Nigel Hobbs Middle C Productions Interview

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This week, our Sunday Spotlight features independent studios Middle C Productions and DV Magazine  talks to owner Nigel Hobbs, who not only engineers sessions for clients, but arranges, produces and plays keyboards and guitar as well.

DV: How did you get into music?

NH: I started playing piano when I was three. My Mum and Grandmother were both pianists and we had an old upright joanna in the lounge. I still have it but it’s in storage under a dust cover! I just started picking out tunes (I won’t name any of them though!) and then messed about writing things from a very early age. The house was always filled with music. My parents describe me as a kid who would sit on the floor with his Dansette record player listening to Beatles songs over and over again. And that was the start of my musical influences. Then at high school, I started getting into the whole band thing, this was the 70s so it was all glam pop and heavy metal! A strange combination – Slade, The Sweet and T Rex on the one side and Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zep on the other, but what a great apprenticeship!

DV: When did you get into music production?

NH: I was in bands from my mid-teens and later playing in orchestra pits for theatre shows. I started recording demos in other studios. I was fascinated by the whole end-to-end process of capturing the moment. I was always the guy sitting at the desk watching over the engineer’s shoulder and soaking it up like a sponge. In the early 90s, I was lucky enough to record in the BBC Maida Vale studios and in London’s famous Maison Rouge, both with excellent producers. That was it – I was smitten! I viewed the production process as just an extension of the whole performance thing, integrated with the playing and the communication of the music. I still look at it that way.

DV: How long has Middle C Productions been operating?

NH: Well after being freelance for a while, I decided to go it alone and start up my own outfit, and that was about five years ago.

DV: What’s your main area of interest musically?

NH: To be honest I’m passionate about every element of music making. But the thing that most inspires me is the creative process of taking the spark of an idea that either me or one of my clients comes up with, and then shaping and moulding that into something that can make people really want to listen. The writing part is the art, and the arranging and producing is the craft. The two go hand in hand. But for this to happen, there must be a huge amount of respect and trust between artist and producer. One of the biggest parts of a good producer’s role is to motivate and inspire. A recording artist who feels intimidated or not relaxed in the working environment will never be able to produce their best work. So one of the things that I have to get right is the way I relate to people.

DV: Which instruments do you play?

NH: Piano and keyboards are my main axes. I have an old Roland A-90 88-note weighted digital stage piano, a Korg M3 workstation, a Korg Trinity which I keep for nostalgic reasons really, a Roland JD-800, and just recently added, a Moog Voyager. I also have a rack of Roland modules but these are gradually being eBay’d. I play guitar as a second instrument and have a nice Fender Strat, and a Dean Exotica electro-acoustic which records beautifully.

DV: Do you get time to play live?

NH: Yes, thankfully! Being ensconced in a studio for hours and hours is wonderfully creative and my favourite place on the planet but I still love the buzz of getting out there and doing it live. I play in a covers band which has been going for 15 years now. You can’t beat the chemistry on stage and that wonderful feedback from the audience (hopefully!)

DV: How involved do you get with clients own material as far as arranging and production are concerned?

NH: For most of my clients, it’s a very interactive thing and I become intrinsically part of the whole thing. Many of my clients are songwriters who don’t have the luxury of working with a band but they still have the vision of their songs being showcased to their full potential, and that’s where I can help. But there’s also a way of working that means just letting people do what they do best. For example I work with a great little acoustic trio (vocals, piano and guitar). These guys thrive and are really fired up in the live environment. Initially they found working in the studio a little sterile by comparison. So I just got them to play and play, and improvise and jam so they gradually got the vibe back. Some of the time I didn’t even tell them I was recording! And I managed to capture some of their best moments like this.

DV: If a client brings you the bare bones of a song, e.g. some basic chords, lyrics and a melody, can you pull the ideas together to make it sound like professionally written material?

NH: Yes, and that’s the creative challenge of my job. I’ll listen very extensively to what the client has provided as a starting point. This will quite often be a rough demo recording sent through the post in advance of the session, or an emailed MP3 file. I’ll then start making notes of what I’d propose to bring to the job. And discuss this at the start of the session. So, at one end of the scale, for an acoustic artist with some breezy guitar songs, I might play some light drums or percussion, some bass, maybe some other guitar parts or piano. But for a country artist I produced last year, we ended up with the traditional band elements like drums, bass, piano and guitars, but we also had the ‘expected’ country instruments like strings, accordion, and a solo violin! That was a very proud moment, I created a fiddle solo using my Korg M3 and in the mix everyone thought it was the real thing! It’s all down to playing and ‘thinking’ how that player would do it.

