The Cranberries' Noel Hogan's Production Renaissance
After founding the biggest rock band to come out of Ireland since U2, what's next? That's the question that faced The Cranberries' songwriter and guitarist, Noel Hogan, in 2003 when the popular group decided to take a break. During their six year hiatus, Noel immersed himself in emerging music production technology at his home studio, eventually producing solo material for Cranberries' singer Dolores O'Riordan and his own Mono Band project, as well as helping develop the sound for other up and coming Irish bands.
Marsha Vdovin caught up with Noel Hogan on the heels of the release of The Cranberries' sixth and latest album, Roses. Read on to hear his recollections of the founding years of The Cranberries, his 21st century production renaissance, and his current recording and production methods, which include Universal Audio hardware and UAD Powered Plug-Ins.
Did you and your brother start playing music at an early age?
Yeah. We started, well, I guess it’s late compared to others, but we were about 17, 18. We’d always kind of grown up around music, as in we were really into different bands and hanging around in places where bands were when we were teenagers.
Then a lot of the guys that we hung around with started bands. Now we weren’t even playing at the time, but we used to go and see these bands and we figured, you know, we hang around these guys, we know them, and they’re able to do it. So basically why can’t we just start a band? And that’s really how it began. So that would have been around 1989-ish.
A good friend of ours that we grew up with, Fergal Lawler, became the drummer in The Cranberries. The three of us just kind of ended up falling into this band together. My brother and Ferg actually started playing first and then a few months later I came along to play guitar. And that was it.
When we were learning how to play we were very limited in what we knew. Because we couldn’t play cover versions we just started making up our own songs, which slowly morphed into becoming The Cranberries.
Did you record your early songs?
Yeah. We were very lucky that there was a studio here in Limerick, Ireland. It was the only studio around at the time, and we knew the guy who ran it had five rehearsal rooms and a main studio. I think he had a Soundcraft desk in there. It was very basic stuff for the time, but it served its purpose for us. We had about four or five songs at that point and we told him we wanted to demo them.
So we booked two days for three songs — recording, mixing, the whole works — for a demo. He heard it and really, really liked what we were doing. So he let us come in and record as we were writing. He felt there was something more there that he had heard and that he was going to try and help us out.
As our process, we would write and then basically record a few weeks later. It was like a conveyer belt for those first few months.
“New audio technology — including the UAD plug-ins — has opened up a whole new world to musicians. You try and explain to younger bands how lucky they are to be able to have access to all this stuff, but they don’t really understand ... It’s an exciting time.”
What a great opportunity! That must have been a lot fun.
Yeah. It was really fun. The problem, though, was that when we’d record stuff in the studio, we would use a lot of reverbs and delays, more so than when we started playing live. We were so used to all the effects in the studio that when we played live there were these massive holes in the sound to them. The gear we had was very basic. We didn’t have effects, just a tiny drum kit, borrowed amps, borrowed guitars, like most young bands. And we suffered, originally, because of that.
We didn’t know how to translate what we were doing in the studio to our live setup. It took us probably a good year to figure it out. We started to tour a little bit, and it was actually just by touring that we learned how to perfect that live thing.
We started to look at the studio and live gigs as different beasts altogether and approach it that way. When we came around to that, we finally started to be a bit more pleased with how we sounded live. As with most young bands, you’re learning the ropes as you’re going along. It’s when you finally get all these things in place that your sound finally comes to be.
Did you learn everything by doing, or was there a producer-type who helped you out?
When we got [The Smiths’ producer] Stephen Street to do our first album — it was a massive jump forward for us. Up to that point, we were more or less learning as we were going along, and learning from our mistakes — and a lot of mistakes, obviously. Then we met Stephen after growing up as massive Smiths fans. The Smiths had only been broken up a couple of years by the time we met Stephen.
I definitely felt very intimidated at first, because you think, “I’m only playing a few years and here I am with Stephen Street.” We did the first album in Dublin in six weeks. Stephen taught us how to really concentrate on the song, and not worry so much about all the decoration that goes on around it.
