Studio insights from Ryan Hewitt, Grammy-winning engineer and producerVideo: Ryan Hewitt Interview
The engineers and producers who had the chance to receive a proper education by assisting studio legends may be fewer and fewer, but some of them are really keen to give it back to the new breed of music recording enthusiasts. Ryan Hewitt is definitely one of these super-nice-but-serious engineers who talk about music with passion and a certain respect for well-done craft. Being the son of David Hewitt, a studio pioneer himself, Ryan has always been immersed in this particular environment with a vision and a work ethic that he likes to share these days through his work and the seminars he leads. Audiofanzine had a chance to meet Ryan during one of these seminars that he recently gave in France.
Here's the video of the interview. If you want to read along, scroll down for a transcript.
Hey Ryan! We are at the Jukebox HQ in Paris, it's cool to see you here! You've been leading some engineering courses in France for two weeks. Can you tell us a little bit more about this new stuff for you?
Yeah I've been interested in teaching seminars for quite a while because I think that the "disconnect " between assistant or apprentice and engineering, mixing and producing is very apparent these days, with the lack of studios. So very very few people get the experience that I had, coming up as an intern, then assistant and then engineer and then mixer and so on... With this sort of traditional "journeyman" approach to learning this craft. Because this is a craft. This is an art. So teaching seminars to young and old professionals, of all ages, of all abilities, is just really exciting! I started at a company in the United States called Studio Prodigy, actually about a year ago now ; they do exactly this. I did a seminar, and Ross Hogarth (Van Halen, Devildriver, Miley Cyrus, Motley Crue, Jewel...) did a seminar, Al Schmitt did one as well in Los Angeles... You know, Mix With The Masters has been doing extremely well and a really great work from what I hear. So the one I did is a company called Audio Creative Factory, it's the MAO center in Toulouse. Yann Sera over there called me up and he said : "Would you like to teach two weeks of seminars in France?" - Of course I would! Yes! I'd love to!
Michael Wagener came over in November and did the same thing; it was a big success. So we did a week in Paris at Studio de la Chine - it's not far from here - a week in Toulouse at the Creative Center's Headquarter. It was really fun; people of all ages and from all over France. It's only for french people who are professional and earn a living in the music industry. So we had engineers who are just starting out, who just graduated some recording school or had a bedroom studio. And then we had guys who have been in their fifties and sixties, who were songwriters and composers, and engineers who've done commercials their whole lives and wanted to know about making rock records! You know, mixing or whatever. So it was pretty amazing, it was a broad range of attendees, just the nicest people, I've been so impressed with the quality of people who came, and just how cool they were and how open to absorbing new ideas and knowledge. It was a really incredible experience.
So you had a good time? With good food and wine as well?!
Yeah, pretty awesome! Oh... food and wine... !
Before talking about your working methods and ethics, I'd like to go back to the beginning of your career. I read that you're a drummer, and your father, David Hewitt, is one of the founders of the Record Plant Remote Service. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you started? Did your dad had a major influence on your work?
Well, you know... Growing up, my dad had the coolest job in the world. No one else on the block had their father going on recording The Rolling Stones or U2 or, you know, this type of people. And I was just fascinated, as any kid would be. I liked cars and trucks so here is a truck, and here is music, and here is travel; to a 13-year old that's like the coolest thing on the planet! So, from a very young age, I wanted to - and I was also sort of forced to! - go out with my father on the road, in summertime between school, mainly to get me out of the house, out of my mother's hair! It was sort of forced labor for my father who didn't have to really pay me! [Laughs] Just kidding! Just kidding! He paid me... like 2 dollars an hour....!! [Laughs] That was the longest internship known to man! So I started when I was 13 and worked every summer and every break that I had from school, for my dad. After school, in the shop, when we finally moved to Pennsylvania, we had the truck in the backyard of the house. We had a 10-acre property out in the country so the truck was in the barn behind our house at that point. So yes I worked after school and during summer's vacations, whatever, and yes, it was pretty great.
So I mean my first recordings... I had a little cassette studio and a little quarter-inch 2-Track, when I was 10-11-12 year-old but then my first real band recording was a Neve VR and a 24-tracks Studer! [Laughs] I was pretty spoiled! We had a A827 and nice microphones, things like this that I got to record my high school band with. But my father was very supportive of being in the business and of course had an influence on me because I learnt, you know, "This is how I like to get my kick drum sound", "This is how I like to get my vocal sound", "I'm very cautious about this", "I'm very open to this idea"... But it wasn't until I went to college for Electronic Engineering; his idea was : "Get an education in something legitimate that you can fall back on if you decide you don't wanna be a recording engineer." He said : "Go get this degree and when you're finished, we'll discuss and if you really wanna be a recording engineer, I'll support you in this idea. There are so many people you can learn from, you don't really need to go to College for this. Instead, go do this, have a different way of thinking, of music, of engineering, in a more empirical way."
