Life in Music inspired by Joe Henry

vrijdag 3 februari 2017

Ryan Freeland shines his light !

March 2016, Joe Henry and Billy Bragg boarded the train from Chicago to L.A. and recorded the album, “shine a light, Field recordings from the great American railroad”. They brought us wonderful versions of this true Musical Heritage. But they were not alone on the train. Amongst them, for example, was also Ryan Freeland who recorded the music. You can see him sitting somewhere in the back in the videoclips that were made to promote the album. Ryan is Joe’s longtime collaborator in the recording studio. Without Ryan Freeland, even more so for this album, we would not be able to hear these recordings the way we can hear them today at home. I asked him, if he would like to bring us his story from that trainride, and he generously accepted...


I was thrilled to be asked to work with Billy Bragg again and, as always, honored to work with my friend Joe Henry.
It was also an interesting challenge to think of a way to bring my love of recording onto a train. I needed to find a way to capture the feel of the train stations, platforms, and compartments while keeping the performances sonically engaging. 

Making a record on a train is completely different than doing it in a studio. They asked Ryan over a month in advance. So now he could start and figure out a way to do it…. 

When I was in high school at Interlochen Arts Academy I recorded a lot of the musician’s college audition tapes. Back then I had a Yamaha cassette four track which I purchased with the help of my folks and money I made from mowing lawns.
I also have always been fascinated with the Lomax field recordings and the fact that he had figured out a way to get a rig that fitted in a car and ran off the car battery. So I was familiar with those recordings and techniques and was intrigued by the idea of doing my modern twist on the idea of field recording. 

The whole rig needed to fit into a case that conformed to airline checked baggage limitations. I had a second case the same size with the custom Latch Lake mic stand they built for me, as well as some cables. That bag was tricky trying to stay under the 50-pound airline weight restrictions. 

I had traveled to New Orleans with a much bigger rig for recording at Alan Toussaint’s house about a year before he died. That rig was very heavy and resulted in about $250 of extra airline checked baggage fees. After that experience I swore I’d try and do my best to keep things within the airline restrictions.
So I tried to keep everything as simple and streamlined as possible so I could get to the spot and be up and running in just over a minute. You can’t believe how long that minute seemed when everyone is looking at you and waiting for you to indicate that you were recording. A simpler rig would have made things much easier on me but I really had this 4 mic idea and wanted to see if I could pull it off given all the space and time restraints. It was a really interesting set of variables and I was really happy with how it turned out.

Now, the hardest part was figuring out how to record 4 phantom powered ribbon microphones on a laptop all completely powered from batteries. I had recently watched some YouTube clips on the AEA Nuvo series mics and was very impressed. I immediately thought they would be perfect for this project because of their natural musical soundscape, their robustness, and their solid windscreens.
I did a lot of experimenting because of all of the variables and the intense time constraints once we jumped off the train to start recording before they called “all aboard”. Days before we started the trip I went over to Joe’s house with the whole rig and did some test recording... I tested everything at my studio,... at the hotel room the morning we were heading out on the train... And even with all of that : There were problems as soon I tried firing the rig up for the first time once I set it up in the first train station. I had just tested it 30 minutes before !!
I finally got it working but my stress level was an all time high. And then I looked at that beautiful building and heard Billy & Joe singing in my headphones on that first day at Union Station in Chicago. Looking back now, it’s my most wonderful memory from that trip.

videoclip 'Hobo's Lullaby'
 This was a great project to be part of. The most important thing for me was the feeling of comradery I experienced. There’s nothing like being a part of something great and being allowed and trusted to bring the best of yourself to the group.

And so the journey began, … Was it pure concentration and focus, or was he able to enjoy everything he was experiencing ?

There were plenty of times I would look around at the beautiful places we were, listening to two amazing musicians singing great songs and thinking about how lucky I was. 
We could all only listen on headphones one at a time. This made it such a personal and intimate experience. Anytime I looked over to Joe or Billy when they were listening to playbacks back on the train, they would always give me a thumbs up so I knew they were happy.
But most of the time I lived in shear terror that the recording equipment would fail or that the train would leave before I could get my mics packed and back aboard. At one point I almost got run over by a luggage cart, which is not something that usually happens on recording sessions.

You know, The thing that made me most aware of how special it was? It was when we got off the train in Austin at the end of the first leg of the trip. We had been this insular group of people living, sleeping, eating, and recording in this very unique way. Once we got off the train, knowing that we would not be getting back on until the next leg started, it was a very odd experience.
I remember being out to dinner that night with a bunch of other people and feeling weird. Once we got back on the train with just us I felt good again. I wasn’t ready to go back to the world outside of the train. I knew then, that it would be a life changing experience. I was doing something I really cared about with people I really cared about.

Promovideo 'shine a light'

Billy and Joe are both monster songwriters and encyclopedias of music over the decades. They live and breath that stuff every day, I live and breath microphones and compressors.

It is indeed a very special project. I stopped calling it the album or tour, because I felt it had grown to something more important. I went to see Billy and Joe’s show in Portsmouth where that became clear to me. I wondered if Ryan felt the same way, if the scale of it all was already in the air during the recordings. Where they aware of the power of these songs ?

I agree. Music has a lot of power! Joe and Billy are great spokespeople for what’s good and what’s bad about their respective countries. Music can be a very effective way to communicate thoughts and ideas. And a great song can change and affect people as much as any other work of art.
But when it comes to projects I work on : I live in a bit of bubble. As an engineer you aren’t usually aware of how the records affect people. Every once in a while, someone will send me a nice note about how much they like something I’ve worked on. But most of the time these albums just get sent out into the world and I’m not very aware of how important (if at all) they are to people.
I will say that I had a powerful experience being part of this album and that’s really the most important thing for me.

Let me assure you Ryan : don’t underestimate the influence of your work. You’re way up there for me, and I think many others also.
Already thank you for this, now a last quick one : studio or fieldrecordings ?

I’ve made recordings I’m really happy with in all sorts of places. 
Aimee Mann’s album 'Lost in Space' was made mostly in my one-bedroom apartment. Ray LaMontagne’s album 'God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise' was made in Ray’s living room. Almost everything I’ve done with Joe Henry over the last decade was done in his basement or versions of my home studio. 
I don’t think the physical space has as much to do with the recording as the people who make the album. It’s really the specific group of individuals coming together to put their passion, heart, and soul into something that really matters to them.
I just love recording. Wherever or however it needs to happen. I would never want to limit myself by thinking there’s a right and a wrong way to record.

(1) :For more technical info on Ryan's set up visit :  mixonline

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