When he's not creating fantastic gear, Ian is working in the studio. The Grammy-nominated engineer has worked alongside legendary producer Greg Wells at Rocket Carousel Studio for almost a decade. The duo have worked with artists like Katy Perry, The All-American Rejects, MIKA, and Twenty One Pilots.
We recently sat down with Ian and chatted for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about his go-to tom mics, his love for Rage Against the Machine, and his tips for getting the perfect whip cracking sound.
1. How did you get started making records?
As a kid in high school, I was always in bands and started making records and recording on Tascam 4-track cassette tape machines. Then I moved onto computers and realized that I liked recording more than being in the band, so that’s the direction I went.
2. You’ve been working with legendary producer Greg Wells for some time now. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from him?
Yeah, I've been engineering for Greg for almost 10 years. I started in 2009. It’s hard to say exactly… He’s taught me so much. I basically have a career because of him, to a certain degree.
I definitely learned a lot from him about working with artists that are rock stars like Katy Perry, All-American Rejects and Regina Spektor. When a legit rock star walks into the room, how are you supposed to act and behave around them? He's tought me a lot about how to be around artists.
Another important thing I've learned is that songs are key. Songs are the most important part. Everyone kind of says that, but until you have to work it, until you’re in the trenches, working and engineering every day... It’s one of those things that everyone says, but I don’t know if they know what they mean when they say it.
3. You have credits producing, recording, and mixing — what’s your favorite part of the process?
I love mixing, but, I also hate mixing. It’s one of those things where it's extremely difficult to do well. If I’m working on a record and I find out someone else is going to be mixing it, I'm always stoked. Especially if I think they’re talented. But even then, I’ve had records mixed by guys I really like where the mixes weren’t good.
It’s very difficult to get right, which is why I like it. It’s painful, it’s challenging. It’s not easy to do well, which is why I love guys like Michael Brauer, or Chris Lord-Alge who consistently do great mixes. Like... What the hell? How do they do that? It’s unfair to the rest of us!
4. You’ve worked with so many different artists, everyone from punk bands to pop stars. What’s it like working in so many different genres?
Working with Greg, I get attached to a lot of different stuff because he’s so talented that he can work with anyone. The thing I've learned is I try to treat everyone the same. If Katy Perry walks in the door, you know, you freak out a little bit, but you treat the indie band with no budget the exact same way.
5. You’re an electrical whiz when it comes to compressors. How did you get into that side of engineering?
I was actually a designer for Shadow Hills for a long time. I basically designed all of the compressors they did, including the Mastering Compressor and the Vandergraph. I was also part of the design team for the Oculus monitor controller. I use the original prototype in my studio. The front panel isn’t engraved so I have stickers on the front to tell me what knobs do.
When I was playing guitar in bands at like 12 or 13, my dad worked at Intel, he was an electrical engineer. So, I built my first Fuzz Face pedal. I was a major Jimi Hendrix nerd, I was like "I need to have that Fuzz Face, but I need to have the original Germanium transistors and stuff." My dad helped me build that with one of those little circuit boards that you make with a fluoride solution.
So I started there and then I went to school in UC Santa Barbara and got a degree in electrical engineering. And the whole time I was choosing courses that had analog circuit elements to them. If you go to school for electrical engineering now, they won’t teach you how to do analog circuits, for the most part. It's not really that big of a deal anymore. They'll teach you digital stuff, programming.
So I did RF, cause if you did radio frequencies you learn analog stuff. My junior year I actually designed the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor. I randomly met Peter through online gear forums. He needed a circuit board design, and I was moonlighting as a circuit board designer to help pay bills. He hired me originally to do circuit boards for his mic pre, the Mono Gama, and then we moved into the compressors.
6. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
I mean, coffee. Definitely start off with a lot of coffee. I love this place in San Diego called Dark Horse. I get their beans, they send them every 2 weeks, it just comes in the mail. It’s my homies, a couple of punk rock dudes who started a coffee roasting company in San Diego. So, that’s a major part of my day. I just worked at a studio without a coffee maker and it blew my mind. It was rough.
But a normal day... when I work with Greg, it can be anything. I can show up and it's just me and Greg, or I can show up and the horn section from Thriller is showing up in an hour, so I’m always on my toes. If I’m here at my spot, I'm usually mixing.
7. What microphones do you find yourself reaching for most often?
I’m a huge AKG 414 fan. Especially for toms — floor tom, rack tom. I have a pair that I own that I take with me everywhere, and they’re always on toms. It’s one of those things that once I started it I never went back. I hate 421s on toms. It’s a mic you shouldn’t use on toms, and people I respect do it all the time and make way better-sounding records than I do, but I can’t get toms to sound right with 421s.
One of my big things is using a stereo mic, preferably a ribbon, for the drum room. When I was coming up a lot of the guys I worked with used condenser mics in the far corners of the room and when you solo them it's like kick on one side and snare on another. Really weird stereo imaging that didn’t make sense.
I started putting room mics closer than you would think and offsetting them. If you’re looking at the kit from the front, the snare is on your right. I place the room mic on the left and center up the kick and snare, so the mic is looking at the kick and snare in a line.
8. What are some of your favorite EQs?
SSL E and G console EQs sound like records that I like, analog or digital. I don’t own a lot of plug-ins. I try to keep it minimalist. I definitely have the Universal Audio SSL plug-in bundle and I use that for like 90% of what I do.
