Succeeding as a freelance mixing engineer in New York City is no easy feat, but Ryan West has done it—impressively. Working predominantly on the hip-hop and R&B scenes, his credit list includes such luminaries as Kanye West, Jay-Z, Eminem, Rihanna, Usher, 50 Cent, Kid Cudi, and Maroon 5. Not bad for a guy with no formal engineering training and who began his career in New York working at a music store.
In this interview, West discusses how he developed his career, and then goes into detail about mixing techniques, gear and software.
How did you get your start as an engineer?
This would be in 1997. I moved here in and got a job working at Sam Ash. As a musician, I wanted to get started networking with folks, and people in the business. I bought a bunch of gear and had this 24x8 Soundtracs console, and a 1/2" tape machine, and I was cutting demos with my band. And one of the guys who worked in the store asked me if I'd be interested in doing some side work, doing a little bit of engineering. I said, "Why not? I'll take a stab at it." It turned out to be this guy named Stanley Brown who had been in A&R at Island Records at the time. He'd done all that Dru Hill stuff, and lots of gospel records. He had a setup in his place over in Edgewater, New Jersey. I started working for him a little bit, and the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it. I found out I could successfully do it and make money, people would actually pay me to do this thing.
How did he find you?
He was a client of a guy that I worked with. He just asked him, "Do you know anybody who has some engineering skills, I need someone to help out in my studio." So it wasn't really intentional, it just happened. But obviously, I really enjoyed it, so I kept pushing.
You didn't go to school for sound engineering?
No, no, not at all. I was coming from the perspective of being a frustrated bass player, keyboard player. I obviously wanted to stay in the music business as much as I possibly could. It was, after all, the reason I moved to New York from Ohio. So it seemed like a logical thing to do. Obviously, as stuff went along, I learned a whole lot and starting meeting people. I learned about how to produce records. That's how it kind of takes off on you. You don't even know that it's happening and you're starting to do it already.
Since this was in the late 90s, DAWs were in their infancy, as far as supporting audio.
They were out, but people were still skeptical of them. Pro Tools had those early, 16-bit interfaces that did not sound good. When I first started using Pro Tools, we'd record to tape and then fly it to Pro Tools, edit it, and then fly the edited parts back. That's mostly what it was used for. It wasn't until a couple of years later when it got really popular. I got super fast at Pro Tools, and that really helped me a lot.
What kind of things were you doing in which being fast in Pro Tools helped?
Most of it was about doing really quick, tight vocal sessions. The guys would come in, a lot of them treated it a little bit like a party. I had to be like the psychotherapist, the manager and the engineer, and the hallucinogen babysitter. Anything that made the process more transparent for my clients, I realized, the happier they'd be. I made it my business to get really fast on Pro Tools with the shortcuts and just start being very seamless.
After a while potential clients would start asking for you? Is that how you expanded your business?
It happened pretty quickly. I didn't work for too long for that guy from Island Records. I essentially moved out on my own and started doing freelance sessions at a bunch of different places. I eventually ended up in this place that's no longer there, called Soho Studios. It was down on Fifth Ave and Prince St. The guy who owned it, started giving me random sessions here and there, and pretty quickly, people started asking for me back, because I was a guy who knew how to run the tape machines, and was familiar with all the sampling devices they were using. Back then it was the [Emu] SP-1200 drum machine and [Akai] S900 sampler. I was familiar with all that being a keyboard player, and I knew a lot about MIDI. And then when we started moving into DAW land, that's where I was even more comfortable. So, I kind of did it backwards. I started with tape and then I got into the Pro Tools, but I had to play catch up with a lot of things. I didn't have the experience using a lot of dynamics processing early on, because I was just doing vocals—comp sessions and tracking sessions. That's what I focused on for a long time. A couple of years down the line, I, of course, got more proficient at everything else. But I pretty much started out being a vocal-tracking engineer and that's where a lot of my clients came from.
How did you move into mixing?
I begged and begged. [Laughs] And asked. And with some of the smaller independent clients, it wasn't all that hard to get them to throw you a bone and let you try a mix out, and if they liked it, they liked it. I gave mixes away for free, like a lot of young engineers do, to try to cut my teeth. But I had a very valuable learning experience. Around the same time, I started working for this dance/remix producer named Jonathan Peters who did songs like, "My Love is Your Love," by Whitney Houston. There were a bunch of big dance singles that he remixed. He had this place called Deeper Records, it was his studio down in Chelsea.
