From Adele to Clean Bandit: In Conversation with Liam Nolan, Grammy Award winning Studio Engineer at Metropolis Studios
In this exclusive interview for Musicngear with twice Grammy winner Liam Nolan, sound engineer for the likes of Adele's "25", Clean Bandit, Jess Glynne, Calvin Harris and much more, we talked about his career leading up to the Grammy's award, sound quality in the streaming era and his advice for anyone that wants to start out in music engineering.
Lana Del Rey, Rihanna, Sampha, Ellie Goulding, Kylie Minogue, Paul McCartney, Jessie J, Little Mix, Ayumi Hamasaki and Leona Lewis. That may sound like the line-up to one pretty impressive music festival, but it’s actually just a handful of the many artists that sound engineer Liam Nolan from Metropolis Studios has worked with.
Having joined the team in the West London studios in 2009, Nolan has gone on to work the magic on a number of worldwide smashes, perhaps most notably on ‘Rather Be’ for Clean Bandit and Jess Glynn. Oh, and a small album called ‘25’ by one Adele. Going on to sell more than 22 million copies worldwide, ‘25’ also helped make Nolan a Grammy winner too when the album won both ‘Record of the Year’ and ‘Album of the Year’ at the 2017 ceremony.
Later this month, Nolan will be stepping out from the studio booth and hitting the main stage himself as part of the Festival of Sound. The London event will see Nolan talking about his many achievements and will focus particularly on his work with Adele. Tickets for the event, running from September 27th-30th, are available to buy here.
We caught up with Liam to talk about his journey into studio engineering and what it’s like to work with some of the biggest artists in the world.
Adam Maidment, Musicngear: Hey Liam! Can you tell us a bit about your story pre-Metropolis Studios? How did you get started in music engineering?
Liam Nolan: Before I started working at Metropolis studios, I was not entirely sure what I wanted to do or the path I wanted to take. At university, I was studying to become a civil engineer but very quickly found out that it wasn’t suited to me.
At the time, music was really the only thing that I was interested in so after dropping out of university I did a three-day taster course in sound engineering at The Roundhouse in Camden and immediately loved it.
From there I started volunteering at The Roundhouse. As a treat for the volunteers, they organised a tour of Metropolis and at the time Metropolis was looking for runners, so I handed in my CV and, luckily, they accepted me. This was the start of my journey to becoming a sound engineer. For about a year, I was a runner at the studios and I then started to cover for the assistants. This continued until I became a full-time assistant engineer and from there, I worked my way up to becoming an in-house engineer at Metropolis.
A.M: You're nearing ten years at Metropolis now. How has it been for you?
L.N: Firstly, it is scary how ten years can pass by so quickly, but it has been a great journey so far and I still feel very lucky to be in the position I am today at Metropolis. The learning process over the past ten years has been immense considering when I started I knew very little of what engineering entailed and now I get to work with some of the biggest artists in the world.
A.M: Since joining the Metropolis team, what's been your personal career highlight?
L.N: There are many great highlights so far, but there are two sessions that stand-out for me.
The first was working with Clean Bandit on ‘Rather Be’, as that was the first number one single I worked on and gave me the confidence that I know what I’m doing.
The second was working with Adele and Greg Kurstin – they are both incredibly talented and lovely people. It was a real privilege to be a part of that session and see how they both work and put their songs together.
A.M: What's your favourite part of the job?
L.N: At Metropolis, I have the opportunity to work with a lot of different producers and artists who are all working at the top level. I also get to see how these different people put together tracks and their work flows and cool tricks, so I feel I’m always learning something new whenever I work with a new artist or producer.
A.M: Do you like it when artists come to you with their own ideas already in their minds, or do you prefer to work collaboratively with them? Which works best?
L.N:I’m happy working either way. As an engineer, I’m there to facilitate and help achieve the vision of the producer or artist to the best of my ability, so if that means letting them lead in the process, or working a bit more collaboratively, I’m happy to do either if it means we get the best end product.
A well recorded and mixed song will always sound better than one that is not, even if the stream you are listening to may not be reproducing it as well as you would like.
A.M: Is there a ballpark figure for how much it costs to produce an entire album at a top-notch studio these days?
L.N: I honestly couldn’t tell you as I normally don’t do the budgets, but I do believe the cost can range dramatically.
If most of the production is done on a DAW, and you only come in to record vocals then that will be cheaper than a band coming in and recording everything because of the need to utilise the live rooms and have access to microphones, etc. But you will find most studios will try and accommodate for sessions with a big or a small budget, so studios aren’t closed doors for only those with big budgets.
A.M: Are there any artists in particular that are on your wish list of people to work with?
L.N: I have different artists I would like to work with for different reasons.
I really admire the innovative production of a group called Noisia, so I would love to be a fly on the wall and see their creative process and how they put tracks together. With regards to more band tracking and recording, I would love to work with bands such as Tool and Meshuggah, as I love both bands and again I feel they both push the boundaries more and that excites me.
A.M: How much does quality matter for commercial success, particularly in the streaming era?
L.N: Quality will always matter. A well recorded and mixed song will always sound better than one that is not, even if the stream you are listening to may not be reproducing it as well as you would like.
Nobody wants to put out a lacklustre record, so quality will always be important even if the means to listen to the final product has not caught up yet.
Get out there, hand out your CV into as many studios as you can and once you’ve got your foot in the door of any studio, work as hard as you can (..) Knowledge can be learnt as you go, but the biggest thing is just getting your foot in the door.
A.M: The rise of bedroom producers is only going to continue to rise thanks to social media. Do you see the industry changing and becoming a bit more DIY?
L.N: Getting music out on our own has never been more accessible, so I do feel there is more of an opportunity for people to go out on their own and put music out. For me that is a good thing because social media has enabled people to become big names without the multi-million-pound record label deals that you used to have if you wanted to make it in the music industry.
I’m not sure whether it means it’s more DIY, but the industry is changing because of that accessibility.
A.M: For anyone wanting to start out in music engineering, is there any advice you have for them?
L.N: My advice would to be to get out there, hand out your CV into as many studios as you can and once you’ve got your foot in the door of any studio, work as hard as you can doing whatever you can to try and become an engineer.
I knew nothing when I started at Metropolis and to begin with people are not looking for people with the most knowledge, they are looking for hard working people who are nice and easy to work with and can deal with clients in a professional manner.
Knowledge can be learnt as you go, but the biggest thing is just getting your foot in the door.
Liam Nolan will be appearing at the Festival of Sound in London on 27th-30th September. Tickets to the event are available here.