2019 American Music Awards

Gear: John Hill's Playground of Sound

"So many studios are very sterile," John Hill says during a tour of his working environment that is anything but. Vintage instruments, analog outboard gear and the occasional skateboard clutter his Los Angeles digs: Its feng shui proves as all over the place as Hill's disparate resume. The producer/mixer/songwriter often works with superstars like Shakira and P!nk and has written songs with Rihanna and Christina Aguilera--yet he's also produced mavericks like M.I.A., Santigold and Devo. Most recently, he produced the acclaimed new album "Afraid of Heights" from indie-rockers Wavves, and is in the studio with buzz band Skaters, whose members are currently playing basketball around the hoop installed in the parking lot. "The haphazardness is what makes it sound like me," he jokes.

Two years ago, Hill moved from New York--where his studio often hosted the likes of the Strokes and Mark Ronson--to Los Angeles. Once situated, he took over the decidedly funky Sonora Recorders, located in Los Feliz. "Here, I'm able to do everything you could do in a major studio, but it feels like a project studio," he says. Through the years, Sonora has served as the studio for a disparate variety of artists, ranging from Flight of the Conchords to Backstreet Boys. Hill appreciates how that eclectic history adds to the vibe, with its treasure troves of vintage gear and memorabilia.

"We were going through the storage sheds and I found this autographed Backstreet Boys poster from Burger King," Hill says. "I'll find things like an old AKG BX20 spring reverb tank, or an original Mellotron that still works." He pauses to pick up a vintage Gibson ES-330. "This guitar is actually Tim Armstrong's, from Rancid--I don't even know if he knows that I have it."

To create individual sounds for artists that span so many genres, Hill fills his workspace with an inspiring variety of old synths, rickety tube amps and unconventional music-making machines--the weirder, the better. "Most studios have the amps that everyone else has," Hill says. "I like giving an artist something where they say, 'What the fuck is that?' At the end of the day, I'm not making my record, but theirs: Hopefully they have their own sonic stamp that I help them get to, which is why I like having a lot of gear. It's like, 'Here, come up with something crazy.'" -Matt Diehl


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