I definitely love when I work with Greg that he has one of those UnderTone Audio consoles. We have 8 channels of UTA EQ and it’s the most flexible, best sounding EQ I've ever used. If I could only have one EQ, that's what I would go with. It can do crazy shit. You can fix phase problems in the snare drum with that EQ.
9. What are some of your favorite compressors?
Well, I’m definitely a little biased [Laughs]. Obviously, I love the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor and the UnFairchild. They’re two boxes that I don’t think you can do a whole lot wrong with, especially the UnFairchild. If it sounds bad, you’re doing something wrong.
I’m also a huge fan of the 1176 and the Distressor, which is basically an 1176 with smarter ratio controls. The new Jeff Turzo from Overstayer is great, too. I have one of his original stereo FET compressors, which is basically a stereo 1176, which would be an 1178. I use that all the time.
And off course, my own compressor — the Standard Audio Level-Or, but that might be cheating. We have the new Level-Or coming out. With help from the UnderTone Audio guys, we figured out how to get the noise down like 15dB. It’s a big change for sure. We’re adding true bypass, multiple release times on the compressor, a true instrument DI. We’ve been getting good feedback. My little brother is making them as we speak!
10. What’s the least expensive piece of gear you’ve ever used on a record?
Probably the dbx 163 compressor with the slider. That’s all it has. Something I learned from Peter at Shadow Hills, he said the dbx 163 and 1176 are the secret weapons on rock vocals. So I went into the lab to figure it out and he’s right. Putting a dbx 163 in front of or after an 1176 is awesome. I just cut a whole record with the 163 doing a few dB of compression into an 1176.
I got super lucky and got a pair, the original 1970s version with the hilarious round knob that does the sliding. The modern versions are essentially the same, too. It’s a VCA compressor with built-in attack and release and you either dig it or you don’t
11. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
When I engineered the All-American Rejects, there’s a song called "Bleed Into Your Mind." The kick is the drummer pounding on his chest mic'd with a D112. All the sounds on that song are insane.
We were at the Village in Santa Monica, we were in Studio D where they made Rumors. It's not a great room for live drums, but we were trying to get room sounds and we were compressing the snot out of these room mics and it just wasn’t sounding roomy. But they have a chamber that's magical. There’s a “gong” that's actually a fire extinguisher they were hitting with the drumstick. And like a whip cracking sound that was them snapping a belt inside the chamber. You can hear it all over that record.
12. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
I’m either designing gear, which is kind of my main gig, or I'm at Dodgers' games. During the bummer time that baseball isn’t happening, I'm watching hockey.
13. What’s your favorite place to eat?
In San Diego, I think I gained like 30 pounds because the Mexican food is incredible. People In LA will give you shit for that because they think it’s not that much different, but it really is. In LA, I live in Echo Park, just down the street from the Vintage King shop, and across the street there's a place called El Compadre that’s just incredible.
14. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
This is a tricky one, but The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat. I think it's based in the 60s or 70s and this guy buys a boat that's a piece of shit and him and his buddies try to get it from one continent to another. I highly recommend reading it.
15. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
The Shape of Punk to Come by Refused. That record came out I was starting to think I wanted to be an engineer. Socially, it’s just incredible. I still can’t understand how they got those sounds.
16. What’s one record you wish that you had produced?
The first one that comes to mind is the Rage Against the Machine self-titled record, but I don’t wish I produced that, because GGGarth produced it and Andy Wallace mixed it, and what they did is perfect. I would love to have been involved with that, but I would have fucked it up!
17.Who do you think is making great records right now?
Jonathan Low is a rad producer. He did a record with the Nationals. He did a record with a band that I love called the Menzingers called Rented World. I don’t know what his scene is, but he seems to work with really talented people and helps them make great music.
My homie Eric Palmquist is also killing it right now, and making a lot of great records. He’s working with Thrice right now. I did all the drum editing on the last Thrice record he did. Eric and I go way back. We were interns at the same studio in Santa Barbara, and now Eric owns the studio where Infrasonic Sound used to be set up.
18. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
This goes back to Greg Wells. He taught me so much. Getting to be a fly on the wall watching him produce taught me how to deal with artists. Over the years I’ve gotten better at knowing when to get your fingers in there and when to not deal with stuff. Even little stuff like small tempo changes — a half bpm can make a massive difference.
19. What’s one plug-in or piece of gear you can’t live without?
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?That’s a tricky one. I’d like to say just go do it. Don’t go to some stupid school that tells you they’ll teach you how to be a recording engineer because I feel like that's bullshit. You have to record 100 bands before you record the 101st that you record well.
But more general advice would be trust your ears. I second guessed myself for a good 10 years. I wasn’t able to hear what the room mics on the Rage Against the Machine record sounded like, so I wasn’t sure if I was getting good room mic sounds. You gotta ignore that stuff. If you’re starting out, you have to trust yourself. Even if you’re making a shitty recording, a shitty recording of a great band is still a great recording.
I've done a lot of shitty recordings of not great bands. It takes a long time to get to that point. I was at a studio, I didn’t trust the speakers they had and I had to wing it, and trust that I knew what was coming out of the speakers sounded good.
Check out some of Ian MacGregor's work in the studio by watching videos below from The All-American Rejects, Katy Perry and Thrice.