Interviews

From Canada to Church Studios - Riley MacIntyre (Glass Animals, The Horros)

If you grew up in Canada working on a fruit farm, ending up engineering for Paul Epworth at The Church Studios in London might seem like worlds apart. However, for Riley MacIntyre, this was his incredible journey. 

Fast forward to today, Riley has won the Pro Sound Award Rising Star and get's to work on all the amazing records that Paul produces at Church Studios. Riley was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions and his answers were really interesting and helpful. 

So, without futher ado, here is Riley MacIntyre:  

1. You grew up and started your music career in Canada, what made you take the decision to move over to England?

My move to London actually didn't have anything to do with music initially. I started coming out London pretty frequently to be with my girlfriend at the time, who was studying here. When I finally made the move over I had started studying philosophy and I was going to work on that here for a couple years and then go back and finish in Canada. I brought just enough gear with me to be able to make music in my bedroom or start a band. There aren't any recording studios where I'm from in Canada and I'd never really been in a real one, so in the meantime, I decided to start reaching out to see if I could get in on a work experience placement or something just to see what it was like.

Riley and the 72 Channel EMI Neve. Photo: Kalina Pulit

2. How was the beginning of moving to England and eventually ending up at Church Studios?

It was kinda stressful, to be honest. I'm definitely not a city person and I had moved over here pretty begrudgingly. Before I moved I was living in a small cabin on a fruit farm where I was working, pretty far away from anything, and nowhere near a big city. I moved out of that and into a communal house-share in Tottenham with eleven other people. It was a major shock, and everything about London absolutely terrified me.

By the time I ended up at the Church I'd been here a while. I'd joined a band and done some work experience at post-production studios, and had kind of resigned myself to the idea that music studios were pretty much impenetrable, and must be far beyond the reach of small-town Canadians. 

Eventually, though, I did end up getting a work experience placement though Miloco Studios, who sent me to the Church. They had only just got the studio up and running before having a session in for a couple of months, and it was still under construction so there was a ton of work that needed to be done. That was a lucky break for me really because I had no idea what to do in a recording studio but I knew how to lift and clean stuff and there was so much basic manual labour that needed to be done, I just got stuck in. I haven't left the Church since. 

3. Do you have any specific routines on how you like to get your sessions started so they can run as smooth as possible?

Ya for sure. Our typical workflow on the engineering side of things was mostly developed and refined by Paul's longtime engineer, Matt Wiggins. Matt taught me pretty much everything I know, and my setups for Paul are based on what I've learned from watching him.

We have a sort of go-to set up for Paul which allows for most things we think he might want to do. We always try to keep a couple of extra inputs free for on the fly stuff that I can't anticipate as well. When he's writing or the project doesn't have a defined aesthetic or genre, we'll generally just go over the top with everything. By that I mean lots of different mic options on the drums, a couple different guitar amps set up that can easily be switched between, each with a couple mics, a nice bass DI chain and two really different sounding mic options on the amp, etc. We'll also try to have some floating mics for setting things up on the fly. Usually, I'll have something crunchy, or with more character kicking around, and maybe an 87 or something more standard and with switchable polar patterns.

When I'm working with a producer or artist I'm not familiar with, obviously, I first make sure I have everything they've asked for exactly as they've asked. After that I'll try to anticipate changes or additions I think they might want to make based on my experience in that particular studio, with similar sessions, or things I've been told by others engineers about the way they work. I do a thing where I try to visualise the session and all the things that are happening or might happen, and sort of try to trace all the lines in my mind and make sure everything I can think of is accommodated for. Sometimes this works... Incidentally, I do the same thing when I'm grocery shopping for a meal, and I always forget something...

4. Do you have any techniques on how to deal with stressful sessions?

I'm a pretty anxious person by nature, so I'm probably not the best person to ask. I'd say that for me it's been less about any particular techniques, and more a matter of getting used to it. It's been a slow process of learning how to remain calm under pressure, and I still need to improve a lot. Matt always told me, and I do try to remind myself that in the end, it's always better for everyone if I stay calm and do things at a pace I'm comfortable with, rather than rushing or panicking to try to keep up or fix something, and inevitably making mistakes. I've found when producers or artists push or become aggressive, its usually because they're excited or under pressure themselves, and not because they're upset with you, so it's always better to stay calm and help them bring their idea to fruition properly. Otherwise, you might balls it up and they'll actually be angry when you have to do it again.  

5. How do you deal with the control room being situated in the live room? Does it create a lot of problems or does the ease of communication with the artist overshadow those problems?

I wouldn't say it causes any problems, but some might view it as an inherent problem. It's certainly not ideal for recording drums because you can't properly hear the mics in the cans over the sound of the drums in the room. Equally, it's a challenge for very quiet things because you have to compete with the ambient noise of people and gear in the room. It's definitely pretty scary for doing any critical recording, like strings or a choir for example because you can't really hear anything properly. 

Once you've accepted the nature of the studio though, I don't see it as being problematic, just different. I'm probably biased, and I'm also very used to it, but I love the feeling of everyone being in the same room. I definitely think the benefits outweigh the challenges, at least for Paul's workflow and the types of sessions we generally have in here. 

6. I know you have seen a lot of aspiring engineers coming through Church Studios, what is the one thing you see them missing? Not in terms of technical skills but as in “getting the job”?

I'm pretty reluctant to speculate on this, as there are so many ways people get into engineering and music production. I think so much of it is about fitting into a particular situation and a particular time, and that often comes down to personalities more than anything else. So I guess it's about always doing your best to try to read the vibe and be useful in whatever way makes sense based on what's happening at the time. This can be really difficult, but the people who do it well tend to stand out. 

