Nic Hard: 'Every Snarky Puppy record we make gets more complicated'

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!”

As we've got older the schedule is more reasonable. We aren't doing 20-hour days anymore. Nic Hard

Today, he says, things have calmed somewhat, even if the technical aspects are no less challenging.

“As we’ve gotten older the schedule is more reasonable,” he notes. “We aren’t doing 20-hour days anymore and it’s best to be well rested and clearer. But it seems like every Snarky Puppy record we do gets a little bit more complicated each time. Empire Central was not just three drummers but 128 channels of basic recording. Mike comes up with these ideas each time just to make it a little bit more difficult [laughs].”

Another long-term relationship cultivated via his work with Snarky Puppy is Hard’s connection with studio kit specialist Merging Technologies. Since being introduced to Merging products via League, Hard has come to rely on them as a staple part of his setup, particularly in his Atmos workflow.

“Snarky Puppy were playing a show and someone from Merging met them and was talking to them about them trying out the Anubis interface as a home recording thing, and Mike passed it on to me to see if it was something that could work,” Hard recalls. “The context I’m using it in now is in Atmos, so I’ve just installed a bunch more speakers and a Merging Hapi in my studio in Spain. It’s amazing. There are only one or two other interfaces that are capable of doing the Atmos setup with Sonarworks incorporated into it, and that really drew me to it.

“The initial learning curve on it is pretty steep because it is so powerful and it can do a lot of different things,” he continues. “But in order to use it properly it takes a little bit of time. Initially Merging was asking me what I thought about it in regard to people in bands for their home recording setup, and it’s a little bit complicated for some people. That’s not because it’s a bad interface, it’s because those guys need ridiculously simple things. But with this interface the options available are incredible.

“I had a lot of ideas for different uses for it, one them being that the next Snarky Puppy record is going to be live in the studio with an audience, but we are going to be travelling around the world doing it in different cities, so I will need to fly with all this gear. And if I had 10 Anubis’ they would function not only as mic pres and an interface to get into the computer, but also as the headphones station for the guys. The Anubis is a very, very powerful tool and there are a lot of different uses for it. The thing I am most excited about with it at the moment is the monitoring function with Atmos.”

Which brings us neatly onto the subject of immersive mixing and how Hard has been implementing his Merging kit into his Atmos setup.

“I have the Anubis and the Hapi in my Atmos setup,” he says. “The Hapi is almost completely transparent in that I don’t have to touch it or mess with it, and I can change all the setup with anything I need to do on the Anubis, which is amazing,” he concludes. “The Anubis is where I can control all of the calibration and everything else. I’m relatively new to Atmos mixing and the setup is recent.

“One of the things the Anubis has allowed me to do is incorporate Sonarworks directly into the interface. My setup is at home, not a commercial studio, so the ability to calibrate an Atmos system in 20 minutes was invaluable. I got it set up and working in almost no time, so that is an incredible feature. And creatively, as far as Atmos is concerned, it’s a new format and there aren’t many rules, so I’m having as much fun with it as I can.”