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Interview with mixing engineer and producer Ryan Kelly

“Working with the incredible composers and performers on those pieces really pushed me as both a producer and engineer, but I absolutely love the way it turned out!”

Ryan Kelly, an audio engineer who brings a unique approach to album production and live mixing, has worked with remarkable clients including Beyoncé, Son Lux, Jay-Z and Booker T. & The Roots. Beginning his studio career at the age of 13, Ryan has been dedicated to recording ever since, based in New York City currently. His work is not just limited to recording, mixing production but also includes live sound.

After four years at Legacy Recording, he went freelance at the age of 21 and has been enjoying the hell out of it ever since. Regardless of language and genre, from Black Metal to Jazz, Swedish to Japanese he loves working with artists to ensure that every piece conveys its message.

1/ How did you start your journey? Why did you choose this direction in the music industry?

My first time in a recording studio was when I was 13 or so in Silverdale, WA. My band at the time was recording an album and I fell in love with recording. During those sessions I was in a car accident and couldn’t play guitar for a while, but, I kept going to the studio and engineering felt like a perfect fit for me. After I graduated from Full Sail University Recording program, I moved to New York City and got a job as a runner at Legacy Recording Studios. Legacy, as it turned out, was a great place to start and I was fortunate to learn from many of the great engineers and producers who passed through it.

2/ What was the first record you worked on? How did you start working on it?

The first serious recordings I engineered were demos for a band called Mutiny, who ended up signing to Roadrunner Records as Mutiny Within. I found the band on MySpace (ah, the good old days) and went to see them live at a festival gig afterward. The guys were absolutely fantastic musicians and all around my age at the time so it was a blast working and learning along with them. We tracked several songs with the band playing together for basics and then breaking them down than replacing instruments with overdubs as needed. The only downside of working with them is that I didn’t learn much about editing since their performances were so solid! It was a great problem to have but quite annoying later on when I discovered how rare that was…

Microphone Shootouts
Microphone Shootouts

3/ Have you ever encountered a time when clients had no budget at all? Did you have to work for free, or almost free of charge, before you started earning money?

I was fortunate to have a (minimally) paid position at Legacy Studios as a runner and then later as an assistant engineer as I was starting to freelance. While not great money by any means, it helped smooth my transition to freelance work.

Budgets are always a concern with bands regardless of the album you’re working on. Over the years I’ve kept an eye out for ways to save money wherever possible for artists, and thankfully the advancement of software and computer technology has helped a lot with that. Setting rates can definitely be tricky when you’re starting out, but, I absolutely support charging as soon as you can and not thinking “Well, I’m not super experienced yet so I shouldn’t charge for this”. Working for absurdly low rates only ends up hurting yourself and other engineers by devaluing the work you’re doing. Even with the lowering costs for software it’s not a small investment to set up a working environment and you have (and are improving) valuable skills. It’s often times easier for people to understand the value of items rather than services, and if you don’t value your time, no one else will.

Overdubs at Power Station Studios
Overdubs at Power Station Studios

4/ Tools for mixing/mastering are so readily available these days that almost anyone can become a “mixing engineer.” What should those who want to enter the music industry and become mixing engineers do?

Well, the most important thing is to practice mixing! There are many resources that offer multitrack sessions for download ( etc). I highly recommend downloading several of them, especially songs from genres that you don’t have a lot of experience with or even affection for. Listening to other people’s mixes of the same songs is a great way to compare what you’re doing, and to find ways of matching the tones you like. The other crucial thing is to learn your tools inside and out. No matter what DAW you’re working in these days, there are tons of great sounding plug-ins included (Pro Tools’ Channel Strip gets used frequently on every mix I do). Learn what they do and how to shape audio with them to get where you want. While it’s easy to think another plugin (or piece of hardware) is the missing link that will make all the difference, really understanding what each piece excels at will help you in the long run.

Reading magazines and interviews (Tape Op and SonicScoop are a couple great ones) can certainly help with inspiration and ideas for new techniques to try out, but there really isn’t any alternative to working on music yourself, preferably with a bands’ feedback to learn what they want and how to get there

Recording Kristoffer and The Harbourheads in Gothenburg, Sweden
Recording Kristoffer and The Harbourheads in Gothenburg, Sweden

5/ Is there anything unique that you do in your mixes? What is it that you do, that no one else does?

