Ricky Reed has worked with a multitude of artists across a huge range of genres, most recently delivering a string of huge hits for Lizzo.
“The perspective that I bring to the sessions with the artists I’m working with is that I’m trying to help them make something with a lot of clarity, a lot of honesty, and that is sonically impactful. The latter is not always to do with being loud and hard. Softness, vulnerability or elegance can also be impactful. I try to bring these elements to every song.
“Of course, I respond to what’s working and not working in the song itself, but I also respond to the artist singing from a place of authenticity, regardless of genre. There’s music that sounds good and feels good and that’s impactful and emotive, and to me it’s really fun to find these qualities across all genres. I grew up listening to everything, and I think that these days we’re all starting to move beyond thinking in genres.”
Looking at Ricky Reed’s track record over the 20 years that he has been active in the recording industry, eight which have been spent at the very top, it’s easy to see the imprint of his quests for authenticity, and emotional and sonic impact, and never more so than in his work with Lizzo. Reed discovered the singer and signed her to his Nice Life label in 2015, and he has since acted as co‑songwriter, (co‑)producer and mixer on her most recent releases, Coconut Oil (2016), Cuz I Love You (2019) and this year’s Special. Reed played a crucial role in the making of all Lizzo’s big hits so far, ‘Truth Hurts’, ‘Good As Hell’, ‘Rumors’ and, most recently, ‘About Damn Time’.
Ricky Reed: The big thing I am interested in is getting artists like Lizzo to achieve their goals, and using the levers and pulleys of the major‑label system to protect the artist and their art from the more challenging parts of those systems.
In addition, Reed has enjoyed hits as a (co‑)producer and/or co‑writer for Camila Cabello, Maroon 5, Halsey, Jason Derulo, Pitbull, Jessie J, Twenty One Pilots, the Weeknd, Bomba Estéreo and many others. He has also been, and continues to be, active as an artist, first as the act Wallpaper. and more recently with two solo albums. In the course of his activities, he has won two Grammy Awards, and been nominated for another six.
Clearly, Ricky Reed has the Midas touch, which he applies in a large number of roles — songwriter, singer, artist, multi‑instrumentalist, producer, mixer, A&R, record company boss — and across many genres. The latter include pop, R&B, hip‑hop, synth pop, disco, funk, rock, indie rock, electro and Eurodance, and various different Latin styles.
Talking from his studio and record company offices near Elysian Park in central Los Angeles, Reed puts the incredible diversity of his activities and output down to the fact that he originates from the Bay Area, the cradle of a large variety of music genres. When growing up as Eric Frederic, the young man was acutely aware of the psychedelic rock of Jefferson Airplane, the funk of Sly Stone, the Latin rock of Santana and, in his formative teenage years in the ’90s, the hip‑hop of E‑40 and Too $hort.
“I grew up in a house with Motown, funk, soul and disco music playing,” the producer recalls, “and later a lot of early ’80s music, as well as Steely Dan. When I went to high school, the pop‑punk explosion was happening, and a couple of members of Green Day went to my high school. I played guitar in a few bands. We did punk, prog rock, some heavier stuff. That experience was really formative for me because I learned what it takes to really impact an audience. Also, the guy who owned the studio where the bands recorded, Scott Llamas, let me run wild in his studio at night, and that’s how I learned to engineer and produce.”
One of the bands in the Bay Area that Frederic played in was Locale AM. In 2005, he founded Wallpaper., a band that made hip‑hop and pop music, with Frederic singing over his computer‑generated beats, using lots of Antares Auto‑Tune, which was regarded as boundary‑breaking. At the time the effect was still fairly unknown and use of it regarded as cheating and therefore taboo. While in Wallpaper, Frederic developed his stage persona, Ricky Reed. Between 2005 and 2015, the band released four EPs, and two albums, including 2013’s Ricky Reed Is Real.
