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Spokane music engineer James Hill is a master of audio tools and toys

UPDATED: Thu., April 1, 2021

By Julien A. Luebbers For The Spokesman-Review

Every song you hear on the radio, on Spotify, on a CD or vinyl record, is the result of many hands and minds. For many artists, the process of getting from written song to “playlist-ready” track will necessitate the involvement of one or many engineers and producers.

James Hill, more widely known as Jimmy, is one such professional: a central figure to the Spokane music scene and the engineer responsible for no small portion of Spokane’s most successful tracks.

Hill explained that the process between ideation and streaming is comprised of four main parts: pre-production, recording, mixing and mastering. While the artist’s input is important at every step, they’re often not specialists in handling the modern era’s vast set of audio tools and toys and rarely have access to them all in their own homes.

“Artists will say to me, ‘Hey, I have the song,’ ” which can be anything from an acoustic iPhone video to a trap beat and bars. “We’ll break it down,” Hill explained. “Is it too long? Is it too long before we get to the hook? Are there things that could make the song better? That’s the pre-production stage.”

Next, he moves into the studio to track the piece, to get every instrument and part played out. “There’s always some more creativity that happens at that point. You can enhance things in the tracking process,” Hill said.

“Once we have a sufficient amount of media to make the song mixable, there’s an editing phase.” Here, Hill’s technical expertise is put to use. “Maybe the vocalist or one of the players in the band needs a little tightening or tuning or something like that. That’s where really my job comes into play … I’ll take an already great performance and make it radio ready.”

The process of mixing continues by making “the record sonically sound professional.” It’s important that the track “have depth and width and emotion. So it doesn’t sound weird to the listener and pulls you in versus pushes you away.”

Finally, the track enters the mastering phase. “We’ll take that already great sounding mix, and we’ll maybe add a little bit of compression, a little bit of [equalization] to just make it compete with other songs.”

Hill conducts this whole process in a studio he co-owns with his wife, Mandy Hill: Amplified Wax Recording Studio at 314 E. Pacific Ave., Suite 1433. Amplified Wax boasts “one of the largest wood live rooms in the state. I kind of went big when I bought this warehouse, and it took us about a year to complete the project from a shop to a recording studio.”

But the investment was well worth it, as Hill has built a reputation as one of the region’s best resources for recording artists, even garnering him recognition across the nation. The technical side of music making is easy to overlook.

If it’s a great song, shouldn’t it be great without all this tech? But it is in fact paramount to an artist’s success in reaching audiences. It’s all about that extra touch: “Our stuff sounds a little bit cleaner, a little wider, a little punchier,” Hill said.

“A lot of people in this market, they’re starting out fresh, they need guidance,” Hill said of Spokane. With more than 16 years of experience as an engineer and a formerly touring bandmember, Hill can help provide that, and he is eager, too. His motivation to share his expertise comes, above all else, from his being a believer in and supporter of local music.

“I would love for this entire city to embrace their local scene as something that’s better than what they’re getting off these syndicated radio stations,” he said. “You have to overcome this perception that these are local bands so they don’t know what they’re doing.

“It’s just real music and I love it.” Matching the Spokane scene’s deep musical talent with top-notch engineering can only help earn accolades for local artists. Spokane has something special, and James Hill is intent on sharing it.

Julien A. Luebbers can be reached at julienluebbers@gmail.com.

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