Plugin Alliance: Your Mixing CV is quite varied, from artists such as Death Cab for Cutie, to the Backstreet Boys, to Disney soundtracks from movies like Lilo and Stitch. To what do you attribute your success across such a wide range of genres?
F. Reid Shippen: Mostly luck? I’m not sure—I’ve always tried to keep my skills
up by challenging myself and jumping around to lots of different genres is great for that. But it’s probably because I just love a lot of different music. I’ve done stints doing classical recording at Aspen Music Festival- thanks to a great mentor at MTSU named John Hill- and that really helped with ear training. I love lots of different styles so I try to curate my work to include them all.
PA: What drove you to become a mixing engineer? Do you have any musical or professional influences that induced you to get into the business?
F.RS: None, really. I sang and played drums and piano a little bit as a kid. But I was studying accounting until I realized that I’d rather physically starve from lack of income than spiritually starve from boredom. I bailed on a business degree, moved down to Nashville to attend MTSU — the only school I could afford — and dove into recording school, which led to internships - assisting - engineering - mixing. The rest is history.
PA: What, typically, is the first principle you keep in mind when sitting down to do a mix?
F.RS: Two things- what is the song trying to say, and what is the artist trying to say. Emotionally, that is. There’s a reason they wrote or picked this song, and wanted to put their name behind it, and they have something they want to communicate to the world, and it’s my job to help them really grab you by the lapels and command your full attention for 3 or 4 minutes.
PA: How do you see the relationship between the roles of producer/mixer/artist? Do you ever have to make a critical decision during a session? How do you handle that?
F.RS: On a good record, the relationships work together. I tend to blend into different roles when I’m working- I’m not really gonna be the guy who sits there and just gets sounds or balances levels. How can you be?? That’s not making a contribution, in my opinion- any monkey can do that. I’m always trying something to spark creativity, try new sounds, new approaches... I’m always trying to push it too far, actually. I’m trying to get fired. That’s where all the fun music happens, right on the edge of too far.
F.RS: I make critical decisions all the time. Making music is making critical decisions- furthermore, mixing (and production) is making thousands of critical, subjective decisions that are built on thousands of critical, subjective decisions. Sometimes it’s a house of cards. Most of the time, actually.
PA: Your mixes have won several Grammys, including ‘Best Gospel’ album to ‘Best R&B Album’. Any projects in the pipeline you have high hopes for making a splash at the next round of awards?
F.RS: Well, I like to say that a Grammy and $4 gets you a latte at Starbucks- although it is fun winning accolades from your peers for a project that’s well received. My parents think they're cool. I hope every project I’m on gets one, really- show me a music project and I’ll show you a labor of love that someone is pouring their heart into. Even if I don’t like the music, someone was killing themselves to make it the best they could, and I want to help them with that and I love to see them, and their efforts, recognized.
PA: You’ve mixed tracks for numerous high-level artists – the likes of Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, and Kenny Chesney on the country side; Ingrid Michaelson and Bronze Radio Return on the pop side. What was it like the first time one of your mixes garnered the attention of a high-level artist?
F.RS: It was like WHOO HOO! I mean- let’s face it, every creative person on the planet is always thinking “Do I suck? I suck. Someday, someone’s going to discover that I don’t know what I’m doing!” So when someone you like and respect, someone who can pick any of a handful of top-notch talent comes to you, it’s nice. For 12 seconds. Then you freak out- “Oh no- what if I screw this up?!!? I SUCK!!!!”
PA: In your opinion, what makes a hit record? Do you feel like you have, or are developing, an ear for the next big hit?
F.RS: I make hit records and I am the Ultimate Arbiter of Hitness. Hahahahahaha. SO MUCH KIDDING. Songwriting + emotion = hit records. A great song is everything, and then if we can get the production to grab you and make you feel something real... this is what’s amazing about music. There’s precious few things that can totally change your perspective, the way you feel about yourself, or another person, or your life, like a great song that’s well done.
