To say Ronan Chris Murphy has had a varied and interesting career would be classic understatement. As a musician, he’s shared stages with The Flaming Lips and the Henry Rollins Band; as a producer and engineer he’s worked with King Crimson, Tony Levin, The California Guitar Trio and members of Tool, Ministry and Weezer. Ronan operates out of his studio Veneto West and recently launched the Home Recording Boot Camp, a learning series focused on teaching musicians how to make better home recordings.
I met Ronan at the Nashville New Music Conference back in 2003 and was impressed by his friendly demeanor and open approach to learning. I asked Ronan if he’d do a “5 Questions” interview for spinme.com, and he was happy to oblige.
You once wrote “there is always a producer on a record.” What did you mean by that?
Although the studio is place for the creative exchange of ideas, there really has to be one person that manages all those ideas and is the architect and steward of the recording process. There has to be that one person that says “okay that was the good take, let’s move on” or helps the artist decide whether the band should record a live organic album or record a bunch of individual parts and have the chopped together in Pro Tools. Tons of people will have input, but it’s the producer’s job to manage the ideas and guide the flow of the process. Its also the producer’s job to make sure that all the bases are covered, whether that is gear, personnel, keeping budgets on track or anything else.
There is one well known “engineer” that is famous for saying that he does not “produce” bands, but is known to dictate the circumstances in which the band will record, how long the band is allowed to work on certain parts of the music and make the final call about what gear will be used and overall sound of the record. To me these are all production decisions. For me telling a band that a take is good enough is as much a part of production as saying “go back in and try that again 100 times.”
As a producer, what do you think is the Number One mistake newbie artists make in the studio?
Not hiring a producer! (Ha!) I am only half-joking here; one of the huge mistakes that people make is not doing the work needed before stepping into the studio. For album projects some of the most important work happens before you walk into the studio. If I am producing an artist, before we walk into the studio we’ve probably done a fair amount of work together in the rehearsal space deciding what songs we should record, throwing around creative ideas about arrangements and tempos.
Just as importantly, we’ve talked about the sounds and the records we love and have started to define a vision for the record. A lot of bands will make the mistake of just booking time in a studio and hoping for the best. Some band that thinks Slayer is wimpy might book a well respected studio where the staff engineer is a jazz guy who hates the sound of distorted guitars. That’s a big thing. The man or woman behind the board is more important than any other pieces of gear in the studio. Even a producer or engineer that might be a good match for the band is at a real disadvantage if they haven’t had a chance to become acquainted with the music and get a feel for the vision of the band.
Another big mistake that less experienced musicians make is making the assumption that getting great sounds is something that is in the hands of the producer or engineer; any good engineer will tell you that there is a lot we can do but it really starts with the player and the instrument.
Considering that part of your livelihood comes from studio work, what led you to create the Home Recording Boot Camp?
Almost all of my livelihood comes from studio work — Home Recording Boot Camp is about 5-10% and will probably not get much more than that. I decided to start HRBC because I could see the trend of musicians recording themselves really taking off and I don’t see if reversing. Certainly part of my reason for starting the program was an interesting business idea, but it was also because I am, at my core, a music lover. I remember when the first ADAT machines came out and I could see that it was going to impact those of us that made our living recording in studios, but I had a different hope. I remember a record by the Butthole Surfers called Locust Abortion Technician. It’s a really unique record they made by getting their own recording gear and making a record by themselves that could have never been made in a traditional recording studio. Its like no record you have ever heard before.
I thought that even though it may hurt the business side of recording, it would help a lot of really unique records get made; to my great disappointment people have not turned to home recording to make unique records that could not be make in traditional recording environments. Most people just seem to be making second rate making traditional records. And it often costs them more in the long run.
I keep hearing all these people that get there own recording equipment and just make really lame records. They are not special or unique sounding records; they are just traditional, sub-par records. I think that really hurts a lot of bands careers and as a music lover I think it’s a shame. There are certainly exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions.
I started HRBC so I could try and help people figure out what they really need to know to make great records. It’s confusing because there are so many people trying to sell home recordists lots of fancy gear, most of which does not actually help them make better recordings. It’s hard for people to find out the core skills they need to make great recordings and what gear will really help them.
What’s the one thing you wish people knew about your profession as a producer?
Well, it depends whether you are talking about “regular people” or people thinking about doing this for a career. People thinking about getting into production as a career need to realize how hard you have to work to be successful at it and how much of your life you need to devote to it. It’s really an insane choice. I love it and I have been very lucky to have a cool career, but you really have to give up a lot to make it work. In my opinion, the only people that should try and get into making records as a career are those that could not imagine doing anything else in life and be happy.
There are a lot of schools these days telling people that producing is a good career choice, and that’s just plain wrong. Even though many of my Home Recording Boot Camp students are professionals (or trying to be), we try to be really honest about the biz and just focus on trying to make great records. If you can make it work and you do not mind all the sacrifices, recording music can be a very cool life. I get to be part of lots of great music, travel the world and have gotten to know lots of great people. I love getting up in the morning and going to work.
From a straight music lover perspective, people need to understand that the role of a producer is a bit ambiguous, its really hard to tell what a producer did on a record by listening to it. There are some producers that are involved in every step of the process and others that will not show up at sessions more than once a week. Some producers bring a lot of technical skills to a record while other might bring more musical skills and some are just good at marketing themselves.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen in the studio?
I have done a couple records with [former Frank Zappa drummer] Terry Bozzio; that is crazy in itself just micing the drums! Probably the craziest record I was ever hired to do was a piece a woman had written for 13 operatic sopranos crumpling paper bags — no singing, just crumpling the bags. Thank God for Canadian arts funding!