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Producer · Engineer · FOH
Ryan Freeland

Ryan Freeland

Producer, Mixer, Sound Engineer
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Ryan Freeland

Multiple Grammy award winner Ryan Freeland is one of LA’s most sought-after producers and engineers, with credits including Bonnie Raitt, Ray LaMontagne, Hugh Laurie, Aimee Mann, Neil Finn and many more. He set his career in fast-forward from the get-go, landing his first studio job by cold-calling production legend Bob Clearmountain. Now he operates out of his own LA facility, equipped with a mind-blowing array of outboard equipment collected over many years, and an extensive mic collection in which Astons play a leadng role.

Bonnie Raitt, Ray LaMontagne, Hugh Laurie, Aimee Mann, Joe Henry, Meshell Ndegeocello, Grant-Lee Phillips, Tanita Tikaram, Ingrid Michaelson,
Ryan is currently using:
Spirit
Starlight
Who needs MIDI?

“I started playing piano at six and playing in bands at twelve. I built a studio in the basement with my dad, got into recording, bought a four track and from then on it was the only thing I ever really thought about as a thing to do with your day. I’d think about recording and making music, microphones, trying to save money to buy more gear; I wanted to get better at it, experiment with stuff.

My dad had two old reel to reel tape machines - I found them in the basement - I’d bounce between them to do overdubs, and I had a Korg Poly 61. When I went into the store to buy it with my lawnmower money I asked, “what’s the Poly 61’M’?” and the guy said “Oh that one has MIDI – it’s this new thing, I don’t think it’ll take off, you don’t need the MIDI version…” So, I bought the one without MIDI. Man was that guy wrong!

When I got started recording I’d just grab the reels to slow stuff down, re-record stuff through speakers to add ambience to the sound. There were all sorts of physical things you’d do to mess with sound, crank the input up in weird ways just to see what happened, or loop inputs to see if you could get feedbacks and distortions. You can do all that in digital - it just doesn’t spark my imagination in the same ways as it did when it was all tape and analog gear. I think that’s part of what’s missing in today’s digital recording.”

Total recall

“I went to music high school then music college, then spent twenty-plus years in LA making music! I never really ever thought of anything else. Engineering particularly was the part I really loved, I wanted to keep doing it over and over and get better at it, the way I think a musician would with their instrument.

I spent three years with Bob Clearmountain, that was my first job. I was his second ‘second engineer’ after he opened the studio. It was a life-changer. He’s pretty quiet – not the ‘give you advice’ kind of guy – but he gave me carte blanche to organise the studio however I thought worked best, which was great for me. I came up with a tape management system and a recall system where everything was just on one sheet, so I got really quick at doing the recalls, which was pretty hard back then.

Every morning I would zero out the console and the outboard gear and I’d work on getting a rough balance of whatever song he was going to be working on that day, with no EQ or compression, everything had to be flat. Then when he came downstairs I’d sit at the back of the room and watch what he did to my rough balance; what he changed and what he added. Three years of that was pretty educational. When he was out of town I’d mix my own tracks using all the things I’d watched him do. I’m still in touch with Bob and his wife, Betty. They’re a big part of my life.”

That IS a lot of gear...

“I have racks of pres, racks of tracking compressors and then racks of two-buss processing. It’s all modular and if I’m here [at Ryan’s ‘Stampede Origin’ studio in LA] it’s all connected, but if I do a gig in another studio I might just need to bring compressors, and everything if it’s at someone’s house where they have nothing (like Ray LaMontagne). When I started out as an independent engineer in LA I just had to borrow stuff to get through the gig; I was borrowing mic stands if there were six players and I only had five stands! I remember at that stage thinking I want to get everything I need to make the best records I can. So I just bought stuff, every year. If I did a session I’d spend a lot of the money to make it so the next session would be better. Now, after all these years I look at it and think ‘yeah, that IS a lot of gear!’

Everything ends up in Pro Tools; it all goes through the SSL for summing and then through a bunch of analog two-buss processing as well as maybe going to ¼” tape. If it’s not going to tape I’m listening through the machine, through the heads, I like even just what that does.

All the per-channel stuff is plug-ins on the Softube Console 1. There are sixteen stereo faders controlled on an SSL Sigma, and each of those faders has a Console 1 plug-in on it. Then it’s all getting printed on a recallable two-buss analog chain.