I think that early on we were doing so many demos and having all the time we needed to do them we had forgotten that the song is the important thing. We learned that from Stephen. I think the Cranberries’ sound really came about at that point. To this day we still work with him and he still pushes us as hard as he did then.
Were there other producers you worked with along the way, and at what point did you get more involved in production and engineering your own work?
We did the first two albums with Stephen Street and we did those albums very close together. We did a third album and we worked with Bruce Fairbairn so we could see if we could change the sound a little bit. We didn’t want to just keep doing the same thing.
When we worked with Bruce, it was a completely different style of working. He had an engineer, Mike Plotnikoff, that he always worked with. Mike was a genius engineer. You started watching him and you would see the different ways he would mic up the amps compared to what we had been used to before. We did our third album with Bruce and Mike and then we went back to working with Steve again.
Steve had met a guy called Cenzo Townshend; he was a total gearhead. He’d show up at the studio with boxes and boxes of gear. The thing about Cenzo was that he was always willing to tell you what everything did and how it worked. He had all this vintage gear, like rows of Neve 1073s and things like that. We’d all be thinking, “What’s that for?”
Being a musician originally, I just was worried about playing and getting the thing done and not taking as much notice. But then as time went on and I’d heard a sound that I liked, I’d want to know how that came about.
When did you get involved with digital technology?
I guess it was around 2001, 2002, when I really started to notice that with Pro Tools I could do this on my laptop now.
We had worked the old-school way of recording all the albums onto tape and in the big, huge studios of the time. Suddenly there was an alternative. I bought a laptop and got a Digidesign Command 8 Pro Tools system. I had a room over my garage at home and I put the stuff in there and just basically started — no one taught me. I just started doing what I remembered from watching people.
It was a very simple, basic setup, but for me it was right at the time. I wanted to do something more than just The Cranberries’ sound that we’d become known for.
“I have a real Roland Space Echo unit right here, but I use the Universal Audio plug-in version — the Roland RE-201 Space Echo Plug-In — because I find it keeps things in sync and is a lot easier to use. And it sounds just as good.”
Did you use Pro Tools basically as a recorder or did you get into actually composing with it?
When the whole electronic dance music thing first came about, I was very against the “computers making music” kind of thing. Then I actually saw how people were using it.
I met a great programmer in London named Matt Fawn who’d worked with many different people. He started programming back in the ‘80s and he’d come all the way up. I started going back to London to work with Matt. He was great at teaching me stuff.
He introduced me to Reason, and I saw how easy it was to start programming using that. I used to write ideas that would just go down onto a Dictaphone, and I’d keep notes and go back through them later on. Now I program beats, start layering up guitar ideas, and put down the bass.
That was in 2003; for that year I more or less worked on a solo album. It was a mix of guitar with electronic stuff.
Is that Mono Band?
That was Mono Band, exactly, that’s what that became. It was a step away from doing The Cranberries thing. It was night and day for me, because I was playing everything and being able to do it in my garage at home. Five years before that it just wasn’t feasible to do.
I learned so much from just being locked away on my own for all that time. I also started getting these offers from a lot of local bands, all kinds of Irish-based bands. They started approaching me to produce stuff for them. They liked the sound of the Mono Band album. It was kind of through that series of events that I ended up falling into the production side of things. More or less I did that from about 2003 to around 2010.
What changed in 2010?
Well, The Cranberries got back together around 2009. I had agreed to take on a lot of projects, but I decided I would go away on tour and then work with bands in production on my month or two break.
It eventually got to the point that I had no time off, ever. It was constant; I would go away on tour and then I would come back and go straight into the studio with no time off. I then decided to not do any production this year on other people’s stuff — just on my own things. Next year I plan to go back in and start doing production again.
At the moment I spend a lot of time here at home writing. The convenience of that is great for me. You can come and go and leave your ideas open on your laptop, and come back to it. You can experiment.
Nowadays I use the computer as an instrument as much as I would use a guitar or a piano. I treat them the same in that I put an idea down and then I kind of look at how I can play with it and change it around within the confines of Pro Tools or Logic or whatever it is I’m working on that day.
Can you describe your home studio setup?
