Interview with Hillsong UNITED's Peter James and Simon Kobler

Interview with Peter James and Simon Kobler from Hillsong UNITED

With a brand new album and sample library, Greg Phillips from Australian Musician talks to Peter and Simon about creating music and sounds for UNITED.

Peter James and Simon Kobler are busy men. Both play a crucial role in creating sounds for Hillsong UNITED, one of the major worship bands under the umbrella of the Hillsong church. Formed in 1988, the musical juggernaut that is Hillsong UNITED has created 17 hugely successful albums, toured the world playing to massive crowds and the band’s YouTube channel has accumulated over 2.2 million subscribers, with their videos racking up over 600 million views.  

Peter James had toured with UNITED for many years as their keyboard player but more recently decided to concentrate on the studio aspect of music, working as a producer and sound designer from his home base in Sydney, although he still performs occasionally. 

Peter came up through the ranks of Hillsong College, where he majored in music. He has since played on around 45 Hillsong albums and helped to produce the strings and keyboard parts on the single What A Beautiful Name, which won a Grammy in 2018 for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song. 

In his work as a sound designer, Peter is on the Spectrasonics beta testing team has had many of his patches included in the Omnisphere software package, which have been used on programs such as The Walking Dead and other popular Netflix shows.

For the last decade Simon Kobler has been the drummer with UNITED and at time of writing, was performing in arenas with the band in South America. Much like Peter, Simon also rose to the top of the music game through the Hillsong campuses, where he’d be rostered on to keep the beat with various Hillsong groups, weekend after weekend, sometimes travelling great distances to fulfil his duties. Before he knew it, he found himself playing on the mega-successful track Tear Down The Walls, off the Across The Earth album in 2009.

Both Peter and Simon epitomise the modern day musician, utilising technology to both create and enhance their recorded and live sound and are keen to share their knowledge with others. 

It was while working together on the Habla Sobre Mi album for Daniel Calveti, (which went on to be nominated for a Latin Grammy) that Peter and Simon decided to further utilise the wonderful drum sounds that they had created by turning them into a package of drum samples which they could make available for other worship drummers (or any drummers for that matter) to use to embellish their sound. 

Creating the Simon Kobler Sound Library

Simon Kobler
Simon Kobler Live with SPD-SX | Photography: Nolan Knight

The drum samples were recorded at 301 studios in Sydney, where many Hillsong recordings had taken place. Two of the major factors taken into consideration when creating the samples were A) quality of sound and B) control of use of the samples. 

“It’s one thing just to grab samples but it is another thing to have a really good engineer that can pull it all together in post-production,” says Peter James. “I think that’s the main thing which makes it different to a lot of other sample libraries. Little things like the snap and boom and being able to build your own snare, and make it as dry or as wet as you want. The snap obviously, meaning the transient aspect of the snare and then the bottom end, the boomy aspect. With the kick, we’ve got the transient snap as a separate stem if you want to. 

They are all pre-mixed if you want a quick go-to snare or go-to kick but there’s the ability to blend in as much transient boom, reverb as you want and design your own custom snare. That was my audio engineer Phil Blackbourn, his idea was to do that so you could have complete control over what you wanted your snare to sound like or what you want your kick to sound like, if you want that level of control … Phil was really meticulous in making sure everything was all phase-alinged. 

So you stack these six or seven different snare stems together and you are not going to get any weird phasing. He did a lot of that and he put it through his mastering outboard gear and fine tuned it until he got everything sounding perfect. We didn’t want to leave something we weren’t going to use.”

Get the new sound patches for V-Drums here

For Simon Kobler, rather than referencing any other sample libraries or thinking about what was missing in the market, he was more intent on creating something that he and other players might like to use.

