Kevin Ratterman is a musician and engineer living in Louisville, Kentucky. He plays drums in the psychedelic rock trio Wax Fang, and was a member of the well-loved punk band Elliott. For the last decade he's been recording bands and currently runs The Funeral Home studio. In keeping with Louisville's morbid charm the studio really does occupy the top two floors of a working funeral home. Ratterman recently worked with the bands Coliseum, Parlour and California Guitar Trio, and co-engineered the forthcoming My Morning Jacket album Circuital (with producers Tucker Martine and Jim James). He recorded the new album In And Out Of Youth And Lightness by Young Widows and is currently mixing a project with Joan Shelley (produced by Daniel Martin Moore). Ratterman doesn't have many days off, but he generously shared his time to talk about his working process. We were joined by Evan Patterson from Young Widows.
How many albums have you worked on in 2011?
It's April 12th and so far, 15.
What bands are you working with in the next few months?
Mostly it's amazing Louisville projects — Another 7 Astronauts, Cheyenne Mize, Liberation Prophecy, Sandpaper Dolls, Seluah.
Can we talk gear for a little while? When did you install the new mixing console?
I installed the Trident in October of 2009. Before the TSM I had a DDA DRM12 — which I sold to another great local studio.
You've been using a combination of digital and analog formats for a while now — can you describe your process?
I usually track everything live — straight to the 2" machine. I try to get the sound as good as I humanly can so the live tracks are all usable. I'm happy to overdub and replace all day long — but I resonate the most with the live takes. The analog tracks are transferred into Pro Tools at 96k at 24 bit — which seems to capture the recorded tape magic pretty well. I have 32 analog outputs from Pro Tools flying back to the Trident console to mix.
What about final mixes?
Mixes are printed to the 1/4" machine with the repro heads on. I capture the final stereo mix back into Pro Tools through the Burl B2 — an awesome 2 channel converter [Tape Op #79]. Sometimes I go from the Trident (using the B2) straight to a digital file. If a song is really complex I'll mix it in sections and assemble it later in Wavelab.
You just installed a new digital master clock and found that it greatly improved the quality of sound. This seems to be a slightly controversial issue.
Controversial to say the least! I try to not get caught up in all that — I'm just curious about how things sound. I reluctantly allowed my pro audio dealer to send me the Antelope Trinity clock [Tape Op #68] and the difference was absolutely awesome. The sound was immediately better — but I wish it wasn't! I would have rather bought an EMT 140 and a BX20 [Vintage plate and spring reverbs].
What are the main changes you noticed?
A solid amount of new clarity opened up in the lows and mids — which is where my heart lives. I really do feel like I can pop my head inside the mix — it's more three-dimensional. Maybe I'm a sucker though?
You've become very proficient in the PC audio platform Nuendo/Cubase. What led you to switch to Pro Tools recently?
I changed after a lot of long conversations with folks I respect. I have no allegiances except to the almighty music gods! [laughter] With the way records are being made these days (partly in studio, partly at home) having Pro Tools makes the process run smoother. I still have the Nuendo system so I can work on whatever comes my way — I have tons of love for the diehards out there and their chosen platforms. Go for it! Do what makes you feel good! Pro Tools is more aesthetically pleasing to sit in front of all day, but I miss the MIDI in Nuendo quite a bit. Pro Tools MIDI has a lot to learn from Steinberg!
When did you start using the 2" tape machine as the master multitrack?
The 2" gets lots of love. What it does to cymbals and transients is a wonder. I've used tape on every session since I installed the Studer three years ago. Before that, I had an MCI that was beautiful sounding — but it was not dependable enough (especially without a proper studio tech here in Louisville).
Do the bands you work with appreciate why you're adding the analog step in the process?
I definitely think so. When you go to any studio and see people really caring about the end result — not just trying to get your business and move on to the next thing — I think bands appreciate that. I think it gets everyone excited — just physically seeing this giant — heavy — tape spinning. It adds a wonderful nostalgia that you simply can't get watching the light on a hard drive blink! That may sound trivial but it gets me every time.
But are you still friends with digital?
Really, I don't think we're too far from absolutely amazing sounding digital recording. I couldn't be more excited about the next ten years. The last Portishead album [Third] sounds phenomenal — that was all digital.
"I'm an optimist at heart. I want to embrace new technology and use it for a greater good. Most of the time I find fighting it is just ideological non-action."
How often do bands take the session files and work on them at home? Is that becoming common practice — making USB copies and burning data discs?
