Richard Hilton - On Stage And In The Studio With Nile Rodgers

Richard Hilton is what you might justifiably call multi-talented. His career spans everything from recording engineering, mixing, and mastering, guitar and keyboard performance, and musical direction and transcription, to computer editing, studio design, software consulting and beta-testing. He’s even been music director for a TV show on VH-1. Then he was discovered by the great Nile Rodgers. They formed one of the most productive partnerships in sound engineering and production. 28 years later the two are still going strong. We talk all things musical, the whirlwind of Rodgers, and experimenting with a powerful toolkit.

Banging On Biscuit Tins

The talent and the genuine love of all things musical showed itself from a very tender age: “I got the bug when I was very, very young, when I heard some piano pieces that completely enthralled me. I started banging on things when I was about 3 years old, and at 5 they got me piano lessons. At 7 I got brass lessons, at 9 I got guitar lessons and at 10 I got drum lessons. I was pretty well hooked by the age of 12 or 13, and started playing professionally when I was 15.  And at some point along the way, the recording side started to interest me. My father had reel-to-reel recorders and I started playing around with those a lot, doing sound-on-sound recordings and things. When computers started to take hold in the early 70s, as part of my maths class we were using a main frame, with a tele type and literally a phone receiver and a modem cradle. We were storing our homework on this paper tape with holes punched in them, kind of like a modern version of a piano roll.”

Ultimately as in the best of life stories, the hours of music lessons and computer tinkering in maths class paid off: “Flash forward a bunch of years later and all of this interest that I had in playing music and recording music, and manipulating music in computers--it ended up all coming together in a job.  Who knew?”

Who indeed? Few would have predicted the path unfolding in front of Hilton would involve working at and ultimately running a major recording studio on Long Island. Then he would form a lasting collaboration with the great guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers, an association still thriving almost three decades later.

The Best Job He Never Got

Hilton remembers his lucky break: “I had been producing artists on my own with the former owner of [the Long Island] recording studio plus holding down a bunch of ancillary jobs. Some of them were retail, some of them audio repair related, things like that. And I was teaching in a small college, all while trying to get a job with a company called New England Digital. At the time I was extremely interested in an instrument called the Synclavier.  Across 18 months I interviewed for New England Digital 11 times in 3 different states, for 4 different jobs, and they never did hire me! But when Nile Rodgers called them and said "Do you have somebody that plays keyboards and can operate one of these things?", they gave him my name. Far better than them hiring me themselves!”

Hilton to this day can’t quite believe his luck. The whole thing was “absolutely, by leaps and bounds, unimaginably better than one could have hoped.  I went in and I met [Rodgers’] current programmer and played him the music I'd been producing. He seemed somewhat impressed and invited me to come back and meet Nile, which I did, and next thing you know, I'm working with Nile Rodgers, working on movie scores and records, and 28 years later, I'm still happy to be associated with all of that and more now with ‘The Chic Band’”. He pauses – “it's just been an incredible ride.”

At this point in Rodgers’ career he was focused less on performance and had turned his energies to producing other artists. He was in big demand, and Hilton found himself thrown into the heady world of music scores. “The first one was a movie called ‘Earth Girls are Easy’ directed by Julian Temple. Nile was substantially finished with that when I came along, I just did a few touches at the end. But we immediately picked up the movie ‘Coming to America’ with Eddie Murphy, and spent months doing that. Three weeks after I got the job with Nile, I was at Paramount in Los Angeles, working five of the longest weeks of my life on that project.” He remembers fondly, “we were very happy then and proud of the work we did. People love that movie, can recite the dialogue from it, and know the musical pieces on it.  It was great.”

He embraced the whirlwind approach of Rodgers, who “tends to have tons of things going on at the same time”. “We were doing records with some of his signed artists, Christopher Max and Carole Davis; we did an album with The B52s very early on; we did the Vaughan Brothers album with Stevie and Jimmy Vaughan; and it was just a string of albums. David Bowie came along at some point, Eric Clapton came along, Bob Dylan came along, there were a couple of Diana Ross albums in there.  It was just non-stop for a long, long time.”

Re-writing The Manual

Hilton could continue with the roll-call of 20th century musical greats, but our conversation turns to gear.  Programming and playing the Synclavier, an iconic instrument owned by Nile, Sting, and just a handful of others on the planet (because they were so expensive) gives Hilton away as somebody for whom gear and the unusual use of it has been an integral part of life. Using it, getting inside it and figuring out how it all works, reading the manual back to front, and in many cases practically re-writing the manual.

“I'm never quite sure how long I'm going to keep using something but when I started programming music in computers, I was using the sequencer built into a memory moog, was using two Linndrums with different chip sets in them running the same programmes. I was clocking all of that with a thing called the Dr Click by Dan Garfield, which also generated rhythmically variable control voltage wave shapes. Not too many people were using it for that but I discovered you could actually spit out control voltage low frequency oscillator type behaviour with variable wave shapes at variable sub-divisions of the beat. [L1] It was really quite cool that you could do that and I was playing, figuring it all out for myself.”

