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20 Questions With Kevin Ratterman

Though he's moved on from his days of recording above a functional funeral home, Kevin Ratterman still has a penchant for doing things in his own unique way. It's how the Louisville, Kentucky-based producer and engineer came to prominence and began working with artists like My Morning Jacket, Ray LaMontagne and Andrew Bird.

Taking a break from a week off the grid in the mountains of Southern Utah, Kevin sat down and chatted with us for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about his La La Land studio, his signature vocal-chain and that one time he kicked a guitar amp down a stairwell.

1. What’s your average day like? Do you keep a strict schedule or do you work when there’s work to be done?
I live at the studio. That’s something I know a lot of people think is scary, but for me, it works out pretty well. The studio is a 7000 ft warehouse and I’m pretty A.D.D., so it’s good for me to be in the space I’m going to be working in all day because I can just wake up and dive right in.

I usually wake up and make an espresso and meditate, maybe return a couple emails and stuff like that. Usually, if I’m tracking or mixing people start rolling in around noon. I try to do 10 hour days more often now. When I was younger, we would power through and do those super long days. In order to stay fresh, stay focused and keep everybody’s energy levels up, 10 hours is kind of the perfect day. So I’m usually noon to 10 PM.

2. So when you have a band come and record, do they stay in the studio with you as well?
Yeah! It works out really well because there’s so much space there, and it saves so much money for people. Making records is expensive, you know? Especially now that there isn’t as much money going around these days. Anywhere that anybody can save money is helpful.

3. What’s the least expensive piece of gear you frequently use when recording or mixing?
I’ve got these little Casio SK-1 sampling keyboards. They’re like two octaves and its got a little sampling section in it and its got some really beautiful sounds. I keep it right next to me all the time, just for coming up with melodies and stuff like that or to find a chord change or whatever. It’s so useful. It sounds awesome. 

I actually do overdubs with it all the time. The sampling function is eight-bit so it sounds super wonky and awesome. It’s really cool for vocal effects. I use that thing all the time and I think I paid like $38 bucks for it on eBay a few years ago.

4. You’ve had some pretty unique consoles over the years including a Trident TSM and a 1971 API. What made you seek out such rare desks?
Well, the Trident was my first real console. I didn’t have a ton of money to spend, but I was looking to get into the console world. Before that, I was just using external preamps straight to tape and then into Nuendo.

I happened to come across that TSM while I was visiting some friends in Nashville. They introduced me to a technician who recommended this great Trident in my price range. I had always heard great things about Trident consoles, so I went and checked it out. It sounded great, so I ended up making the plunge.

We actually had to have it craned into my studio at the time, it was on the third floor above a funeral home in Louisville, Kentucky. I remember that day there was a visitation and we were craning in this 12-foot console through the window. People were looking around like “What the fuck is going on?!?"

That desk was super-awesome though, it was so big. It was a monster. It was like 40 inputs and 32 tape returns. I really loved it, but it didn’t have as much headroom as I wanted. It started to fall apart in the low end a little bit the more you threw at it.

So, when I built my current studio I started to look for something with a little more headroom. I wanted something that was going to be great for mixing and tracking, and I really just lucked out. I had always wanted an  API. I never thought I could afford one, but I got a really good deal from a guy in Australia.

I’m absolutely in love with that little API. It’s small little desk, which is what I love about it. It's only like three feet deep and six and a half feet wide, so there’s a very low footprint. And it sounds beautiful. It’s big and wide and super punchy. I’ve got the monitors up on top of it and it’s not very far away. My friend built this beautiful little bridge that goes over the console. It’s very intimate to work at.

At the time when I was seeking out the API desk, I had really been loving In Rainbows by Radiohead and Rumors by Fleetwood Mac. Both of those records were done on old API desks and I thought, that’s kind of the sound I’m after. That really clean, punchy, transparent sound.

5. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
I’ve been playing in band called Twin Limb for the last couple years, and anytime I haven’t been in the studio we’ve been touring or writing or recording.

I’ve got a really wonderful pit-mix puppy who’s super sweet, super-smart, super-great studio dog. She just loves everybody. So we walk a lot, sometimes twice a day, but definitely always at night.

I love being able to work on my own music, and meditate, and walk, maybe read a book for a little bit. I love traveling too. Honestly, my favorite thing in the world to do is to just meander. I love to just walk, with no intent.

