You don’t get many jobs as enviable as Ryan Carline’s. Quite apart from his extensive resume engineering and producing for household names including most recently Paloma Faith, Rita Ora, Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lopez he’s spent the last 15 years as Gary Barlow’s main go-to man; engineering and producing across Take That’s global hits. But he certainly had to earn his stripes first, sacrificing his own bed as a teenager to make way for a keyboard and putting in the hours at the very bottom of the ladder. We talk about his journey to where he is today, his use of reverb to massive effect, and making the odd cup of tea along the way.
An Apprenticeship Earned The Hard Way
Carline takes us way back to the beginning. “I was always just playing music in the bedroom at my Mum and Dad's, growing up. I had keyboards set up everywhere. It got to the point where I had to get rid of the bed and get a futon because there wasn't enough space for any more gear. When I got back from school, it was all I was doing, listening to songs I liked - new and old - playing keys and working out how they made these records, and it all came from that really”. He experimented with synths, played in bands and wrote with his sister - who eventually got signed - as well as holding down jobs in McDonald’s and the Royal Mail to finance his hobby.
At 13 or 14 just as Carline was getting into Pro Tools, a friend put him in touch with award-winning writer and producer Eliot Kennedy. “I was a big fan so it was a dream for me; I ended up chatting to him on AOL Messenger which we had at the time, we'd only just got the Internet. My AOL screen name, which I'd just chosen at random, was Ryan Digidesign of all things. That caught Eliot’s eye, I think he thought I worked for Digi, so off the back of that I ended up going to his house and buying a couple of synths from him that he'd used on his hit songs. They still had the patches saved that he’d made himself and used on records which was great!”
Eliot had been friends with Gary Barlow since they wrote one of Take That's biggest hits of the ‘90s – ‘Everything Changes’ - and had just started the production company True North together. Eliot made Carline an offer that changed his life: "It was just being a runner at the studio basically, making drinks, sending out tracks to record companies and organising the sample libraries, stuff like that, but then Eliot went on holiday and I was left just with Gary at the studio. He liked some of the stuff I'd done on my own at home, and wanted to give me a shot at programming up some tracks on a Donny Osmond covers album. I spent a couple of months doing that which was great fun. I shadowed some great engineers at the studio too, assisting them and learning how they all work differently. I started getting more and more engineering work as well as the programming. I did some freelancing around London for a bit and when Take That got back together, I moved down permanently and started working full-time with the guys.”
Not a bad rise, from runner to chief engineer. Carline insists it was tough along the way, lending his hand to anything and everything, and having to do it all well, but he relished every moment. “I was making the drinks, then I was programming, doing recalls, answering the phone, bits of everything really. I had to be on hand at all times to do whatever was needed to keep the studio running smoothly and I loved it. Even the tea and coffee making took some time to perfect - a producer once spat my coffee out when it wasn't right! You end up being good at doing it because you're doing it every day, trying your best to keep your job because there’s always people who want to take your job when you’re at the bottom of the ladder, working your way up. You need to be on the ball at all times.”
Fifteen years on, Carline is Barlow’s right-hand man, an invaluable resource upon whom he depends as his trusted engineer. “Gary’s a hard worker and he’s very hands on with Logic, he’s always working on new songs, he writes every day. What he'll do is then send me a track he's got going and if needed, I’ll add some keys and get other players in to replace guide parts that he's done with real drums, bass, guitars and BV’s - whatever the track needs. The records get made really quickly because his demos are so good. He just leaves me to it to take it the next level, towards the finished record most of the time.” It sounds like an instinctive collaboration, Barlow drawing the outline and Carline colouring it in. “I know how he likes to work and what sounds he likes, I suppose it's just years of working together that's made it happen like this.”
