning and there weren’t many people who could get the software to work reliably in a full multi-track studio, so it meant that I landed a lot of work.”
It was through Steve Osborne that Ben’s first big production opportunity came. Back in the late 1990s, an emerging indie band from Manchester called Elbow were on the up and up, inking a deal with Island Records. They made an album with Steve but it had to be scrapped once they were dropped by the label. They were let go before any of the recordings saw the light of day.
“There was a re-recording clause in the producer’s contract that meant they couldn’t work with Steve again,” says Ben. “So they asked me to do it as I’d worked with Steve. We ended up making a very different record with mainly new material. They were amazing to keep the momentum going – it’s incredibly hard to do when you’ve been dropped. But when we worked together, the experience definitely gave them a new creative fire, this real desire to stick it to the label and say, ‘Fuck you’.”
The album was a deserved success, earning a Mercury Prize nomination in 2001 and propelling the careers of those involved skywards. Ben got himself a manager and suddenly found himself in the studio with increasingly high-profile bands. He produced Blur’s brilliant Think Tank in 2003, then struck up a musical partnership with Depeche Mode, recording three albums from 2005’s Playing the Angel onwards.
Rather than being intimidated though, Ben says he relishes the pressures of working with acts of such stature. “The pressure is on and you have to deliver for them,” says Ben of the process behind these records. “Alongside the artist, you have a whole tranche of people behind them who you need to keep happy too. You have more meetings and more stakeholders. But I quite like it. I like being pushed by people outside the project. It means you have to justify your creative decisions.”
In these scenarios, communication and relationship management is obviously important. But the role of the producer can change depending on the needs of the band or artist and what’s required to inspire a great record.
“It’s important to listen to labels and management,” says Ben. “But you don’t want them getting involved in decisions around the production or the music. Ultimately, your job as the producer is to make a great record, and if that involves taking the artist out every night and getting them drunk because it leads to brilliant songs, then you’re doing your job. If it involves co-writing and helping them play, then you’ve done your job too.”
Ben’s work on Think Tank saw him creating an environment in which Damon Albarn and his band could flourish. “With Blur, it was about allowing a certain amount of chaos and confusion for them to work in,” says Ben. “Damon has a lot of half-finished songs in his head so he just wants to play and make a creative mess, which we then edit afterwards.”
At this point in Blur’s career, the band were pushing themselves beyond conventional guitar sounds, with Alex James imposing limitations on his bass while drummer Dave Rowntree opted for non-traditional instrumentation throughout.
“The song Out of Time was edited from about 45 minutes of them playing. Damon had the chords, then they worked out how they wanted it to sound in the studio. He also had the starting points for lyrics but he likes to write by singing melodies without words. It’s really exciting to work like that, to hear the song forming in front of you. It’s a bit like making a film, piecing it together from improvised elements.”
Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher of synth-pop legends Depeche Mode usually present Ben with fully fleshed-out demos that feature all the scaffolding of their songs, including verses, choruses and lyrics. This is helpful because, if it works, it’s simply a question of recording the song, says Ben. But if the song needs to be pulled apart, edited or changed, things can be sticky for the artist and producer, who has to unpick something that’s already finished.
“The difficulty comes if you ever feel the song needs to go in a different direction,” says Ben. “So this can be hard, deconstructing something that is finished and then rebuilding it again in a different form. This process requires a lot of trust from the artist. By the time we’d done our third album together, Delta Machine, we’d reached a strong level of trust. But, with the first record, it was much more of a challenge. Back then, I was the new kid on the block and they’re Depeche Mode – they’ve sold a lot of records.”
Over the course of Ben’s career, the world of music production has been repeatedly turned inside out by the arrival of gamechanging new technology, particularly within the digital world. He has a number of studios, including The Pool, a venture he launched in the mid-2000s in collaboration with Miloco. “I’d amassed a studio’s worth of gear and was spending about 10 months of the year away from home,” says Ben, “so I wanted to put together a studio in London and Miloco had the space.”
Despite now being privy to a number of other studios, including Agricultural Audio in the Sussex countryside, The Pool remains one of Ben’s favourite places to record. “I love working when the control room is in the middle of the live room,” he says, “when you have the whole band around you and it’s big enough to have them playing live. I prefer it to a more traditional control room and live room set-up. Digital recording means you can have things messy and creative, you can make any errors work.”
Hillier has a go-to console too, in the form of the Studer 089. “It’s such an amazing-sounding console and it’s built beautifully,” he says. “I have two, with 12 channels each, one I use for tracking and one I mix through. After that I have an EMT A100 that used to be in The Pool, which has amazing mic preamps, and the headroom on the mix bus is amazing. German consoles all the way.”