You know, people who come out of recording schools can be a little narrow-minded about like "this is what I was taught to do X, Y and Z" rather than go and learn that from 10 guys making hit records. There are 10 different ways of doing this, well, infinite ways of doing any one thing. They go to a school and say "This is the way to do this, this is the way to do that..." I don't wanna paint with two broad brush - 'cause there are many very brilliant people who come out of recording schools - but then it becomes, or can become, a little narrowing to me. I prefer getting experience in the studio and learning from the guys that I wanna emulate. That was the biggest education to me.
And so, when I went to school for engineering, I spent all my time outside of the classroom doing music. So I actually took over the campus sound company; we had like a small sound reinforcement company, to do local gigs. I took that over, bought all new equipment. You know at that time the Mackie 8-bus was the cool thing to have and so I'm thinking "How can I do to record surreptitiously, without anybody knowing?!" [Laughs] So I started buying all this gear for "sound reinforcement" and then I had the keys to the warehouse that at night or on weekends I could bring bands in and do live to DAT demos. Then I got like a DA88, the Tascam machine, I would do 8-track recordings and mix it down afterwards and I thought it was all hot sh*t, doing these little recordings... But I recorded like every band on campus and did all these demos. I was like "Wow, this is exciting, this is what I wanna be doing!" And all my friends are sitting there doing, you know, like FFT transfers, formulas and derivative problems, stuff like that... « This s*cks! This is bullsh*t! »[Laughs] I mean this is cool and I didn't realize at that time how cool this was; like I wish I could go back and design my own compressor, things like this. Maybe in the future, I can have time to play with that a little bit more... 'Cause it is exciting, all my friends who make this cool equipment have that knowledge and use it everyday of course. But, to sit at the desk and think about what that filter is doing and what that compressor is doing and be able to fix stuff when it's broken.... I have an idea of signal flow; these are the things that I learnt I think from the electrical engineering school. And again, it added to the passion to record, out of boredom ! [Laughs] Like "I don't wanna sit in front of a computer all day!" And I guess that's what I do now...! It's rather amusing and ironic ! [Laughs]
This is your electrical engineering period but then, you moved to Sony Studios. First, how did you make the move from school to Sony Studios and then, what did you learn there?
Well, I say this all the time - and I mean it every single time - I feel so fortunate and so blessed to have a father in this business. And not only that, but to have a dad who cares about my experience in life and what I get to do. And so from a young age, I started going to these AES shows; I can remember going to one when I was 15 and earlier than that. Going to Record Plant parties, where he worked in New York and meeting Dave Thoener, Jack Douglas and all these guys when I was just a boy! So I would meet all these people through the years and it just came to pass that the former manager of Record Plant, Paul Slomann, managed Sony Studios. I was looking for an internship and my father called him and he arranged for me to have an internship. I worked for free for two summers at Sony, and worked my ass off, worked harder than everybody else, I was asked to come back and they gave me a job. I did fight for that; everyone else wanted the job too but I was one of the only interns who got a job afterwards. And once I got that job as a runner, 5$ an hour, after hundred of thousands dollars education in electrical engineering, living in New York City on 5$ an hour was a chore but again I worked harder than everybody else and I got promoted pretty quick to assistant, thanks to ...
I mean, yeah, the short story is : I took a gig that no one else wanted as an engineer on 4th July weekend. One of the techs got a free day studio time and he asked every assistant to do it and they all said "No!" He asked every runner to do it and I was the last guy, 'cause I was the newest. I said : "F*ck yeah, I'll do it!" I came in on the 4th of July - big holiday in America - and recorded this thing and it just happened that his friend walks in, he's a big engineer and he says : "Who are you?" - I'm just a runner! And he's like : "Not anymore, you're my assistant next week!" And actually ironically we worked on a french band called Laplace, the next week. I was assisting Kirk Yano who's a great engineer in America and a very good friend of mine and we were mixing this band Laplace! And I learnt so much from him, he kicked my ass up and down the studio and taught me so much. Then I became like "the low man on the totem pole" for assisting and I assisted all the staff engineers. Because they had to make sure I was good enough to assist guest engineers... and they kicked my ass up and down the studio!