So what happened next?
I started working for him, and he was working with this cool producer named Tony Coluccio, who is still in the business and still making records. And I was in the same situation, I was begging: "Let me mix, I want to mix. I can't wait to mix" I couldn't stand watching other engineers get the mixes when I knew I wanted to do that myself. I was really persistent about it, and these guys were nice enough to give me a fair shake. But one day, Tony Coluccio pulled me aside — maybe after about a week of trying to get them to accept my mixes — he pulled me aside and said, "You know, you're a good guy, but I think you're trying to move into mixing too soon. You've got a little work to do." It stung, it hurt, but he was right. I had no business mixing records at that point. I just didn't have enough background knowledge. I didn't understand what I was trying to get to, or know much about techniques other engineers were using, because I'd never studied under anybody. I didn't have the schooling and I hadn't worked with any other professional engineer. It was kind of like a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thing for me for the first couple of years.
After that, how long did it take for the mixing part of your career pick up?
I never really stopped, but I just kind of scaled back what my expectations were for the types of jobs I was going to get. I realized that I had more work to do. I was always trying to find new books and new ways to learn about mixing, and talking with other people. And networking as much as possible. It got to a point where I had enough chops, I knew what I wanted to get out of the mixes. I understood monitoring and signal path and gain structure and all the simple things that you might learn in your first year at SAE or somewhere like that.
At what point as a mixer did you feel like, "Whoa, I'm really on top of this," as opposed to "Whoa, this is a crazy big job and I'm not sure when I'm going to get this mix done"?
I'll let you know when it happens. [Laughs] For a long time I was really disgusted to hear my own mixes, because I was just never happy with them. I always think I could have done a better job, I could have done something different. I think the thing that changed, and maybe could have helped me more than anything, was learning to relax and approach it as a craft and my business, at the same time. And try to understand that everyone who is doing this is trying to succeed every time and touch something new. Everytime you put their hands or ears on a new project, you have to always reevaluate. Once I understood that that's part of the process, and that's part of the joy of doing this job. You can always reinvent. You can always change the thing you're doing. And it's way better if you do that. Because if you get stuck to one particular working method, then you might paint yourself into a corner more often than you'd like to.
That being said, what's your mixing workflow like?
I do what I refer to as "housekeeping" first. I line up the tracks in the session in a way that lets me navigate around more easily. Like a lot of engineers, I might move all my drums over to the left side, and color code them, and make sure everything's named properly. And then I'm an "all faders up" kind of guy. I turn my monitors down low, and I start playing with volumes, and I think about the arrangement of the song, thinking about any reference mixes that the client may have given me, to say they admire this and that's the kind of what they're going for. I kind of put all my ducks in a row and just sort of take care of getting everything neatly squared away. And these days that includes setting up all my buses for summing. Here at the house, I'm using 16 channels of Dangerous Convert 8 into a 2-Bus+ and various hardware. I set my summing up first. And I think that's one of the important things that people skip over when they're talking about using summing in a DAW setup, is that if you're not using it from the very beginning, then it's not going to help your decision-making process all that much. The benefit to using great analog summing is that it kind of just gives you a bigger space to play in. As you're getting started in building the foundation of the mix.
What do you mean by a bigger space?
It feels like there's just more available headroom. It makes things sound like they're locatable in a mix. You know how when you hear a great mix on great speakers in a great room, or in great headphones, you can almost close your eyes and pinpoint the geographic location where something lives in the mix. If we're talking about something like a lead vocal, it might be right up the center. When I use the summing in the right way, it's almost like I can suspend that vocal wherever I want it to be, and it just seems easier to get things into a location and have enough breathing room inside the mix. When mixing completely in the box, even if I'm using really great converters, it takes a little more effort.
