While at DPA’s Microphone Masterclass event at McMaster University’s LIVELab in Hamilton, ON, which was hosted by GerrAudio Distribution, Professional Sound caught up with British sound engineer, mixer, and Pro Tools expert Donal Hodgson. Over the last 25-plus years, Hodgson has worked with a wide range of artists, from Tina Turner and Brian Wilson to Arctic Monkeys and Richard Ashcroft, as well as on film and TV productions; however, he is best known for his work with Sting, having recorded his last six albums plus other projects.
PS: Obviously Sting is one of the world’s most famous bassists. How do you capture his bass sound in the studio?
Donal Hodgson: We DI most of his bass work. Obviously he uses Ampeg [amplifiers] onstage live, but in the studio, he just likes clean sounds. I’ve used some amp simulators with him, but his whole vibe is about doing stuff quickly, so setting up amps, he’s not interested. So I usually end up using an instrument input into a Manley or a Neve and then just record it clean.
**PS: When you’re recording drums, is there a standard microphone set-up you typically use? **
DH: I do sort of have a standard set-up. What I try to do is mic so that I’ve got three or four different sounds I can get out of that one set-up. Working with top-end drummers like Vinnie Colaiuta and Manu Katché, they just sit down and play and their kit sounds good already, so you’re not fighting to make the kit sound good, which I have done with other drummers in the past. So I tend to double-mic all the toms – that’s always a standard – double-mic the snare, and then room mics and overhead mics. I’ll back-mic the kit as well. I end up recording around 16 to 18 different mics and then when I know what the sound of the song is going to be – because with Sting, on the last album, they would jam all day and I didn’t know what the sound of the song was going to be because they were still writing it – so I recorded all the different mics and then after we started just deleting or muting tracks in Pro Tools and then the sound would evolve from that.
PS: Over the last 12 years working with Sting in the studio and live, what have you learned over that time that has found its way into your general workflow?
DH: I think, off the top of the head, the one that instantly comes to mind is don’t fuck up the creative process. Don’t get in the way of it as a technical person trying to make that happen. Preparation is key – being organized, being ready, and trying to cover as many possibilities as possible that could arise so it’s just a few button presses or a quick patch just to make something happen. That’s always stood me in good stead, and it’s nice to look around and see some smiling faces because no one is waiting.
PS: What prep work are you doing before any musicians enter the studio?
DH: The obvious one is templates in Pro Tools, so everything is there already and it’s all routed and happening. [There are examples in the past where] I’d be recording and then wish I could fire off into a delay or turn up a reverb and I hadn’t [prepared] it, so templates are key for mixing and for recording. Also, mic preparation, so input lists. I know that is from the live world, but I do that now for every session I do in the studio. I do an input list and have it all mapped out and know where everything is going, and I do leave room for creativity. I leave spare channels in case we want to experiment with something I haven’t thought of, but the basics are all covered and it’s connected and I [can look at a piece of paper and] trace back in case there is a problem.
PS: You’ve also done a lot of broadcast work with Sting. How significantly does your broadcast mix differ from a studio mix?
DH: I try to make my broadcast mixes more like a studio mix, which doesn’t go down well with certain radio people, but I think that is what people are more familiar with. For me, if you make a broadcast mix too live sounding without the visual to give you the understanding of the space that they’re in, it sounds wrong. So I always try to head towards a recorded mix. So a lot of dry mics, get the mix working in that sense, and then I’ll push in the room mics just to give a sense of the space that they’re in. I know a couple of radio channels which will mix it the other way around, so they’ll put in the ambient mics first and then put in a bit of the dry mics, and I don’t personally like that sound. That doesn’t make it wrong; it’s just different.