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20 Questions With F. Reid Shippen

F. Reid Shippen is a mixer, producer, and recording engineer whose credits include 10 Grammy®-award winning projects and hundreds of #1 hits. His credits include Kenny Chesney, Elle King, Sammy Hagar, Dierks Bentley, MercyMe, Cage the Elephant, Pink, Minus the Bear, Jonny Lang, Chris Tomlin, Disney, Lucie Silvas, Colony House and BASSH. Reid currently owns and operates Robot Lemon studios in Nashville, Tennessee.

We recently sat down with Reid and chatted for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about his modded SSL 4000, why he spray painted his acoustic guitar, how he uses effects pedals to process his drum mics and how a lot of recording advice is "fake news."  

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your space?
My room was built by this killer acoustical designer named Gary HeddenHe’s kind of under the radar. He’s been engineering, mastering and doing acoustical design for decades now and his rooms just sound incredible. I talked to a bunch of different designers and Gary was the only one who was like, “Let me come to where you’re working and listen to what kind of stuff you work on.”

He built a fantastic room. When I had my ATCs installed, these guys from England came over to put the speakers up and they told me they’ve been in $4,000,000 rooms that don’t sound as good as mine. Gary is incredible and he’s affordable!

When I was looking to finally build my own mix room after working in other studios for 10 or 15 years, I had some guys who were like “I’m not even going to look at it unless you’re spending at least $750,000.”

So I went with Gary and now I’ve got a really nice, big room that feels like a living room with lots of natural light. It’s got books on bookshelves used for absorption and diffraction. That was Richard Dodd’s idea (thanks Richard!!). He did something at Rick Rubin’s place that worked out really well so when we were designing the room we gave it a shot and it worked great.

It’s really open and airy and everybody loves it. That’s what I wanted. After years in dark caves, I wanted a space that just felt like a living room.

2. You’ve got a modded Solid State Logic 4000E in there too, right? Tell me more about that.
Yeah, it’s fairly modded. I haven’t gone super-crazy on it like Vance [Powell], but I’ve got some really fun stuff in there. There’s a mix of E & G modules. It’s got a really great-sounding compressor. I don’t know why this compressor sounds so good, you’d figure they were all the same, but this one is the favorite that I’ve ever found so that was lucky.

I’ve also got some really rare Maselec EQ cards in a couple of the slots. Maselec made some SSL retrofit cards for their mastering EQs that just pop into the channel strip which is awesome. It’s a great little 48-channel console.

3. You do it all — producing, songwriting, engineering, and mixing. What’s your favorite part of the process?
My favorite part is working with cool people. Sharing a space with really great people is the best part of the job. You’re tempted to say really talented people but it’s really just great people. Talent is important, but it’s not everything.

I love to work with people who know what they’re doing and trust you to do your job. I love working with people who put ego and blame aside and try to work at the top of their potential to make a record as good as it can be—that’s what I love.

4. What’s your philosophy on producing?
There are two kinds of producers. There’s the person who plays all the instruments, builds the track and brings the artist in to sing the vocal. Then there’s the person who sits down with the artist, figures out what they’re trying to do and surrounds them with the right people to make it happen.

I’m not the first kind. My favorite quote on producing is from Quincy Jones; “You’ve got to leave space for God to walk through the room.”

I like to set people up to succeed and step back. Don't be a slave to the demo. Stop telling amazing musicians what to play and just let the music happen and capture it. When I’m working with guys like Matt Chamberlain, I’m not going to tell him how to play drums, you know?

5. Do you have a favorite genre to work with?
Yeah, good music! I’m really lucky to get to jump around to a bunch of different genres. Today I might have a favorite, but that might change. It’s hard to say, you know?

I like good songs. I like working with good people and I like the challenge of mixing it up. Just this week I’ve done country, I did a rock mix for a band on Atlantic, and I just finished a thing for Disney Tokyo which was like 340 tracks. I actually love jumping around more than any one particular genre.

6. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
Just 10-12 hours of hard work. I like to get going early. I discovered a long time ago that staying up until 4 AM wasn’t the most efficient way to get stuff done. I can get more done between 8 AM and Noon than I can between Noon and 8 PM. So, I like to hit it hard early in the day. I never break for lunch or leave the studio. I like to get in and get into a flow state and just get stuff done.