My decision-making process is a little different when I'm using the summing, because I hear it a little differently. And then in the end, I know I'm able to push the mix harder. I'm dealing with a lot of hip-hop mixes, things that have really aggressive drum sounds. And part of a successful mix like that, whether it's EDM, or anything that's got big low-end stuff living there in the bottom, is saving available headroom. I’m always doing things like high-pass filtering everything below about 35 or 40 Hz, even on 808s. That's because all that stuff that lives in the infrasonic range [below where the human ear can hear it], robs you of headroom. Even on the stuff that I really want to live in a really large way down at the bottom end of the mix, I'm still carving out those sub frequencies. I'm doing a lot at the top-end too, to narrow the bandwidth.
Describe what you do in the high-frequencies.
It's tempting if you want something to sound airy to go up to 12 or 15kHz and push a whole lot up there. But you have to decide which dominant element is going to live in those zones. For instance, if I have a vocal, and I really like the air and the breath on top of it, and I might have some guitars, I'm typically filtering out stuff above 5 or 6 kHz on guitars to let them live a little below the vocals so they don't step on each other.
With a gentle-sloped filter?
Yes, unless it's something obvious that I hear. It’s a very gentle slope, maybe 12 dB per octave.
So, you’re not taking it all out, just some of it.
Yeah, just some of it. Because I want certain things to live up there. If I have a great, detailed sounding plate on the vocal, I'm going to clean up a little bit of room around it so it has a chance to live in the mix and put the shine on the vocal like I want to, rather than clouding up and muddying up the whole thing by just being too bright in general. I forget who it was, it might have been Andrew Dawson, who's an engineer friend of mine, who explained it like this: “If you want a mix that sounds bright and impactful, choose one thing in the mix that's going to live in that zone.” Rather than just putting a program EQ across the whole thing and just brightening the whole thing up. It's a contrast thing.
So that's how you make something stand out in a mix?
Yeah, it's to make sure that thing has room to breathe and to have dynamics. I'm not one of those "crush the mix" type guys. I love mastering engineers, and they have a job for a reason.
You don't put a lot of processing on your master bus?
No. I'm a big Dangerous guy, so I have their program compressor and the Bax EQ. And nine times out of ten there isn't anything else on my 2-mix.
What’s your routing setup for those processors?
What's happening is that I'm coming into the 2-Bus plus and then that's got the compressor and the Bax, which I can pop in and out whenever I want to. And that's going into an analog to digital converter and then being fed back into the DAW via the Dangerous Convert-2 USB Uplink. It gets AES from my converter and then it's sending it back by USB into the DAW, where I can do anything I want to. If I want to put it on a print track and say I want to use the UAD ATR-102 tape machine plug-in, which I do often. Then I add it right there. It's really the easiest way to work, because I'm not changing all that much from working in the box, I’m just doing some routing stuff. And I feel like it gets me a lot further a lot more quickly by having the available headroom on all of the independent and discrete channels coming out and having their own pathway and then coming out and being summed by a great summing amp like the 2-bus plus.
Back to the filtering. I've found for myself when I'm high-pass filtering, I'll ease the frequency up continually until I hear it change the sound and then I'll back it off to just before that point.
That's exactly how I do it. You want to know what you're missing, rather than willy-nilly picking a random frequency and setting it to that. I think as a mixer, every decision you make has to become more thoughtful, the more you mix every day. Because you don't want to spend two days on a mix. I can't spend two days on a mix. It's just impossible. The workload is heavy enough, at least for me, where I'm trying to get a mix and a half or two mixes done a day. There are some things that I do [routinely] but those tend not to be things requiring creative decisions. Those tend to be things are kind of temporary. Like from my template session. I might have three or four different reverbs and three or four different delays, and I kind of throw those in quickly. And then just get rid of what I don't use at the end of the mix. There are parts of what I do that are a bit rote. But generally, I approach every mix as a completely new thing.
When you're working on a mix that will be heard on a huge system, like a club mix or something, with subwoofers, do you worry about filtering out too much of the sub frequencies? Could that mess up the sound when it goes through subs?
No, I don't. I have a couple of different references and I have a sub that's switchable in and out. So I can always hear and tell what's going on down there in that bottom end. And generally, the mixes where I'm a little more aggressive with filtering out that stuff below 35 Hz actually sound a lot better on bigger systems.
Because you can get this really good clean punch to the kick drum without anything flubbing down underneath it.
There's a lot of garbage underneath.
