Neilson Hubbard’s Recording Tips & Techniques

Producer and musician Neilson Hubbard specializes in helping contemporary songwriters capture their music in creative and compelling ways. He helped birth the latest albums by two artists featured in this issue—Glen Phillips’ Mr. Lemons and Amelia White’s Black Doves—and co-produced The Sound of You and Me, the recent release by Garrison Starr, who we interviewed in the Spring ’06 issue of Frets. In a recent visit to his East Nashville studio (dubbed Mr. Lemons, the inspiration for Phillips’ album title), we asked Hubbard to share some of his recording techniques, and introduce us to his essential gear and explain why he likes it.
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The Input Chain

“We use Pro Tools at Mr. Lemons,” says Hubbard. “With a hard-disk recording system, I’ve found it’s important to have a good quality signal going into the computer. You’re much better off working with the source sound to insure that it’s good, rather than trying to fix it after you’ve captured it. The important elements in this chain are the mic, the mic preamp, and the A/D converters. We have RME converters, but Apogee converters are great too.”

Hubbard’s main rack contains a handful of mic preamps, including a Universal Audio M610, a Chandler TG2, and a Vintech Audio Dual 72, as well as re-racked vintage units made by API and Telefunken.

“Every mic pre has its own sound,” Hubbard says. “My go-to pre is the M610. Being a tube preamp, it offers warmth with lots of low end. Compared to the more clean, pristine, sparkly APIs, the M610 has a chunky vibe. The TG2 is basically a copy of the preamps found in the EMI boards at Abbey Road. The TG2 has a high-midrange emphasis, which gives vocals and guitars a little edge. The Dual 72 is Neve inspired, and actually uses the same transformers found in classic Neve modules. The Dual 72 has that unmistakable Neve character, where the highs are defined and clean, yet somehow warm. People pay many thousands for Neve channel strips, but the Vintech isn’t too bad, pricewise.

“I’ve chosen each of these units because they sound great without any fiddling. I like to plug in a mic and be happy with what I hear without having to play with EQ. I want to go, ‘We have a signal, let’s start recording some music.’ And it may sound silly, but I like gear with big knobs.”

Hubbard’s collection of compressors includes a UA 1176, and Distressor and Fatso units from Empirical Labs. “The Fatso provides stereo compression I might use to record a piano, or on a buss when mixing,” states Hubbard. “The Distressor is incredible for drums, guitar, and vocals.”

When he needs EQ, Hubbard will first reach for his Tube-Tech PE 1C. “It’s essentially a copy of a vintage Pultec EQ,” he explains. “It’s a passive EQ. Instead of boosting a desired frequency, it actually reduces the frequencies around the target frequency. For example, if you want to boost at 4k, the device actually pulls down everything around it. The result is very musical.”


“The best mic I have is a vintage Neumann U 67,” says Hubbard. “This represents the most money I’ve dropped on an item for the studio. It’s a ’60s tube mic, a real workhorse I use for many things—vocals primarily, but also for miking a bass amp or as a room mic for drums. The U 67 into the Dual 72, then into the 1176 makes a great vocal chain. We just got an AKG 414—an older model with a C12 capsule [the discontinued C 414 B-TL II]—and I was blown away by how good it sounds for vocals. We use an AKG C 3000 a lot, and my main mic for acoustic guitar is the AKG C 451 condenser. Of course, you can’t have a studio without several Shure SM57s. People use these inexpensive mics on guitar amps, but I’ll put one on an acoustic when I need the guitar to sound clunkier or junkier.

“I also have a Shure SM7B. It’s basically a dynamic broadcast mic, but it does wonderful things for singers, and it’s not massively expensive. I’ve heard Tom Waits, Ryan Adams, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers use SM7s. It’s a bit of a secret weapon. I used the SM7B for most of Amelia’s vocals, and some of Glen’s vocals when he was singing and playing guitar.

