Producer and engineer Rob Kirwan oversaw Hozier’s commercial breakthrough — by concentrating on the least commercial aspects of his music.
“While working on Hozier’s music, I had absolutely no idea of the impact it was going to have. Andrew is a lovely, honest and insanely intelligent man, and I really enjoyed working with him. He’s extremely talented, and I thought he would have a slow burner of a career, with a gradual climb to international success, like a Nick Cave or PJ Harvey kind of artist. Even when I first heard ‘Take Me To Church’, I did not think that it would become a big radio hit. But the radio in Ireland just went nuts for it, even before the video was released. I never thought Andrew would have the instant success he is currently enjoying.”
Engineer, mixer and producer Rob Kirwan was approached by Irish label Rubyworks in May 2013 to work on an EP by an unknown singer, songwriter and guitarist they had recently signed. Andrew Hozier–Byrne had studied music at Trinity College in Dublin, but dropped out to pursue a music career, and had been a member of the vocal group An na from 2008 to 2012, appearing as a soloist on one of the tracks on the group’s album Illumination. Hozier–Byrne had no track record beyond that. Insofar as Kirwan was concerned, the request from Rubyworks concerned a typical low–budget development project.
“Andrew had worked with a few other producers,” recalled Kirwan, “with quite poppy results, with which he was not very comfortable, so he never went forward with those recordings. So he set about doing some demos in his attic, on a Logic system, and the brief from the record company was for him to redo his vocals on three songs, and for me to then mix these tracks. When I heard the demos I felt that the vocals were the best thing about them, but that we had to re–record everything else, because many of the instruments sounded too thin and not powerful enough. So we did it exactly the other way round! They gave me a budget for four days in my studio, but when we started re–recording everything I realised that it was going to take much longer, so I kind of gave Andrew a few extra days for free. It took us eight to nine days to re–record and mix the three songs on the EP.” (The fourth song that appeared on the EP, ‘Cherry Wine’, was a live recording in which Kirwan took no part.)
‘Take Me To Church’ was the title song of Hozier’s first EP, and both EP and single were released in September 2013. The single reached the top of the Irish charts a few weeks after its release. Hozier’s ear–catching blend of rock, soul, gospel, blues and Irish folk music and the immediately apparent integrity of his lyrics and music clearly hit a nerve, as did the controversial and arresting video, which portrayed homophobic violence against a young gay couple. According to an interview in Billboard Biz magazine with Rubyworks owner Niall Muckian, 15 major–label A&R men chased Hozier and Rubyworks within weeks of the single being posted on YouTube. Deals were subsequently signed with two major labels, Universal and Columbia/Sony (for the US).
Hozier began touring extensively, and with the chemistry between Kirwan and Hozier apparent on the first EP, the next step was a return to Kirwan’s Dublin studio at the end of 2013 to make EP number two. “The budget and expectations had gone up enormously,” recalls Kirwan. “All of a sudden it was clear to me that Andrew was no longer an unknown, local Irish artist, that he was going to become something far bigger than that. We recorded four songs for the second EP, but one of them wasn’t included on it, because it was supposed to be a single, and they said, ‘Why is it not all poppy and shiny?’ Instead ‘For Eden’ became the lead track, and it was mixed by Mike Crossey. I mixed the other two songs.” (The fourth song was once again a live track.)
‘Take Me To Church’ was released in the US in the first half of 2014, and proved a slow grower. With Hozier appearing on the David Letterman and the Ellen DeGeneres shows, various radio stations and festivals, the single gradually climbed up the charts, until it reached number two on the Billboard charts by the end of the year. The single reached the number-one spot in more than a dozen other countries, and ended up close to the top in a dozen more, including the UK. By the time of writing it had still not run its course. Kirwan and Hozier went back in the studio again in the beginning of 2014, to record the singer’s debut album, which was released last September and became the fastest–selling Irish album of the year. It remained at the top spot for five weeks, and looks set to become Ireland’s biggest–selling album for a decade. Hozier also reached the number two spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart and number five in the UK, and is still roaming around the top of many charts.
