Joel Hamilton is a musician, producer, engineer, studio owner and seven-time Grammy-nominee. He lives in Brooklyn, New York where he owns and operates Studio G Brooklyn, alongside Tony Maimone and Chris Cubeta.
This is an exclusive interview in English on Production Expert, which was originally conducted by Luca Pilla for AudioFader.com in Italian with the support of Universal Audio.
PTE: How did you first discover your love for music, sound and engineering and how did you start your career?
Joel: I discovered my love for music and all things audio before I can remember. My dad played drums in a band, and we had all the instruments in the basement of the house. The guitar and bass and drums and keys… then a friend of my dad brought over a 4 track 1/4” machine and I stared at that thing for hours. Once I figured it out by carefully messing with it while my dad was at work, I knew I wanted to be on the recording end of things. Not just a musician, which was what I was doing in school and every day after school. I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t into music and sound. Songs gave me the chills… things my parents were listening to… I would just feel like these people were magic, and I wanted to do that.
PTE: You have worked with tape, analog outboards and synthesizers, do you feel that analog gear has artistic limits?
Joel: I still work with tape and analog outboard gear all the time. I think the only “limits” on anything come from a lack of vision. Does a bicycle “limit” your choice of destinations? There is a weird myth perpetuated by people who are selling “solutions” to “problems” that simply don’t exist. It’s a different workflow, but define “limitations.” If its track count, then sure… but it doesn’t mean you can’t keep submitting until you have 497 things happening on a 24 track piece of tape. Is a composer “limited” by the humans that are playing in the orchestra?
PTE: Are analog technologies more emotional than digital in your opinion?
Joel: Interesting question. I think that the simplest way to describe this, is that there is a chance that your analog piece of gear has a specific personality, like an old tube compressor that is a little grumpy, or a bit brighter or a bit darker or fatter or more distorted or more clear than someone else's “exact” same piece of gear. There is so much variation in simple pieces like vintage LA2A’s… so many of them sound different unit to unit. Not better or worse, but different. That doesn’t happen in digital. The binary world gives you “works” or “doesn’t work”… the LA2A model sounds exactly the same on any computer in the world, regardless of the electricity or the temperature in the room, or a billion other tiny variables that give analog gear a personality.. a life. Also, I love the fact that tape and analog gear really changes texture with amplitude. That’s one of my favourite things about it. When you pull a bow across a string on a cello, you get a sound… when you do it faster: different sound… when you push harder into the strings: different sound. The physical nature of the gesture remains intact with the tool being used to express that gesture in musical terms. In this case, the cello actually changes its tire depending on the input. I love that about analog devices, and it is true with analog outboard gear as well. Just like the cello, when I push them, they sound different. Again, that is conspicuously absent in the digital domain, barring a very few and special pieces of gear.
PTE: Studio G has a huge range of digital and analog equipment: which gear makes a difference in the way you work and why?
Joel: There is not really a big difference in workflow for me. I use Pro Tools like a very smart tape machine, and I use outboard like plug-ins and I also use plug-ins. There is no fence between the worlds, they are all one world. It's not even a different medium, in the sense that one is not sculpture and one is not painting. People like to blame minimal setups and a lack of time and money and a lack of imagination on a lack of gear… a person can not increase the value of a song by increasing the value of the gear being used to record it.
PTE: We know you love to have the right sound during recording, what do you think about the preamp emulations of the Universal Audio Apollo?
Joel: I love the preamp emulations in the Apollo. Again, they serve the exact purpose as my hardware devices. Using a 1073 emulation like the one in the Apollo, I am choosing it for a certain response that I can count on to capture a gesture, and the emotional content of a performance.
PTE: Regarding the SSL console and DAWs with plug-ins, can you tell us which are your preferred plug-ins to mix with? Do you use the SSL console for parallel compressions or bus routing to analog gear?
Joel: I use a crazy combination of things. I will use a UAD de-esser in Pro Tools, and then a hardware LA2A on the insert point on the SSL on vocal. I will use parallel drum bus stuff on the console but have a 31102 UAD EQ plug-in on the snare in Pro Tools, but then using console EQ on the SSL again. Here at Studio G, we have three rooms, an SSL in A, a Vintage Neve in B, and a Neotek in C. In all three rooms, I still use a hybrid of plugins and hardware.
PTE: You’ve recently recorded Lyrics Born in Studio G, what can you tell us about that session? Was it different to a regular recording session?
Joel: The Apollo artist session with Lyrics Born was awesome. It really made me realize that opening another room would be simple and effective to have a UAD based system running on something like an iMac or Mac mini because it’s totally powerful enough to be the heart of a demanding session. We had a ton of inputs going live on that track, and the Unison stuff just sounds so killer. The horns sounded great to me and it was just pummeling the input. All of the stuff performed flawlessly, transparent when appropriate, colourful and fun and artistic when appropriate. I’m a fan.
PTE: It seems recording studios are experiencing troubled times. What is your advice on balancing the investment in a recording studio
Joel: Which recording studios? This is such a generalization. I read this, and it is always like saying “people are losing money” or whatever. Why? Which studio? Some closed because they bought a 142 input SSL 9000J on credit and couldn’t make the payments. Some closed because they had a landlord that increased the rent 600% and that simply didn’t work in their old business model.
In most cases, there is a specific reason for the failure of a business that is not simply market conditions. This is a very nuanced question, actually. To answer the “balancing the investment” part of it… Invest in what is important to getting great sounds and making clients and labels happy, and maybe skip the flat screen TV or marble reception desk… Marble foyers seem to make studio close. :)
PTE: What do you think big advancements in recording/producing will be in the coming years?
Joel: I think more people are seeing the beauty of a hybrid analog/digital setup. One unique piece of gear makes your whole setup your own. We are analog beings, so at a certain point it has to interface with us. The rest of the advances will be in better algorithms running on faster computers, and cheaper storage devices. Maybe the sexier stuff will be digitally controlled analog. Taking things like the UAD Unison technology farther… repeatability and consistency but with the option for more personality in the front end or even during the mix.
PTE: After all these years in recording/producing/mixing, what have you learned about clients and the creative process? Do you think the creative process has become easier?
Joel: I think I have a better map to the minefield so I suffer fewer casualties when helping to guide a group of people across it. Beyond that, I have learned that people have a deep innate sense of what “better” is, and just may not have the vocabulary to describe it easily or efficiently. I have learned to hear people better. To understand how to amplify the gesture that started in their hearts and get it into the world so we can all feel it. It's like the energy of the sun being all around us, but I get to be the magnifying glass that brings the focus to that energy and helps start the fire. I am always working with compassion, but sometimes compassion means not wasting peoples time and getting the most out of a given set of resources. Like if you have limited time, then don’t let one person in the band steal too much time from the session by labouring over something that ultimately doesn’t matter to the final product. Making that decision requires a letting go of ego and really staying focused on what is important to the song and not to me as a human. We are all evolving.