Ricky Reed indeed became more and more real as time progressed, to the point that his birth name has almost completely disappeared off the radar. While leading Wallpaper., Reed started co‑writing and co‑producing songs for others, including CeeLo Green, Far East Movement, Pitbull and Jason Derulo. It was his co‑writing and production involvement in Derulo’s mega hit song ‘Talk Dirty’, which was released in 2013 and went four times platinum, that moved his career to fast‑forward mode. Reed left the Bay Area and moved to LA.
More mega hits with Reed as co‑writer and co‑producer followed, and by 2016, he had started the Nice Life record label and publishing company, as a joint venture with Atlantic Records. The Nice Life label also houses Reed’s Elysian Studio, which is a hybrid analogue‑digital affair, with a Harrison desk and tons of hardware keyboards. Together with his engineers, Ethan Shumaker and Bill Malina, it’s where he works on his own material, or with other artists, mixes tracks, and where he wrote and recorded his solo album The Room (2020).
“For a long time I thought I was more or less finished with putting out music under my own name,” recalls Reed, “but a few months into 2020 it was like ‘I need to make an album right now, and put it out right now.’ I bring the same attitude to my own work as I do to working with or for other artists. As I said, it’s to do with honesty, clarity and impact. I do a lot of thinking ahead of sessions with other artists, about what would be fun to do with them. It’s not always about creating music, but often more about getting an attitude. Like, ‘Oh, it would be interesting to hear that person do something with a bit more edge, or in a different tempo.’
“In general, rather than preparing tracks, it’s better to create music in the room with the artist. That’s always the most fun. It’s different with different artists. Somebody I work with will send me a little snippet of a loop or something and I’ll just go, ‘Oh wow, I want to hear this or that on this,’ and I’ll add that and build around it. It varies every time, and I like thinking about what an artist hasn’t said or done so far, and how can we play with that.”
Reed stresses that for him, songwriting and producing go hand in hand. “Let’s say we’re writing a song over a sample, and I’m editing the sample while we’re writing lyrics, and then I do an EQ or put a filter on the sample or something, and this inspires the artist. Sometimes we’re literally songwriting, producing and already forming the mix characteristics of the record, all at the same time.
“Obviously I like having a third party mixing the tracks I work on, because I like fresh ears that can take it sonically to a higher level or to a place that I wasn’t thinking of. I also like to have an excuse to hang out with Manny [Marroquin], and he really upgrades my records. At the same time, many younger producers are like, ‘Why would I send this out to mix? My friends and I all like it, fuck it, upload.’ With stuff that feels great and that people around you are responding to: upload it, stream it, get it to the people. It’s all good. There’s no dogma about how I approach that stuff.”
It does mean, stresses Reed, that he works hard on his rough mixes, so the tracks are ready to upload. “Yeah, I like the roughs to sound already impressive. I never want the sonic quality of something to be holding back someone’s experience. I want you to be able to put a demo on in the car and be like, ‘Oh my God.’ When I know I’m doing the final mix, I will take it an extra step, and I will think a bit more about my master bus chain, or maybe run it through some analogue gear for the final stage. It’s enjoyable, because for me mixing and production are sort of one and the same.”
In terms of the gear at Elysian Studios, Reed defies expectations in two ways. One would expect a background of analogue recording from someone who has been in the game since the turn of the century; and while Pro Tools is the DAW of choice for many tracking engineers and mixers, songwriters and producers often favour DAWs with more elaborate MIDI facilities.
“The funny thing is,” comments Reed, “Pro Tools is my main instrument. I’ve used it since I was 16 years old. When I was playing in bands and was assisting Scott Llamas, he’d give me 100 bucks per day to record local bands in the weekend, and then he made me do all the editing. This was before Pro Tools had grid mode. We’d record a click into Pro Tools, and I’d try to edit the drums to that click. After 24 years of using Pro Tools, it really feels like an extension of my body. I’m totally comfortable working with it.
“At the same time, I do love working outside the box. I have an obsession with the tactile experience of great gear. It’s inspirational to me. But once I have laid things down, I love get inside Pro Tools, which is my playground. And rather than work extensively in MIDI, I like the sound of well‑performed, great‑sounding parts, and then I get them into position. Some of the producers and bands I work with jokingly give me nicknames, like The Nudge, Nudge Guy, Nudge King, Nudge Lord, because when I am comping things, I have a real sensitivity to rhythm and things being in the pocket.
