Professional audio engineer Ryan Sullivan gives inside insight into improving your own sound.
Head sound engineer at Red Bull Studios Cape Town and owner of his own mixing/mastering studio Refine Audio, Ryan Sullivan lives and breathes audio. Spending his days recording bands and fine tuning their sound, he also works in his own studio producing top tracks for labels such as Lowbit Records, Golden Wings Music, Suffused Music and his own Triplefire Music. Deeply entrenched in all things audio, Ryan has a unique perspective on how you can take your own home studio sound to another level.
What are the biggest differences in your process as an engineer in a professional studio and working at your home studio?
It mainly comes down to the amount of outboard gear I use which is largely due to the function of the studio. Recording in a professional studio requires more hardware than producing electronic music in the home studio but working with hardware almost exclusively in a pro environment is definitely the biggest difference.
To elaborate, there’s a need for different tools, like a large format mixing console makes all the difference when recording multiple instruments or a band for a live radio broadcast. Having EQ on every channel and multiple compressors on the mixing board allows for sonic manipulation at high speed and without depending on a computer at all.
I work on an SSL AWS924 console by day but I feel that something of that scale isn’t needed in the home studio, where I rely heavily on a computer for signal processing and sequencing.
What are some techniques used in a professional studio that home studio producers could benefit from applying?
In pro studios, you process audio signals before recording where in home studios audio is first recorded and then processed. Processing prior to recording allows for more intuitive thinking and also means you learn to make decisions quickly and with confidence and conviction as there’s no turning back once recorded. That makes it a once off performance, which I feel holds some kind of magic.
It comes down to requiring hardware though, and the same thing applies to instruments, EQ’s and compressors etc, Having graphics to guide you in software is often a major help for real surgical work but creative decisions are made by ear and feeling and that’s where I feel hardware beats software.
It’s all about variety and performance.
Is there a style or technique often used in recording bands that electronic music producers should be using?
Pro studios record using many different tools that come in a wide variety. Things like microphones, preamps, equalisers, compressors, reverbs, delays, synths, DI’s, instruments etc are offered in varying styles from varied brands in a pro environment, so you’re spoiled for choice which gives you the opportunity to have different sonic colours added to a project.
Electronic musicians could use more colours, from pre-amps, compressors, synths, mics, live instruments etc, each one has it’s own personality and flavour to add to a song.
There’s also definitely something that live recording adds, the human feeling.
I always add something live in my home studio, lots of synth playing and tweaking, recording of bass, guitar, different percussive instruments. They’re often chopped up or processed beyond recognition but it adds a unique sound and feel. I collect shakers from around the world, a collection I cherish, so I include some shakers in every track. Each one adds a sprinkle of spice to my music, even if very subtle, it adds some human feeling.
What are the biggest mistakes you see producers making that you recognize as a pro engineer?
From a creative point of view, hanging onto one sound for too long. Spending hours on a kick drum when it can always be tweaked later is unnecessary and it’s not worth losing the creative flow over the little technicalities and sonics of one sound. With practice, you learn to make good decisions quickly and in time, your sounds will be on point but none of that will happen if you’re not completing the projects you start.
Then just to contradict myself, another thing is people not spending enough time on something but in this case I’m referring to performance. Laying down a great performance requires a great performance, so slapping a take down and calling it a day isn’t the way to achieve that. That said, it doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a great first take but you need to be able to tell the difference.
Do you have any tips that would help producers create better quality music?
Tune every instrument, even drums.
Use EQ to sculpt each sound so that they fit together like puzzle pieces. When working with compressors, ensure the level sounds the same when it’s bypassed so you can hear exactly what the comp is doing. Take advice with a pinch of salt, including mine and learn things for yourself through trial and error, it will help you understand the reasons for doing things and help to develop your own unique sound.
Ryan recording live in his home studio
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