Industry Insights #1 - Recording Engineer: Adam Miller

Adam Miller at Abbey Rd

Do you have any creative rituals or routines?

Do frequent cups of tea count?

What is a project you’re particularly proud of and why?
There are plenty that I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in… but perhaps Peter Gregson’s Bach Recomposed album on Deutsche Grammophon sticks out as one. It was a very closed process working with Peter and Peter’s wife (and brilliant viola player) Laurie producing. The label had been super happy with Peter’s demos and so really left us to get on with it, and it was brilliant seeing a vision of something come to life. We tried a whole bunch of different recording ideas in the Hall at AIR, and I think it’s fair to say they all came out perhaps even better than hoped for. It was a very intense but rewarding album to work on.

Who or what is currently inspiring you?
Well, after 11 years at AIR Studios as an in-house engineer I’m about to go onto the management roster as a freelance engineer, which is exciting and intimidating at the same time. So currently I’m being inspired by the thought and realisation of new opportunities and new surroundings and all that brings.

Which part of the creative process do you enjoy most?
Bringing something together in a way that makes a difference - the moment when you can hit play and get the “wow” reaction from a composer or artist, director, producer… A lot of the time that means the mix stage, which I love, but it can also be helping to put together a bunch of musicians in the right space with the right people in charge, or giving the right direction at the scoring stage that helps bring a piece to life.

What is on your bucket list? What do you hope to achieve/do in future?
I’m pretty lucky in that I’m doing what I love already, so there are no radical plans apart from keep on keeping on. It would be great bragging rights to be the chief recording and mix engineer for a number 1 film, so perhaps that can be a bullet point on the list somewhere! I’d love to explore 3d audio more as well - we’re entering a time where increasingly games and shows and live ‘experiences’ want to push the envelope more with immersive audio, so I think that’s a very exciting place to be.

Last film you watched?
Yesterday. For a Beatles film, it features quite a lot Ed Sheeran.

Last song you listened to?

‘Gimme’ by Banks.

Favourite film score/soundtrack?
Too many to choose from for a favourite! But over the years, Road to Perdition by Thomas Newman, How To Train Your Dragon by John Powell, The Dark Knight by Hans Zimmer, Memoirs of a Geisha by John Williams… You know, obscure stuff no-one’s really heard of. Semi-recently, John Powell’s score for Solo was mind-blowingly good.

Advice for your younger self?
Trust your instincts.

What do you do when you’re not working? Any guilty pleasures?
Explore new and exciting places, and collecting (and failing to drink) far too much whisky...

You’re very experienced when it comes to running high-pressure orchestral recordings. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
There have been a handful of stomach-churning technical things over the years like power cuts, failing hardware, erased drives and that kind of thing, but I think in over the ten years I’ve been at AIR there’s never been a disastrous showstopper with a full orchestra sitting and waiting - a lot of that is attributable to the peerless technical support that you get there.

I think most of the difficult situations on sessions are the result of a mismatch of experience and expectations, and that’s normally caused and exacerbated by poor communication. That’s really the key, communicating and coordinating a large team of people with efficiency, clarity and a bit of good humour. It falls down when people fail to communicate well, before, during and after sessions.

How did working with voices on Chromium’s recent release Solace alter your approach to mixing compared to an orchestra?
It’s more difficult! In many ways reducing the number of performers and the range of instrumentation makes things harder… You can record an hour’s worth of film music with an orchestra in a day, but easily spend that same length of time working on a lead vocal for a single track. So with the album being very much choral led, it really turns the spotlight on all the performances and the internal balance of the choir. A big part of that is retaining the naturalness of the sound and the blend, whilst being aware that we’re naturally drawn to things that sound larger than life so it’s trying to find a balance between those two worlds. Fortunately the singers are some of the best in the world and the music was outstanding, so it makes that job much easier!

What inspired you to pursue sound engineering and mixing?
I was making dance music as a teenager, and frankly wasn’t very good at it. Then I played drums in bands, and wasn’t very good at that either. As the drummer and owner of the sole microphone I was, however, in charge of recording and mixing our output, and found that I quite enjoyed that and was able to make us sound significantly better than we actually were. And so it spiralled from there - I loved being able to capture and manipulate sound, and became fascinated with the process and with the people who did the job and couldn’t work out what it was that separated their work from mine… But I’ve been gradually figuring it out for the past 15 years!

How does the mixing process differ between music for film and TV compared to music for commercial release?
These days, actually not very much. Film score engineers are always trying to get their stuff to sound as punchy and involving as the records they love (whilst trying to mix about four times as much material in the same space of time) and record engineers always complain about the organisational and stem delivery side of mixing - which is half of what mixing for film and tv is about. So the ideal is to combine the best habits and techniques of both worlds and apply them to all projects, which is what I aim for. So regardless of what format I’m mixing for, I’ll always print stems (separate instrument groups) by default, I’ll always use the master processing that can separate a decent mix from a great finished record, I’ll always be meticulous with the preparation and organisation so I can then free up the creative side of my brain just to mix and not worry about the administrative side. Ultimately, you’re always trying to make the music sound its absolute best regardless of the destination.

What is something you’ve learned from a project that you’ve taken with you?
I don’t think there are any eureka moments or neatly encapsulated lessons I can take away from any of it! It’s more a slow accumulation of little bits of “that worked, I’ll steal that” and other bits of “that didn’t work so well, never do that again” over the years. When you see someone working at the absolute top - for example James Newton Howard and his team - the whole process appears so elegant and the results so brilliant that you have to keep reminding yourself it’s decades of experience and hard work that make it seem so easy.