Producer/Songwriter Ricky Reed: L.A. Success Story

Taking an artist-friendly approach on collaborations with Meghan Trainor and more
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Hanging plants, fruit trees, and even a hammock festoon Ricky Reed’s studio compound in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, creating an oasis-like vibe for the artists who record there. The studio itself features a collection of hardware synths, a large-format console, vintage mics, and high-end monitors, among its plentiful gear. For Reed, one of the most in-demand pop music producers in L.A., this dream setup is light years beyond what he had just a few years ago when he first moved down from the Bay Area. Back then, his “studio” consisted of a backpack full of gear and a bicycle.

“My operation was fairly hokey,” he recalls. “I’d ride the bike or take the bus to different writing rooms and little production rooms and studios.” Eventually he scored a couple of high-profile gigs, producing songs for Cee-Lo and Far East Movement, but it wasn’t until he worked on the 2014 Jason Derulo hit “Talk Dirty”—a gig he says he got as a fluke—that things really started to pop. Now Reed is on everybody’s radar, thanks to his work for high-profile artists like Meghan Trainor, Twenty One Pilots, Pitbull, and Bomba Estéreo.

As testament to how far he’s come in a few years, Reed recently launched his own record label, Nice Life Recording Co., which he runs with an artist-friendly approach not usually found on the business side of the record industry. If that weren’t enough to do, Reed still fronts his own pop/hip-hop band, Wallpaper, which he started back in his college days.

How did you get into production? Did you study it at all?

No. When I was still in high school I started producing amateur local punk bands for a little cash on the side. I would come into the studio in the Bay Area, and would do these four-hour sessions and produce three or four songs for a band. I would record them, I’d have to edit all the drumming and clean up the performances. It was very, very tedious and intense, but it was sort of a crash course in engineering and production. So when I started making my own records, I would be at the helm, I would do long nights, stay up late and learn how to sample and how to use synthesizers and stuff like that.

How did you get started working in L.A.?

When I was still living in the Bay Area, I actually cold-called one of the representatives at BMI, who is now a dear friend of mine, Casey Robison. He was the guy that answered, and I said, “I want to write and produce for rappers and singers.” And he said, “Okay, send me 10 CDs of your band or whatever.” And I did that, and then just waited. About a month and a half later he said, “Somebody wants you to do a session. Can you fly down or rent a car and drive down?” I did, and that was what started it.

On most projects you do these days, are you producing the whole thing from start to finish? Do you ever get called in just for mixing?

I outsource my mixing when possible. I think I tend to get things to a pretty good-sounding place. A lot of what I do is trying to get a song to a place where a label is going to freak out about it and make it a priority, way before we even mix it. So I have to get things sounding pretty damn good. But I do most of my mixing with Manny Marroquin. We have an amazing workflow.

Did he work with you on Meghan Trainor’s “No”?

Yeah, he did. Manny mixed it.

I was really impressed with the mix of that. It was like so “in-your-face.” It didn’t have a lot of ambience, but yet it didn’t feel dry. Was that the idea for the mix?

Yeah, we just love impactful and concise [mixes]. We don’t use that many sounds but the sounds we do use [have to] matter and hit, and have their home. It doesn’t sound anything like a Quincy Jones production, but I still think of him a lot in terms of how the writing and arranging of parts means so much when you get to mix stage. Like the choices you make of sounds and how many sounds or how few sounds is going to directly impact the sonic takeaway at the end of it. I have to reproduce tracks every now and then for people—every now and then I have to bring a production in and people are like, “We’ve been adding and adding and adding and we can’t get the bass right. It’s not big enough.” And nine times out of ten I end up removing all the shit that they have going on down there. Taking the best sound. Cleaning it. Making sure the edit’s right. Taking the compression off of it. Get your sounds right, and you don’t have a lot left to do.

Right, it’s like a good arrangement almost mixes itself. Not exactly, but a lot more easily.

Can you use that quote and just say that I said it?

[Laughs] So how did you get the vocals on “No” to sound so up-front?

We recorded all her vocals—most of the songs, anyway, and definitely that one—on an old Telefunken U47 through a Neve 1070 and a [TubeTech] CL1B. A thing about Meghan, it’s performance, too—get right up on the mic, sing your ass off. I don’t remember if it was that song or not, but one of them, on the ad lib, we gave her a glass of wine or something beforehand so she could stay loose and be comfortable in the booth. Performance comes first, and if you get the performance right, it can be loud and mono and dry and sound f*cking great.

Do you tend to do a lot of comping on vocals after you record a singer, or do you try to get them to sing straight through and overdub as you go?

I do some amount of comping but it’s always about—and this is not new news—always about the feel, the excitement, the swagger. My thing is that you can get a singer to the point where they’re like happy, confident, and feeling themselves. And once you get to that place, you get three or four takes tops, and from there it will only devolve. When you know what the singer’s potential is, you hit that spot, get a couple, and then say, “Okay, great job.” Have them go out feeling good, feeling on top of it. I love to have singers go out on a good note as opposed to beating them into the ground for perfection and having them feel defeated. Let there be a little bit of magic, a little bit of looseness, and a little bit of rock ’n’ roll.

Do you think some producers overdo it with the comping, the tuning, and the rhythmic adjustments?

Yeah, totally. But I do also think the rhythmic pocket is so important. And that’s something that my ears are really sensitive to. Like when a vocalist is swinging in a different pocket than a percussion instrument or a hi-hat or something, it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me. That’s one thing I work really hard on when I’m cutting a singer, is getting the pocket right. A vocal that’s right in the pocket is the best-feeling thing. It makes a track dance more than any good bass line or anything else. That’s the key to dance music, I think.