7. Have your knowledge of being in bands and being a musician helped you in sessions?

Definitely. It's hard to pin down in exactly which ways, but I feel like I draw on that experience and knowledge all the time. I guess it helps to be sympathetic to the creative process and to have some experience with the dynamics of creative relationships. I think it also helps with being able to communicate and understand things more quickly, which can increase transparency in the process. 

Riley MacIntyre. Photo: Kalina Pulit 

8. What would you say has been your biggest learning curve working in studios?

Working with people and learning to deal with the interpersonal aspects of working in studios will always be the biggest challenge. Before working in studios I worked with trees, so a client facing role was a big shift. Personalities and relationship dynamics are ever changing, and being aware and constantly gauging the vibe is always so important, and so difficult. Some people have a natural talent for this, but I think a lot can be learned from experience as well. 

9. Do you have any skills, technical or non-technical, you are currently working on to improve?

Right now I'm working really hard on developing my skills in electronic production and programming. I'm late to the party with this stuff, having spent so many years playing in and recording bands. I'm spending all my free time these days working in Ableton and messing around with synths. 

10. What do your responsibilities as Paul’s engineer at Church entail? Was it as you thought it was going to be?

Well, Paul initially hired me as a runner at the Church, and I never imagined I'd end up engineering sessions for him. At the time Matt was doing almost all of his sessions and Joeseph Hartwell-Jones (his assistant at the time), was filling in on anything else. I obviously wanted to be an engineer but I didn't know how it would all shake out, so I just kept going with the flow and trying to learn as much as I could. 

By the time I started engineering some sessions for Paul I had been assisting Matt long enough that I kind of knew what to expect, but that did not mean I was prepared for it. I owe a lot to Paul's patience in continuing to allow me to engineer more and more sessions for him. These days my responsibilities are mainly engineering for and assisting Paul, assisting Matt if he's engineering, and occasionally engineering or assisting outside sessions that come through the Church. 

11. How would you compare what you learned in audio school to actually work in pro studios? Was it exactly as you thought or was there a big difference?

To be honest I never really thought seriously about working in studios while I was in audio school. I basically just wanted to learn how to record music and make weird noises. I just enjoyed it. Growing up where I did, the thought honestly never really even crossed my mind. Then nearest real commercial studio I knew of was in Vancouver and I didn't want to move to a city, so I never really imagined actually approaching one. I remember thinking wanting to be an engineer was a lot like wanting to be a rockstar – it's a nice idea, but not a career you can pursue in a practical, step-by-step kind of way. So for years I just carried on playing in bands and recording in cabins, basements, high school band rooms etc. 

I really had no concept of what it was like to work in commercial studios, and it was very different than what I had imagined. I didn't know anything about the hierarchy and roles within studios, studio etiquette, how much of studio work is basically hospitality work, or the fact that I'd have to learn to live without sleep. I had no ideas about what the music industry was like except for what I'd seen in movies, and I'm still trying to figure it all out every day. 

12. You praised Matt Wiggins for his mentorship, what would you say he taught you and how important do you think it is for someone who is starting out to have a mentor?

If it weren't for Matt, I definitely wouldn't still be doing this. He's taught me nearly everything I know about engineering, working with clients, the music industry, and the role of an engineer. He and Paul also demonstrated by example exactly how hard I'd have to work if I want to be good at any of these things. My approach to engineering is basically just trying to imitate Matt in as many ways as I can, but that's no easy thing to do. Beyond all that he and his wife Sophie have simply been great friends to me, and have helped me through it all. 

I feel lucky to have had sort of a single figure who has taken so much time and actively taught me things about engineering. I think that's pretty rare in studio situations, but I mean, I think we all learn from each other all the time, and if you stay open and watch carefully the people who are doing what you want to be doing, you can pick it up. Maybe sometimes it's best to have to figure things out for yourself too.  

13. What was your biggest struggle when learning about audio engineering?

I'm not particularly technical, especially with digital stuff. I wasn't ever very interested in or good with computers, and even less so in anything with tiny screens and layered menus. I'd have done just about anything to avoid having to program something into an ASR-10 or sequence a pattern in some demonic 80's noise machine, but that's something I've really had to get over and try to embrace. 

14. You started out as many producers/engineers do these days, in your bedroom. What do you think got you from that position to be a professional working in a pro studio today?

I really don't know. For me, it was largely about making the mental shift into believing it was something that was even possible. I don't mean that in a Law of Attraction, new-agey kind of way, but in the sense that once I'd done that I could actually start actively pursuing it more practically. After that, it was just about persistence and an eventual lucky break. I think for a lot of people it's just a matter of sweating it out and staying the course. 

15. What would recommend to home studio engineers/producer that they could do to improve their work or simply get more work?

I really don't feel like I can speak to this one. I don't know enough about it. I'm sure there are lots of folks in bedrooms that can make things sound better than I can in a fancy studio. 

16. Lastly, a question from Nicholas Roberto Di Lorenzo, from the Facebook group Panorama Studio Community, where do you see yourself in 5-10 years time and how do see yourself getting there?

I have no idea! I seriously don't even know what I'm doing next week. If you'd have asked me five years ago where I'd be, there's no way in hell I'd have said in a recording studio in London, so who knows. I'd really like to find a way to move back closer to home and keep working in music, but so far I can't see how that might work. It's definitely my goal to be working as a producer by then, but I don't know if or when that might happen, or how I'll get there. I'm just riding this one out, trying to keep my head down and learn as much as I can.