Ryan Freeland is a five-time Grammy-winning engineer known for his work with Bonnie Raitt, Ray LaMontagne, Hugh Laurie, Aimee Mann and many more. In 2008, he opened Stampede Origin Studio in Los Angeles, a custom-built facility featuring a large control room, 15-foot ceiling drum room, three isolation booths and an impressive list of outboard gear and vintage microphones.
Recently, Ryan was able to take a break from his busy schedule to chat with us for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about his prized Neumann M49s, his go-to vocal compressors and his top 12 favorite albums of all time.
1. How did you get started making records?
I wanted to make records for as long as I can remember. It was really the sound of albums that spoke to me, more than the band, more than the songwriting. The sound inspired me to want to learn how to make records. And I’ve been obsessed with it since my first reel-to-reel tape machine at the age of 12.
2. Early on you worked as Bob Clearmountain’s second engineer — can you tell us something you learned while working with him that’s stuck with you over the years?
Bob wanted to have the best studio possible in which to make the best records possible. What he cared about most was that the records sounded great. The work it took to get there was irrelevant. That made a huge impression on me. It’s not about the budget or the hours or the particular client, it’s your mix. Your name is going on it, so it better be great.
3. Which do you prefer, recording or mixing?
Mixing albums that I’ve recorded is the absolute best. I can make choices during the tracking session that I can follow all the way through to the mix. When you hear a band playing a song live in the studio you really get a feel for the power and emotional intention of the song.
That’s not to say that all albums should sound like they were performed live by a band, but more to say that the feeling of all of it, from the song through the performance, to the recording and the mix, should never feel emotionally less than what’s possible.
Going through all the electronics and technical considerations can bring you to something even better than what you or the artist imagined. If you're not achieving that as an engineer, you should keep working at it until you get there. For me, being involved in both the recording and mixing makes me the feel the best.
4. You’ve got a killer mic collection over at Stampede Origin Studio. What mics do you find yourself reaching for most often?
Years ago Joe Henry and I bought a Decca Tree trio of Neumann M49s with original AC701K tubes from Wes Dooley. They had been used for orchestral recordings in England from the day they were originally built. I have a stereo pair and Joe has the third. I use them on every album I’ve recorded since the day I was lucky enough to be able to acquire them.
Microphones are the musical instruments of the recording engineer. Each one can speak to you and inspire you the way guitars or pianos can for songwriters. They are not merely technical devices and knowing which one to use and where to put it is where recording becomes really interesting.
5. You’ve also got an impressive collection of outboard gear. Can you tell us about some of your favorite EQs?
I asked Jeff Ehrenberg years ago for his recommendation for 2-bus EQs, and he highly recommended the API 5500 and that EQ changed my life. I can use darker mics and then brighten everything up on the stereo buss with the 5500 in the most musical of ways.
The range switch makes it even more flexible and useful. They should put that range switch on all the API EQs, especially the plug-ins. So often the 2 or 6 setting on the API 550 is too much for me (hardware and plug-in versions). The .5 range switch can cut those amounts in half and I can really hit the sweet spot I’m looking for.
I tried for years to get that feature put on the Waves or UA versions of the plug-ins with no luck. If anyone making an API EQ plug-in is reading this, please implement the .5 & .25 range switch into the software. It would make it so much more flexible.
6 What about your favorite compressors?
After microphones, compressors are my favorite things in the whole recording process. The way you can color and control the sound is a very important part of my process while tracking and mixing. I usually don’t hit them very hard but even a little bit can really bring out the life of a sound (or destroy it if used too much).
The Summit TLA-100 has been my go-to vocal tracking compressors. The Smart Research C1 has been on my 2-bus forever. All of Phil Moore’s Retro Instruments compressors are amazing. I just bought a D.W. Fern VT-7 for my 2-bus and now I don’t know how I lived without it. My Empirical Labs Distressors and Fatso will probably stay with me forever. The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor is almost always on my overhead mics. Did I mention how much I love compressors?
7. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
Bike my kids to school at 8 AM, get to the studio by 10 or 11 AM, think about how to make whatever I’m working on the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, hope I get to eat when I get hungry, hope to spend a little time with my family, try to get to bed by 11 or midnight. Repeat. Oh, and coffee. Lots of coffee.
8. You’re known for tracking live. How does that impact your sessions?
Getting sounds while everything is happening live is the hardest, but it gives me an opportunity to figure out how things should sound in full context. Even if you change parts in the future, at least you know how and where to move the microphones and adjust the compressors. If the band starts playing the song, and it seems like it should sound huge, you can quickly move some mics around and reset some thresholds and hopefully by take two you’ve got it dialed in.
It’s easy to mess something up if you’re getting sounds in a vacuum. You can get a great drum sound, but that sound only makes sense in the context of the whole song and the rest of the instruments. The more parts you can hear simultaneously the better choices you can make.
9. What’s the least expensive piece of gear you’ve ever used on a record?
Latch Lake Jam Nut. Those things are really useful.
10. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
The usual stuff... Putting mics into Victrola horns, taping mics onto ceilings, pumping sounds into makeshift bathroom chambers and re-recording them. Nothing too exciting.
11. What’s your most prized possession in your studio?
My Neumann M49s - because I’ll probably never be able to replace them.
12. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
Play with my kids. Take my wife out to dinner when I can. We’ve been family camping lately, that’s been a lot of fun.
13. What’s your favorite place to eat?
Westside Tavern on Pico at Westwood Blvd. Good food and they make a great Hemingway daiquiri, which is difficult to make at home. I mean, who has the time to juice both limes and grapefruits?
14. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
When I was twelve, my mom gave me a copy of Ralph Steadman’s book I Leonardo. It started me on a lifelong love of Leonardo da Vinci. After that, just about everything Steinbeck and Salinger wrote hit me pretty hard. I’m currently reading Critical Path by Buckminster Fuller and that’s pretty amazing.
15. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
Impossible question. The first five Genesis and Queen albums, Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. That’s twelve... I tried.
16 What’s one record you wish that you had worked on?
Years ago, while I was still hoping to become Joe Henry’s main engineer, he made The River in Reverse with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. Husky Hoskulds absolutely killed the recording and mixing of that album, so the world is probably better off. But that album sounds fantastic every time I hear it.
17. Who do you think is making great records right now? What new music have you been listening to lately?
Kids' music is really the only new music I get to check out these days. Luckily, there is some fantastic production and engineering work going on in kids' music. My friend David Boucher has been involved in the last several Disney movie soundtracks and those are fantastic. Also, whoever is making the various Lego movie soundtracks is amazing. Those Lego movies are tonally way too snarky for my taste, but the music sounds great.
18. If you could go back and change one thing about your journey, what would it be?
I would have been born 20-30 years earlier when people were still obsessed with hi-fidelity quality sound. The Amazon Echo and the Apple iPhone are not the most inspiring sound reproduction systems to mix for. At least headphones and earbuds can still expose a good mix from a bad mix, even to a neophyte. There are times when I feel like I’m trying to make the highest quality buggy whips in a world that’s pretty sure they don’t even need buggies.
19. What’s one plug-in or piece of gear you can’t live without?
Digital Audio Workstations. They get a bad rap but they have totally changed how we are able to record and mix records. There are some really misused and misunderstood parts of random access recording but it has also opened up a whole new world and allowed people like me to work at our own studios without needing a two-million-dollar investment.
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
Don’t delay decisions. Make commitments to the sound you are going for. All of this technology that allows you to defer decisions to a later date is detrimental to the making of a good record. Too many options can be the death of creativity. Willem de Kooning said, “In art, one idea is as good as another.” You just need to choose.
Check out some of Ryan Freeland's incredible work as recording and mix engineer by listening to tracks from Allen Toussaint, Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs and Billy Bragg & Joe Henry.