Ricky Damian is that rarest of things: a young engineer trained in all‑analogue recording. His experience stood him in good stead with Jorja Smith.
In the Spring of 2014, a famous producer rang the SAE Institute in London, looking for a young engineer willing to adapt to and be trained in his working methods. The catch was that it had to be someone well versed in using analogue gear, including tape.
The only person at SAE who met these criteria was 21‑year old Ricky Damian. Within days of starting work, he found himself conducting recording sessions for what was to become one of the biggest hits of the century: Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’.
“I was the only person who had the required experience, because they don’t teach tape,” Damian recalls. “Also, the position was for an in‑house engineer, not an assistant or runner, so I needed to be able to hit the ground running. I went to Mark Ronson’s studio, which was in Tileyard in North London at the time, and it was beautiful, with an MCI board, Studer and Scully tape machines, Fairchilds and Pultecs, all the goodies.
“It was crazy. After a week I was recording with Mark and Jeff Bhasker, who is another amazing producer. It was really cool because we were tracking guitars to tape and using the Prince trick of bouncing the song to a Studer A800, then varispeed it down one whole tone, and overdub to that, so when you bring it back to speed you’ve pitched your new recording up a tone, including the formant, and the guitar sounds thinner, funkier and more in the pocket.”
Damian’s time with Ronson took him to many places around the planet, including the US, where he helped the producer build studios in LA and in New York. He worked with Ronson on two solo albums, Uptown Special (2015) and Late Night Feelings (2019), and the Yebba album Dawn (2021), which was nominated for a Best Engineered Album Grammy Award. Covid then sent his career in a new direction.
“During the pandemic I stayed at home in the UK, and started mixing a lot, which I always wanted to do. It was great because I’m a bit OCD, and I feel like I need to discover new things every day. I find a lot of pleasure in experimenting. I might study the work of a specific mix engineer for a week and see what I can borrow or steal from them. So I spent a lot of 2020 mixing and experimenting. As the world opened up again, I went back to my regular clients, like Jorja Smith, Sampha and Ezra Collective.
“Last Summer I was asked to engineer a Paul Simonon record, with producer Tony Visconti, at Damon Albarn’s Studio 13. I had done a few things there, but the session was a bit of a disaster on the first day, because the studio wasn’t being used much, and as a result the equipment had been a bit neglected. I managed to get it to work again, and after that I worked with the studio manager to turn the place into a great commercial facility with a unique vision, where thanks to the legacy of Damon Albarn, everything is present to make a great record. It has an incredible instrument and gear collection, and for the last year we’ve been refurbishing it, fixing it, improving it. It was a nice journey, because I now do all my recording and production work there, as much as I can, including for the Jorja Smith record.”
Damian has worked with Jorja since the beginning of her career, engineering and occasionally co‑producing, and he mixed the whole of her recent album Falling Or Flying, the focus of this article.
Although Studio 13 is now Damian’s go‑to recording place, his home studio remains his preferred mixing spot. “I call it OCD Studios. My flat in North London is actually very quiet, and the acoustics are very controlled. A friend of mine, Chris Walls of Level Acoustic Design, who did all of Tileyard, designed the acoustic treatment for the room. It’s a very comfortable place to mix. I have ATC SCM25A monitors, which I love and have had for a long time. I also have some Auratones and Neumann KH120s, and some radio speakers.
“I use a full‑spec M2 MacBook Pro, which is incredible. I actually mixed the Jorja Smith record while I was changing laptop. I started on the i9 with the touchbar, and the fans would start going just when writing an email. It’s terrible. The M2 laptop is night and day, the fans don’t even start! My interface is an Antelope Goliath HD, which is unbelievable. It’s got 16 mic pres, 16 line inputs, and DI inputs, and re‑amp outputs, so it’s the perfect all‑in‑one interface.
“Although I have quite a bit of gear here, I mix mostly in the box because I don’t like to tie the mix to the room. I travel a lot, and need to be able to open up my sessions anywhere without any problems. And on Jorja Smith’s record, I mixed 15 songs across five weeks, and I was constantly jumping between sessions. There’s no way that I can always recall outboard. When I’m recording and mixing a project, I’ll record it with as much out‑of‑the‑box processing as possible, and then I mix in the box.
“I do also record at OCD sometimes. I have 50 microphones, and some outboard. I have a Tubetech CL‑1B, Neve 1084s and early BAE Audio Neve 1073s, an Eventide H3000, a Chandler Tube Driver, and a pair of Siemens 295 EQs, which are like the Soundtoys Sie‑Q and really beautiful EQs. I also have tons of pedals, by Strymon and others, that I run stuff through sometimes. But I always print it. I never use live outboard in the mix. I also have keyboards like the Sequential Circuits Prophet‑5, Yamaha DX7, a Minimoog Model D, a Roland Juno‑6 and Juno‑106.”