That’s just the way I think it sounds best. I’ve experimented dong it all in the box and I can’t say it doesn’t sound good, I just think it would take me years to get really good as an ‘in the box’ mixer! Everything’s intuitive to me in my hybrid world but as soon as I go all in the box I feel like I need to start from scratch and learn everything again.”

The sweet spot in the middle

“One if the things I really like about Aston microphones is that it’s a new thing. They have a lot of things about them that remind me of some of the classic mics I own and love, but they don’t sound like they’re trying to imitate anything, it’s a whole new idea. They’re almost in a category to themselves; they’re not a ‘darker AKG’ or a ‘brighter Neumann’ they’re this sweet spot in the middle, which makes them really versatile. That’s why I’ve been using them on everything since I first tried them out.

In most of my sessions, once the band shows up and starts playing and you’re starting to get sounds, you’re usually off to the races. There’s no ‘ok everybody, wait, I need to change this or change that’. You’re recording before you know it. So I don’t have a lot of room for making bad choices. I do experiment as much as I can, but I definitely have go-tos I know are going to work and are pretty bulletproof. That’s another thing I like about the Astons – they’re never sounded bad on any application I’ve used them on. There are some mics that only work in certain ways. It limits you, but with the Astons I get the idea I could try them on anything. They’ve always worked for me.

The reason I have so many vintage mics is that fifteen years ago no one was doing what Aston are doing. The new mics didn’t sound good; I started buying vintage mics because there were some things you couldn’t get any other way. That’s changed now, in the last five years in particular, even with outboard, people are making really beautiful gear.”

Sounding right going in

“I’ve been mostly using the Starlights on drums; I use them on hi-hats and I used them on a snare the other day, which was shockingly good. It’s fun with the three-voice thing; if you need a bit more punch you can just put it into the modern mode.

The first thing I used the Spirits for was my drum room downstairs and they sounded fantastic. I used them on piano on a project recently, a 9’ Steinway over at United Recorders, and they sounded great on that too.

Anna Ash wanted to redo the vocal on one of her songs. I tried my [Neumann] M49 and it just wasn’t working for her voice. I’d just got the Aston Spirit so I thought I’d throw that up, and it just sounded perfect on her. That’s why Astons are so great for me. You can just put them up and they’ll make the source really beautiful. I never EQ when I’m recording so I need the mic to be right, it has to sound right going in. If I can’t get it sounding good by moving the mic around I’ll switch the mics out. Often it’s too bright, or too dark, or too this or that, but I’ve never had that with the Astons, they sound just right.

I like that Aston are making something so great, that people can actually get. It’s not a choice you’d make because you want to save money it’s a choice you’d make because it’s great.”

A creative realm

“I’ve rarely had a negative personal experience in the studio. Usually it’s fine, everyone is there for the same reason and most don’t have an ego about it (egos in the studio are not at all fun).

The stuff I do with Joe Henry is always really organic, fast moving and creative. Joe gives me a lot of leeway to try things. I worked with Neil Finn, years ago, on the top floor of what is now his whole complex, but then it was just like this empty ballroom! He had a Neve and we did it all on 16 track. That was a really fun record. Bonnie Raitt has always been an amazing artist to me, Hugh Laurie, Amy Mann, all of those artists, those creative people, I love all of them.

  I’ve been producing more myself and that’s extremely fun. You hear something and it makes you think of something else, then you say something out loud and people say ‘I like that idea, why don’t we do this with it’ and suddenly you’re off in a very creative realm with a lot of creative people making something really cool. Every time that happens I’m reminded of why I wanted to make records for a living.”

Out-takes

Q. Who are your favourite artists?

A. All those wonderful people I’ve worked with. Also I grew up on progressive rock so I always get drawn back to that, early Genesis, early Queen. I bought it all on vinyl and made cassettes of them all. When Walkmans came out I’d just walk around wearing the cassettes out!

Q. If you weren’t working in music what would you be doing?

A. Architecture maybe. With music I always think of what’s the most elegant way to get to the most beautiful answer. I feel like that could apply to a lot of things, like if you were designing a room or a building. It’s the part of life I really respond to, just trying to make things elegant and beautiful.

Q. What are the 4 words you’d chose to describe Aston, or your experience with the brand?
A. Musical, Natural, Representative, Attainable.

Q. What is the first song that made you cry?

A. I was listening to classical music on vinyl when I as a kid. It was all I listened to. Almost all of that was emotionally touching to me.

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