I’m not sure there’s anything completely unique that I do. As you mentioned, the tools of our trade are readily available and not particularly unique for any mixer. I focus a lot on talking with the artists, paying attention to both their vision for the music and understanding what they’re looking for. Something I learned early on is that the band comes first, and if they’re not happy with it, what does it matter if I think it’s a better sounding mix? Of course I’ll speak up if I think a decision isn’t in the best interest of the song, but, at the end of the day it’s their creation that we’re facilitating, and if that means it should sound like it’s playing from a blown speaker underwater than that’s what I’m going to make it sound like!

6/ What are some of the proudest moments of your professional career?

A couple of things that I’m particularly proud of are producing “War For an Idea” and co-producing “The Colorado” with Jeffrey Zeigler. The score for Colorado was recorded in multiple studios in Chicago and NYC (not always under ideal conditions) which brought up several collaborations and organizational challenges. Working with the incredible composers and performers on those pieces really pushed me as both a producer and engineer, but I absolutely love the way it turned out! Each composition is self-contained, but, the way they interact with each other over the course of the film creates something much greater than the sum of its parts.

As for the IKILLYA album, “War For an Idea”, we spent a lot of time discussing the bands’ inspiration behind the music and worked to create a very specific sound for it. From the very tuning of the instruments to avoiding drum samples and hiding messages in the static between songs all shaped the record into a profound statement of the bands’ direction.

Philip Glass Ensemble setup in Carnegie Hall
Philip Glass Ensemble setup in Carnegie Hall

7/ Since we live in a digital world, tell us about your approach or the whole process to working with artists. How is your work being done now?

For artists I’m working with remotely on production, there tend to be a ton of emails and files going back and forth still. Lately, I’ve been moving this phase to Pibox from disparate hosts (some would send files with Dropbox and notes over email, others in Box and with texts or Skype). Normally I’ll start out using whatever medium they’re most comfortable with and take it from there.

With local artists, I aim to spend more time together in the same room which I still prefer. Making changes in real time and the happy accidents that can come up with cycling through synths or settings seem to take songs in a direction we’re often not anticipating.

8/ What is your mixing workflow in the studio and the main tools you are using (what DAW, favorite gear, plugins etc.)? How much has the toolkit of music production expanded over the last 5-10 years?

My workflow is a combination of several variations I came across while working at Legacy Studios. If the files arrive in a PT session I’ll load up the session and hear the state they left it in. If I’m importing audio files I’ll set everything flat and start setting balances on the first playthrough. I’ll leave markers for myself throughout the song with first impressions and ideas of things to try out later. After I’ve got an idea of the song and what I’m working with, I’ll dig into organizing my groups, color coding tracks to match my template (I find this speeds up finding things massively), and trimming the Clips so that they’re only there when the track is playing. I usually start from the drums with everything else quieter rather than muted using Soloing. From there, I’ll move on to whatever the main instrument is, then the lead vocal and add the remaining elements from there.

As far as equipment goes, I’m working in Pro Tools HDx with Eve SC307 monitors. I’ve got a collection of random guitar pedals that I’ve been using over the last few years, mostly for delays or odd effects. I’ve really enjoyed implementing these, I tend to find combinations and settings I wouldn’t think to try out with plugins. For outboard gear, I’ve got an RND MBP that lives on my stereo bus, a Chrisman Opto Compressor, a GML EQ and some outboard reverbs. I’m mostly working in a hybrid setup with sends and inserts routed directly from PT and the summing happening digitally.

As for how the toolkit of music production has expanded, that deserves an article itself! The vast range of software now makes it possible to find just a version of just about any piece of hardware you can imagine and a lot that exist nowhere else! Those are actually the plugins I enjoy the most, I don’t understand the reasoning behind creating yet another 1176 emulation instead of pushing forward with new ideas of what a compressor can be (though Powair is a wonderful example of this).

Mix session at Legacy Recording
Mix session at Legacy Recording


9/ What advice do you have for aspiring producers who want to make a living with their music?

Having a strong understanding of Music Theory will prove it’s used over and over. It’s something that I still read up on and constantly learn new things. I think it’s easier than ever to bounce around between styles and I highly recommend working with as many genres as you can, especially for engineers. A lot more things than you would expect to move well between different styles and ultimately, a song is a song! If you know how to dial in a massive drum sound for a rock band, it will be much easier to get a hip-hop snare to cut through a track. As an example of this, my approach to tracking vocals for metal bands is heavily influenced by what I learned working with Pop artists. Write as much as you can and remember it’s a skill like any other, practice will only help you improve.