6. Where do you like to travel?
This trip I’m on right now is super-fun. I went to Denver, then Utah, now I’m here in LA. Then, my buddy and I are going up the coast to the Redwoods. Then I fly back home to Kentucky for a session for 10 days, then I'm back out here doing a session at Joshua Tree for three weeks with an artist by the name of Basia Bulat who’s really great.

Jim (James, of My Morning Jacket) and I did Basia's last record and had a great time, so we’re going to do another record together. Then, I’m just going to drive back to Kentucky at the end of February, so that’s a pretty big road trip.

I grew up in Kentucky, so I love it out West. It’s so vast and so beautiful, and the air is so clean. I love it when you can see the stars and you can’t hear the world. It’s good being able to unplug a little bit.

7. You’ve got a pretty impressive mic locker over at La La Land. What mics do you use the most?
Two of my favorite mics that I’ve actually been trying to take to sessions less often are the RCA BK-5, and a particular RCA 77-DX that I really love on drums. That's actually been a big part of my drum picture for the last four years.

I'm trying be more like “I don’t give a shit what’s there, we’ll figure it out.” It’s more fun to just be like “OK, what do we got? Let’s start plugging stuff in and figuring stuff out."

You can make a great record with just about anything. I went through such a huge "techie phase" in my late 20s and early 30s. Lately, I’ve been trying to get less into the technical stuff and more into just using whatever's around. It’s about keeping the momentum going, and keeping things exciting.

8. What’s one of your favorite records of all time?
I think one of the most influential records for me as far as production goes, at that seminal time in my life when I was getting into the way that records sounded, was Laughing Stock by Talk Talk.

A friend of mine turned me on to that record in the late 90s. It has such a beautiful, unique production to it, and so much patience. It was a really cool process... It was something this engineer named Phil Brown did.

All of the drums were recorded with one mic from like 25 feet away, but the band was recorded live, so the delay from the drums kept everything out of sync. They had to delay all the overdubs by like 20-30ms, depending on the heat and humidity in the room that day.

Talk Talk was almost kind of a Duran Duran, sort of synth-pop band, but then they took a huge direction change and made this almost Bitches Brew kind of record that's really amazing, avant-garde, minimalist, gorgeous, and complex with lots of layers. That record sounds beautiful.

9. You talked a little bit about your drum sound, but what does your vocal chain usually look like?
My vocal chain is actually, embarrassingly, pretty much the same almost all the time. The mic will vary, but its almost always a [Telefunken] V76 mic preamp through Retro Instruments 176. It’s just such a killer combo that always seems to work.

Sometimes if the singer is super-dynamic and I'm having a hard time controlling it, I'll run the Thermionic Culture Phoenix Mastering Compressor after the 176 just for an extra added grab, but that's pretty much it. I don’t generally use any EQ when I’m tracking.

My go-to vocal mic is the RCA BK-5 and I love my Neumann U67. I’m always a big fan of the [Shure] SM7. If you’re going for something super-dark and Wizard-of-Ozy, the RCA 44-BX is great.

But the BK-5 always sounds great to me, and people love singing into it. They’re such great mics, and you can actually get them pretty cheap. I think the last one I bought I picked up for like $350 bucks. They’re not that expensive. They usually go for around $800-900, but you can find deals here and there. I’ve got three of them — one of them I really love, I think I paid like $500 bucks for it.

My buddy Tucker Martine turned me on to that mic when we were using it on the My Morning Jacket record we made because Jim wanted to sing live vocals in the room with Patrick playing drums. Its got really great rejection. You’ve really got to eat it though, and it doesn’t sound very good when you get more than 3-4” away from it, so you really have to make sure the singer stays on it. But the bleed that it does pick up is always really dark, and smoky and pretty desirable. It just sounds huge.

10. What’s one plug-in you can’t live without?
One plug-in that I would be in hell without is the PSP Vintage Warmer. I use the shit out of that plug-in. I would almost venture to say that I use it on every single track. I absolutely love it, cause it’s everything! It's a great limiter/compressor and it sounds so cool. The distortion on it is super cool. The EQ on it sounds super-cool. You can change the sound of anything with it!

11. Which do you prefer, recording or mixing?
Man, that’s super-tough... If I had to pick, I would say mixing, but I really do love them both equally as much. With mixing I get hyper-focused. I just love that feeling when I’m able to dive into a mix and four hours have gone by and it feels like five minutes.