Talk about your studio a little bit. What do you use for a DAW? Are you a Pro Tools guy?

Yes, I’m a Pro Tools guy.

Do you use a console or are you strictly in the box?

We have a Harrison 32C console, which we love. It allows us to have all of our keyboards firing at once. We have a bunch of those and we’ve done a couple of fairly complex miking setups—for our small studio—in the live room, where we have to run a good 8 to 10 channels at once. But it has a great sound and we also use the Harrison for—we’ll sort of blow it out with that clip-fuzz sound. That’s a great sound for blowing out direct-miked guitars and vocals and things like that.

So you’re using it when tracking rather than mixing, right?

Right. We don’t mix on it. But for production, we also do send sounds into it and use the EQ. It has incredible EQs. So we will sometimes send something into it to use for the low-pass or highpass.

What do you monitor on?

Barefoot Micromains.

Those are pretty high-end.

Yeah, they’re pretty expensive, but boy they sound amazing, and for their size they’re just explosive in volume. They scream, but gosh, they sound so good.

Do you use a sub with them?

I don’t. And that’s something I’ve been meaning to get around to. I think I would listen at lower volumes if I had a sub.

Talk about your synth collection. Is it mostly hardware?

Yes. As of now my synths are an old Memory Moog, I think it’s from 1981; a Korg Polysix; a Roland Juno 106; an Arp 2600, the crown jewel of the studio; a Sequential Circuits Prelude, which is great for layering; a Crumar Orchestrator, and an old Roland vocoder. And then we have the Steinway that was at Sound City for the last, whatever, 40-plus years. We have their Steinway, which brings all the magic, rock-and-roll history back to the studio.

What do you think is the biggest difference between playing a software synth with a good controller keyboard and playing an actual hardware synthesizer? Is it the sound, the feel, the knobs?

Well, I love tactile knobs and sliders. It always feels really good to me as far as customizing a sound. I think it’s also not being able to fly through presets—it feels a little bit more special and magical when you stumble onto something you love. And I think that soft synths can sound incredible and can definitely fool my ear. I would never say, “Wow, yeah, I can tell the analog from the soft synths any day!” But, I know the character of each one of my synths. I can go to them for a very specific thing, and I know it’s a sound that no one else will have. There just aren’t a lot of guys in this game that I’m playing—like in my lane—that are taking the time to make sounds on those kinds of instruments. I think that I can produce more unique recordings by using all my hardware.

Can you program sounds from scratch, or do you usually start from a certain point with a preset?

At this point I can definitely do it from scratch. In fact, on my Polysix, which I love, the presets are kind of busted and weird. So when I want something specific from that I’m like, “Okay, let’s see: square wave, poly, attack, decay, cutoff. I actually have to think of the sound and go through and build it. But it’s also just so much fun.

Do you also use a lot of software synths?

I do use software synths for some sounds that are just easier when you’re going for a certain thing to just pull out of [Lennar Digital] Sylenth or [reFX] Nexus. I like some of the tacky sounds you can get out of the Digidesign synths like Xpand. And I’m a big, big, big fan of [Native Instruments] Kontakt.

When it comes to processors and effects, are you using mostly plug-ins, or do you also have hardware units?

Yeah, we have a decent amount of stuff. That’s one part of our collection that we’re trying to build up. We have a tape machine that we run a lot of stuff through for saturation. And also some vintage guitar pedals for chorus and flange and stuff. We are trying to get our hands on an EMT-250 [plate reverb]. We want to get a little deeper on that. Software plug-ins were sort of what I used to teach myself to produce, so I have no problem using them. But I find myself being more creative and doing more strange and unique things when I use outboard stuff, and I commit. I like finding a sound, loving it, printing it, and moving on.

Let’s talk about your label [Nice Life Recording Co.]. You were quoted as saying that one of the things you wanted to do was treat people with respect. You talk about trying to undo the sexism in the business.

There’s a lot of things that people have talked about for years: lyrics in songs and misogyny. I think aside from that, there’s lots of behavior that goes on behind closed doors, not just between creatives, but also on the business side. I’ve seen people talk about other people in ways that they probably wouldn’t want quoted. I think that behavior permeates behind the scenes, even if it’s not exposed to the public. I think there’s a subconscious trickledown effect of the way that we treat each other, and treat women, inside the industry. We export culture around the world. I think that we need to make sure that the culture is right here at home.

Have you signed a lot of artists yet?

No, only a couple so far. Our main flagship artists so far are Imad Royal and Lizzo. We have some in process that I can’t speak about yet.

Is Nice Life Recording Co. associated with a major label?

Yeah, we have a joint venture deal with Atlantic Records, who we love. Yeah, I think that for us, a lot of it comes down to not just the music and the messaging in the music that we put out, but also like how we treat our artists and how we listen to them. We’re still small fry at this point, of course, but if one of our artists has like a problem, be it a personal problem or a business problem or a creative thing, there’s already a culture in this still small company of like, “Come, sit down, talk to us about it. Tell us how you feel. Tell us what we can do.” There’s no scoffing. There’s not like, “Oh, the artist is being crazy again.” We want to work things out, keep everything amicable and stay humble, too. I know that from being an artist. Man, you’re the artist, you have to put in so much work, and you feel vulnerable all the time and you feel exposed all the time. It’s emotional. There are high highs but there are very low lows. And I just think that as a label it’s really important to understand that’s what your artists are going through and appreciate and tell them that you appreciate their time and their work and the heart they’re putting into this.