It's certainly more common — and it's totally awesome. The idea excites me, though I do have concern for its obvious downsides. Lets face it — we're all struggling and its harder and harder to make any money selling recorded music. Recording budgets are at a minimum. But I certainly have no interest in trying to rush a three week recording project into 10 days. If it makes sense to come in and cut basics — then have the artist take it home and light it on fire and dance around it — I'm totally down! Do what needs to be done, then bring it back to do the final mix. It's a way to give the artist more control.
Does it ever compromise the audio quality?
Fortunately, most of the folks I work with are quite competent as engineers and know what sounds good. I'm always happy to lend out mics and preamps if they need them. Nine times out of ten it works out great.
How often do you work with a mastering engineer?
I've been working a lot lately with Shelley Anderson (at Georgetown Masters in Nashville). Her dedication to making the end result perfect for the client is unmatched. And — she is t-h-o-r-o-u-g-h! She knows what I like — and she tells me when I'm crazy!
Just curious, when you have long sessions — how do you protect your ears?
The sweet sounds of NPR! Unfortunately, I'm not very good at maintaining my ears and need to get better. Any advice is great appreciated. I love listening to music and I love listening to it loud — and I'm a drummer in a loud rock band! I'm doomed. I think about it often, though. I mix at a very moderate volume — only because I know it will make a better end result.
There can be a lot of doom and gloom about new technology — concerns about people choosing low resolution formats like MP3 and the myriad of piracy issues. What new tech developments are you excited about?
Well, I'm an optimist at heart. I want to embrace new technology and use it for a greater good. Most of the time I find fighting it is just ideological non-action. We have an obligation to be responsible and positive if we can. Creativity can always transcend any sort of tool. What concerns me the most is being responsible — considering how technology affects us communally and environmentally. Do I want my things made with slave labor — something carted irresponsibly all over the planet before it reaches my doorstep? Certainly not. Embrace what you can — have fun with it. I actually can't wait to get an iPad and make some new sounds.
"When I was starting out — I thought there was so much I didn't know. Now I've realized that it's much simpler than that. Everything is as simple as, 'Does this sound good or not? Is it too hard? Is it too soft? Too bright? Too muddy? Is it exciting enough?'"
After working on so many different projects, do you feel like your process has changed?
K: Definitely. The technology has forced me to learn more ways of operating. The dangerous thing about now — you can record it all live or you can sample every quarter note and assemble it. It's important to be prepared — so you're not sitting there reading the manual!
E: That's the great thing about recording with you. You're comfortable with different ways of working.
People can become set in their ways?
E: Yeah, they can. I've recorded with people that have a very minimal approach to recording or they are super high-tech. There's not a whole lot in-between.
All of the Young Widows records have been recorded by musicians. Chris Owens [from the band Lords], Kurt Ballou [of Converge, Tape Op #76] and Kevin are all touring musicians — and engineers.
E: Yeah, being a musician lead to the desire to engineer their own records.
K: That's one thing about tour — you get sadistically addicted to the suffering [laughter] — the blood-letting that goes on! After that, when you make records with people, you're able to get in the trenches with them. It's not a big deal to work fifteen hour days.
E: Sitting around some venue for seven or eight hours can be very similar to sitting around the studio!
K: But there's also the excitement of being in a band. When things are brewing — when you're in the middle of creating something. It's such a rewarding, exciting feeling.
There are amazing records that were made in three days and amazing records that took two years. Is it hard to say "that's it" — to take your hands off the mix?
E: But having too much freedom — artistically — can be disastrous.
K: Especially in the time we live in — where everything is a possibility — when you can do anything. You have to set limitations.
When you no longer have track limits and all that?
K: You don't have to set limitations but it's interesting creatively to do so. If you're a live band making a record — you may decide to go into the studio and capture that live sound. You may decide that you want to run into the studio with nothing — that you're going to sample everything and assemble it — that's awesome too. But if you're a live band and you go into the studio and you start working — and then you say "actually let's do a studio album" — that's when you get off track. That's when the messy shit happens. I think it's a matter of staying on point with your creative process.
E: It is.
Do you think it's hard for bands that tour a lot, that have their own internal balance — to involve a new creative person? Suddenly the engineer is making song decisions.
K: As an engineer, you really do have to become a member of the band — but it's hard. I think it's an important thing to truly put your ego aside. I want my vision to be based on your vision. I want to somehow — just be your computer! If you want the record to sound like...
