Ronan Chris Murphy works around the world and compiled a wildly diverse discography that ranges from prog-rock icons King Crimson (several albums) to Youtube sensation Tay Zonday. He has recorded and mixed albums for artists such as Steve Morse, Jamie Walters, Chucho Valdés y group Irakere, Steve Stevens, Nels Cline, Ulver, Tony Levin, Alexia, Pete Teo, and Terry Bozzio.
Plugin Alliance: First off, thank you for taking time to share this interview with our members; we are genuinely excited to have you as a Plugin Alliance contributor.
Ronan Chris Murphy: It is absolutely my pleasure. I am in good company.
PA: What are some of the ideas and topics you will cover as a PA contributor? What can users expect to learn from your articles?
RCM: The reality is that I am busy. I produce, mix and master music full-time for artists all over the world, and on the side, through Recording Boot Camp, I present workshops, do consulting and present online training. Because I am so swamped, the things I am doing for the Plugin Alliance are basically tips and lessons from the trenches. Rather than sitting down and thinking I should do a lesson for the fans of PA, it is more like when I am in the middle of a project and I use some technique or solve some unique problem that I think other engineers might be able to learn something from. I will then flip on the video camera and share the technique or write something up while I am winding down at the end of the day. In days past, recording music was more of a communal and social thing, so we would just share our knowledge with all the other people we were working with. But now that most people are working alone, I think it is important that we have other communities where we can share ideas.
PA: What is the single most important principle you would like to teach other engineers? What common mistake in studio production would you like to see obliterated from the engineer’s workflow?
RCM: I think I need to choose two…. wait… three…
- Recording to digital with high levels. With 24 bit or greater resolution there is absolutely no reason to ever record with hot levels. There is no legitimate upside and so many potential downsides. As a guy that mixes tons of albums from producers all over the world, it is utterly heartbreaking how many projects I see screwed up by hot levels. I am not talking about the loudness wars; that is a different discussion. I am talking about the levels you record with. I have never heard any argument that has ever made me want to record with peaks higher than -10dBfs.
- Get it right at the source. This is such a huge problem and, in many ways, the easiest to address for the person recording at home. Take the time to get things sounding the way you want them to before the mic. Set up the instrument correctly, play the right kind of part, put the mic in the right place, etc. If you are working with virtual instruments, take the time to pick the right sample set, get the right performance, get the right chord voicings, etc. I love processing things in the mix, and I have been working with fun plugins for almost a quarter of a century now, but nothing you can do after the fact is as powerful as getting it right early on.
- Keep things simple (unless they need to be complicated). I follow discussions about recording on the Internet and some less experienced person will ask for advice on solving a mixing dilemma. I am stunned by the complexity of the responses they get. I think people like to show off that they know about the “fancy stuff”, but it often has no bearing on day-to-day professional techniques. Someone will ask about something like getting a vocal to cut through in a mix, and the responses will be things like “use multiband compression and side-chain that into a stereo-izer plugin with an impulse response from some famous studio …” when in reality the correct answer is probably something along the lines of, “Try cutting around 1k on the guitar to make a little more room for the vocal.” Don’t get me wrong; I think the fancy stuff is awesome and, at times, things like pitch modulation, dynamic EQ or M-S saturation is exactly what is needed. Even things like the SPL Passeq plugin, which I have been using a lot lately, can do some cool M-S stuff, but I am using it in mono or L-R mode most of the time. Having the ability to switch over to M-S mode is a Godsend when needed, but most duties generally require the more traditional L-R stereo mode.
PA: According to your online Bio, you got into the music business at a pretty young age. What helped you get a foot in the door and start gaining momentum so early on?
RCM: I was really lucky because when I got into doing music, it was in the early 80’s Washington DC punk scene, which had a really strong attitude of “just go for it.” You did not need anyone else’s permission or validation to do things, and if you wanted to get things done, most of the time you had to do it yourself. By the time I was 16, I was running a tiny cassette only record label to release our stuff, and since my band was not cool enough to get gigs, I started booking shows myself which made it possible to get gigs with some of the cooler bands in town. I was also really lucky that after high school, I moved to Richmond, Virginia, which had a small, but amazingly vibrant and talented music scene. We always just went out and made stuff happen. Not only was the talent of my friends off the charts, but my band was getting to play with the likes of The Flaming Lips, The Descendants, Henry Rollins, Death Angel and Dinosaur, Jr. We managed to actually tour around the US and Canada with nothing but a so-so demo tape and lots of hard work.
