An Aklasu Portrait: Ryan Mackstaller
Professional guitarist and owner of Red Panda Recording in Brooklyn, NY, Ryan Mackstaller has always explored and navigated the space between science—the world of logic and technology—and creation—music and expression and art. His early years coincided with the advent of the personal computer and the technology fascinated him. But he also held “a private desire” to learn to play the guitar. Machines and music. These coalesced at age 8 in his first rig: A black Fender Stratocaster copy guitar, and a 10-watt Fender solid-state amp.
Initially, this created understandable confusions about something as odd and fascinating as electricity and magnetism become sound. “Notes are invisible; shapes and patterns [on the guitar ] were a complete mystery at first.”
Enter Joyce Lucido, Ryan’s music teacher for nine years. About Joyce, Ryan doesn’t mince words: “Everything I do musically is because of her.” Joyce began what would become extensive training and mentorship with fundamentals: to learn to read music and to learn the instrument, to know the guitar. “She made it logical,” Ryan explains, “brought almost a mathematical orientation.” With a balance of the logical and the mysterious in place, Ryan forged ahead.
After several years of such training and practice, the grunge era of music that hit when Ryan was in middle school was easily accessible to him and he formed his first band in 8th grade. Soon enough though, he was drawn to the blues and his first taste of improvisational music. By high school, fairly obsessed with the brilliant and challenging world of jazz, he would eventually perform Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” arranged for solo guitar.
As his playing evolved, so to did a skill that extends well beyond music: “Jazz and improv is so much intense listening, to the music, to the players, their specific moves. Then you have to respond.”
Barely out of high school, Ryan then challenged himself to write and record a jazz record. This introduced him to a whole new world of technology and the complex process of recording.
“Recording that first record, and eventually records for friends, I just thought, well, I can pay for time in a recording studio, or I could take that money, buy a good microphone, and figure out how to record. I just usually chose the latter.”
Ryan was in his element. With a natural and trained musical ear and a fascination with electronics, he soon became the guy in the room who understood how everything was working, or, often of greater value, why it wasn’t.
In 2005, Ryan made a significant move to New York City. The musical opportunities and musicians with whom to play and record didn’t disappoint. Beyond the hundreds of experiences writing, performing, and recording jazz and rock music, he even arranged the complex classical music of Bela Bartok’s Microcosmos for guitar, trombone, and drums. No doubt, Joyce was proud.
Such extensive playing in bands, creating guitar parts, developing arrangements, really began to focus Ryan’s attention on the entity of the song, how to build and record and “realize” a good song. As a result, more and more Ryan found himself behind the console, engineering and producing the making of records, where his intense listening as a musician was paired with a more personal listening to artists about their musical vision. A producer, he explains, “has to be responsible for each singular piece of each song and for the overall project, communicating with everyone in the band, getting things to mesh together.”
This combination of musical ability, listening, and a song-based approach to recording manifested itself quite naturally in Red Panda Recording, a meticulous, boutique music recording company in an expansive and changing technological world.
“I’m very interested in the way music is being created and consumed: digital recording, streaming, a lack of any physical object. I want to embrace the new ways, to facilitate getting music out there, and also be mindful of the complexities technology creates for the presentation of music. But I also want to work to make great music, and this requires a personal understanding of the artist and his or her musical goals. This has to come first.”
Relationship, then, is an essential part of the process. “For someone to bring their work to me and allow me to help, to influence it, that takes trust. There’s a responsibility on me, then, to establish a dialogue and determine how to best serve the process, their vision.” Thus, Red Panda works to create a more intimate partnership in the development of an artist’s work, to create an appropriate working structure and plan, and then, eventually, to cultivate a post-recording life for the music.
When pressed to identify great albums, someone with Ryan’s listening and playing experience understandably hesitates. So many to choose from, and the dichotomous issues of great songs or great production, simplicity or complexity, etc. Reluctantly, he agrees to name two very different landmarks: “Radiohead’s OK Computer, of course. A great sounding record, with powerful performances, but it also just shifted the balance of art and popular music, changed the landscape, what was possible in mainstream music.” The other, John Coltrane. “A Love Supreme, obviously, but also Live at Village Vanguardfrom 1962. To hear someone improvising on one chord for twenty minutes with such raw emotion reminds you what music is all about in the first place. It should make you feel something.”