The enormous success of ‘Take Me To Church’ and Hozier has proved a career–changer for engineer/producer Rob Kirwan as well as for the artist. Kirwan played drums early in his musical career, but never had ambitions to become a musician. Instead he joined the legendary Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin in 1992 as a tea–boy, and worked his way up. Three and a half years later, U2 offered him a full–time position at their studio, where he worked with producers such as Brian Eno, Flood, Alan Moulder and Mark ‘Spike’ Stent. Kirwan moved to London in 1998, where he lived for 10 years, continuing to work with Flood and with acts like Depeche Mode, Erasure, Gary Numan, New Order and Editors. After a year of working and living in Berlin, Kirwan moved back to his native Dublin in 2009. He has since worked with PJ Harvey on her album Let England Shake, and recently also had major success in Ireland with the band Delorentos.
Almost all the recordings and all the mixing that Kirwan carried out for Hozier took place at his Exchequer studio in central Dublin, which he shares with Nick Seymour, Crowded House’s bassist. Although Kirwan is proud to have received his studio training on analogue equipment, Exchequer is a desk– and tape–free zone. It nonetheless contains a large amount of unusual gear that Hozier and Kirwan put to good use. The latter explains: “I have a lot of stuff that makes bands scratch their heads and go: ‘What’s this? It doesn’t sound like any record that we’ve heard!’ Whereas Andrew would always go: ‘That sounds amazing!’ He liked all the crazy gear that I have been collecting, and what’s more, he knew how to integrate it into his music. His was one of these records on which nine out 10 crazy ideas that came up actually worked.
“This meant that Hozier was a great record to work on for me. I love things that have character, and I love good performances. Energy and excitement are big things for me. Rock & roll music should sound exciting. The first record I ever bought was Motörhead’s ‘Ace Of Spades’, which is probably one of the most exciting records you’ll ever hear. That’s the template for me, as well as my experiences at Windmill Lane. You had to line up the tape recorder there every day, clean the heads, and so on, and you saw how producers worked. If you come from that background, you understand sound better, and you understand that everything is centred around the musician and the performances of the musician.
“People today focus way too much on the computer, which they turn into the master of everything. But what I am interested in is the sound of people in a room, and how that affects you emotionally. You can do anything in a computer, apart from turn a boring performance into an exciting one. And you can certainly make an exciting performance sound boring in a computer! Chopping up drums in a computer so they all sound the same is not interesting. The computer’s capabilities are endless, but you don’t necessarily need them, and worse, they can be a major distraction. They invite you to forever postpone committing yourself, and this does not necessarily help music at all. I worked on a couple of records with Brian Eno early in my career, and one of his greatest attributes was that he always insisted on making decisions now. ‘Does it sound good now? If so, then the decision is made, if not, we’ll erase it and do it again until it sounds good.’”
The gear at Kirwan’s studio that inspired Hozier included analogue goodies like the Inward Connections Vac Rac EQ, Teletronix LA2A, Anthony Demaria Labs 1000 compressor, Neve 33609/J reissue compressor, Manley Massive Passive, Neve and API mic pres, and a ’70s Klein+Hummel mastering EQ. His main monitors are ProAc Studio 100s, with a Quad 405 amp. Kirwan bought much of his gear in Berlin, and notes, “I always like buying things that nobody else has, which makes me think that I am doing something slightly different.”
A few items caught Hozier’s attention in particular, said Kirwan. One was the latter’s “Eastwood Airline guitar, which I bought after working on the PJ Harvey album [Let England Shake], because so many bands play run–of–the–mill guitars. Andrew loved it, and it played a very prominent role on the album. It was sent through a [Electro–Harmonix] Memory Man pedal, with the gain turned up loudly, a ProCo Rat guitar pedal for that distorted guitar sound, and one of these new hand-wired Vox AC15 amps, and then a Knas Ekdahl Moisturizer spring reverb. This was the guitar chain and it gave a really interesting tone that suited Andrew’s music. I also used the Ekdahl reverb extensively on his vocals, as well as my Neumann CMV563 microphone with an M7 capsule and Martech MSS10 preamp. This signal chain distorted in a nice way, and Andrew adored that sound. He can sing really loud sometimes, which meant that we got a distortion similar to that from the 1950s and ’60s.
“And finally, a lot of people, including artists, have been asking me for the nature of the reverb on Andrew’s vocals. It’s a combination of my Knas Moisturizer that I already mentioned, and the Altiverb [plug–in]. I used a Wendy Carlos EMT plate [preset], from which I removed all the top end, and to which I added a pre–delay.”