PA: How did the Washington D.C. Punk-Rock scene help shape your career as an engineer/producer? Were there qualities to the music that molded your methods and perspective in the studio?
RCM: I actually did not start recording until after I left D.C., but that whole DIY thing I mentioned earlier really got ingrained in me. There is a new documentary about that scene called “Salad Days” (you can see my 16 year old face in the opening credits), which talks a lot about how much a part of that scene the DIY ethic was. I always figured it was something all musicians had, or at least all punks. I was surprised when I got out into the world and realized that was not the case. I briefly went to the Berklee College of Music when I was in my early 20s and I was so stunned to meet many musicians that were 10 times the musicians I was that would tell me they were hoping to one day be good enough to start gigging. That struck me as so funny because when I was 15, with virtually no talent, I was already out gigging. That has really stuck with me as I made the transitioned into recording. I love great gear and studios and such, but I have never let that stop me from trying to get the record done. If there is great music to be made, you look at the options and resources available and try and get that record done. I am happy making records in multi-million dollar studios, but just as happy with a handheld zoom recorder out on the streets on the other side of the world. Some of my favorite albums I have made were done in less than ideal settings. When I first got into recording I had an image that when I started doing any major label work, I would be pulling a vintage Corvette up to my private parking space outside of Ocean Way, but the reality is I did my first major label project in my living room with a couple of ADATs and a small Mackie mixer with a Chevy Celebrity parked in my driveway.
PA: You’re known for emphasizing the “art and craft of making records” and avoiding the changing fads. In your opinion, what can make a record timeless? What do you try to capture in a recording that stands up to the ever-oscillating trends of the music industry?
RCM: I am not sure that I avoid the changing fads because we all get inspired by the cool new records coming out, and sometimes you are working with an artist whose vision really is about riding the current trends. But when I am working with a great artist, and I am in my groove, we really work to find a unique voice for the project. I think it is about being open to ideas and “the muse,” to let the music go somewhere new. So many of my favorite albums as a fan are albums that seem to come out of nowhere - that have totally fresh sounds, or musical ideas or arrangements. One of the added bonuses of trying to make really unique records, and this is something a lot of home recordists miss out on, is that a truly unique album has no standard it has to live up to. If it is unique, it is the best one ever. An album that just popped into my mind is “The Flowers of Romance” by Public Image Limited (you can find it on some streaming services). I love that album and I have never heard anything else like it. It is beautiful and perfect because you cannot really compare it to anything else. You can make those kinds of unique things yourself. On the other hand, if you make a record and go for a vibe like Green Day’s “American Idiot,” there is a standard set about how things should be on a record like that. We know what those kinds of records are supposed to sound like. You will be going head to head with Chris Lord Alge in his million-dollar studio. But if you make something that is totally unique in your spare bedroom, Chris Lord Alge cannot touch it. You win.
PA: Music production has seen huge leaps in technology within the past decade; how do you view this surge in accessibility to tools and techniques that were formerly complicated and out of reach to the average music maker?
RCM: I think it’s great that people have easy access to music making tools. Even as I watched things like ADAT machines usher in a new era of easy access to good home recording, I knew that it posed a real risk to guys like me for making a good living (luckily I have been fine). But I was more excited about all the great music that could come out of it. I am still hoping that we come into an era of more people really using the studio to make truly unique and special art. The problem is, I see people spending lots of time and energy trying to make records that a guy like me or another really experienced pro would make in a big studio. If the point of home recording is just the joy of the work, that is awesome, but I often see artists spending months or years, and tons of money, trying to make traditional sounding records that do not come out as good as something an experienced pro could have done in a few days. I want more music to be made that is better than anything I could have ever done in a big studio because I would have never thought of that idea or that way of approaching the mix. Modestly competent generic records out of home studios do not excite me, but people taking advantage of the freedom of a the home studio, to make things that would have never happened in a big studio, that is exciting!
The one thing I am really loving about the way technology has evolved is that it has allowed us to turn any place in the world into a recording studio. These days I am really enjoying taking minimal equipment in to inspiring environments. I can record in the canals of Venice, the streets of Istanbul or in the churches of Mexico. It has really helped create unique experiences and sounds.
PA: How do you view the relationship between analog and digital, with regards to studio production? What role do you see software emulations of outboard hardware playing in the advancement of the music industry?
