GRAMMY® nominated Bobby Holland has spent 20 years producing and mixing hundreds of albums and over 15,000 songs. Based in Nashville, he works on everything from Americana and Jazz, to Pop and Indie Rock. Recently, he received acclaim for his work on Kesha’s award-winning comeback album, Rainbow. Since 2000, he’s been a Pro Tools power user despite living with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that robs him of his eyesight. He sat down with Avid to talk about his musical journey, his approach to recording, his eyesight and why Pro Tools is his go-to DAW.
You grew up in Nashville and started playing keys at a very young age. Did you grow up in a musical family? What other instruments do you play?
Haha! I got my first keyboard on my 5th birthday. It was a Casio Muppet Babies synth, and I wore that thing out. Even though I’ve technically been playing keyboard for 30 years, I wouldn’t consider it one of my stronger instruments. I get by at keys, I guess, but guitar and bass are my “primary” instruments. I also really love playing drums, and I play percussion on almost every record that I produce these days. I started college as a French horn major before switching to music production, and I was a huge band dork. I pretty much learned how to play all of the wind instruments, but I don’t keep up with them much these days. It’s definitely a goal to get back to playing French horn, trumpet, etc.
I started recording music on the same day that I realized that it was possible to record it. I plugged a Radio Shack mic into the rear 1/8” input of my Sony boom box, and my mind was blown that I could play something, listen back to it, and then try and improve after hearing it back. I was hooked. It has always been fascinating and so much fun. I suppose that playing music was my first love, but producing and recording music is absolutely an equal passion. I remember trying to figure out on my own how I could overdub on tape recorders. I didn’t know ANYTHING. I was probably 10 or 12 years old. Then, I started experimenting with how to place microphones to get better sounds. The rest all kind of came from doing my best to make a horrible setup sound halfway decent. I doubt it ever sounded halfway decent, but it was fun, and I still feel the same way every single day!
Tell me about Pentavarit. What’s the setup?
Pentavarit is my musical home base. I do a good bit of freelancing in most of the major rooms, but Pentavarit is my own personal record-making dream land. The place is great. There are 5 studios in the building, and it’s just a bunch of friends working out of their own private rooms. Everybody in the building is a total badass, making killer records every day. It’s so inspirational to be in an environment, surrounded by people that I respect so much. We work together a lot, too. Co-producing projects, playing on each other’s stuff, writing together, etc. I do a good bit of mixing for a couple of the other guys, and we all find as many ways to collaborate as we can.
My room has Pro Tools HDX Ultimate, a heavily modified (and amazing sounding) SSL 6000E console, a bunch of outboard from Neve, Chandler Limited, Universal Audio, Daking, Manley, Avedis, A Designs, Altec, Ampex, etc. I’ve got some amazing speakers made by Norman Druce at Atomic Instrument. He also made my console PSU, which is voodoo magic to me. My desk mods have all been done by the wizards Vince Fast and Greg Sanchez. Those guys are incredible. Pentavarit also has a ton of great drum kits, guitars and amps, and an especially cool batch of analog synths. Man, I just love making records there.
You’ve been living with Retinitis Pigmentosa since you were a child. How old were you when you received the diagnosis?
I was 20 when I finally found out. I should have been diagnosed at about 5 years old, but I had a doctor who told me I could see just like everybody else…until I went to a different doctor when I was 20, and caught it immediately. So yeah, I grew up with very little vision, and I had to always tell myself that everybody had the same vision I do, because that’s what my doctor said. It was quite difficult and traumatic at times. I’ve hurt myself in some pretty gruesome ways from doing stuff that blind people (who don’t know they’re blind) should never be doing!
How has it impacted your career or how you use Pro Tools? Do you use any of the accessibility features?
It has definitely made me work harder to succeed. I couldn’t just go get a “normal” job if music didn’t work out for me. On a technical level, I have a deep love and appreciation for analog gear, large format consoles, etc. I think that comes from my strong connection to the sense of touch. I like knobs and faders, and being able to feel things change. But also, modern digital technology definitely makes my life easier. I’ve been using Pro Tools for about 18 years, and it has always been effortless for me. I don’t use many accessibility features other than a TON of Screen Zoom (control + scroll wheel), which I use constantly. Occasionally, I’ll use a screen reader, but that’s mostly on my iPhone, not in Pro Tools. I think the main reason that I can get by without accessibility features is because Pro Tools is the BEST with key commands. I hate trying to follow the cursor around my screen, so I can do almost everything with key commands. It has always been the best, but now Pro Tools has added even more amazing stuff in 2018.
You’ve worked with ZZ Ward, Maggie Rose, Sean McConnell, Meghan Linsey, Drake White, and recently, on Kesha’s Grammy-nominated Rainbow. How did you connect with her? Can you tell me more about what it was like working with her?
Well, that was a really interesting project. She did a good bit of that record in Nashville, and a good bit in LA. The connection came through a good friend of mine (and incredible guitarist/producer) named Ramage Jacobs, who is from Nashville, but lives in LA. He came to Nashville to work on the record and he gave me a call. I engineered a bunch of overdubs at Pentavarit, and we had a blast. The record went through a few different phases before it ended up in its final form, which I think is a big reason that it is so diverse, full of so many different influences, and has so much more depth than a lot of other records in the genre. I think it is a really, really cool pop record, and I am so thankful to have been part of it.