“But in the end, it is whatever it takes. I don’t bring any rules or any sort of dogma to the process of making records. Simply get it to sound great. Some singers sound great with Auto‑Tune, some singers sound great without. Some drummers sound great with Beat Detective, some drummers sound great without Beat Detective. I’m always thinking about the person coming into the studio who does not care how we do things, and goes, ‘Ah, this is cool.’ Let’s not worry how the sausage is made. Let’s just make great records.”
It’s a laudable sentiment, but of course, making a good sausage does require the right gear. Luckily, Reed is happy to give a virtual studio tour. “The desk here is a Harrison 32C, which is known as the Thriller and Off The Wall desk, because those two albums were made on this mode — obviously, not this specific one! All my synths run through it, and a few other things, and this allows me to work very quickly. But I mix in the box, though I may occasionally use a few desk sends to run some of my hardware effects through. I have an AKG BX20 [spring reverb], and a few other fun outboard reverbs and delays.
“When I first moved into this place, I asked Manny [Marroquin], ‘I need a professional vocal chain,’ and he said, ’Neumann 47 or Telefunken ELA M 251 depending on your taste, vintage Neve and Tube‑Tech CL‑1B.’ So I saved up some money and got these things.
“I got two vintage Neve 1073 preamps, and a ’50s Telefunken‑badged Neumann U47, and the CL‑1B. We record many things through that chain. I also recently acquired two Neumann U67 mics, which are amazing, and I have a bunch of ribbons that I use with an AEA RPQ2 ribbon mic pre to record really clean stuff. Then there’s some outboard like Distressors, nothing too crazy.”
Reed elaborates on the instruments he has at Elysian Studios. “The aim is to be able to do world‑class vocals, guitar, bass, keys and piano here. Because I don’t have space in this studio to record drums I’ve not bothered getting a record setup for that. I bought an old honky‑tonk Steinway piano on Craigslist from Sound City, which was used by Elton John, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac. It now is sort of the crown jewel in this space.
“I do have a small live space, which has tons of my amps from my rock days, like the Ampeg GU‑12, Ampeg VT‑40, and a silverface bass amp. I’m happiest with my Ampeg collection! I also have a huge cabinet with all sorts of strange pedals and other noise‑makers. My favourite company in the States is Chase Bliss Audio, who are incredible pedal makers. A lot of their stuff is very inspiring in the songwriting and production process.
“I have a bunch of guitars and basses here in my studio, mostly Fenders. I’ve been using a Fender 82 Fullerton Reissue Jazz bass a lot lately. When I grew up I used a Precision Bass, especially playing in bands. I also love Sadowsky basses, and I used a 5‑string active Sadowsky on the Leon Bridges album [Good Thing, 2018]. My Elektron Analog Rytm Mk2 drum machine is sort of my desert island instrument. It combines analogue synthesized sounds with samples, and it’s very powerful and intuitive. It’s my MPC.
“I also just got my first Minimoog Model D, and I felt like such an idiot. I called all my friends, and I was like, ‘This is the best synth ever made,’ and they were like ‘We know, it’s crazy.’ I feel like I’m so late to the party! I’d never plugged one of these in and really got my hands on it. I cannot believe how it sounds. So hardware synths are my current obsession, as generic as it may sound. I also have a Roland Jupiter‑8 and Juno 106, a Korg PolySix with the KiwiSix mod, an ARP 2600, and I recently bought the Memorymoog which I used on Lizzo ‘About Damn Time’. It’s an amazing keyboard. I’m now definitely a synth head!”
Talking about Lizzo, the singer’s career has been on a dramatic upward curve ever since she started working with Reed in 2016. This year’s Special and the single ‘About Damn Time’ have been hugely successful, and for Reed it’s a vindication of his decision to start his Nice Life label, as well of his songwriting and production skills, and the approach he took in supporting Lizzo after signing her to his label.