“We used my C&C drum kit and a bunch of other gear and it was actually on the tail end of a studio session we were working on,” he tells me. “We had the kit sounding great and wanted to record it and get the samples into the hands of people wanting something like that for themselves. I wasn’t really thinking about differentiating when we recorded them, I just wanted to lay down the awesome tones we had achieved that day. I’ve always felt like a great sound is inevitable when you tune to the drum. When you can also put that drum in an acoustically beautiful room and mic it with something great, then it’s too good of an opportunity not to press record.”

In concert with UNITED, Kobler uses the samples to enhance his live acoustic kit sound, triggering the kick and snare library sounds via his Roland SPD SX Sampling Pad and RT-30 series acoustic triggers. “I like integrating electronics live for a couple of key reasons. When I first started using drum machines to facilitate electronic sounds, it added an extra element to drumming that made things fresh and exciting. I enjoyed the learning curve. Most importantly though, I loved being able to enhance the acoustic sound I provided my engineers. My kick and snare samples are blended together with my acoustic sounds to provide something much richer and I have the ability to achieve one complete sound that lives in a different space to what I could achieve with just a drum and a mic.” 

Peter James is also thrilled with the results of their work and the endless possibilities it offers for drummers in a live situation. “We basically designed it how we wanted to use it and I guess that’s how we came up with the product. We created a Steven Slate digital, trigger version so if you’ve got a really nice performance of a live kit, you can use the Steven Slate trigger to trigger additional samples to make it bigger or smaller. The cool thing about that is you can just put in the snap and pull in extra transients on top of a live drum performance. That way you don’t lose the live aspect of the recording but you can still hone in on the individual samples and get it sounding how you want.”

The Simon Kobler bundle now also includes a set of Roland V-Drums kit patches designed to work with the TM-6PRO, TD-17, TD-50 and brand new TD-27 series including the V-Drums Acoustic Design kits. In addition to the more conventional ‘mix ready’ presets included there is also a really unique ‘Build your own Kick, Snare and Toms’ option for those that want even greater control over their drum sound.  “We had the Roland rep from Australian and New Zealand contact me and Simon,” Peter tells me. “He said, I’ve had a few people really wanting V Drum versions of the Simon Kobler drum samples, would you allow me to convert it for use? So he went and did all the work. Obviously he knows the V Drums better than anyone else, so he converted it for a bunch of the V Drums, I think the TM-6PRO, TD-17, TD-27 and TD-50. He made them sound amazing, that’s what he does for a living. We gave him full reign to create what he wanted and then obviously he sent us the samples to check we were happy with them and we gave him the go ahead.”

While Simon is working at the lofty end of the market in terms of audience reach and production quality, he believes that any drummer should embrace technology if they want to improve their sound and performance and shouldn’t fear integrating samples into their setup. 

“I think that it can be pretty daunting to begin with,” he offers. “I know it was daunting for me. Don’t let that stop you though. Open your drumming up to sampling and just dabble with it until you’re comfortable. There’s no reason to feel like you need to master it all day one. In fact, I recommend starting with just one sample on either kick or the snare and work that into your setup comfortably before adding a second sample.” 

“The TM-1 is a simple way to get into hybrid acoustic/electronic drumming.”

So successful has the Simon Kobler drum sample library been for Hillsong, that they are already in the process of doing another series with a different drummer. “We are actually doing a follow up drum sample library with Rolf Wam Fjell,” says Peter.  “We have done a whole new drum sample library with him, so Phil Blackbourn is in the middle of editing all that up.  We did it completely differently. Simon Kobler was in a completely different studio with a Neve 88R desk. This one is in another studio with an API desk, different outboard gear, different mics and drum kits, so it is going to sound completley different to the Simon Kobler stuff.”

The Simon Kobler drum sample library is available from

https://www.multitracks.com/sounds/Peter-James/Simon-Kobler-Drum-Samples-WAV/

You can find more Simon Kobler samples at his own site BOTTEGA and he also creates gear organisation and protection products, which can be found at BASAL

To find out more about Peter James and bundles he has created for other instruments, visit www.peterjamesproductions.com

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