Adele's 'Hello' Sound Engineer Tom Elmhirst on the Power of Vinyl and His Favorite Records of All Time

Eric Ryan Anderson
Elmhirst, who got his start answering the phones at London’s Sarm Studios, photographed March 22 at Electric Lady Studios in New York, where he typically works alone from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Grammy-winning sound engineer Tom Elmhirst has worked with everyone from Beck to Bowie -- and believes big-time in the power of vinyl

Long before he mixed Adele’s “Hello” and David Bowie’s haunting goodbye, Blackstar, Tom Elmhirst developed an obsession with vinyl. “There’s a sense of occasion when you drop the needle and it clicks into the groove,” says the British engineer who has tweaked and polished Grammy Award-winning records by Adele (21), Amy Winehouse (Back to Black) and Beck (Morning Phase). “The crackle, the hiss, even the smell -- it’s a tactile experience.”

Elmhirst, 44, who has been manning the consoles at Electric Lady Studios for the past five years, was 13 when he bought his first LP, Queen’s Greatest Hits.  Soon he was stocking up at Rough Trade and Notting Hill Tape Exchange, a second-hand store that, he says, was like “an eBay of vinyl.”

“Vinyl is the closest listening experience you can get to what the artist intended, short of getting hold of the master tapes,” says Elmhirst, who got his start answering phones at London’s SARM Studios. In his current role he sees himself as a collaborator, someone who helps artists shape a song out of dozens of instrumental and vocal tracks. “It’s their record,” Elmhirst says. “I’m always very clear about that. I don’t want to have a sound -- ‘Oh, that’s a Tom Elmhirst record.’ It’s disrespectful to the artist and it dates the record. It may work for a bit, but like fashion, it will pass. I hope the records still sound okay in 10 to 20 years and have some longevity.” Like vinyl.

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Is the LP's comeback music to your ears?
It’s a really good thing. Vinyl is a magical experience that the CD could never replicate. And the MP3? I’m sorry, that’s just a poor cousin. If you played people Beck’s album on vinyl, MP3 and the file I mixed, they’d be horrified at what the MP3 has done. 

Why do you say that?
There’s a [whole] manner of digital dirty tricks that people use to make records now. I call it the cocaine-izing of music. It’s all about making it louder -- and it’s fake. It’s just a weird human quirk that we associate volume with quality. Vinyl is the enemy of all that. You can’t physically do that with vinyl; there’s a healthy limit to what the ear can hear. Its resurgence signals that some people have become dissatisfied with what the digital world offers the listener.

So, you’re more of an analog guy.
Absolutely! Rock'n' roll was born from distortion. When you put too much signal through a tube in an amplifier or crank it up, that’s rock'n' roll. That’s analog. It’s a tactile experience, whereas digital is cold by its very nature. Once you digitize something, it’s Matrix time, all ones and zeroes. There's no character to a one or a zero.

A lot of kids under the age of 30 are starting to discover records for the first time.
I give my son vinyl now -- he's got a record deck and loves it. I remember a funny story -- I was working with U2 a while ago and Jimmy Iovine came by and I think his niece was with him. She was about 15 years old and was like, “What are these big CDs?" I was like, “Whaaaat? They’re records!” She’d never heard a record before so I played something and she said it sounded so much better. “Why don’t we have this?” she asked. So I looked at Jimmy and said, “You’re the billionaire . . . f---ing buy her a record player.” [Laughs


What are some of your favorite Lps?
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is gorgeous. I especially loved the ’70s West Coast era -- Jim Keltner and all those guys at Sunset Sound studio. They made some really great-sounding records that felt like warm cotton wool around you. Just lovely.

What do you listen for when you hear a song?
Dimension: vertical, horizontal, and depth of field. I like to listen to music as a cinematographer. I watch movies all the time while I’m mixing. When I mixed Arcade Fire I was watching Pulp Fiction. When I mixed Jamie xx’s record, I watched Gravity. To me, visual and audio complement each other so beautifully.

Any examples of a great cinematic song?
Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” The first verse starts in mono with an acoustic guitar and her vocal, the pre-chorus goes a little bit wider with the piano, and when the chorus kicks off it’s a bit like Slash playing guitar on the mountain.

Do your ears ever get tired?
They get exhausted. When I’m mixing a song, I listen to it 200 times in a day. So if I can do a lot of work quickly, my ears aren’t tired and I can still be creative. There’s a real connection between great artists and great ears. Norah, David, Beck: They hear everything.

Do you prefer to work alone?
I need my space at the beginning because it’s going to be a mess at first -- you don’t watch someone in the bathroom, you just want them to come out with their hands dry. So on the average day I ll get here around 10 a.m. and work alone until about 5pm. 

What kind of speakers do you use in the studio?
My main ones are made by a company called ATC, from England. Full price they're about 30,000 bucks. It's a very expensive speaker setup but I have access to the whole frequency range of the human ear. Someone making a record on speakers that are inferior to mine essentially can't hear as much as I can. But there are times when I’ll also I want to listen to a piece of music so quietly that we could talk over it -- I call that the supermarket test.

 

What’s the key to buying home speakers?
There are a few decisions you have to make beforehand. Budget, obviously, but also your listening environment. Where are the speakers going? The source of your music is important too. The best way to listen to vinyl is with an amplifier and a record deck. You need some equipment.

What’s the biggest challenge to finding the right pair?
A lot of speakers coming out these days are servicing the digital world we live in. Speaker manufacturers, like the music industry -- no one knows how to release records anymore -- are trying to do lots of things. I think that’s consumer-driven.

It’s a constant tug-of-war between convenience and quality.
Functionality is important. But as much as I like the convenience of an MP3, Spotify and whatever, I also have to have vinyl. Records are like photographs -- they commit to a moment in time.

What records are you most proud of?
I’ve been really lucky. The Amy [Winehouse] record (Back to Black) was a real game changer for me. Beck’s Morning Phase was crucial and my relationship with Adele has been quite special. I’ve worked with her since 19. She’s incredibly in sync with what she likes and doesn’t like. When she says, “F--- ing hate that,” I don’t take it personally.

So she had you long before “Hello.” What’s it like to hear the song now?
Mixing a song is like doing surgery -- you never see someone quite the same way if you’ve seen their insides.

Do you ever wish you could re-do one of your operations?
There are some things I could’ve done better on Back to Black. If I mixed it now, it would sound better. I’d love to mix it now.

What would you change?
It would be fuller, richer. I have a better listening environment now [at Electric Lady] than I had when I mixed that record 10 years ago. I’m better at it. I’m more experienced. But that’s what I love about mixing records as opposed to live performances. Records are like photographs. You take a moment in time and commit to them.

How was your time with David Bowie?
We got on really well, two Englishmen in New York. It was beautifully collaborative, the whole experience. I mixed the bulk of Blackstar around July and got to change a few things in September. Mixing an 11-minute song was quite the adventure; there’s a claustrophobia of that record that I adore. He was an incredible guy, so empathetic. He helped me quite a lot, as a person. We would talk. I imagine everyone he met came away feeling something. He was that kind of person, a genuinely special human being.

Did you know how sick he was?
I didn’t know completely, but yes. He was limited in the amount of time he could spend in the studio. But he was incredibly supportive. I saw him three weeks before he passed [on January 10]. I went to opening night of his Off-Broadway play, Lazarus, and got to know [star] Michael C. Hall quite well. We both had such a special experience working on David’s last projects. Sometimes I can’t believe I got to do that. It was an amazing journey. 

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 16 issue of Billboard.