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Recording engineer and MPG nominee Rhiannon Mair lets us in on her studio journey

PSNEurope spoke with Mair ahead of the MPG Awards, for which she was nominated for Breakthrough Engineer, to find out how she got into studio work, her techniques, and what her plans are for the future

Since gaining work experience at none other than Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, Rhiannon Mair has been earmarked as one of the UK’s brightest audio talents, as exemplified by her place on the shortlist for both the Breakthrough Engineer and Breakthrough Producer categories at the 2019 MPG Awards last month. Her versatile skillset as a producer, engineer, musician, and songwriter has lead to projects with artists such as Laura Marling, Bryde, Emma McGrath and Kimberly Anne, resulting in airplay on BBC Radio 1 and 2, 6 Music and Spotify New Music Friday.

PSNEurope caught up with her ahead of the 2019 MPG Awards to discuss her studio techniques and her path to becoming one of the most exciting young stars in the business…

Congratulations on your MPG Breakthrough Engineer Award nomination. How did it feel to be on this year’s shortlist?

It felt great. It’s a huge compliment to be recognised for your work and to be up there with some incredibly talented producers.

What first attracted you to a studio career?

I think it all started when I was a kid and I used to watch my mum’s band play. I always wanted to hang out with their engineer and ask about everything they did. Things grew from there as I started playing instruments and became interested in recording them. At 15, I borrowed a Boss eight-track digi recorder from a friend, as I wanted to have a go at recording some songs I had written. I became hooked on how I could layer up sounds and add effects, it was awesome. I went on to study music tech at college and spent most of my spare time in the college studio experimenting with recording drums, and playing with MIDI. It never felt boring or like work to me – it was always fun.

How did you go about gaining experience behind the desk?

I very much learned on the job. I learned the basics of how a desk works from uni days, but it was only when I started going into studios as a producer that I just had to figure it out.

You started your career working at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. How did that come about?

I was in a band and we met with a producer who was based at Real World. There was some interest in working together and we ended up, as a band, going over to see the studios and chat with the producer. We never ended up recording there, but I kept in touch with the producer and started asking for engineering tips while I was studying at university. He then contacted me and asked if I wanted to come and do some work experience there, which I of course said yes to.

What was it like to work at such a revered studio during your formative years? How much of a learning curve was it for you at that stage in your career?

I learnt so much, more so than when studying. It’s amazing how much you learn from just watching a great producer and engineer at work, how they interact with the band, what they say and don’t say. It was invaluable for me, especially as I was starting my career in music. I also assistant engineered on an album for a band called Port Erin.

Tell us about some of the most memorable projects you have worked on to date.

I engineered a session for Laura Marling on her Reversal Of The Muse project. Working with insanely talented artists is always incredible and inspiring to be around. I’ve really enjoyed working with Emma McGrath over the past few years; I’ve felt really lucky to be a part of her musical journey from quite early on and watch her grow as an artist. She is definitely one to watch.

Talk us through your home studio.

I’m currently using a Universal Apollo 8 interface and Twinfinity 4-710d. I run the Twinfinity as a slave via adat from my Apollo. I love that I can dial between tube or solid state tones, it makes it very flexible. This paired with the super clean pres on the Apollo means I have more options when tracking guitar or vocals and the UA plugins come in handy too. I monitor on a pair of Amphion one15s that I am totally in love with. The detail is incredible and the mixes translate really well onto other systems. I also find that my ears don’t fatigue as easily as they did on my last set of monitors, working on them is pure joy.

Do you have a particular approach or signature sound you adopt in the studio?

It does vary from project to project but one thing that I always do is spend quite a bit of time with preproduction, especially if using other studios for tracking. Preparation is key for me. As for signature sounds, I would say not really. I do like to try and record parts as how they will sound on the record, for example, if a guitarist has a particular reverb pedal or delay they use, then we’ll record it in wet, and I spend time tuning drums, getting the right snare sound.

Which records and producers have been a key influence on you? 

When growing up I was obsessed with KT Tunstall’s album Eye To The Telescope, which was produced by Steve Osborne. Just a cracking album, great songs, and I think the production is very clever in how it all falls around the acoustic guitar parts, which drive the songs rhythmically. Steve Osborn also produced my favourite Placebo album Without You I’m Nothing. Those two records and Absolution by Muse were on repeat during my teens.

What are the biggest challenges faced when embarking on a career in the studio?

For me the biggest challenge is the hustle, having to be out there networking, meeting people and getting the jobs. Being in the studio itself is the easy part, it never really feels like work.

What’s next?

I’ll be working with a few new artists this year, both for production and songwriting, alongside extending my studio to make it more flexible and cost effective for artists and bands. I’ll be adding some more gear so I’ll be looking into a second set of monitors and some more mic preamplifiers, I’ve got my eye on a couple of Neve 1073LBs. I’ll also be putting more time into an indie label and publisher I co-founded last year (Palm Bay Music), created for songwriting and band and artist development.