I kind of have two going. My one here at home is very basic. I’ve got a Manley preamp that I plug into, I usually do guitar and bass through that. I’ve got a few outboard keyboards like a Nord Rack and things like that as well.
Not far from where I live I have another setup. When I started working more and more with bands, the garage that I had here at home got a bit too small. When I was offered this project with a band, budget was really tight, so I asked a friend if I could use his house. It was this massive old mansion, and we ended up moving everything down there. We have this Pro Tools rig down there and all our outboard gear that we’d collected.
Are you using any UA hardware?
At my home studio I use the UAD-2 Satellite DSP Accelerator. Originally I said I’d buy the Satellite to bring with me on tour, but when I looked at all the gear I had to haul around with me I ended up setting it up here for the time in my house. Now when I work on material here, I can bring it back down to the studio, and we can use the cards down there which have all the matching plug-ins. So it works out great, pretty seamless.
Do you have any particular plug-ins you depend on?
There’s a few that we use a lot. Particularly we use the FATSO™ Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor Plug-In a lot — we use that on drums and bass most the time. The SSL E Series Channel Strip Plug-In is also a favorite on drums, particularly when we’re mixing — we end up going back to it every time.
And what else? Oh, of course, the EMT 140 Plate Reverb Plug-In. I use that a lot. I find it especially useful on vocals when I’m mixing.
It’s just so great to know that it will sound the same down at the main studio as it does here. To have that convenience, that luxury — years ago you couldn’t have done that. You’d have been working in a studio and when you went home, that was it. You’d have to wait to go back in.
Is there a basic way you treated Dolores’ vocals over the years?
Yeah. When we were doing the last album, Roses, Stephen tended to use the LA-2A for tracking. I bought my own LA-2A because Stephen was using them with Dolores all the time for her vocals. I love how natural sounding they can be and I wanted to have that. I’ve learned so much from him. The bulk of what I’ve learned over the years has just been from watching Stephen, really. And he has used LA-2As with Dolores all along.
So, yeah, I’d use the LA-2A, and then a touch of plate reverb from the EMT 140 where needed.
What about your guitar sound?
I have a real Roland Space Echo unit right here, but I use the Universal Audio plug-in version — the Roland RE-201 Space Echo Plug-In — because I find it keeps things in sync and is a lot easier to use. And it sounds just as good.
How do you record your guitars?
I tend to try and record guitars dry and then add effects later on. That way if I don’t really actually like it, I can take it off. If you commit to it during the recording stage, you’re kind of stuck with it, and may have to redo the take.
The problem I have found, particularly doing the production side of things, is that there’s not a great budget. Time-wise you’re trying to stick to a schedule. Having the convenience of the plug-ins has been a godsend.
With the Satellite, you work anywhere you can plug it in — it’s all in the box. Not everyone can afford to have all those plug-ins as actual outboard gear.
So it sounds like newer technology has made an impact on your production style.
Particularly with this last album. If technology hadn’t moved forward the way it has in the ten years since our last album, I don’t really see how this album would have come about.
All this new technology, including the UAD plug-ins, has opened up a whole new world to musicians. Younger bands don’t really get it. You try and explain how lucky they are to be able have access to all this stuff, but they don’t really understand. It’s made a huge impact, and I’m sure it’ll just keep improving. It’s an exciting time.
What’s coming up from you? Are we going to hear more from The Cranberries?
Yeah. That’s what I’ve been working on this week. I started writing again around the beginning of this year. I actually find it easier to write when I’m traveling. On your days off you’re sitting around a hotel room anyway so it gives you something to do. I started sending stuff to Dolores around January and I’ve been writing bits and pieces.
What I’ve been doing is dividing it up. There are some songs I feel aren’t really the Cranberries’ sound, so I decided I’m going to try and maybe do another Mono Band album at the same time. I’m going to try and do both, but I want to take my time doing it. I’m not saying we want to spend another ten years writing, but we definitely don’t want to rush it. I’d rather not do that again and just take our time. Quality over quantity, you know? If it means it does take a bit longer than we should, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you have a great result from it.
Photography by Richard Ecclestone.
— Marsha Vdovin