From A Borrowed Tascam to Working With Rihanna

Posted by Rob B

Being the right man in the right place at the right time really does pay off. Mike Hillier started out as a young Psychology Graduate with a passion for music and gear. He went on to work with some of the biggest names in the industry in some of the most prestigious studios the UK has to offer.

From A Borrowed Tascam to Working With Rihanna
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How did you first start engineering music, Mike?

When I got to university I got into a band and borrowed a Tascam digital recorder from a friend. I read the entire manual cover to cover in a night. It was a couple of hundred pages long, but I devoured it and recorded an album with it for my band, just that and a couple of SM58s. From there I got a copy of Cubase SX, and taught myself that. I got so into it, then when it came to do my dissertation for University (I was a psychology student), I chose to study audio illusions. When I finished my degree, I was lucky enough to get a job at Music Tech Magazine, writing all the bits of the mag that aren’t credited to anyone. At the same time, I got a job as part of a live sound crew and after a couple of years doing that I decided it was time to quit, move back to London and apply for studios. I got into Metropolis as a Night Receptionist initially, before eventually getting a crack in the studios and then ending up as an assistant mastering engineer.

Let's talk influencers. Which three albums are you inspired by and why?

This is a near impossible question!

I love albums that are raw and unpolished. I don’t mean messy, just not overdone. Things like Rid Of Me by PJ Harvey. The guitar and drum sounds are really special on that record, and Steve Albini in general is someone who’s work ethic and skills I admire a lot.

I’m also a huge fan of Andy Wallace, who can do no wrong in my book. Grace by Jeff Buckley is probably my favourite album of all time (which is one of his), but he also worked on Nevermind (Nirvana), Rage Against The Machine's eponymous album, Reign In Blood (Slayer), Dirty (Sonic Youth), and Post Orgasmic Chill (Skunk Anansie) all of which are regular touchstones for me.

Finally, a few years back I became obsessed with DangerMouse aka Brian Burton. I’d been a fan of his since The Grey Album, but the record he made with Danielle Luppi, Rome, was what made me obsess over it and I’ve listened to everything of his I can get my hands on since.


Can you talk about the most memorable project you’ve worked on?

When I was at Metropolis I was fortunate enough to assist on a writing session for Rihanna, on tracks that later become Rated R. They had all four studios in Metropolis booked and put different teams in each one. I was in Studio B doing keys with Brian Kennedy. That evening, the Night Receptionist at the time, Ben Harrison, was sat doing scales on his guitar behind the reception desk. Rihanna’s manager walked past and instantly sent him into our room to lay down guitar parts. I remember Ben walking into the room, scared, and almost apologetic, asking me what he should do. Brian was very cool and they ended up jamming a little bit that night, but mostly Ben just watched as Brian worked. The next day he was back in with us, and he ended up being invited along to the next writing camp with them to, and got a writing and additional production credit on “The Last Song”.

"It amazes me what can happen if you just happen to be in the right place at the right time"


Can you share with us what you're working on at the moment??

I spent the morning tracking vocals with Feral Five, for an upcoming charity single. We had a lot of fun, starting with a fairly basic vocal chain - just an RE-20 into a Neve V66 console. It ended up with a chain that started with a Shure 520C into a Vox AC30, mic’ed with the RE-20 with a Fairchild 660 and a Pultec [EQP-1A] on the back end.

I’ve also recently finished an EP with Ms Mohammed, which should be coming out in a month or so. We’ve just had the masters back from Hippy at Metropolis and it’s sounding great.

We’ve noticed you're pretty gear-savvy. What’s your desert-island piece of studio equipment?

Once you’ve got a DAW, a decent interface and some good speakers everything else becomes about aiding in the process. And for me nothing does that quite like an SSL console. It’s great having access to other gear to bring in new flavours and open up options, but I could record and mix an entire album with nothing but a good E- or G-series and not be particularly unhappy about not having any additional outboard to plug-into. Even the modern small footprint SSL’s like the AWS give you everything you need.



What about a favourite technique you use in the studio?

It’s quite a simple trick, but just pushing the whole mix out through the line stage of some good analogue gear can help to give it some bite. I have a pair of CAPI VP28 mic preamps that are perfect for this. They have switched input and output gain stages, so you can drive the three transformers and two op-amps at different levels to get the sound you want. I’ll sometimes use this across the whole mix, or sometimes, if driven a bit hard, across a parallel mix chain, which I can then blend in.

And lastly, some short-burst questions:

What's your favorite stage in the music production process?

I change my mind on this daily. I guess it’s whichever process I’m working on at the time, except editing, I never love editing.

Favorite piece of gear you’ve used recently??

Fairchild compressor, without a doubt. I’ve yet to hear a vocalist who wasn’t improved by this, even if you don’t use any gain reduction; just pushing through it adds depth and weight.

Finish this sentence: if i wasn’t engineering music, I'd be...

Very bored.


Interview Mixing Recording Rihanna Mike Hillier