As befits a producer with three studios, Ben admits to having what he describes as a “terrible gear-buying habit”. From the mounds of wires, synths and sonic gadgets surrounding him, he singles out the EMS VCS3 as one of his most treasured musical items.
“I was lucky,” he says. “I bought a VCS3 in the 1990s when no-one wanted them. Now they’re really mythical and so expensive.”
It’s the machine’s versatility and ease of use that makes it so appealing to Ben. He’s deployed it as both a standalone synth and an effects unit. “The ability to easily re-patch it means you can almost build whatever sound you like. It also has a great level of unpredictability – you’ll often be working towards one idea and it’ll have a better idea and divert you somewhere else. The main rule we have with it is that we record everything that comes out of it, although often the first sound it makes is the one you end up using.”
The synth can do so much, meaning it’s featured in many musical highlights from Ben’s career. “As a standalone synth, I often use it to create drones, as in the chorus of One True Pairing’s Zero Summer. It does big complex lead sounds as in Depeche Mode’s Peace, and it can do great guitar sounds too, from buzzy and ring-modulated burst-of-noise-type sounds like those in Nadine’s Kitchen Sink to warm and wobbly sounds using the filter and internal spring reverb like the countermelody in Nadine’s Ladies For Babies. It can also be the world’s best distortion box on the opening of Depeche Mode’s Pain That I’m Used To.
Ben has some more traditional approaches though. When it comes to capturing vocals, he relies on some authentic legacy mics.
“I mainly use dynamic mics on vocals – an SM7, SM58 or RE20,” he says. “This depends on the singer and is usually paired with a good Class A preamp such as those on my Studer or Neve 1073. I’ll usually record through a bit of compression, an Urei 1176 or a Summit TLA100 and only EQ if really necessary. Sometimes I’ll use a ribbon, again depending on the vocalist, maybe one capsule of an AEA R88 or a Crowley and Tripp El Diablo. But I like the way the SM7 punches through a mix.”
For guitar amps, Ben usually uses an SM58 close on the speaker, and occasionally something with a larger diaphragm such as an AKG D12 or D20 for even deeper tones, going through a Studer preamp with a bit of ADL1000 compression.
While the VSC3 is a key weapon in his arsenal, Ben’s pleased by the ongoing democratisation of music technology. Now anyone can access any kind of digital sound with budgets no longer a barrier.
“If I had the ability to get hold of the amount of music tech available now when I was a kid, I would have loved it,” he says. “The hardest thing with any creativity is managing your options to avoid getting lost, while trying to keep up with new developments. It’s helpful to have a solid background in technology or your instrument, so you know why things might sound too distorted or how to set up your DAW. But you also need to remember that you don’t want your recordings to be overly polished. Often, it’s the inaccuracies and movement within a performance that makes them so special.”
Ben’s creative relationship with singer-songwriter Nadine Shah has proved to be a particularly fertile and increasingly successful recent chapter in his career. Joining forces for her 2013 debut record, Love Your Dum and Mad, an eclectic and textured record largely inspired by the deaths of two young men, their partnership has seen Ben move beyond production to working as a co-writer and performing as part of Nadine’s band.
“I’d written music before but never really counted myself as much of a songwriter. But we just hit it off straight away and began writing songs for her debut record as soon as we met,” says Ben. After the first album, Ben ended up playing drums on tour, an instrument he hadn’t picked up for years. On the latest record Kitchen Sink, he’s again credited as co-writer but plays guitar throughout.
“I had to teach myself again for the record,” he says. “We write in a variety of ways. Nadine might have an idea, then I’ll make up a whole backing track and record it in my studio, just because I have a different take on it. Some songs will be made in a more free-form way, then Nadine will write a top line. It’s been a great process for me, as it’s a different relationship with an artist, working from the ground up and growing together.” The way their collaboration has blossomed is increasingly unusual in an industry restlessly striving to uncover the next new thing.
Ben believes the pace at which emerging talent is expected to move is one of the hardest aspects in cracking the music business. “When I started writing with Nadine, one of the things I said to her was we’d only probably start getting somewhere after a few records,” he says. “My favourite artists probably hit their stride around album three or four. You want that space to be naive but the industry is so quick to move onto the next hyped act.”
How can this situation with new talent change? More time and more funding is required if the UK’s hot bed of unique artistry is to remain potent. “Getting the backing to do your first three records while you’re finding out what you want to be is hard,” says Ben, “because the labels are all wondering where the next Adele or Ed Sheeran is. You can’t blame them but it makes for a very boring culture of music. Though it’s harder than ever now, we must do more to support and understand those making groundbreaking
music on the outskirts.”
Visit milocostudios.com to find out more about The Pool. Nadine Shah’s Kitchen Sink is out now.
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