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Artist interview

Eva Reistad – From Basement Intern To Blockbuster Sound Mixer

By 7th May 2024No Comments
Eva Reistad

Eva Reistad‘s journey into the world of music and sound engineering is a testament to the power of passion and perseverance. Growing up, it was difficult for Eva to grasp the importance of learning musical instruments, but after receiving a less than ideal saxophone, her love for playing truly blossomed. In this interview, Eva reflects on her journey from working as an intern at Nightbird Recording Studios to collaborating with industry giants like Hans Zimmer and Alan Meyerson, and working on top-tier TV shows and movie scores including the BBC’s Planet Earth III, Dune, 007 No Time To Die, Captain Marvel, The Lion King, Aladdin, Aquaman, and many more.

How did this begin? Were you sitting in school thinking one day I’m going to make music for movies and work in studios? 

I was exposed to music at an early age… I was put into piano lessons as a child because my mum wanted to give me the opportunity to learn music. Unfortunately I sort of hated it, as would any seven year old, because it’s not fun to sit and learn your scales. In middle school I was given the opportunity to learn an additional instrument or do other extra curricular activities. I was like, ‘well, duh, I don’t really want to do sports’, so I started learning saxophone, and at first I hated it.

When I started taking saxophone lessons I never practised. The year after I started, my mum went to the pawn shop and bought me an old saxophone for $300. It was terrible sounding, and funnily enough that’s when I started really loving playing. When I started to enjoy playing the saxophone, all the notes on the piano really started to make sense. What I liked most was learning to play songs I heard on the radio, which was evidence of my keen ear for music. When I became a teenager, there was a day we went to the music store and I saw an acoustic guitar I really wanted. My mum said, ‘you can have that guitar if you practise saxophone every day,’ and I decided, ‘done, I’ll do that.’ So instrument by instrument, I learned to play and imitate music I liked. 

About pursuing a career in music… Being a career musician or recording engineer isn’t common in Minnesota – with the exceptions of Prince, Bob Dylan, etc. I’m from a very small blue-collar town up north, where most people aim to be doctors, lawyers, or dentists, etc so when I was young, I wasn’t going ‘oh my God, I want to be a musician/composer’. High school was pretty difficult for me because I’m not really book smart, and my behaviour wasn’t great either, but I did always excel in music classes. Here’s a funny story from that time that’s weirdly relevant to my current position…

In junior year of high school we went to Los Angeles on a band trip, and played a few live performances at Disneyland. One of the days there, they took us backstage and had us do a mock scoring session. They gave us headphones, and we played sheet music to a click track. It was hilarious because we were so terrible at sight reading that the conductor made us replay it four or five times. After all that, the engineer layered all the takes on top of each other and played the recordings for us against a projected scene of the movie Atlantis. With picture playing, it was really emotional, I thought we sounded so good! (Unlikely.) Without even thinking about the future, this small town Minnesotan thought at that moment, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool, in what world could someone have this job?’.

The following summer I went to a jazz camp at a college that also had music studios, where I first witnessed other musicians recording. This made the concept of recording music start buzzing in my head. Music to me had always been, ‘I’m listening to music. I love music. I play music.’ but I’d never really thought about the fact that people have to record it, produce it, mix it, and distribute it.

I brought this thought up to my parents who were already thinking normal college wasn’t a good idea for me, so when my dad met someone through a friend who was a successful recording engineer, my music path just kind of clicked for everybody. My parents supported me because music was something I never had trouble focusing on. I loved it, I had excellent musical taste (which probably wasn’t true), and I had no doubt in my mind at the time that ‘I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna go to LA, I’m gonna go to New York, I’m gonna be a big producer, I’m gonna make millions of dollars’.

So, what was your first real studio gig? 

The day after I graduated audio school, I moved to Los Angeles to work at Nightbird Recording Studios. Nightbird is located beneath a very well-known, yet discrete hotel, which makes it a good sanctuary for working A-List artists. I was hired as an intern, which was expected, yet very depressing when I first started. I had left behind such a supportive community at college, where I was Little Miss Confidence, my motto being ‘I’m soooo good at this.’ I had great intuition about EQ, mixing, all that audio stuff. Then I got out to LA, and the first day of work I was told to ‘go do inventory in the supply closet’.

While I was sitting in the closet of a basement realising my job was to count Red Bulls and sparkling waters, my world came crashing down. Simultaneously, I had to get a restaurant job because the studio didn’t pay any money. I didn’t get studio pay until about a year and a half in when I started assisting, but even then, assisting at the studio still felt like being a glorified waiter. You’re getting artists’ food brought down from the hotel, sending the runners out, setting up one microphone, and making sure you can set the mains back up when the clients blow them up (which would happen a lot because there was a lot of hip hop and pop.) Musicians like Lil Wayne and Avril Lavigne would often stay at the hotel and come downstairs to work. Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, John Legend, Anthony Bourdain, and Kevin Costner were a few names that would stop in to work. 