Exponential Comes Into Its Own
To a man who sacrificed his own bed to make way for a keyboard, gear has clearly always been an important part of his workflow. His studio is an engineer’s dream, with entire racks of effects and reverb units, almost a ‘who’s who of reverb’. But he has his favourites amongst them: “There's always been a Lexicon 480 at the studio, which I've used since the start, and a PCM 70. I used to use Space Designer in Logic, then got into Altiverb for convolution. I then started to realise how much I missed algorithmic reverb and being able to tailor it to the mix, so I went back to the 480. It just sits nicely in the mix and glues things together, which I wasn't getting from convolution reverb. We bought a Bricasti M7 when they came out, but it broke down. While it was out for repair, I thought "I'll check out those Exponential reverbs". They sounded just like the hardware to me when I checked it out. That's why I liked them, it just seemed to have a lot of depth and it was quick to find or create a patch that worked.”
As a jobbing engineer, Carline has to get things done quickly, with no time for hours of experimenting. As for many of us, this is where Exponential comes into its own for him: “Most of the time, I just need to adjust the pre-delay and the decay time and that's it, it just sits in the mix beautifully.”
He recalls one particular project calling for surround mixes that brought him straight to Exponential: “Gary’s solo tour DVD…it was one of the first surround mixes I'd ever done. I used the [Exponential reverbs] in the stereo and 5.1 mixes and they worked really well.” “Before I tried the Exponential reverbs, I was just sending a stereo reverb to the rear speakers, but when it got to the more intimate piano and vocal sections of the show, it sounded so much more realistic using a dedicated 5.1 instance. You've got nothing to hide behind, it's just the voice, piano and the reverb so it's such a huge part of the sound.”
Carline wanted to give the audience a real sense of what it had been like to actually be at the live gig. “I was stood at front of house for many of the shows and I was trying to recapture that for the more intimate songs, looking up at B Stage while Gary’s singing at the piano, and it just sounded like that. If you close your eyes sitting between the speakers, it sounds like you were there in the middle of the arena.” “I loaded up a Phoenix verb, set it to a large hall and just tweaked the tail until it felt right with the picture. There are presets called "Back Hall" and one of those fed the rear speakers for the whole show. It sounded like the reverb was hitting the back wall of the venue and coming back to you, which is what you’re hearing when you’re there.”
His enthusiasm for Exponential continues: “I've got a nice template set up for surround mixing in Pro Tools now. I've got quite a few settings that already work for me and I like to use again. I'm about the start the Take That DVD which is being recorded at the O2 this Friday, and they’re an integral part of my mixing template now, these Exponential verbs. I’ll start by importing the live multitrack into my template and I’m off.”
One wonders why he couldn’t dial up an impulse response of the O2 instead… are the algorithmic reverbs more realistic? “Well I use a combination to be honest” he admits, “I usually try and capture an impulse response at the venue, like one I got of the Manchester Arena on Gary’s DVD. I'll use that as a sort of a general picture of the arena, then I'll use the algorithmic reverbs to give the instruments a tailored space so they all sit together nicely without sounding isolated. Being able to quickly adjust the early reflections, and the chorusing and modulation is so useful, and you just can’t get that with convolution…I find the combination of the two work really well, I just couldn't do without the algorithmic reverbs.”
Looking ‘Back For Good’ Down The Ladder
From capturing the sound of a venue the size of the O2 for a band as famous as Take That, we return to the 15-year-old Carline experimenting in his bedroom. What advice would his successful adult self send back to the teenager and others starting out in the industry? “I have to say first and foremost, focus on the musical parts - what it is that you like about what you’re hearing and train your ears. Listen to lots of music, new and old, get yourself a good set of speakers and get to know them well. Rather than getting too carried away with gear, try to limit your options; use free time to have fun learning what gear you have really well. That goes for plug-ins too, have a template and some presets so there's no messing about before a session. You need to be able to just rock up and hit record or play, depending what you're doing and be start making music. Having prepared sessions and good workflows means you’re using the creative part of your brain rather than the technical, that way you’re able to get the ideas out fast, and that always leads to the best results”
Combining the technical and creative has certainly worked for Carline. Seamless collaborations on some of the biggest selling records in British music chart history, an innate skill at manipulating software and a justifiable pride in the effects he produces make him a fascinating guy and a true role model for those on the bottom rung striving for that perfect cup of coffee.