“Sometimes an artist isn’t comfortable wearing headphones, which means they don’t perform at their best. If that’s the case, I’ll have the singer overdub vocals in the control room, listening to the tracks through the studio monitors. Because the SM7 has a tight cardioid pickup pattern, it rejects sounds coming from the rear, so I’ll point the mic away from the speakers and have the vocalist face them. There’s some bleed with the backing tracks coming onto the vocal track, but who cares? I’d rather have a great vocal performance than pristine tracks.”

Mic Positions

Where you place a mic depends on the player, instrument, and sonic goals, according to Hubbard, but there are certain setups he’ll use as reliable starting points. “If I’m recording an acoustic guitar,” he details, “I’ll place a 451 about six inches away from the fretboard pointing toward the 12th fret. Often I’ll run through the TG2, because it pulls the upper mids out of the instrument. This placement yields a bright tone with a lot of string presence. You can also use two matched mics pointed toward the 12th fret for a stereo signal.

“But if I want to pick up more of the guitar body or get a darker tone, I’ll place the mic at the edge of the lower bout. I avoid aiming a mic at the soundhole, because it sounds too boomy. Another option is to raise the mic up and move it back a bit, facing the guitar, and then compress the signal to effectively draw in more of the room tones.

“Room tones are important for percussion instruments too. When I record instruments like my glockenspiel, I’ll move the mic several feet away, so the sound has a chance to blossom.”

No Rules

“It’s crucial,” says Hubbard, “to approach each recording with an open mind. Every project is different, and you need to be willing to experiment. For example, on Glen’s record, we started by capturing the vocals and then built the arrangements around his singing. He wanted a late-night sounding record, so we used his voice to establish that mood.

“Just because an approach works for one record, doesn’t mean it applies to the next one. On a recent project with a singer-songwriter, we started with loops. I brought in a drummer, but I didn’t let him hear the songs, I just gave him a melody and a tempo. I wanted to see what he’d force on the issue, in terms of groove. I didn’t want him watching the guitarist’s right hand for cues. So that album started with beats.”

Hubbard isn’t afraid to embrace unorthodox techniques to create a mood. “Michelle Malone, who plays slide guitar with a real roadhouse edge, wanted to sound like old Elvis records. So I ran vocal harmony tracks we’d already recorded through a guitar amp with a snare drum sitting on top of it. I put a mic above the snare and re-recorded the vocals with amp distortion and snare rattle.”

The Producer’s Role

Hubbard takes a philosophical view of his role as a producer. “Every record has a center, and it’s always my job to find that center. This can happen in pre-production, when artists send me songs to sift through, or it can happen when they come to the studio and play for me. Either way, I hear the songs, talk to the artist, and together we ask ourselves, ‘What kind of record are we making here?’ The answer will dictate the technical approach.

“You want an artist who’s strong, so they’re pushing you and you’re pushing them. It’s a process of—I don’t want to say manipulation, because that’s not it exactly—but of coercing. It’s like I’m driving this big bus, and it’s the artist’s bus, and they’ve told me where they want to go. My job is to make sure the bus doesn’t run off the road into the ravine. I have to keep it between the lines, heading forward.

“Above all, it’s about getting performances. I tell the singer, it’s not about being perfectly in tune. Rather, you have to make us believe what you’re saying. It’s a curse we’ve gotten into in the digital world, where everything is supposed to be perfectly in pitch, all the time. That’s not the way people sing, and that’s not the way classic records sound. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye—these great singers don’t always sound perfectly in tune, but we believe them. Sinatra went flat all the time, he would get to a note and take forever to sweep up to it, but that was part of the deal. That was crooning. How would Sinatra sound through Auto-Tune? Weird.

“I try to get singers comfortable. Once they feel unguarded, they’re vulnerable enough to sing from the heart. It’s the artist’s record, but it’s the producer’s environment, and you have to make the two coexist and become one. I want the artist to think, ‘It’s just music, we’re going to have a good time, and there’s no need to stress out about being in the studio.’”