Yeah, I think that's probably why I started doing as much high-passing as I do, because I was always concerned with how it's going to sound in a club, or how's it going to sound in my guy's car, who's got crazy subwoofers over there. I'm always checking different references: big speakers, small speakers. With sub, without sub. Headphones. And I kind of know what's going on in my room. The problem becomes, obviously, if I'm tapped to go into a studio that I’m not that familiar with, and I don't know the monitoring there and I haven't spent that much time in that room, then I'm trying to check as many other references as possible.
And what do you use for monitors in your studio?
I have a whole stack of stuff, but these days, I've been using my Dynaudio BM-6 passives, the MKII. I'm really used to them, I've had them a long time. I have a pair of Focal Solo 6s, a pair of NS-10s. I love the Focals, but I think I'm just on a weird trend right now where I'm wanting to use the Dynaudios more for some reason.
And here's a question about an area where people are not that experienced as mixers fall down is losing perspective and not being able to judge something after working on it for a while. How do you deal with that issue?
I try never to get there. When I talk to people about mixing, I always talk about having a sense of urgency when you do it. And I think belaboring a mix to a point where you're sick of it, or you can't hear through your own moves, is a dangerous place to be, because that just gets frustrating. And once you're frustrated, it's kind of difficult to see it differently.
Because you have to finish things fast, do you often not have the luxury of being able to give it a rest?
I try to, if I can. If I have time, then yeah, I'll put it to bed and then listen to it the next day as I'm getting up and having my tea. I might flip on the system and take a listen to what I did the day before.
I know for me, it can be so tempting to reopen a mix. I always think I can improve it, but that's usually not the case.
That's the beauty of living in 2017 where we have "Save As". And hard drive space is cheap, and you can do as many of those as you want. But I would urge people who are mixing records not to overthink it too much. You can always make a mix better. There are mixes that I hear on the radio now that I did ten years ago, and I go, "Shit, I could have done that a whole lot better." Or, "I wish I'd been able to do that today because some extra skill set I have now that I guess I didn't possess before. But at a certain point you just have to let go and say, "Look, that's my evolution, that's where I was then, and I'm going to continue to do as much as I can to improve everything I'm doing today.
How do you approach the whole issue of compression? Do you use it more for coloration or for dynamics control, or both? Do you use automation more for dynamics control?
I try to use automation as much as possible, but let's face it, compression is still the sound of modern music. So, to a degree people kind of expect it to work that way. I'm not a huge fan of really obvious compression, unless I'm going to use it as some sort of effect.
Do you have a particular plug-in setup that you like on vocals?
It depends on the type of track it is, and how the vocal is coming across. I'll give you an example: a lot of hip-hop vocals are a little all over the place. These guys are maybe moving their heads from side to side. They're actively gesturing as they're tracking the vocals. So sometimes the scheme is to use something like an LA-2A or a TubeTech to sort of smooth that out, just a little bit. Get a couple of dB worth of gain reduction, and then using something like an 1176 to pull it forward. With like a medium attack time and a quick release time, and sometimes getting as much as 6 or 7 or 8 dB worth of compression. Just to sort of pull it forward and give it more of an aggressive stance.
Do you use UAD stuff for that?
I use an awful lot of UAD stuff. I use a lot of SoundToys stuff, and some Waves stuff. I'm getting more into Waves stuff. They're good guys over there, and they're really passionate about that stuff. But I'm a huge UAD fan. They're just a great company.
What are your go-to reverbs?
Again, I use the UAD stuff. I really like their EMT Plate, the 140 and 250 are both amazing sounding boxes.
I'm like everyone else, I use little things here and there like the H-Reverb from Waves is good for a lot of things like small spaces, ambience, stuff like that. If I just want to build up a little bit of a vibe around something, like a guitar or what have you. It's a pretty good piece. The UAD Lexicon 224 reverb is great. I use that quite a bit. And then they also have an interesting plug-in that I think people are sleeping on, which is their Ocean Way room modeler, which is absolutely fantastic. If you want to create a space for a live performance, you know, from a dry recording, it's a great way to do it, and it sounds very natural. I've been in those rooms before, and it does sound quite a bit like it.
Thanks for your time. Really interesting stuff.