20 Years in the Industry: Ryan Freeland on His Studio, Career, and the Impact of Sound

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Ryan Freeland at his home studio.

Ryan Freeland is the classic audio triple threat: A recording engineer, mixing engineer, and producer.

“Each day is really different, which I really appreciate,” he tells me on a call from his personal studio. “I don’t know if I’d want to just do one or the other.”

His legacy to date—which comes from over 20 years of working with artists including Aimee Mann, Bonnie Raitt, The Milk Carton Kids, Loudon Wainwright III, Aaron Neville, The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Ray LaMontagne—is probably the best indicator of how much dedication Ryan has for a profession he wasn’t sure was even possible while growing up in the Midwest.

His early interest in manipulating music (adjusting the treble and bass knobs on his record player) led him to the “City of Angels”, where he learned from the legendary Bob Clearmountain, and won four Grammy Awards. “I loved the sound of music and the way that sound made me feel. That’s why I wanted to do this.“

Below, Ryan talks about his present-day studio, assisting Bob Clearmountain, collaborating with artists, and the ever-shifting music industry.

I was just looking at some photos of your studio—it’s so nice and pristine. It has a modern look to it and there is so much sunlight, which is a rarity.

Thank you. Yeah, it’s a custom-built studio. The land is so expensive in L.A., so I had to do a two-story studio because I couldn’t spread out. So the whole second story [ended] up really high [because] I wanted high ceilings too.

With the windows, you can see the day go by and the sunset and you just feel more connected. I don’t mind being aware of the outside world and even hearing a little bit of it from time to time as long as it doesn’t interfere—which it usually doesn’t.

You get a little bit of this or that, but I’ve made plenty of recordings where you could hear the birds singing outside. It just gives you the sense of being in a space or in a time even more for me. That idea of isolating yourself and keeping everything really internal is not quite what I enjoy about recording.

Yeah, hearing anything in the background, even if you’re not conscious of it can give a recording some real authenticity. How long have you been working out of this particular space?

Well, I’ve been in L.A. for 20 years. I built this studio four years ago. It’s my third studio in L.A.

An unobstructed look at Freeland’s home studio rig, located behind his Los Angeles home in what would have otherwise been a detached garage.

Is it an extension on your house or a separate space?

It’s a backhouse, basically. There’s a full three-bedroom house in front and then this is what would have been the garage.

On top, there’s a structure that’s bigger than the [first floor] garage…that has 6’ overhangs on either side. You get quite a bit more square footage, and you can do super-high ceilings which is really great. It’s got a separate entrance and it’s soundproofed enough that I’ve had full bands just blasting away in here and nobody has ever complained.

It’s nice because we’ve all had those experiences where you’ll be in the middle of something and somebody starts banging on the door or calls the cops. You know, it’s like, “Aw, I was feeling really good about myself and feeling artistic and now I feel like I’m a public nuisance.”

Right. “But I’m trying to make a difference in the world here!”

“Don’t you understand? It’s my art. I must express myself and it has to be loudly!” [Laughs]

Exactly. So this being your third studio in L.A., how did you approach building the new space?

Most of it is limited by space and budget, which are usually the major definers of what you can and can’t do. This is the first one I’ve had custom-built. I got to actually design it and put walls where I wanted them, so that part was great.

I’ve worked in major studios, but I’ve done a lot of work in people’s houses and my own living room. I just always felt that it’s more relaxed that way.

Working in big studios, I think we create an environment where people feel really free and comfortable, but when you’ve got an environment that feels more like a home, as long as it sounds good and people can hear what they’re doing and you’ve got good headphones systems and your playback system is good and all that, I kind of like it when it feels more like it could also be a living room or a bedroom—it doesn’t have to feel like it’s only a studio space. You can put a couch in there and it’s not just a studio couch; it’s like an actual couch that people sit on and hang out on.

We spend hours and hours in studios and it would be a shame if it wasn’t comfortable. I’ve got a window that looks down on my living room and I can watch my kids playing. Those little things matter throughout the course of a day. If you need a break, you can go downstairs and help out.

That’s one of the great benefits of having a home studio. Sometimes it can be a distraction too, but typically being part of something more than what you’re obsessing about audio-wise is usually really good. When you get too stuck on one thing, you can get really down or get obsessed if you don’t give yourself perspective on what you’re doing.

Just another day at the home office.

A lot of times ideas come to me just by stepping out of the building for a second. I’ll be outside and take a little walk and be like, “Oh my God, what if I did this? That could solve that problem.” And you might not have thought of that if you just kept forcing yourself to listen to the song over and over again.

Things get worse if you keep digging a humongous hole for yourself.

It’s almost like a microcosm of the macro of making a whole record. It happens with an artist on a whole record if you don’t get it done in a certain amount of time. Like, six months later, you listen back and think, “Oh man, I don’t want to do it that way anymore.”

It’s maybe not that it’s right or wrong, it’s just that every six months you have a set of different ideas about what you might want to do. If you don’t make some decisions and commit, after a few hours even if you find something that’s really great, you won’t even like it anymore. You’ll be like, “I’m bored with this. That was an idea from this morning.” [Laughs]

Totally. So, I noticed that you have a wonderful array of mics. At this point, do you continue to scout around for more or are you really comfortable with what you have?

I love microphones. They’re such a fun part of the whole thing. I’ve [acquired] a lot of the old, classic stuff over the years.

Microphones were the one thing I was like, “Wow, I just can’t find microphones that I dig as much as when I go to the big studios and use all those old Neumanns and stuff.” Nothing ever seemed quite as vibey as those. But now I feel like there’s so much great stuff. There are a lot of great companies that are still making great mics.

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  • Bill Quinn

    Wow! What a great guy and great talent.
    So many resonances, and the calibre of his clients. Be still my beating heart! The Carolina Chocolate Drops! Well, raise my rent!! One Degree Of Separation (Dom Flemins interview at Overheard Productions!)
    Many thanks to Laura JC of The Weeping Willows (Australia) for sharing this article far and wide.

  • Bill Quinn

    Yikes on bikes at the lights. Just checking out your sponsors! Holy Toledo, I’m glad I’m up early on a “Tuesday”* public holiday. I may be here for a while!
    Luckily, I have http://www.Mixcloud.com/MattBarkerRadio for company and to wake me up.
    Happy Saturday, and I need to do my music gear shopping in Brooklyn!

  • Chris Dover

    kikass gear list there