Three-time Grammy winner Nic Hard has garnered a reputation as one of the most talented and versatile studio engineers in the business over the past two decades, not least for his work with US jazz fusion outfit Snarky Puppy. Headliner caught up with him for a chat about working with one of the world’s most demanding acts, his path into music, and how Merging Technologies has become a central part of his work in Atmos…
Two days prior to our conversation, Nic Hard was collecting a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for his work on Snarky Puppy’s Empire Central. It’s his third Grammy win to date, his previous two being for his work with the same band in the same category. Over several years, Hard and the band, particularly its founder and leader Michael League, have struck up a hugely successful partnership that was, and continues to be, forged over a set of shared values. Of course, there is a steadfast commitment to quality with regards to both performance and sonic sensibilities, but central to their working relationship is a work ethic that few would be able to match.
“I was introduced to Michael through a mutual friend,” says Hard of how he entered the band’s orbit. Joining us over Zoom he is an engaging presence, serious in his demeanour, yet generous with his time and happy to talk at length about various aspects of his life and career so far. “I began by mixing things for Mike, not Snarky Puppy, as they had another engineer that was doing all of their stuff. He passed away around 2015 and at that point I took over doing all of their live stuff and studio albums. Initially one of the things that gelled us was work ethic. Mike is a very hard worker and we would do sessions that were 20 hours long. And basically, I could keep up with him.
“On the first studio album we did together, the way I mixed and engineered the album was very new to Mike. The previous engineer was more about capturing the natural sound of the instrument, whereas I’m more about manipulating things and that was new for them. I think it has helped develop the sound of the band. They are all great guys and I’ve done some of their solo records as well. We all get along and have a good time doing it.”
Having mixed both studio and live records for Snarky Puppy, Hard explains that he has adopted subtly different approaches to each format. He also describes how the workload that has come to define studio sessions is no less intense when mixing live shows on the road.
“My feeling about studio albums is that there needs to be more going on at a sonic level to capture the audience, so I’ll spend a lot more time being creative with effects and making sure that the sonic scope is deep,” he elaborates. “With live it’s a little more straightforward. The second time I mixed a tour for them I went with them on the tour, recorded a show, and at night mixed it so they could release it within 24 hours. Which was hellish, in a way! It was a six-week tour and for the first two weeks I was barely sleeping at all until we figured out a sleeping schedule, which was basically between 7am-10am and 3pm-6pm!
“There were other challenges as well. The lounge where I had my setup was above the engine of the bus, so it was rumbling the whole time. But basically, I had to go on instinct with a lot of it. The different venues sounded different, but it was at least the same mics and console. So, I’d listen in the morning, make some adjustments, and then hope for the best!”