All these character elements are present in ‘Take Me To Church’, adding greatly to its distinctive sound and undoubtedly playing a significant part in the song’s enormous and instant impact. Rewinding all the way to the first moment Kirwan heard the song, in May 2013, he recalls: “I had no idea that it was earmarked to be the first single. In any case, I always try to treat every song I work on equally, whether I’m doing an EP or an album, and then the label and artist can later decide what song will be the single. If you tarnish a demo with the word ‘single’, everybody starts freaking out and becomes really precious, and it’s more difficult to allow the song to develop. So in my mind I am always working on all songs equally, and then after I am done, the client can decide on the business side of things.
“In general, the songs that Andrew came in with were pretty complete. With ‘Take Me To Church’ it was purely a matter of sonically making it work. The arrangements were already there. Andrew is one of the most talented arrangers that I have ever come across. And he was 23 when we did this, as well! He is doing very well for a reason, which is his talent. If you look at the very top of the screen grab of the Pro Tools session, at the time-signature changes at the meter throughout the song [going from 4/4 to 6/8 to 8/8 to 6/8 to 4/4 and so on], that was all him. It took me ages to work out how to do it in Pro Tools, to be honest!
“‘Take Me To Church’ came pretty fully formed, apart from drums. We just needed to make the whole song sound bigger and wider and fatter and deeper and all those things. So we decided which elements of Andrew’s Logic demo we wanted to rebroadcast [re–amp], and which we wanted to rerecord. The Hammond organ presets sounded a bit digital, so I would have broadcast that. But things like guitars, Andrew is such a great guitarist that I said to him: ‘Look, that doesn’t sound great, why don’t you just play it again?’ He’d go through the chain that I described to you earlier. Once again, it was very much a matter of improving the sounds, rather than the parts.
“I don’t remember suggesting many structural changes to Andrew’s other songs as a producer, because he’s such a great songwriter. Maybe we did a few edits here and there, but by and large the songs were well developed. The arrangements for some songs were written in stone, and with other songs they were more open–ended. In a few cases it was different. With ‘From Eden’, he came in with just a guitar hook and the vocals, and we had to make that work on a completely different level. With ‘To Be Alone’, which is one of my favourite songs on the album, there was a lot of playing around with arrangements and trying out crazy sounds.
“Of course it helped when the budgets went up, because it allowed us to take more time. When we did the album, which took us three months, we did two or three versions of a couple of songs to keep the labels happy. In general it was Andrew and I working together, and then bringing in musicians as we needed them. The other difference between working on the first EP and the other material was that we recorded the drums for the first EP at my studio. Everything here is fully set up and integrated and ready to go, so I do 80 percent of the recordings of most albums here, but the acoustics are pretty dead and not great for recording drums.
“Normally I go to an outside studio a mile away to record drums, but because of the low budget I decided to do it in my own studio, which is why they sound the way they do. It took some smoke and mirrors to get the energy from them that I was after. The drums for the second EP were recorded at Cauldron Studios, and for the rest of the album at the place where I normally record them, Westland Studios. Oh, and the final difference is that Andrew Scheps mixed all the songs on the album, apart from ‘Take Me To Church’. The American label also got Andrew to mix that song, and I loved his mix, because he also tries to connect with emotion first, and sonic second. I don’t really care whether music is sonically beautiful or not, the most important thing is whether it touches me. Andrew [Scheps] is the same. In the end his mix of ‘Take Me To Church’ was not used because my mix was doing so well.”
Rob Kirwan explains that some of the drum tracks on the ‘Take Me To Church’ screenshots are almost black with edits because, “there were some problems with the timing. This and the issues with the sound are the reasons why the drums aren’t very prominent in the mix. I normally like drums to be right up there, as you can hear on the rest of the album.
“I used more or less the same recording setup for recording the drums at my place as I later used at Cauldron and Westland. I take all my mics and mic pres and other required gear with me, because they create my sound. Generally, particularly if I don’t know a room, I will ask the drummer to come in with just a kick, snare and hats, and will get him to play in different parts of the room. I’ll be looking for the place where I hear the most bottom end on the drums, and I’ll also ask the drummer to tune the snare drum, so it sounds interesting and ballsy.