RCM: I have kind of stopped engaging in the debate. I am just interested in being able to grab the best tool for the given job. There are some pieces of hardware that I am crazy about and have not found plugins to match, but other times I have had plugins beat out hardware. I love the workflow and experience of working with lots of analog, but if plugin manufactures get all emulations sounding as good as hardware, I will be happy to have my whole studio be on my laptop. I love analog and there are some things I can do in the analog domain I can not do with pure digital, but I did my first in the box mix in 1993, so I have been embracing the benefits of digital for a long time.
PA: Name one effect (hardware or digital) you could absolutely not live without. In your opinion, what is the single most indispensable type of processing to have in studio production?
RCM: I am really about getting the sound right at the front end, so my A Designs Pacifica mic pre is probably my most used piece of gear. But for processing in the hardware world the Empirical Labs Distressor is pretty critical for the work I do. I love the extremes I can push it to. In the plugin world, the SPL Transient Designer plugin is critical to the drum sound of almost every record I mix. Sorry, I think that was 3.
PA: What are your favorite Plugin Alliance plugins and how do you use them?
RCM: For quite a while it has been the SPL Transient Designer and the Mäag EQ4. I lean on them so heavily. The Transient Designer is mostly for drums, but it is amazing how often is helps on other instruments. The Mäag EQs work great on so many things, but it probably sees the most action on vocals, drum overheads and 2-buss work. Both of those are plugins where I have done very critical comparisons to the hardware and the plugins and have really performed well. I still use the Mäag EQ2 in my mastering rig, but I am mostly using the plugins for day-to-day Mäag EQ duties. The airband and the 40Hz boost on those things are so awesome. Lately, the brainworx bx_digital V2 is starting to be a pretty important part of my mastering process. I have been using it as the first thing in my mastering chain. It is such a great corrective tool. I can usually fix most of the problems of EQ, balance and sibilance with bx_digital V2 before I start doing my mojo work on the tracks.
PA: When did you join the Alliance?
RCM: It has been a while now. It was probably bx_boom that got me in. A good friend of mine that mixes music for big movies and video games was using it for Taiko Drums and he turned me on to that plugin. I think that is when I found there were plugin versions of the SPL Transient Designer and the Mäag EQs I was really excited about. Those two things have been such big parts of my work for years, especially Mäag EQs that I have been using for over 15 years. It has been awesome have these tools with the convenience of a plugin.
PA: What is your favorite aspect of sharing your knowledge with aspiring engineers? What highlights can you share from your experience with Recording Boot Camp and Ronan’s Recording Show?
RCM: The most rewarding part is hearing from people that tell me that they learned things that really transformed their work and helped them finally get past things that were blocking their creativity. I see this all the time in the workshops I present through Recording Boot Camp, but it’s very cool when it happens with a simple 10-minute episode of Ronan’s Recording Show.
PA: You offer several Recording Boot Camp classes, in the U.S. as well as abroad. What indispensable tools can students expect from attending these sessions with you, and what are your hopes for the progress one can make while learning these tools?
RCM: A lot of us that have been doing this for a while grew up in a time where it was more common to come up working in studios where we could learn from engineers with more experience. We got to learn stuff in the trenches. That is a lot more difficult for people getting started today. I really love being able see people really click with the core concepts of recording. When people realize that most great creativity comes out of mastery of a few basic principles, a lot of light bulbs sort of go off. That is exciting to be a part of. When I am teaching one of my Recording Boot Camp or Mixing Boot Camp courses, I love seeing people’s minds get blown by just helping them understand things like phase and dynamics at a deeper level. When people realize that the difference between and heavy metal album and a jazz album is just different manipulation of the same tools.
I think what I really try and do in the Boot Camps is take a lot of the mystery out of the technical side of things so that people can focus on being creative. Once you understand all this stuff it gets really easy to listen to something you are working on, and if it is not what you want, to know exactly what to change to get it to be something that you do want. The results of moving a cardioid mic closer to the sound source, changing the attack time on a compressor, boosting or lowering high-mids on a kick drum…. all these changes have fairly predictable outcomes. So if you have a good understanding of what is going to happen before you do it, recording gets to be more about creative expression rather than poking around in the dark and hoping something good comes out of it.
I have been doing the in-person Recording Boot Camps in the US and Europe for over a decade and I love it, and have been amazed at home many people travel from all over the world to attend. Unfortunately, it is not realistic for a lot of people to take a week off and fly to the other side of the world to learn about recording, so we are investing a lot of time and money to re-work a lot of the content into a format that people can access online at recordingbootcamp.com. Hopefully we will see a lot of that rolling out a little later this year.