“I had no intentions to start a company. I was talked into it by my manager! I’d done a couple of records for Atlantic, and they asked if I wanted to do a joint venture label with them, but I was not interested. My manager said, ‘Look, they’re gonna send you a cheque, just try it.’ Lizzo was one of the first artists I met after doing the label deal!
“Having your own label is about control, which is one of the big challenges for any music‑maker. You put your heart and soul into making a record, and then you watch the thing go through this pipeline before it reaches the public. Maybe it gets mixed in a way you don’t like, or maybe the mastering is harsh, or maybe the label says, ‘We’re going to pick another song as a single,’ and you go, ‘That song???’, or maybe the video is trash, or maybe the song doesn’t come out at all! The big thing I am interested in is getting artists like Lizzo to achieve their goals, and using the levers and pulleys of the major‑label system to protect the artist and their art from the more challenging parts of those systems.”
Reed obviously has done very well in helping Lizzo achieve her goals, and this includes giving her the space to choose her collaborators. On Special this led to the involvement of several dozen writers and almost two dozen producers, among them big names like Benny Blanco, Mark Ronson, Ian Kirkpatrick, Pop Wansel, The Monsters & Strangerz, Max Martin and, of course, Reed.
Lizzo is extremely involved in all aspects of the making of her music, explains Reed. “When I work with her, she’ll say, ‘I’m feeling like this, this and this.’ I’ll suggest or write some music, and she knows exactly what she likes and doesn’t like, and then we’ll write a song over that. She may suggest something big and crazy, like a marching band, or the energy of a marching band, or a guitar solo, or a key change, or a beat switch, and so on. She’s very involved in creating the entire landscape of the song. She sees the whole picture, and she helps paint that picture.”
For me, hit songs usually come out of feeling that there’s a momentum and direction happening in the room.
Much of Lizzo and Reed’s collaboration took place in a small production room in Hollywood. “We worked over distance at the start of the pandemic, but I find that very hard. It’s really hard to get momentum when doing remote sessions. For me, hit songs usually come out of feeling that there’s a momentum and direction happening in the room. You’re waiting for something to appear, and once it does, it’s go‑go‑go, and you’re chasing it and turn up the energy and you capture it. That’s really hard to do remotely.
“So in the fall of 2020 we started working in the same room together again. We did two Covid tests a day! We had this home base space, to which I brought a lot of gear, like a couple of basses, a drum machine, a great mic and mic pre, all that stuff. We know she sounds killer on a U47. I did not bring mine, but we found a fantastic U47 from a rental company, that we ran through a vintage Neve and a CL‑1B.
“For Special, Lizzo told me that she wanted the drums to be unique and thoughtful. She didn’t want to just tag on to the latest cool trend, so people can immediately hear what year the drums are from. She wanted to be leading the conversation in this respect, and that led to me doing a lot of listening and thinking about what would be moving people, what would be unique, but would not lose the cutting edge.
“I started this song that became the opening track of the album, ‘The Sign’, using a great chord loop by an amazing producer I work with called Phoelix. It had this great half‑time drum pocket, and I double‑timed it to push the envelope. Lizzo loved it, and wrote this amazing song on it, and we finished the record. But it wasn’t until I gave the song to Manny to mix, and he took the bottom end to an entirely different place, that it came together. The song ended up sounding like a very musical pop record, with this amazing edge in the low end, coming mainly from a deeper sound on the kick. That’s the beautiful part of the collaborative process.
‘About Damn Time’
“Writing ‘About Damn Time’ was crazy. I’ve never been part of making a song like that in my career. We had taken more than two years to complete the album, and then came the request to do one more song. It was like, sigh... OK then. I went in with two producers, one of whom got Covid, so I ended up with Blake Slatkin, someone I had never met before. It was like a blind date!
“Blake and I have similar skill sets, we’re both Pro Tools guys and we both play guitars and bass, and we jammed for a week. On the last day of that week he played some piano chords that ended up becoming the pre‑chorus for the song. It was in E minor, and I was like, ‘Hang on a minute,’ and came up with this complicated Em sus chord, which has a minor 7th but no major or minor third, so it has an ambiguous mood. But it had big, intense energy.