PA: You’re known for working with a hybrid digital/analog system. How do you view the integration of digital studio tools into what was formerly an analog industry?
F.RS: I love it. It’s brilliant. Digital brings the best stuff out of analog. And vice-versa.
PA: Do you feel like you’ve struck the right balance or do you see yourself moving more and more towards digital?
F.RS: I move towards whatever I think works the best. I could be totally in the box right now if I wanted to be. Some stuff is better in the box. Some isn’t. I’m not interested in settling for not right just because it’s easy. I use what I feel gets the best results. Is it a bit cumbersome or expensive sometimes? Sure. Good things are difficult. I’m still looking to feel that emotional charge- I’m not bailing on that and taking the lazy route, I don’t care if it’s a pain in the ass sometimes. We’re making music, not widgets. Plus- since I hop around to lots of different genres, my setup allows for a wide range of sounds and is very creatively flexible. If I were just mixing one genre, maybe I’d have one setup. I’m not, so I don’t.
PA: What inspired you to go the custom route in building a workspace for you and your clients? How do you see the relationship between studio hospitality and versatility?
F.RS: I’d always wanted my own studio so I could have my own rules and not be beholden to someone else. Plus, as a mixer, I could never understand moving around to different studios. You’re guessing, and I don’t like guessing, I like knowing. A versatile studio is inherently hospitable to creativity. And I’ve had some megastars over to my studio- they all love it!
PA: What was the first piece of gear/effect you incorporated into your setup?
F.RS: Well, it all centers around Pro Tools and the SSL 4000, so those, I suppose. Although the most important “gear” may well be the room design and the monitors. So many people lose their minds over gear and never consider their listening environment. Without a great room, all the gear in the world matters not.
PA: When did you start using Plugin Alliance tools in your setup? What are your favorite Plugin Alliance tools and how do you use them?
F.RS: I was in search of the best drum trigger plug. I have very specific requirements for drum triggers and the only plug that could do what I wanted was SPL DrumXchanger. It’s the only plug I use on EVERY song, without fail. It’s the best trigger by far for anyone who actually listens to performances and wants to enhance them, rather than replace them.
I think the elysia nvelope is a game changer. I use the hardware every time I track and I just started to use the software in the mix. It’s a great, unique tool that I find indispensable. I’m also a huge fan of Cliff Maag’s designs and I use the Maag Audio EQ4 a fair bit. It’s magic on drums.
PA: What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to a rising mixer/producer who has aspirations of running their own studio? How about producing/mixing in general?
F.RS: Don’t be a jerk. The days of the rockstar producer/engineer/mixer are gone. GONE. This is a service industry- you’re there to serve the artist and the song, so lose the attitude and work your ass off. I find that the harder I work the luckier I get.
Also- find a mentor. If you really want to be excellent at something, find a mentor. No amount of YouTubing or Gearslutting or even practice is going to make as much of a difference as a great mentor- or better still- several. Why do you think the top sports and business people on the planet all have coaches and teachers? It’s a great shortcut, and it’s a reality check, because if you don’t have the goods, you’ll find out really quick from someone who's been in the business for a long time.
PA: Where do you see the music industry going, and what role do you see yourself playing with regards to future generations of audio producers and artists?
F.RS: The industry? If by industry, you mean corporate ownership of music- it’s going away. No question. Music is fast becoming unprofitable for big business. This is good- and good riddance. It’s a broken model that needs to be reshaped.
It’s an exciting time for music, however, in the creative sense. Lots of amazing stuff is being done. Lots of collaboration and energy. I’m working with several really cool ventures to push forward into more creative collaborations in both music and the larger creative field. You can sit in your studio or bedroom all day and maybe come up with some genius stuff, but when you get around a group of highly creative people, the atmosphere gets charged and you get lightning. I like that and I want to encourage it. Plugin Alliance is a perfect microcosm of that ideology- a bunch of creative designers working together for a common goal of great sonics. I love what you guys are doing.