“My signal chains usually consist of an AKG D112 and a Neumann FET U47 on the kick, going through my Neve 1073, and I record the snare with a Shure SM57 on top, going through an API 3124+ mic pre, and a [Neumann] KM84 underneath going through whatever is available, often the desk at the studio I’m working at. The API can clip on the way into Pro Tools, so I generally control the level with a compressor. When you stick a pad on the mic, it never sounds good to me. My overhead mics are Gefell M58s, and they go through my Summit TPA 200B tube preamp, and then though a [Urei] 1178 with very little compression. The toms usually are Sennheiser MD421s, but I’ll also have an additional 421 mic underneath the floor tom, and I’ll flip the phase. This gives me the weight I want from the floor tom, combined with top–end attack. Other than that I could be using any of the unusual microphones I have or that the studio has. I have a couple of Placid Audio Copperphone mics that I may try, and they can sound great.
“I also put my Neumann CMV563 M7 up as an ambient mic, which goes into my API mic pre, which is really good for exciting top end with a lot of energy, and that into my Empirical Labs Fatso Junior compressor, and I compress the f out of it. This is my ‘go to’ drum sound. I want the compressed energy of the snare and kick drum, but I have to be careful not to have the hi–hats and cymbals too loud. The sound of my Fatso chain was a large part of the sound of the drums on the Hozier album. Apart from the Fatso track, I record clean as a whistle, with very little EQ or other treatments on the way in. I also play around with phase correlations a lot, but I don’t have the patience to move microphones a quarter of an inch and then check the phase correlation each time. I just flip the phase on everything, and try all the different phase permutations that are possible, and listen to how that affects the overall sound. I love recording drums!”
“The bass guitar went through my ’70s Ampeg SVT bass amp, on which I had a Neumann FET 47, which went into a 1073 mic pre, and then through my Teletronix LA2A. Another big thing on the record is my Sequential Circuits Pro One synth, which became a big part of the sound of the bottom end. I tend to record that DI. Nick [Seymour] has a beautiful Bösendorfer baby grand in the studio, and I used my two beautiful Gefell M58s on them, which have a lovely, warm sound, and I’ll usually will stick them through my Summit mic pre and then the 1178 — as I do with the overheads. There are also strings on the album, which were done by two string players who came to my studio, and overdubbed using a Gefell M62 on the cello, and my Neumann KM84 on the violin. The preamps would have been any I had spare at that time.
“Guitars I generally record using an SM57 and a Sontronics Delta. The former will go through a ‘lunchbox’ Neve 1073 copy, and the latter through an API 3124+. I’ll compress that with the ADL 100 and an LA2A. The Delta is a ribbon mic, and I use it a lot. I like Sontronics’ ribbon microphones. They give you that ribbon sound, but the problem with a lot of traditional ribbon mics is that the gain is so low that you end up bringing up a lot of noise to get them to speak. I don’t think it is worth it, whereas the Sontronics microphones require phantom power to start off with, which is pretty wild, and they are loud. They really complement the 57. The Delta mic gives the guitar lovely warmth and big bottom end, and the 57 picks up the edgy stuff in the middle. I use those two microphones on pretty much every guitar amplifier that I record.
“I recorded Andrew’s vocals with him in the room, right behind me, so there were no natural acoustics on them. I already spoke about my CMV563/M7 vocal chain. I also always had a Sennheiser M441 on him as a sort of safeguard, and I combined these two while mixing. My mic pre on the 441 was the 1071, and I also had the Vac Rac EQ on his vocals, and the LA2A. So the vocal chain was as warm as it could be. The mic he used in his attic is a Neumann U87. The problem with 87s and 414s for me is that they are so accurate that everything sounds pretty sterile on them, hence my preference for using Gefells and other unusual microphones with lots of character. But it worked on his vocals because his performance was so good.”
“I don’t have a mixing desk, because as much as I like my analogue gear, people now want recalls in milliseconds. And that’s impossible to do in the analogue domain. If one knob on an 1176 is a fraction out, the mix will sound entirely different. You simply can’t mix on a desk any more. I don’t care how good your assistant is, a desk recall never sounds the same. And stems also don’t quite sound the same to me either. I use a lot of analogue gear on the way in, and I have the Chandler summing mixer to give more of an analogue feel to the mix, but I’m largely mixing in the box now, apart from the occasional outboard effect and things I send out and re–record back in again. The only thing I have is a PreSonus fader [controller] if I want to write in my levels using that. Other than that it’s just mouse and keyboard.