7. What mics do you use most often?
I love old Neumann tube mics. My U67s and my U48s get a lot of work. I also really love old ribbon mics. I have a pair of RCA 44As that get used constantly. I have a bunch of BK-5s that I love on guitar.

I'm all about the newer sE mics too. They make a pretty affordable mic that I just love on kick drums. It’s called the sE X1 D so we just call it the "sex mic." I use that and an AKG D-30 on kick drum and it sounds like a million bucks. I like it better than a FET 47.

For acoustic instruments, I use Neumann KM54s a lot. I find myself gravitating towards older mics for a lot of this stuff. Although, I just got a pair of Upton 251s that have been killing it lately.

I use a lot of weird gear when I track. I’m only the guy who brings racks of gear and microphones to Blackbird.

8. What EQs do you reach for most often?
I love the Maag Audio EQsI love them on the mix bus and also on recordings. They don’t have any phase shift so they’re really open and clear. Their “air band” is magic on ribbon mics.

I tend to use a fair amount of Neve stuff too, both the vintage stuff and the newer Rupert Neve stuff, which sounds and feels the same to me as the old stuff. It’s got the same character.

I actually don’t use EQs much when I track. It’s usually just stuff like kick and snare, maybe a bass DI. It’s usually pretty minimal. I’ll use a Pultec on guitars every once in a while.

Sometimes on drums, I use an APSI graphic on the kick drum, or the snare, I’ll use a Quad Eight 444.

9. What about compressors?
I don’t use a ton of compression when tracking but when I do it’s usually an 1176, all different flavors for different instruments. I love LA-2As on bass. I love dbx 160s on kick and snare, just barely touching them.

I also dig The Brute 500 series compressor by Inward Connections. That thing is awesome. I did a record for an artist named Lucie Silvas where the whole vocal chain was an RCA 77-C, a Maag preamp with the Air Band EQ, and The Brute. It sounded amazing.

10. You’ve got a ton of “vintage and not-so-vintage outboard gear.” What are some of your favorite spatial effects boxes?
I have an EMT 140 tube plate and an AKG BX 20 spring reverb that I use quite a bit. I use the Cooper Time Cube on guitars all the time. That thing is so cool.

I use some weird stuff too. I have a Bedini BASE that I use a lot on vocals and an AM2 stereo simulator that I use a lot.

11. What’s the least expensive/quirkiest piece of gear you’ve ever used on a record?
When I’m tracking I always have the drums going through a guitar pedal. I like to use an Ampex Omni mic plugged directly into a distortion pedal or something for fun.

You know that old acoustic/electric guitar that John Lennon used to play, the Epiphone EJ160? I have a really cheap copy of that guitar with a really unique sound.

I found the guitar on Craigslist. It was being used as a prop. Someone had spray painted it black, including the strings. My buddy turned it into an art project, but we bring it to sessions because it has such a funky, thick tone. We call it the "Shittar" and we actually use it on a lot of records. Guitarists love it because it sounds so unique.

I also like to stick a cheap contact mic on a lot of weird stuff. We’ll put it on a drum or a mandolin and run it through a guitar amp or something like that. I'm always looking for something unique.

When you’re recording, I think it’s crucial to get interesting sounds that can inspire the players.

12. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
I cut this record with Little Big Town a couple years ago called Tornado. We had the drums in a relatively small drum booth but I wanted to put some character in them so I threw a 57 under the drum kit and plugged it directly into a tube combo amp next to the drum kit. I put an RCA 44A on it and piled like six layers of blankets on top so the 57 was picking up the drum sound and distorting the amp like crazy in the room, but the blankets kept it from bleeding into the drum mics so much that it became sloppy. It was just present enough for you to hear it, and it made for a really cool drum sound on the record.

13. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
I spend a lot of time hanging out with my kids. I’ve had a lot of friends in the music business that had terrible times with their families because they were working all the time, and I didn’t want to be that guy.

When I get a chance, I love riding motorcycles. I try to hop on motorcycles a few times a month with a couple of other muso friends, weather and time permitting.

I like to travel when I can. I drink whiskey. I read a lot.

14. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
Man, that’s a tough question… That’s like saying “what’s your favorite song?”

I come back to a couple books over and over, like The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, and The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. Those books keep coming up in my rotation.

15. What’s your favorite place to eat?
Any place that’s new and killer, and the cheaper the better! I love finding that killer new taco place or that awesome food truck or whatever.

Nashville is really coming up as far as food goes. There’s a lot of great food here now. When I first moved here it was a culinary wasteland.

To be honest, I eat breakfast at home, I eat lunch at the studio, and I try to eat dinner at home too, so I don’t go out to eat that often.

16. What’s one record you wish that you had worked on?
Thriller. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to work on that, right?

17. What new music have you been listening to lately?
Well, if I’m being honest, since I listen to music all day, every day, a lot of times I end up listening to NPR or podcasts in my free time.

My kids listen to a wide range of stuff so we always have something playing at the house, but I love the stuff that The War on Drugs is doing.

There’s an artist here in Nashville who’s doing stuff that’s not-very-country named Lucie Silvas. She’s an amazing natural singer and I love her stuff.

I love the new album that Kacey Musgraves did with Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian. Lera Lynn is doing really great stuff right now. That new R&B artist from Great Britain, Ella Mai is on tour with Bruno Mars right now, she’s doing really cool stuff too.

18. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
Probably confidence. We all second guess ourselves a lot, we all have imposter syndrome. After you do this for awhile, you get to the point where you can say “I know this is good.”

It may not be what the artist wants… Sometimes you zig and they want to zag, but at this point, I know what we’re doing is well done. I’m confident that we’re making good work, but then the challenge becomes finding what’s best for the song or the artist.

The best records I get to work on are with people who know what they want and can articulate that.

For instance, I just did a song where I went one direction and the band loved it but the label thought it was totally wrong and wanted to get someone else to mix it. Fortunately, the A&R guy stepped in and got some direction from the label, so I did a mix in a completely different direction and they loved it. We could have avoided that by talking about the direction beforehand.

The projects that have the most success are usually the ones where the artists are coming in with a strong vision of the end goal.

19. What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without?
My ears.

For recording, it’s probably a Neumann u67—you can do almost anything with that mic.

Or the 1176—that thing is so useful in every situation.

20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
That’s funny, I just had this conversation with a friend who’s 17-year-old kid wants to get into recording.

I told him you’ve got to bleed for it. You’ve got to be so dedicated to do this for a living — if you’re not, someone else will be. They’re going to work 16 hours a day in the studio, and work weekends. Your competition is going to crush it, so you’ve got to look at it like you’ve got no other options. Think like Cortez — burn the ships. Make this your only goal and don’t let anybody stop you. If you limp into this career like “Hey, that could be fun!” — forget it. You’re going to get murdered.

That’s great advice—anything else?
Yeah, I made a post on my Instagram the other day that says: “Pro Mix Tip: Don’t take any tips from anyone who isn’t a pro mixer.”

There are so many people out there who are putting information out there, which is great, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but these people are presenting themselves as if they know what they’re doing. Just look at their body of work, it’s always 23 indie artists that no one’s ever heard of, with no critical or commercial success. That doesn't make it bad work, necessarily, but it also doesn't make someone an expert — experts have paid their dues.

I want to learn from Andy Wallace. I want to learn from Spike Stent and CLA and Tony Maserati. That’s who I want to learn from. I don’t want to learn from Joe Blow who converted his mom's basement into a studio

My two cents — avoid Gearslutz. There’s good stuff on Gearslutz but there’s even more garbage from people who don’t know what they’re doing.

Just the other day someone asked a question about recording on social media and I left my opinion on the matter. Then somebody else jumped in and said:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You should go get some education on audio recording before you shoot your mouth off about something that you don’t know anything about.”

I just responded, “Google me.”

That attitude is out there. Buying a couple of pieces from Sweetwater and a laptop doesn’t make you an audio engineer. I’m not trying to rip on anybody here — I’m just saying be careful where you get your information from.

I suppose that applies to our society in general right now. Busters talking about recording on the internet is fake news!

Check out some of F. Reid Shippen's work in the studio by listening to tracks from Lucie Silvas, Little Big Town, Dierks Bentley and Kenny Chesney.

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