What are you working on right now?
Too much! Haha—my music life has been a bit of a dream lately. I’m so thankful to have so many amazing projects on my plate! I’m mixing a record for Sean McConnell, who is probably my favorite songwriter of all time. It is one of my favorite projects I have ever been part of. I’m also wrapping up production on Maggie Rose’s upcoming full-length. We recorded the whole thing live on the floor with a 12-16-piece band (depending on the song) at Starstruck Studios here in Nashville. Everybody, including lead vocals and five background vocals, in one room. It is so real, natural, and honest. Maggie is one of the best singers in all of space-time, so I’m really excited and thankful to be part of that project. I’m also working on a hard rock project with this great new band in Nashville called The Brunswick. I produced their first record, which came out last year, and we’re in the middle of this new one. Monstrously talented power trio. I’m going to Australia in two weeks to start producing a project for this great band called The Vaudeville Smash. We’ll get about half of it done on this trip, and the plan is for me go back down there soon to work on the rest.
What are your thoughts about mixing in the box? What about music creation in the box?
Well, this could take a while. I talk about this on a near-daily basis. Being that I’m mixing records about 75% of the time, and I work in a lot of different genres, I have strong opinions on this matter. I also own a classic vintage mixing console. That said, I think mixing in the box is freaking awesome as well. I probably mix 50% of my projects without ever touching a single piece of analog gear. I absolutely love my analog gear and my desk, but some projects just work better to mix in the box. I feel like these days, it no longer sounds “worse” than mixing in the analog domain. It is just different. A different workflow that can absolutely be better for certain projects. For me, I even choose on a song-by-song basis. There are tons of records that I have mixed some of the songs on the desk, and some in the box. Nobody ever, EVER knows which is which. I think that says a lot about the quality of Pro Tools and how far mixing in the box has come.
As far as music creation goes - working in the box has become all but indispensable. Don’t get me wrong - I love tracking to 2” tape. But it just isn’t feasible most of the time. And even if it is - it always ends up in the box for overdubs/editing/mixing. The sonic difference isn’t even an argument anymore. Recording to tape sounds killer, but so does recording to Pro Tools.Key commands. They are miles ahead of every other DAW. Favorites include:
In no particular order:
- Option + A (fit all in edit window and reset vertical waveform view to unity)
- Global modifier consistency (Option always means “All,” add Shift for “All that I have selected,” and add Command for “All that I have selected, sequentially.”) This is very useful for all kinds of things like grouping, assigning plugins, assigning I/O, and so much more.
- Edit focus. You can get to it by pressing Command + Option + 1, and it will enable the single key commands in the edit window. This is very useful for trimming regions, zooming, and all kinds of stuff where you would normally have to press a modifier, or not be able to access with key commands at all.
- T + R for zooming in the edit window. My preferred workflow is to keep my left hand on the left side of the keyboard, and T + R keep me from having to move it to Command + Brackets to zoom.
- This is an OSX global command, but I use Command + ~ to change between Mix and Edit window. I don’t use Command + = because that makes me have to move my left hand. Command + ~ works in most OSX applications, and it is the best.
- Command + S. Duh!
The new playlist/coming features in Pro Tools 2018 have totally changed the way I work. The ability to scroll through playlists, and now even parts of playlists, is so amazing. For example, I usually like for singers to just sing the song a few times, get a great take, then come in the control room to listen. I don’t usually do a full line-by-line comp like many producers do. I usually prefer the energy and emotion of full takes, or at least large sections. So, we listen down to the song, and if we don’t like the line, I just select the line and scroll through playlists with Shift + Command + Up/Down Arrow. This allows you to audition new takes directly in the comp. Before, you had to listen, then promote to hear it in the comp. And it is even extra fun to use Dynamic Transport for more detailed comp stuff, if necessary. I’m loving this new workflow.
Commit/Freeze: I know this has been around since Pro Tools 12, but I use it constantly. During production, for committing VI and plugins that are part of the sound. During mixing, for committing my entire analog processing chains coming from my desk. I mix on an SSL 6000E desk, and I have some detailed routing setups that allows me to be very flexible and do fast recalls. I can commit an entire session of analog signal processing by selecting all of my tracks, and clicking Commit. Go outside for 5 minutes of sunshine, and come back in to a fully committed mix. It is wonderful.
Track Presets: Pretty self-explanatory how amazing this is. I love that you can scroll through presets with key commands in the New Track Dialog. I also love that there is a simpler Recall Inserts and Recall Sends feature for when you don’t need everything from the full Track Preset.
Advanced Grouping: I never hear anybody talk about this, but I use it a ton. It is awesome to be able to link plugin parameters across a large section of background vocals, but not have them linked across your horn section, for example. Or, you can link plugin parameters for just insert A and B, send F and H, and not the rest. You can link pans for multi-mic guitars, but not everything else. It is such a great time-saver during mixing to use the advanced grouping features.
One more for good luck: I also LOVE the ability to have plugin favorites. Just hold down command while you’re selecting a plugin, and it will add it to the top of your plugin selection menu. It makes it super fast to get to your most-used plugins.