“One of the advantages of working with a DAW is that it’s easier to mix as I go, so my roughs sound very similar to the final mix, and I sometimes prefer them to the final mix. The great thing in working on a DAW is that you can always go back to an earlier mix, if you prefer the feeling of that. Despite mixing as I go, I still have a definite mix phase, though when I have also recorded the song, I find it very difficult to mix it straight away. I need 10 days or so away from the record to be able to approach it fresh again, and be more objective about things and also not be emotionally attached to things in the mix.
“In the case of ‘Take Me To Church’ I would have started off where we left it after recording. The rough mix is all about getting the track to feel good, and I then get into the sonic details and the panning and all that kind of stuff. My first step with this song would have been trying to make the drums sound good, putting samples underneath the kick and the snare drums, and using other treatments.”
- Drums: Empirical Labs Fatso, Focusrite Red EQ, Drawmer DS201, Bomb Factory Sansamp PSA1 & Audio Ease Altiverb.
“Right at the top of the session is something called ‘Asian Kit’, which are samples from a preset in Logic that Andrew really liked. It features on quite a few of the songs on the record, mainly for handclaps and woodblocks and things like that. Further down is the Fatso track, with the M7/Fatso signal chain I mentioned above. I nowadays have a Mackie summing mixer on which I also have my Fatso and I will send a drum balance through that as parallel compression. In the past I would record the Fatso–compressed drums back in, but I got so bored of the latency issue and having to move stuff around that I prefer to have the Fatso running live most of the time.
“Below the Fatso track are the kick and snare tracks and samples, on which I used the Focusrite Red EQ, which I like a lot. The ‘D’ on one of the snare tracks is a Drawmer gate. Further down are the tom tracks, overheads, and an M7 and an M58 track, all, again, heavily edited. The M58 track also has the Drawmer, and the Sansamp for some distortion. Then there’s a ride, an OH duplicate, and finally the ‘Kit Plate’ aux track, which has an Altiverb with the EMT Wendy Carlos plate reverb. That’s the entire kit. There are not many sonic treatments on the drums. The Fatso sound is the main thing. If I was starting out today, it’d be the first thing I’d buy. I only use it on drums, but drums are such a crucial part of the recording process!”
- Guitars & keyboards: TL Labs TL Aggro, Avid Trim, Waves Puigtech EQP1A, Eventide H3000, Focusrite Red EQ & Audio Ease Altiverb.
“Below the ‘Kit Plate’ aux track are four organ tracks. The top two were recorded through an amplifier via my 57 and Delta mics, and below that is a distorted organ track, with the Trillium Lane Labs TL Aggro compression plug–in on it and a Pultec EQ. The ‘Organ 3000’ track is probably me putting one of Andrew’s Logic organs through my Eventide H3000. Further down are six guitar tracks without any treatments — the ‘T’ on one of them is a Trim — and below that are the piano tracks, some of which are again heavily edited. Andrew wasn’t as good yet at playing the piano. He’s very good now, though! I got him to do the left hand separately, which are the ‘New Piano’ tracks. I once again had the Focusrite Red EQ plug–in on the piano, and there’s a ‘Piano Verb’ aux track, which also has the Wendy Carlos EMT plate from Altiverb, just with a different pre–delay. In general I like to create a sense of everything coming from the same space, so the Wendy Carlos plate is on many things in this song. There’s more piano below that, again with just Focusrite EQ. In all there’s a lot of piano, it was one of the most important elements of the song.”
- Vocals: Bomb Factory 1176, Focusrite Red EQ, SoundToys Echo Boy, Line 6 Echo Farm, Knas Ekdahl Moisturizer, Waves Renaissance Compressor, Avid Trim & Audio Ease Altiverb.
“The two ‘tele’ voices at the top are backing vocals. I think they were ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ that came from the demo. They don’t sound like telephone voices at all, so I’m not sure why they’re called that. Instead they almost sound like church voices. Below are two aux tracks for those vocals, with Bomb Factory compression, Focusrite EQ and an Echo Boy delay. The backing vocals below that — ‘BV1–4’ — are the ones with the signature Leslie effect on them, and they again have some Focusrite EQ and Bomb Factory compression, and I gave them some Echo Farm slap delay to add depth to the reverb.
