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Audeze talks to engineer and composer Ryan Streber

Composer and audio engineer Ryan Streber is the co-owner and head engineer at Oktaven Audio in Mt Vernon, NY. He specializes in recording classical, jazz, and contemporary art music, and has been serving the scene in NYC and beyond for over a decade. Since opening in 2009, Ryan and Oktaven have been involved in hundreds of releases including numerous Grammy nominees.
 
"More than any other headphones I’ve used so far, I’ve found that work that I do with the LCD-Xs translates easily to other systems and listening contexts..."- Ryan Streber

Here's our talk with Ryan:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

- Vijay Iyer Trio - Uneasy (ECM)

- Nate Wooley - Battle Pieces (pleasure of the text)

- Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson, Drew Gress, Kenny Wollesen - John Zorn - Bagatelles (forthcoming, Tzadik)

- Cory Smythe - Accelerate Every Voice (Pyroclastic)

- Jacob Greenberg - Hanging Gardens (New Focus), Neo/Classic (Furious Artisans)

- Daniel Lippel - Mirrored Spaces (New Focus)

- Brooklyn Rider - Healing Modes (In a Circle)

- Aizuri Quartet - Blueprinting (New Amsterdam)

- Ingrid Laubrock, Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Feldman, Tom Rainey - Tism (Rogueart)

- ACRONYM / Tenet - La Memoire Dolorose (Olde Focus)

- Ekmeles - A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer (New Focus)

- Conrad Tao - American Rage (Warner Classics)

- Alex Mincek - Torrent (NWR)

- Bearthoven and Scott Wollschleger - American Dream (Cantaloupe)

- Tyshawn Sorey Trio - Verisimilitude (Pi)

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?

On a majority of projects, I wind up doing everything from engineering the initial sessions through editing and mixing to mastering. On classical projects, I often take on the roll of producer as well as engineer. But I’ve also had the pleasure of assisting and / or hosting many great outside engineers working on their own projects at my studio, and I’ve played more specific or limited roles (such as just tracking or mastering) on a number of great projects as well.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I started playing guitar when I was around 8 and early on fell in love with blues and classic rock. By the time I was around 12-13, I was playing in clubs around Dallas in various bands that my brother and I formed. I always had a pretty wide range of musical interests, and I was steeped in 60s rock, blues, and jazz from pretty early on. But I started getting into classical music as a teenager, and after hearing things like the Rite of Spring, Pierrot Lunaire, and Ainsi La Nuit, I decided to study composition, plunging head-first into modernist 20th century music and techniques as well as the standard repertoire and earlier European notated musics. Nowadays, I don’t listen for pleasure as much as I’d like to, but I try to keep my ears open as best as I can.

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

There are many, and I’ve been extremely fortunate! My whole family is very musical, and they’ve all always been both super influential and incredibly supportive of my musical work. I think that the fact that my parents are both Beatles nuts and exposed me to not only all of that music but also to lots of books and documentaries about the Beatles and their albums, how they were made, Abbey Road, etc - all of that sparked an early fascination with and love of anything and everything to do with recording. I have a razor-sharp memory of the first time that I heard a Jimi Hendrix record and how the specific sound of that recording as well as what he was playing completely captivated me. I had similar experiences the first time I heard Miles Smiles or the Cleveland Quartet recordings of Beethoven on Telarc, and in each case I wanted to understand more about how they were made and even to some day be a part of creating sounds that were that entrancing.

Living in in the Dallas area for a lot of my childhood and being around some of that scene in the early 90s - especially the TX blues scene as well as the jazz that was coming from UNT and its radio station KNTU - definitely set me on a particular and peculiar course. I got into classical and avant-garde / new music via jazz, as it were, and that led me to become interested in studying composition. As a composer, my primary teacher was Milton Babbitt, and the five years I spent studying with him were decisively important for me in so many ways.

Then, working as an engineer, I’ve just been absurdly lucky to be able to collaborate with so many incredible musicians and composers over the past twenty years. I have to give a special shout out to Dan Lippel, a wonderful guitarist and founder / director of New Focus Recordings who has been a constant collaborator from the beginning. But I can’t even begin to list all of the people - performers, engineers, composers, artists - with whom I’ve worked who have expanded my musical horizons, helped me be a better listener, and hopefully a better engineer. I know that a number of them are friends of Audeze:)

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I feel like I have these moments in small ways every day! I’m intensely self-critical and am never really satisfied with my own work, so every session and project is a new challenge and new opportunity to try to improve a bit. The pandemic forced me to work from home without the comforts and resources to which I’d grown accustomed in the studio, and this has brought with it a move towards working more frequently on headphones and mixing "in the box.” It’s been a challenging but rewarding experience having to get my bearings and sharpen my skills working in this way. Realizing the shortcomings of my “usual suspect” (i.e. non-Audeze!) headphones was definitely one of the major hurdles I’ve had to overcome.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

Our API Legacy AXS mixing console is the heart of our studio, so that’s a huge part of my workflow. Also, our Hamburg Steinway D concert grand is featured on so many projects and is a cornerstone of our business. I have a few favorite microphones that I use on almost every session, including some M49 “clones” that I built as well as Coles 4038s and RCA 44BXs. Not quite as glamorous but critical to our operation is our Hearback Pro headphone monitoring system. The guys at Hear Technologies have been incredible in working closely with us to constantly improve the system and make it fit our needs better and better.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

The music and musicians are always more important than gear and technology! It’s very easy to go down a rabbit hole of obsessing over gear and thinking that some compressor or mic or whatever will be the thing that will magically make everything better. Needless to say, that stuff is important, and good tools make the job easier and the results more rewarding. But it’s also endless (there’s always some other mic or piece of outboard or whatever that could be really cool and that you could spend a whole bunch of money on) and, in ways, irrelevant if the music you’re recording isn’t happening or the people you’re recording aren’t enjoying themselves or feeling like they can do their job well because the technology is a distraction or taking precedence in some way. Usually a change in the composition, or moving a player or mic a little makes a bigger difference than any preamp or converter ever will anyway. All that being said, you need to hear what you’re doing and have as clear and complete a sense of what things actually sound like in order to work effectively! Good monitoring, whether over headphones or speakers, is absolutely critical and under-appreciated.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

This has varied over the years. Before I opened Oktaven and was mostly doing location work or editing and mixing out of a small room in an apartment, I relied heavily on headphones. Then, over a decade of working in a studio environment, I got very used to depending on my monitors and only rarely using headphones except for occasional checks. However, since the pandemic and shutdown, I’ve been doing a lot more work at home again which has forced me to get back to critical listening in headphones. Of course, in the studio, we do many tracking sessions where headphones are a key part of the process, and helping musicians work as comfortably as possible in them is one the most important and challenging parts of my job.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them so far?

The LCD-Xs have been a revelation for me. Having a pair of headphones that are so full range and reveal so much information, yet are so aurally and physically comfortable and fun to listen on makes the job that much more fun, rewarding, and easy. Now that I’m moving back and forth regularly between working in the studio and at home, the Audezes are my constant companions, traveling with me so that I always have a consistent and trusted reference. More than any other headphones I’ve used so far, I’ve found that work that I do with the LCD-Xs translates easily to other systems and listening contexts, and I can work much more confidently and quickly on them. On a personal level, I’ve also just had a blast going back over favorite records and listening to them on the LCD-Xs as if for the first time.