“Dan Garfield told me that he didn't know anybody else who was doing what I was doing with those control voltages.  I was changing the pitch of the toms and the drum machine, I was doing all kinds of things, I was controlling a flanger, I wanted a descending flange on the down beat of each measure and I got one.”

But Hilton’s experiments and discoveries of techniques went even further. He enthuses: “The memory moog sequencer only had, I think, six slots to put things in. You can't do a whole pop song in six slots even if you make long sections, so I would write pairs of sequence banks and the second bank would start with like sixty-four measures of silence then bank two would kick in and off we'd go. I was also step programming the thing by fooling it in real time mode.  I'd hold down keys with my right hand and count clocks in with my left hand on the Dr Click, 96 steps per quarter note, in order to get the keyboard articulations. That's because the step programming in the thing was only down to the eighth note. You programme sixteen measures and you make a mistake on beat three of bar sixteen and you've got to start all over again.”

“And I got some results”, he adds proudly. “Those were the results that got me the job with Nile Rodgers. 

Playing With Plug-ins

It comes as no surprise then, that when plug-ins arrived on the scene Hilton was at the forefront of it all. “I was beta testing a lot of stuff when the computer-driven DAW world started getting really off the ground, so I was testing Auto Tune by Antares (called Jupiter Systems at the time), and Amp Farm. I was running Cubase in a TDM world in those days and there weren't that many of us doing that.  I was also testing for Steinberg, and Wave Mechanics, who later became Sound Toys, and for McDSP. We established a nice relationship. Today, I use all kinds of stuff, including all of that.  I have been known to slap on Auto Tune now and then but Sound Toys is key to my stuff, McDSP is key to my workflow, I do use UAD stuff now as well, love the iZotope stuff. I was just opening up Blue Cat Audio's patchwork today, I'm in love with the thing.”

Amongst this bulging tool kit Hilton reserves a special place for Exponential Audio. Quite simply because, he says, “I like the way it sounds and I like the way it works.”

“On some level, their interfaces are very, very simple, in terms of presenting you with these large dials, they're visually simple but there's so much power in these plug-ins and the sound of the things.  In the case of R2, for example, I love the way it does for me what Lexicon used to do and I can't seem to find in anybody else’s software.  There's something about the way it gets lush that's really just amazing and it's got that really nice synthetic tail to it - and I don't mean that in a bad way when I say that. It reminds me of all of that great Lexicon stuff from 480L onwards; PCM 70, PCM 80, all that, and then Exponential’s got this other one called Phoenix Verb that's just about the clearest thing I've ever heard in a reverb. It doesn't really remind me of anything else except it's some sort of dream reverb that just has this amazingly natural sound to it, and between the two of them, I just love it.  I just love having them.  Right now, I've got them both open in front of me and I like the interface, I like the way they sound, I like the way they work.  I can't find anything wrong with them.”

Reverb On and Off-stage

As a professional keyboard player in the reverb-flooded 80s, Hilton certainly knows a bit about mixing with reverb on the instrument. The main pitfall, he says, is to over-cook it. “One of the things I do, it's more of a mixing trick, but I don't tend to put audio all the way out at the left and right extremes, I'll tend to go more 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock with the dry sound, and let the effects be fully wide because I tend to save the last 10-15% of my extreme left and extreme right for ‘effect-y’ things like reverbs or flangers.  Drum overheads I'll often pan fully wide but you don't really present much else that way.  In general, I don't pan that many music elements fully wide, because I like to leave that area for that cool spacey stuff.”

Working on live shows is a whole different ball game. “I don't present the front-of-house guy with reverbs from the stage. I let him worry about that.  I think it's better that way for everybody. I can't determine what reverb is needed from where I'm standing.  It's a fool’s errand for anybody on stage to try and tell the front of house guy how to do his job. So I stay out of it as much as possible. When I mix live recordings of the band I do add reverb and I've definitely been using some Exponential on those. I tend to mix things probably drier than some people but then again, there's no rule there. Then again, some mixes will be really luscious and wet occasionally because I kind of let the song tell me what to do and I don't tend to lush things out unless the song tells me to.”

After a career of such talent, inquiring experimentalism, variety, and just a little healthy dose of luck, what would Hilton say to his teenage self about getting into the business? His considered advice is to “find things you like to do and get really good at doing them”.

“Collect as many of those things as you can because what you will do with them is not visible to you from where you're standing right now.  It wasn't to me when I was studying.  This job that I've had didn't exist when I was learning all of these different things, they were just things that interested me.   So find things you like, get really, really good at them, and try to figure out how to make that pay.”

From someone who’s fitted as much as Hilton has into his life so far, that’s advice we could all take to heart.