I always tell people that the benefit of working with clients like that is you get trained to stay cool under pressure. You have to be very calm and quiet when trying to sort problems out to avoid interrupting the session. If there’s a bunch of people in the room and the speaker, amp, or EQ blows out, it’s my job to stay composed, and keep the session moving.  

Eva Reistad

So, when do you think the tipping point happened where you went from working in a studio in a hotel to working with Hans Zimmer and all those top movies?

I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I’ve been like, ‘I’m big time now,’ because trying to define success feels like a hopeless endeavour. I try to avoid referring to projects or sessions as big or small, because I don’t like to categorise projects by status. I work with composers and artists who sometimes say stuff like, ‘well, it’s not Dune,’ and I’m like, ‘don’t say that! You’re young, talented, you’re kicking ass!’ What’s the difference if we’re working on Dune, or some documentary about ants??? It’s all fun to me… 

That being said, there are countless career moments that stick out to me that I’m proud of. One of those was the first day I walked into Hans’ studio. I was hired as an assistant, and didn’t ever expect to work with Hans, but was excited because I’d always been a fan. I’d even written a paper in college about The Lion King’s ‘Stampede.’ Another moment was watching the opening night of a huge show I mixed in Dubai for AR Rahman, which gave me a big ‘I can do anything’ feeling. Also, I’ve helped record Coldplay, which was honestly just a big teenage fan-girl moment. When I imagine myself as a teenager meeting my current self, I see nothing but a great role model which I think is maybe my definition of success. 

It’s interesting because it sounds like you refuse to be boxed in, that you look at something and go, ‘hey, this is another moment for me to try something else’ would that be a fair understanding of what I’m hearing you say here? 

Yeah. I just get bored so easily, that I like to switch up my experiences and environments. I’m an extrovert so I don’t always like being locked up in my own room/studio, I also enjoy working at other studios. Working at Remote Control, for example, is always a fun experience because when I work there it’s very collaborative, and I love working with those people. I don’t like limiting myself to certain genres, which is why I like doing a variety of things, but my current favourite is definitely film scores. Even though working on a variety of projects can be really frustrating, I like a challenge. That’s why audio is fun, because with music and recording, you’re always learning new stuff. This industry is constantly changing.

How much of a part does reverb play in your mixing process?

A massive amount. I like to call myself a bit of a reverb whore because I always use too much reverb. I’m always getting told to turn my reverbs down, which I’m getting better at. I do a lot of 5.1 surround mixing, and there’s many times I get sources from composers that are stereo so I’m putting reverbs on things to make them surround. There’s a bunch of different ways we can do that. We can use upmixers (I use Nugen Halo Upmix), or we can use delays to put things in the mix. 

There’s a couple of different settings in Cinematic Rooms that are good. I like Cinematic Rooms because it has EQ on it and it has very good short-sounding reverbs. One setting I like is Living Room, which is the thing that Alan [Meyerson] showed me. I’ll usually roll off the low end and I’ll put that on transient synths because we can’t really put long reverbs on transient elements because it’ll get all futzed up. Also, composers often give us sounds with reverbs on them and in film mixing, it’s not our job to change the mix entirely, we just need to make it sound a little bit better than what the mix is because there’s higher powers in a film. It’s not just the composer being like, ‘this is my music’, it’s the director’s opinion as well. So, I’m not putting delays, I’m not putting giant reverbs, I can’t really do that. In order to get things surround, I’ll add a short reverb on sounds just to get them in a room, then I’ll adjust the rears up if I’m not getting enough information. I’ll often do that if I don’t end up using an upmixer or if I don’t end up using delays.

Cinematic Rooms GUI

Even though you wouldn’t use a regular delay, would you often use pre-delay on a reverb just to push it out a bit more sometimes, just to create a sense of space? 

Yeah, I won’t use pre-delay if it’s like a pulse, but on strings I use a pre-delay to kind of mimic what a room would be for a pre-delay for a reverb. So for long strings, I use Cinematic Rooms, Large Hall usually, and then for short strings, I’ll take it from 285 to the 220, I’ll take it down to 160 or even shorter because for short strings I find it more effective to have a shorter reverb because, once again, if you have something transient, it’s just bleeding over and you’re just getting a big wash of reverb. 

The common wisdom from somebody who’s outside of your world would think that when you’re using reverbs on strings and stuff like that, you’d have big, long, extended tails, but you keep talking about short reverb times, which is really interesting.

I recently did this cue for the end of a movie I can’t talk about, but it’s incredible and there’s so many things in the session. We sometimes get 60 stems from a composer, and then we get an orchestra and then we get live this and live that, so you would think that, yes, you’d want this big lush sound. But the problem is, we start getting an overload of frequencies in there, and if you need a big melody to cut through something, you don’t really want a really long reverb because you need the reverb to get out of the way before the next note comes in, especially when the melodies are fast.

In some ways it sounds like you are kind of a musical air traffic controller at LAX, because there’s so many things coming at you and you don’t want them to hit each other, you’ve got to just land them at the right moment. 