“The next tracks are the verse lead vocals from his Logic session, called ‘Male Creamy Lead Vocals’, on which I put some Renaissance compression and a Trim, and ‘Vox Verb’ is the Moisturizer track, plus two Trim plug–ins, one being +1dB and the other –0.5dB. I hate automating in Pro Tools, so I will often use the Trim to bypass it. Writing automation is a tedious task. Below this are the chorus vocals, called ‘New Vocal’, so we obviously recorded these again at my studio. In order to make them sound like the demo vocal I stuck them through the same chain and EQ’d them heavily. ‘Vox Plate’ is the Altiverb, and there’s a delay track below it which again has the Echo Farm, on a delay setting. Finally there are several more double–tracked chorus vocals, and they also have the Renaissance and Focusrite, and the Moisturizer and Echo Farm aux tracks below them.”
- Final mix: Neve 33609J, Manley Massive Passive & Klein+Hummel mastering EQ.
“The six master tracks are there to bring the levels down for certain things. Some things probably were too hot and the D–A converter couldn’t handle it. At the bottom of the session are two mixdown tracks. My stereo mix goes through my Neve 33609J compressor, and then my Manley Massive Passive tube EQ, and finally my Klein+Hummel EQs. The K+Hs are the first solid–state versions, and they are incredible. I love them. I record my stereo mix back into the Pro Tools session via my Burl B2 Bomber. I normally work at 24–bit/88.2kHz, but this session was in 24/48 because that’s what Andrew had worked with in Logic. One of the two stereo mix tracks has the Massey L2007 mastering limiter on it to give the artist and the record companies a better idea of what it will sound like after mastering. I send the mastering engineer both versions, so he knows what the artist has been listening to, but also has the freedom to do what he wants.”
A key part of Rob Kirwan’s role as producer with Hozier lay in identifying the elements that made his sound individual, and enhancing them. “To be blunt about it, Andrew is a white guy who sounds a bit like a black guy, and his music has a lot of black music influences. But there are many white soul singers out there today who produce really bland music. That was the danger. We could not go down that road. Andrew’s voice and songs are exceptional, and we wanted signature sounds to match and enhance them. The guitar sound I just described [see main text] was a signature sound, as was a really tough drum sound, which is really important to me. The record had to sound dirty and tough, otherwise we would have strayed into that white soul singer territory. There was one song on the record that was quite poppy, and we spent a good deal of time trying to make it less sweet-sounding.
“Andrew’s backing vocals, and the reverb on his lead and backing vocals, were two other signature sounds. The gospel and Irish church and folk music influences you can hear in Andrew’s voice come from him. He was a member of the Trinity Orchestra, as a vocalist, and he also had his experiences with An na, of course. He is amazing at vocal harmonising. Most people will harmonise with a third or a fifth below and above, and that can sound really good, but Andrew would come up with these really strange but beautiful harmonies, that I thought sounded Irish, and he’d then sing them in a gospel way. I think this is a big part of the sound of the record that people are enjoying. It’s a new sound, built on traditional elements.
“Another characteristic sonic element is the Leslie simulator plug–in on his Logic rig that Andrew had stuck on his backing vocals. The first time I heard it, I immediately knew that it would be an important signature sound. It was a real hook that we could hang the songs on.”
“I’m a great believer in the artist’s performance being the most important element of the song,” insists Rob Kirwan. “It’s one reason why I normally prefer for the vocalist to do his vocal performance once the entire track is recorded, so they can sing to that. It’s also the reason why my studio is a lovely place to be in, with high ceilings and huge windows, and for a lot of the recordings we had the windows wide open. We’re in the middle of the city centre, and there’ll be loads of noises in the background, even seagulls, and I don’t care. Of course, if there’s the sound of a drill in the background during a vocal take, we’ll do it again, but if there’s the sound of a seagull flying by, so be it. All these natural noises, also of people moving and breathing while performing, are a part of somebody making music, and I like that, unless it really gets in the way. Conveying the sound of music being made by humans is what I’m here to do!”