DV: How far would you go with re-arranging a song for a client if you thought it wasn’t working?

NH: Well there is always a certain amount of tact and diplomacy that is part of the job! But I think it’s also important to be honest. I wouldn’t be blunt to the point of just saying something wasn’t working as such. But there’s more positive ways of getting that across, like suggesting trying another way of arranging the track to make it ‘even better’. That way hopefully keeps people motivated and maintains their confidence levels. The bottom line is that it’s important to stay true to the spirit of the song. Whatever I try and bring to the table, I’m always gratified that the artists I work with say they still hear the song they had written and not something that’s warped out of all recognition!

DV: Do you engineer and produce all the sessions yourself or do you have help?

NH: I do both – and sometimes that can be a challenge! But I like to keep the workflow efficient and for me, I’m just happy doing the two together. If I have a sound in my head it’s quickest for me to just set it up and try and get it rather than describe that to anyone else to interpret.

DV: Do clients ever bring in their own producers and if so, how does that affect the project?

NH: This has happened on the odd occasion and that’s fine too. I’m happy to engineer a session and take direction from the artist or someone else if that’s what they want. A typical example is one of my clients who is an incredibly prolific writer. He has a portfolio of hundreds of songs in a massive ring binder. He plays guitar and nothing else. But he knows exactly what he wants and has this musical vision in his head of how he wants the finished thing to sound. So he just directs me and tells me what to play, or suggests sounds and I’ll do my best to come up with something suitable. But I never know how it’s going to sound until the end! It’s a totally different way of working for me but sometimes the unknown can be refreshing creatively!

DV: What kind of artists do you mainly record?

NH: Well I’m happy (and lucky) to be able to say I’ve worked with a huge variety of artists. From solo singers, to singer/songwriters, acoustic pop/rock bands, the afore-mentioned country artist, and I engineered the latest album for a prog rock band called Exhibit A. I have also recorded voice artists like authors narrating their work, and meditation teachers. In the current economical climate you have to diversify to keep the work coming in!

DV: Do you use live or programmed drums, or both?

NH: Both, and it depends largely on what the project needs. For certain things there will never be anything to beat the feel of a live drummer, so I call on the services of the drummer in my band (who is also a great session player). He has a top of the range Roland V-Drum kit which is just a dream for recording. We set up the sounds we like, including the ‘virtual micing’ and ambience, then take the eight outputs from the V-Drum ‘brain’ and bus them straight into eight channels of the desk. These, in turn, are routed to their own dedicated bus output from the desk and into a dedicated track in the DAW. Hey presto! It really is a breeze to get a superb, ‘mic’d up’ sound almost straight out of the box. On the other side of the coin, if something will work better with programmed percussion then I’ll happily stab away using my Akai MPD16 drum pad controller. For the drum sounds themselves, I tend to favour the various kits on my Korg M3. There’s everything from standard kits, to house and techno (with all the classic 808 and 909 sounds), to Latin percussion, orchestrated stuff and sound effects. It’s a complete library in itself, and I can usually find what the client wants somewhere in there.

DV: What do you record on?

NH: I use Cubase 5 and I’m looking at upgrading to Cubase 6. I have often thought that I should go down the Pro-Tools/Mac route but I’ve literally grown up with Cubase, having first run it on an old Atari 1024 back in the 80s! Since then it’s gone from strength to strength and is now an incredibly powerful and versatile DAW which I feel so comfortable with. I have various Cubase templates which I have spent time setting up to cater for the requirements of the different types of sessions that I do. So whether it’s a simple voice-over or narration project with just one mic, a songwriter session with guitars and lots of keyboard parts, or a band thing that needs all the drum busses pre-configured, I just start the project in the required template and we’re ready to go. I run things on a dual screen set up. I’ll have one for the arrange window and one for the mixer. I also use the Steinberg CC121 hardware controller which is truly a genius piece of kit! It’s just like running things with good old fashioned tape controls and EQ knobs. It has speeded up my workflow immeasurably and I don’t think I could ever go back to clicking around the screen with a mouse!