“So we had a chord structure, we had a tempo, and I think Blake went out for some food, and I grabbed the Jazz Bass, and when he came back I said, ‘I think we have a bass line.’ He literally screamed. There’s a video of me playing bass with a mask on, and him screaming. It’s very funny. So the basic idea came together during that week. We also had a chorus melody, and then we thought, ‘Wait, we’ve heard that before,’ and realised it resembled ‘Hey DJ’ by the World’s Famous Supreme Team. That can happen and we were happy for those writers to be a part of it.
“But the big thing about that song, the lyrics and the melody, we probably worked on for like two months. We did so many different sessions and we had so many versions, because Lizzo wanted to make this statement, and we wanted to get it just right. She wanted to make a song about stepping out of fear, and how we’ve now realised that fear is being marketed to us, is being sold to us, whether it’s media or companies that need us to buy their products to make us feel less afraid. At the time we were talking Covid, but then the Ukraine‑Russia war broke out in the middle of writing this song.
“So Lizzo was like, ‘I really need to come out and make this song about stepping out of fear.’ It was incredible to see her true artistry in the moment, and her stating, ‘I want to say what people aren’t saying.’ Although the record in the end comes off like a fun party song, I think it has the gravitas of being positive and hopeful, without ignoring the elephant in the room that we’ve been dealing with the last few years.”
Finally, Reed has a special fondness for the last song on the album, ‘Coldplay’. He recalls, “It was derived heavily from a song that I heard in the wild called ‘Sudden Death’ by Quelle Chris & Chris Keys. It’s such a moving and powerful song to me. It was one of those songs that I listened to during the dark days of Covid.
“The first time Lizzo heard what I had done, she wasn’t ready to sing on it, so she did a 10‑minute spoken‑word improvisation about trying to find vulnerability in love with her partner, and a trip during which they listened to Coldplay the whole time.
“When she came back a few months later, I said, ‘Hey, I took all your poetry and just arranged it more in the form of a song,’ and I had added a Coldplay sample. It’s another one of my great tricks: do the obvious thing! So she went to the booth and once she started singing, she finished the song in three to four hours. All the stacks, the whole thing. Harmonies, ad libs. The song remains to this day my favourite piece of music that I’ve worked on.”
Deceit in pursuit of a happy studio is not unheard of — think handing the A&R manager a non‑connected fader, to give him or her the illusion of making a difference. Ricky Reed shares a similar story about his own studio: “My monitors are the Barefoot MicroMain 27 Gen 1, which I know like the back of my hand. The big, wall‑mounted monitors are Augspurgers. I guess I can let the secret behind them out now. When I built this studio, I was thinking, ‘’I know this is a world‑class place where I can get world‑class results, but I don’t want A&R guys coming in thinking, ‘It’s just a rickety home studio.’ So I said to my engineer, ‘What are the big studio monitors called?’ and he replied, ‘Augspurgers.’
“We ordered two of them, and he then asked, ‘Where are we going to put the amp?’ I had no idea, and asked what the budget was. We were at our limit, so I was like, ‘OK, let’s just leave them like that.’ I simply wanted people to come into the studio and say, ‘Wow, this is legit.’ So these Augspurgers have never played. We turn the Barefoots up, and people don’t hear the difference. That’s my big secret [laughs]!”
“I have a very basic taste in plug‑ins,” says Ricky Reed, who relies on a small number of favourites. “You’ll never see a lot of the hottest newest plug‑ins, or like five or 10 plug‑ins on a track. My sessions usually have a little EQ on most things, and compression only where needed, when trying to make things sound things hard, loud and impactful, but not dynamically fucked up.
“When I’m working in the box, some of the plug‑ins I use are the FabFilter stuff — the Pro‑Q 3 is on pretty much all of my tracks — a lot of SoundToys stuff, and I love McDSP, which is a killer brand. I also use the UAD SPL Transient Designer a lot. I probably overuse it. It’s amazing on drums, particularly on kicks and snares, and loops. Another favourite is the Waves SSL channel, the old‑school blue one. I’ve been using that since forever. ”