K: Yeah! [laughter] Exactly!
Is that why the first song ["Young Rivers"] on the new Young Widows record sounds so skeletal and crisp? It's because of Rumours?
E: Yeah! We referenced Fleetwood Mac a couple times. We wanted it to be shimmering. [laughter]
Kevin, has your ability to interpret what the band is asking for improved?
K: With anything — with painting or washing your car — you hope that the more you do it the better you get.
E: You know, the first time I recorded with Kevin I was 15.
Was it with National Acrobat? [A ferocious band from the 90s featuring Evan and his brother Ryan Patterson from the band Coliseum]
E: Yes. Recorded at the Clay Street warehouse.
K: I feel like I'm better now, but I'm still learning. I still have to grow. If a band said, "I want it to sound like this" ten years ago — I'd say, "I get what you're saying but I don't know how to get there!"
E: But now you know where to start.
K: Yes, so we don't waste time. So we don't spend three hours just trying to get a guitar sound.
Was your approach completely different in 1998?
K: I think my approach is still the same. When I was starting out — I thought there was so much I didn't know. Now I've realized that it's much simpler than that. Everything is as simple as, "Does this sound good or not? Is it too hard? Is it too soft? Too bright? Too muddy? Is it exciting enough?" Making those immediate decisions. Before — everything was, "I just don't understand this yet."
E: You were just struggling to find out.
K: Everything was a big question mark. All these things about EQ that you just don't know yet. Thinking your ears aren't trained enough or you just don't have the right equipment. I think my approach has become more direct. There's less thinking about things technically — more using my gut.
Have you found yourself in the position — either of you — where you had a strong difference of opinion with someone about recording?
K: Oh, absolutely.
Did you guys just roll with it?
E: Sometimes you can have a massive issue over a simple idea — just wanting to do an overdub — or changing the tone of a song.
K: That's the worst thing you can do to someone. I think everything needs to be heard.
E: Why not just try it and see?
K: I really learned that lesson from Jim James [of My Morning Jacket]. He can have a total vision of what he wants a song to sound like — but if someone comes in and says, "I've got an idea" — he'll spend hours on it. Then the band will decide if it was better the other way or not — and move on and have no problem with the time spent. Sometimes it's great and sometimes it's not — but it makes everyone in the room feel like they're part of what's going on. That's the most important thing.
You often work on two records in the same day, pulling a full day shift then starting again.
E: I find that so interesting — that Kevin can move so quickly between projects and still have such a fresh and different approach to each recording.
K: You know why, honestly? This is the best fucking job in the world! [laughter] I mean, what is there to complain about? "I've got to go get some killer guitar tones and play with a drum machine?" What is there not to like?
It can be a grind, though — for anybody doing technical work.
K: Sure, it's stressful.
People talk of the "Louisville Sound" — which they associate with a fairly small number of bands. The biggest strength of this city for me is that there's so much totally different music happening. And people really support each other.
K: The thing that's been so awesome about Louisville is that you're encouraged to do what's natural. You get positive reinforcement to make something honest — not just cool.
E: It's interesting in Louisville. Our influences — our history, all comes from a similar place — whether you're playing folk music or heavy rock — or even more mainstream stuff. We all come back to the same point — ten of fifteen years ago — when we were all going to the same shows — long before we totally focused on a certain style. As adults we're all doing our own thing, but it all spawned from the same place — I think that's beautiful, man.
K: Sometimes I get worried that we grew up in this special time for Louisville music that kind of blessed us (and it's gone). There were so many venues and shows and bands — it really pushed all of us in this direction. But I've been recording a lot of younger bands lately — people in their early 20s doing the same thing — but without the structure that we had — and that is really cool.
I wanted to bring up the notion of documenting Louisville's history. Some cities have amazing archives of their music scene because of a local engineer or studio. There are engineers like Don Zientara, Jay Robbins, Bob Weston, Steve Albini and Christina Files — people that capture a certain city's identity — and I think you've done that here. You've worked on well over a hundred records by now. You've enabled projects that may not of happened otherwise.
K: I'm so honored to hear you say that. It's been a very specific goal of mine for the past ten years. I wanted to create a place in Louisville where people could afford to make records — where people could come in and feel comfortable and it didn't have a sterile studio vibe. I want to make records that don't just sound decent, but sound killer. [laughter] Records that can stand up to everything else that's out there — and I'm still getting there, for sure. My goal has always been to elevate what's going on here. I love this city — and this city has done so much for me.