With Ronan Chris Murphy
Ronan Chris Murphy has worked on hundreds of albums around the world. Some of his notable credits include King Crimson (several albums), Terry Bozzio, Ulver, Steve Morse, Tay Zonday, Irakere, Tony Levin…). In 2003 he founded Recording Boot Camp, which helped pioneer the one week recording workshop concept and his Ronan’s Recording Show was one of the first series of online recording training videos. You can get a free copy of his best selling e-book at http://recordingbootcamp.com/arbc/
Ronan: It was probably compression. It is almost embarrassing how long I was a professional engineer without having a real understanding of compression. I understood it on a basic level, but no real understanding of how powerful a tool it is. How much it opens up the creative palette as an engineer. I was making the mistake of viewing compression as that thing that keeps levels in check, rather than that amazing paint brush that allows us to sculpt how a performance will affect people emotionally.
2 – What would you be lost without?
Ronan: I assume we are talking about recording stuff rather than something more existential? I would be lost without the album “Trouble at the Henhouse” by the Tragically Hip. I love the sound of that album and it is one of my favorite albums in the world. I know the sound of that record intimately. I know exactly how deep the low end extends, how bright the cymbals are, how forward the vocal sits against the guitars. For a guy like me, that is often bouncing around to various studios around the world, I can put that album on and make sense of any speakers and listening environment I am working in. If I know how “Trouble at the Henhouse” sounds in a listening environment I can feel confident with the work I am doing there.
3 – You’ve recorded vocals without headphones and with windows open, as well as in back alleyways in the middle of the night. What’s the most challenging non-traditional environment you’ve recorded in, and how did you overcome that challenge?
Ronan: Yeah, I am really into that sort of stuff these days. Recording vocals without headphones is easy. I have done lots of that for years. I have also recorded out on the street, in the canals of Venice, churches, theaters, on boats… I was working on an album in Malaysia once and I really wanted to record out in a traditional jungle house, which is open to the elements, but eventually I was talked out of it because we decided that monkey calls bleeding into the mics would be way too loud, so I did not get to do that one. Sometimes getting chased by the cops is a little challenging. The funny thing is that I do not really find these non-traditional environments that challenging. A couple months ago I was doing some tracking in Oaxaca, Mexico, and we were recording acoustic instruments out by the church in the middle of town and the tracks came out great. People walking by or the occasional truck going by is not that big of a deal. A bit of work with Izotope RX can usually fix most big problems…. Except loud Harley Davidsons. They are the worst. They actually screw up recordings in my regular studio. Really the only things that usually end up being big problems are loud Harleys and emergency vehicles.
4 – What one piece of advice would you pass along to up and coming engineers?
Ronan: People really need to understand that this is a people business. If you are trying to develop a career, focus your efforts on connecting with people: other recording folks, musicians, publishers. The best clients do not care what gear you have, they just want you, and trust that you will make good decisions about gear. If you are trying to attract people with your gear, there will always be some drug dealer or trust fund kid with unlimited money that will clobber you in that competition. I have friends with studios that are worth 10 times what mine is worth, but my day rate is double theirs. It is because I have managed to make more connections or I am more well known then they are. Some of these guys I think are better engineers than I am, but they focused on building a business based on gear. Of course I love gear and try to use the best I can, but that just helps make our work easier, it does not really get us more work.
Also find ways to get involved with real projects rather than just goofing around with stuff for fun. Getting out in the world and collaborating with musicians, other engineers, ad agencies, whatever it is. Find a way to be a part of actual work even if it does not make you any money. Nothing will improve your career and skills as much as being a part of real projects, with real clients and real deadlines.
5 – What is the most valuable lesson you had to learn the hard way?
Ronan: I will follow up on the last thing I said. If you ever get involved with professional projects where you are not making any money, do not do it for future financial returns. Do it for the joy or value of the experience. Most things done on “spec’ never pay off, so if working on the project is not reward enough, do not do it. Also, and this is one of the strange things so many of my peers have experienced as well: in the hundreds of clients I have had over the years, the only ones that ever screwed me over have been ones where I worked for them for free and risked my own money to help them out.
Not sure why I am talking so much about biz stuff in these five questions. I guess it is just the mood I am in this morning. Since I am sure some of your fans are doing recording for fun rather than business, here is another lesson I have learned….. actually here is a lesson I am still trying to learn:
Having mixed thousands of songs I am pretty good at it. I can get mixes that have very good balance, depth, stereo imaging, punch etc, but one of the things I still struggle with is that sometimes I make those things the priority in my mixes rather than focusing on the drama, the excitement, the story telling of the mix. Sometimes the right thing to do is mix where one element is so loud it obliterates the other instruments, or EQing so the imaging collapses rather than expends. Sometimes a beautiful vocal sound will not serve a song as well as a nasty distorted vocal. We often work so hard to get the technical side of a mix correct that we forget that we are supposed to be making art that has emotional impact.