“I moved directly on out to Los Angeles, sight unseen. Just did kinda the cliche: pack your bags and go.”
Sean Phelan is self-effacing when he tells his story, as though it all happened to him — as though he’s the luckiest guy in the world. But demand is rising for the skills of the engineer and mixer from Cedar Rapids, who has worked with everyone from Pharrell Williams and Mary J. Blige to Migos — he engineered their 2018 album Culture II — and current phenom Roddy Ricch, whose track “The Box” recently hit a seventh week at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Phelan is also credited on Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, including the song “Jerome,” which won Lizzo a Grammy award this year for Best Traditional R&B Performance.
Sphere Studios, where he’s worked in the past, was the studio that called him in on the Lizzo album back in 2018.
“It was great to see it come to fruition, have some legs to it,” Phelan said. “It’s kind of rare … 80 percent of the stuff may never see the light of day, then all of a sudden that 20 percent shines a light on everything else. … That was a really cool experience, but just kind of happenstance.”
Born in Mason City, Phelan’s family moved to Cedar Rapids when he was just a baby. Music has been baked into him since birth: Both his parents were music teachers. And his brother is guitarist Ryan Phelan (Dr. Z’s Experiment), a key player on the current Cedar Rapids music scene. He calls music “a pivotal part of growing up.” He and his siblings took Suzuki piano lessons from the time they were 6 years old.
Phelan graduated in 2001 from Washington High School in Cedar Rapids.
“I did band, choir, and all that stuff — mostly for the easy As a lot of the time, and also because it was kind of just second nature.”
He was primarily a percussionist, then, and he went to the University of Northern Iowa right after high school on a percussion scholarship. But he only stayed “for a little bit.” He “got the production bug” and transferred to Full Sail University in Florida, known for its audio engineering program and networking opportunities.
After graduation, he headed for L.A. — “just packed up my old car and drove it on out from Florida.” He started in 2006 as an errand boy for Larrabee North studio, fetching “whatever artists could come up with, their wildest dreams.” He was drawn there by the studio’s reputation as one of the top mixing studios in town, and by the presence of one mixer in particular who, Phelan said, he was hoping to model his career after.
“I was constantly, as a student (and still am), searching through credits and seeing who worked on what, trying to tie dots together … trying to learn the behind-the-scene. And one name that came up on a lot of the projects I really liked was Manny Marroquin.”
Phelan calls Marroquin “a living legend in his own right.” He decided to reach out to him over email, taking a stab by just grabbing an address he found on a website.
“I wasn’t getting anything back!” Phelan said. “I was doing these stupid updates, you know, when you just have blind, young ambition. It’s like, ‘Hey Manny, I’m on my fourth month of school here, and I’m learning about this,’ just kind of giving him updates. And I didn’t really hear anything back. And I was like, ‘Ah, forget about it. I’m not going to email him anymore. This is dumb; nobody’s getting these.’”
A couple of months went by and suddenly, Phelan said, he got a response.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, you should be on your such-and-such month of school by now,’ ‘Thanks for reaching out’ — so he was keeping up with it, without reaching back.”
Marroquin offered more than just a response. He told Phelan that if he ever made it out to L.A., he should check in with him about an internship.
“I can literally remember the day in class when I got that email. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I made it!’ Little did I know an internship meant no pay, meant no — but it was just the opportunity to even do that.”
He ended up getting that gig, grabbing coffee for the man he admired rather than working under him (“I wouldn’t necessarily call him a mentor as much as something I was chasing after”). But the two have worked often together since. Marroquin mixed the title track of Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, which Phelan also engineered. And Phelan says he sends him projects regularly.
“It’s kind of come full circle now,” he said.
After Larrabee North, Phelan had a chance to move into actually doing the work, as an assistant in a small private studio. But after the first couple of months, he started to freelance. He took a lot of work at Paramount Recording Studios in Hollywood as one of their on-call engineers, and he also worked on some long-term projects, such as with Cee-Lo Green (Phelan has writing or production credits on many of the tracks on Green’s 2015 album Heart Blanche).
Now, in addition to his freelance work as an engineer and mixer, he’s a studio owner. Silver Lining Studios, in Sherman Oaks, California is a three-room studio that he both works out of and rents out to producers — a “sound hotel” he called it, for everyone from people just getting started in their careers to multi-platinum Grammy winners just looking for a space to create for a day.
And the tasks he’s undertaking are just as versatile. Sometimes he’ll be recording or producing vocals, programming drums or putting keyboards on. But sometimes, he said, “you might just be there to plug in a laptop and get people coffee some days, too.”
That versatility to what he does now — “you kind of have to be a chameleon in a sense,” he said — is something that Phelan says he loves.
“Every single day you walk in here — I’m walking in the front door right now; I really don’t know what I’m walking into! You don’t really know what your day’s going to entail; you don’t know who’s going to come by. Especially being in Los Angeles — you can have the craziest things happening, or nothing at all.”
But he also says he loves just helping people make music: the opportunity to “float under the radar,” he said, “but still be around a lot of creative geniuses, a lot of different people who are changing culture and moving the needle on different creative mediums. That’s also what really excites me: you’re just close enough to it, but just far enough removed from it as well, where you can live your own private life.”
He credits his early and immersive introduction to music for being able to create this kind of versatile existence.
“More than anything, it taught me how to interact with musicians and speak their language, in a sense. I wouldn’t call myself a virtuoso by any means — I just know enough to be dangerous. But I can assist in anything.”
Much of the work he gets called in on are productions that, he says, are at “the 75 percent mark.” He compares it to framing a great painting.
“That’s where I come in a lot of times: ‘How can we put this all together to actually see a finished, thorough project?’ And whether that includes maybe remaking the drums, or re-recording, maybe do some strings, maybe put a choir on it. That’s the producing that I’m more involved in. It’s not necessarily from the origin point, it’s more from the finishing aspect. Just putting that final gloss coat on it.”
Phelan refers to Silver Lining as a “boutique studio,” which he keeps well-stocked with top notch gear. Even though he acknowledges that records are made “all the way from in bedrooms to million-dollar studios,” he believes in having “the best of the best, because you’re going up against everything.” And the most important element of that, he says, is the microphone.
“It’s our hammer as a craftsman, basically,” he said.
His favorite is the Telefunken 251; he uses it daily.
“But it’s really also a game of computers,” he said. “Having to constantly expand your wealth of knowledge … It’s constantly evolving. There’s always a new plug-in that pops up, a new sound or reference, some new piece of gear that pops up. You have to know all the old and all the new.”
To keep up to date, he stays curious — he learns from everyone he works alongside and every producer that comes through his studio.
“It’s a combination of stealing and learning,” he said, laughing.
But he also regularly attends the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention to see what’s new and fresh. “Engineering has kind of become a whole different industry of its own now — different schools, different online tutorials. It’s kind of the Wild West of music production; everyone’s getting into it … the knowledge is always expanding.”
When he talks about his craft, it’s clear that there is more than luck at play in his success. Phelan is savvy and passionate, and his laid-back demeanor doesn’t quite manage to mask how driven he is. His fervor and dedication make it clear why artists and producers keep coming back to him on projects — and it’s only a matter of time before young, ambitious college kids are noticing that his name keeps popping up on all their favorite tracks.
Genevieve Trainor loves the finishing aspect of editing, putting a final gloss coat on a great piece of writing. Perhaps instead of “editor,” she’ll start calling herself an “engineer and mixer” — of words. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 280.