Exactly, and a thing to keep in mind about orchestral recordings is that the room mics are really important for capturing the full spectrum of the performance of the orchestra. For example, Abbey Road is pretty reverberant, so for the mix you sometimes end up pulling those room mics down a bit more than normal.

A few months ago I was talking to Chris Fogel about Oppenheimer, and he was telling me about the horns, which were recorded in the balcony at AIR Studios, and he said the reverb time was just huge and he starts with that before he starts doing his own thing on it.

Yep, they do that. A lot of people put horns up there because it gives you that really big, powerful, reverby sound so you sometimes don’t really need too much reverb. Also, Alan taught me a method a long time ago where he uses different reverb feeds to be able to control the flavours of reverb you send to the orchestra. 

It’s basically one bus set to zero, sending to three auxes, and then those three auxes are feeding to three separate reverbs. So the source is sending full level at all times to three auxes, that you can bring up to taste. You push one up, signal goes through, going into reverb, push the other one up, same thing, and so on. The third one is usually a really long reverb, I typically set mine to five or six or even seven seconds long. So when you have any kind of long orchestral thing playing, and it ends when there is nothing else is playing, you can automate that aux up at the end so that it’s pushing that sound into the reverb, which then feathers the reverb out to create a smooth ending. So, with a long, long reverb, that’s kind of the scenario we will use it in. 

Which presets are you using in Cinematic Rooms?

Amethyst Hall is an amazing preset, I just leave it on there. For choirs, I use Dark Hall because I’ll often get choirs from composers that are very bright. I’ll take out the highs and add high high frequencies in, and then I’ll put a dark reverb on it just to fill out the space and give it an emulation to feel like they’re actually in a room. So, for brighter things, I’ll use darker reverbs and then for darker things, like a piano, sometimes I’ll put more of like an ethereal thing, like Gloss Hall. I really like Gloss Hall. I kind of modify that a bit, but that’s something that I’ve really got used to using that I really like on pianos and stuff.

What would you say to 16 year old Eva as a piece of advice that you think would stand her in good stead, or even just young people wishing they could do what you do? 

Just stay true to yourself because that intuition is going to guide you. Where you feel right and where you feel comfortable is the compass for what you should be doing. If you don’t feel right and you don’t feel comfortable, you may not be on the right path.

Piggybacking off that, I would say stay patient, and know that no experience is ever going to be the end of the world. Whatever you mess up one day is not the end of your career, so get back up and believe that you’re going to succeed the next. I once had a teacher tell me a very smart thing after I’d had a failure of a day at school, which was, ’Eva, in this business, one day is going to be the best day of your life, and the next day is going to be the worst.’ So, when needed, I’ll remind myself ‘today’s terrible, but tomorrow will be better’. I encourage people to build up resilience in their personality, and warn them that they’ll also have to build up resilience in a lot of other ways. 

You’ve talked about your ADHD and it seems you’ve leaned into it, rather than let it limit you. That’s got to be a strong lesson for people, that you’ve not allowed that to be a limiting factor in your life, you almost allowed it to be a springboard in your life. 

Yeah, definitely. No matter your mental handicap (which I believe a lot of creative people have in the music industry hahaha) I feel like it can always be beneficial. Certain doctors believe I have a mild case of multiple personality disorder, and if that’s true, I guess it’s benefited me to have someone inside of me that tells me to keep going, even when I want to quit. There’s been a lot of times where I’ve had cycle thoughts like, ‘this is not fun, this is financially not fun, this is emotionally not fun’. Sometimes I have to let the purely positive personality take the reins regardless of delusion, because that inner voice reflects on all the moments music has changed my life’s outlook. I think a lot of friends would agree they’re the same way.

ADHD has its upsides and downsides. A positive thing I’ve noticed is that myself and other people with focus problems are often able to successfully handle lots of responsibilities with ease. We tend to thrive in high pressure situations because we think really fast and like to problem solve. This has really come in handy in situations where things don’t go the way you were expecting them to.

Having ADHD also comes with the gift of hyper-focus, which is really beneficial for completing tasks I’m interested in. There are also some funny downsides to that. There were many times when Alan would walk into the studio while I was working, and I was so laser focused that I’d jump out of my chair when I heard him in the back of the room!

I often tell people to lean into their weird mental quirks/handicaps. Sometimes I feel my personality is off-putting as an engineer because I’m so outgoing, but over time I’ve learned that being your authentic self will lead you to where you want to be. Hans is a great example of someone who respects and fosters people’s authenticity. He has this close crew of insanely talented and quirky musicians. I’ve never witnessed Hans say, ‘you shouldn’t act that way’. It’s never like that. He recognises that each person’s personality and skills bring something to the table, which is why I really admire him as a producer. I admire people like him and Alan because they’ve always pushed me. When I get shy or nervous, I think of my mentors saying ‘Eva, you need to speak up’ and that motivates me to really grab life by the balls, be confident, and go forward.

These days I encourage everybody to exploit whatever diagnosis they have as much as possible. If you work endlessly, and your career becomes your whole identity, you need to keep your personality infused with it.