12. So you usually mix alone then or do the artists sit in with you?
Usually, I mix alone for a couple hours so I can experiment a little bit without anybody freaking out too much. Then when I get it like 80% there, I’ll bring an artist in and we finish it together. At the same time though, I don’t mind people being there from the start, as long as they know that it’s going to take me a couple hours to be ready for any input.

13. What’s one record you wished you produced?
Woooo! All of em! I would say Transformer by Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, or any Nina Simone recording. Oh man, being able to be there to see those records go down…God, just to be on the other end of the speakers when she's laying something down.

14. What’s your favorite place to eat?
There’s this one place in Louisville we always go that’s really fun. It’s kind of a celebratory thing that we do. There’s this place called Jack Fry's with pretty typical American food, but their filet is hands-down the best fillet I've ever had in my life. Plus, it has this amazing vibe in there. It feels like you’re walking right into the 20s, there are black and white pictures all over the walls and stuff.

It’s walking distance from the studio so it’s always a really great celebratory trip. We make a sequence of the record and walk to Jack Fry’s, then walk back and have a big listening party and listen to the record. It’s a great way to end everything.

15. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
[Laughs] One of my favorite things that I’ve ever done for a record, and I need to do this again, but unfortunately my studio now doesn't have any steps. I was recording a guitar solo on a psych-rock record, and I got this little Gorilla amps for like 50 bucks, so I taped an SM57 on the inside of it, and miked the stairwell, and had the guitar player kick the amp down the stairs while he played the solo.

It was super great, but it would have been even better if it was a tube amp with a spring reverb it, but unfortunately, it was just a solid state so there was just a lot of thudding and crashing. But, it would be fun to do in a concrete hallway with a tube amp with a spring reverb.

It was a lot of fun too because it was like an hour-and-a-half of set up, and you’ve gotta get it right the first time, everything’s got to be perfect.

16. Who do you think is making great records right now? Who are you listening to?
One of my favorite artists is actually a local artist named Rachel Grimes. She’s making these amazing piano records that are some of the best things I’ve ever heard in my life. Tune-Yards is doing some super-adventurous stuff. She’s really good.

17. What’s one recording or mixing tip you think every engineer should know?
Mixing quiet! It's the secret, it really is! It took me way too many years to learn that, but it's one of the best things I've ever done.

Like, almost silently. I’ve got the speakers down almost as low as possible. I’ll start the mix at a decent level to make sure the kick and the bass are doing what you want them to do. But then, I turn it down almost as low as it will go for most of the time. You have to finish it with varying levels just to check things out, but 90% of the time you can barely hear the mix.

It’s such a wonderful trick because it always works. You turn it up and it always sounds great because the acoustics of the room doesn’t come into play when you’re mixing really quiet. So, it’s almost the flattest response you’re going to get.

18. You’ve got a ton of gear! What’s your favorite compressor to use on drums?
The only outboard compressor I really use in my studio when I’m mixing is the Alan Smart C2 compressor, but I also do a lot in the box.

Two of my go-to compressor plug-ins are the Sound Toys Devil Loc which I absolutely love. The deluxe version has the darkness knob and the mix knob which is really helpful. 

One of my favorite drum tools comes from Fab Filter. it’s a multi-band distortion actually, but it has saturation and compression so you can really dial in the amount of saturation or distortion on a particular frequency band. You can really change the sound of the paunchiness of the drum and make some really wild sounds.

19. What’s your favorite EQ?
Man, honestly these days I love the Pro Tools EQ. I use it a lot. The Fab Filter Pro-Q is great because it has the graph, so you can just see when there’s a problematic frequency. You don’t have to sweep through to hear it, you can just see it which makes it faster.

I really love the Universal Audio Pultec EQ too. I usually use that just for brightening stuff, and if I want to poke the midrange on a vocal. The PSP Vintage Warmer is favorite EQ on guitars — love that sound.

20. Any advice for new engineers?
Record as much as you can. Do it as much as you possibly can. The more you can do it, the better. Try to balance your personal life too, but the only way to do it is to just do it over and over.

I never went to school, I just learned by doing it. I learned from my mistakes. Don’t be afraid. It's not so intimidating. I was worried about EQing and compressing, I was overthinking everything. Just think, "Does it sound good or not?"

Check out some of Kevin Ratterman's incredible work in the studio by watching videos below from the likes of White Reaper, Young Widows and My Morning Jacket.

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