Ryan “Skinny” Shanahan is a Grammy-winning audio engineer and mixer best known for his artistry with Interscope Records and eight years in the studio of EDM artist/producer Anton Zaslavski, better known as Zedd. Shanahan’s work is behind Zedd’s Clarity, including the album’s multi-Platinum-selling single of the same name. He divides his time between Zedd’s studio, which is currently being revamped and from where the last three Zedd singles were made, and his home studio in L.A. Serious but enthusiastic and a fan of simplicity, Shanahan’s creative imprint is echoed in the sounds of blockbuster artists in every pop genre: Selena Gomez, Maren Morris, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen, Avicii, John Legend, Arty, Will Sparks, Porter Robinson, Audien, Matthew Koma, Aloe Blacc, Lindsey Sterling, Pitbull, Macy Grey, Pussycat Dolls, Jeff Bhasker, and many more.
Ryan’s approach is at its heart fresh and modern. A loyal fan of that signature Auto-Tune 5 sound and a recent convert to Pro, for Shanahan, Auto-Tune offers precise intonation, sonic quality, and creative effects. Even more than that, it’s a tool he believes music makers can’t live without. “It’s the sound of a modern vocal,” he says. “It adds very small artifacts that give a vocal a certain quality. It’s like using a Neve preamp to give the vocal color: Even if something is not needed for correction purposes, not having it there is almost strange to me at this point. I will always put a little bit on extremely light, just to get a little extra sheen on the very final vocal.”
Auto-Tune doesn’t serve Shanahan as a detailed correctional tool, because typically he’s working with vocals that don’t necessarily need that manipulation. “We spend days and days doing a single vocal,” he explains of his production sessions. “When we comp we’re very, very, very studious about what we do.”
He used to print those vocals with Auto-Tune, but his approach has changed as technology has evolved. “I did a lot of sessions with pop and hip hop artists and writing sessions back in the day,” he explains. “In sessions like that, it’s more so about getting the idea out as fast as you can rather than getting a final performance that you’re going to be comping together. In that case, we’d always just record the Auto-Tune. You had to back then because computers weren’t as powerful. You couldn’t use it in as many instances as a plug-in.”
These days, when Shanahan goes into the studio to record a vocal, if he and the singer agree, he monitors through Auto-Tune, extremely lightly, which works like a safety net to make sure pitch is right where it needs to be—and to give it that little edge. Most singers like to have it on, and Shanahan can get things done faster—using Auto-Tune to “smooth out any little bits” and to finish vocals and get them locked in in real time.
Shanahan has gone “off-roading” with Auto-Tune now and then, such as manipulating formants on a pitched vocal. And he has plans to work with Auto-Tune live in the future. But the way he sees it, in terms of his creative process in the studio, Auto-Tune is a core utility that enables him to reach his engineering and mixing goals. “It’s essential,” he says. “I can’t live without it; it wouldn’t be a final vocal without this plug-in, you know what I mean? It’s kind of invaluable that way. If you’ve ever worked on vocals, ever, you have to have this. It’s a non-discussion; it’s just something you’ve got to have.”
Music and Technology Writer
Sarah Jones is a writer, musician, and content producer who chronicles the creative and technical forces that drive the music industry. She's served as editor-in-chief of Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician magazines and is currently the live sound editor of Live Design magazine. She’s a longtime board member in the San Francisco chapter of The Recording Academy, where she develops event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.