DV: Do you record guitars live or use a Guitar Rig/Amplitube/POD?

NH: I use a combination of the two – again depending on the type of project. A good guitar amp mic’d correctly will always win hands down for sheer energy and realism. But there are many projects for which the use of a Pod or other simulator is absolutely fine – guitar parts that are heavily processed for instance. And who can argue with the simplicity and ease of being able to just dial in a sound?!

DV:If you use amps to record, what’s your favourite?

NH: I have two cracking little amps which are almost tailor made for recording. One is a Fender Princeton Reverb – one of the hand-built valve models, with point-to-point wiring. It’s fantastic because it’s so simple to set up, with just one channel and being 20-watts, you don’t need to use Metallica volume levels to get a good sound. The valve crunch kicks in at quite modest levels so everything remains controllable. I usually use two mics on it, shut it in a little live room and get the guitarist to record in the control room. That way, we get the sound and then we can chat and communicate about how the track is going and it keeps the vibe going. Calling down the talk-back mic is so impersonal sometimes! For those that want a bit more grit, I have a nice little Hughes and Kettner 25th Anniversary model.

I use a combination of a Shure SM57 or SM58 close to the cabinet, and then a condenser mic further back in the room to capture some ambience. This will usually be an old AKG C 3000 which has a nice little presence lift that can be great for preserving the attack of the playing. For the close micing I’ve also been experimenting with a Rode M1 dynamic on the guitar cab, and that’s been very promising. I’ll record the separate signals from each of the mics as separate tracks and then mix and match to get the ideal sound.

DV: What’s your favourite vocal microphone?

NH: Ahh – the holy grail of recording a voice! I have to say that I think there’s a lot of snobbery attached to mics. Now I wouldn’t want to name makes or get into specific arguments but I do believe that it’s not necessary to spend a fortune on a good microphone. I tend to chose from about four vocal mics. I always lusted after a Neumann valve but it was way out of my budget. So I tried the Rode NTK valve mic about six years ago, and it’s absolutely superb for the money. I still use it now and it’s probably my overall favourite. Of course, the most important thing is to select a mic which suits the singer.

DV: Do you prefer outboard effects or plug-ins?

NH: For tracking I use some really old outboard gear, for instance for all my vocal takes I use a 15 year old Lexicon ‘Reflex’ for comfort reverb in the cans. But I love some of the Waves plug-ins for the mix. I bought the JJP Fairchild models and they are just stunning. I use them all over the place. I even have a stomp box which gets used. When I bought the Moog Voyager, I tried it through an MXR Carbon Copy delay pedal and it’s just to die for. The slightly grainy lo-fi delays are perfect for the analogue tones of the synth.

DV: Which mastering software do you favour?

NH: Well, again, Waves are great. Even some of the tools in the basic Power Pack are amazing for the money. But I also use some other sonic sweeteners. Like the PSP Mix Saturator, and their Vintage Warmer are fantastic value and I’ve always preferred to mix and match with these type of tools rather than go for a complete mastering suite like Wavelab. Even the recent bundled compressors in Cubase like the Multiband Comp are incredibly versatile.

DV: What piece of gear couldn’t you bear to part with?

NH: Ohhh, great question! But can I choose two? Well, as I’m first and foremost a writer who uses piano, I guess my old Roland A-90 would be the most sorely missed. However, I’ve spent so much time playing with the Moog Voyager recently, we’re almost joined at the hip so that would be a close contender! And I had to agree with Mick Wilson in your last interview – how could I do without Cubase?! Oh dear, that’s made it three!

Thanks to Nigel Hobbs. If you would like to be featured in our Sunday Spotlight please contact mnj@digitalvillage.co.uk.

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About Author

MNJ has been writing articles, reviews and blogs for the DV online magazine for the last five years or so. Although he has been playing for longer than he cares to remember and is now officially an 'oldie', he is still mad for all things guitar related and when not busy in his studio he's learning new songs, practising bluegrass guitar, painting his house and taking his dogs out. If banished to a desert island and forced to take only one guitar he'd take a Les Paul. Actually, make that several Les Pauls, a Strat, a Tele, an ES-335, a vintage Martin and some boutique amps. Battery powered obviously.

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