Apparently I was a smart-ass so they made me assist Michael Brauer ! That was the biggest challenge of my life. I was sitting in a chair next to that guy, you know, this big mixer guy (looking stunned), just like "Wow! Ok! I got up my game now! I got to take it to the next level !" And so I got rid of my smart-ass routine... 'Cause I have a very interesting sense of humour, I'd like to be a little silly, you know, whatever...! I thought I knew so much 'cause I got promoted so quickly and I had this little thing going. And as soon as I was in the room with Michael Brauer - who really did know what was going on and how to get it together - I was like "Oh! I'm NOT that guy! I wanna be that guy! I want that guy's job! But I'm not that guy and I'm gonna sit over here and learn how to do that!" And so that part of me was gone, instantaneously while I sat down in that room the first day. So I worked with Michael, he kicked my ass up and down the studio again for two years [Laughs]. He was very tough to work for but always very fair. When I f*cked up, he called me on it and I : "Yeah, that's my bad... I will never do that again." And I would never do that again! Whatever that was, I would never do that again. He could sense things like he would be sitting in the front of the room, I'd be sitting behind his wall of racks, bouncing my foot, and he'd turn around, looking at me between the crack in the racks and say : "Stop doing that." Or I'd be in the back and taking a nap, having been to the studio 'til 5 in the morning the night before and : " You fall asleep out there?!!" You know? [Laughs] - No!... Not at all! "I don't think so...!" [Laughs] He had like eyes in the back of his head! And to this day he's one of my very dear friends, and huge mentor in my career. I worked for him, I worked for Elliott Scheiner, I worked for Phil Ramone, Bob Power... Some really really great inspirational engineers who taught me so much about how to make great records and - beyond that - how to be a good person, because all these guys I've mentioned are like really stand-up guys, just the top.
This job is also a balance between personal and professional life.
Yeah, I mean, that's a whole other topic that we can have lots of beers and discuss but... [Laughs] But you know those guys taught me how to be professional and how to get the job done in very, very different ways, you know? Bob Power mixes a record in a completely differently way than Elliott Scheiner, completely differently than Michael Brauer, but those guys are friends, and the common thread is listening and having your personality come through in a record. Michael has a very distinct personality and that comes across in a record. He's the boss. He's THE boss of THAT mix. He's gonna kick that mixe's ass. And that's what it sounds like! It sounds like (crossing arms) "Yeah..." That's what his mixes sound like to me! Like "Hmm hmm...!" And then Elliott is like very hi-fi, also in control, but in a very different way. And then Bob is like... Like if you meet Bob, you understand his personality and that's how his mixes are like : "Oh yeah, that's a Bob Power mix!" And same with Manny Marroquin and Tony (Maserati), their personalities... When you meet them, then when you listen to their records again and "Wow... I hear that guy! I hear that Fedora hat again, in the mix!" [Laughs] I mean, it's totally ridiculous to say that but, when you meet these guys and then hear the mixes, you understand where those mixes come from.
I met Michael and he once explained me that he asked his assistants to recall the color of the patch cables, just to make sure that every patch cable would be the same for the recall mix.
Hahaha! [Laughs] That's his thing, that's great!
We talked about Sony Studios. You then moved to LA. You went to Cello Studios. How did you make the move from New York to LA? Why? And what did differ in LA from NY?
It's funny, I mean, another event in my fortunate career was... Well, part of working with Michael Brauer, was working together when the SSL 9000 came out. And so I was one of the first assistants at Sony to learn the console along with my buddy Dave Swope. And so when Brauer wanted to move to the 9k, I got to meet all the guys from SSL, Don Wershba and bunch of other guys in NY who've all kind of left now. Don's still there! But I started working for SSL and teaching people how to use the 9k in New York. And they also had the Axiom MT come out at the same time - which is like a digital version of that console - and I taught people how to use that as well. Just about the time I was getting sick of NYC, their guy in LA quit. And they said : "Hey, can you come out, we need you to come to LA right away, to take this guy's position at least temporarily, and see if you like it..." - Ok, cool!
So I go to LA and it turned out to be this incredible job of basically going to every studio in Los Angeles and updating software on SSL 9000s. Pretty much every day. Again, teaching people how to use them, helping the sales guys to sell them to engineers, producers and studios and this kind of thing. So in the process I met every studio manager in LA and many great producers and engineers that otherwise I would not have come across. As a result I met Candace (Stewart, Cello Studio manager) and Gary (Myerberg, Cello Studio Chief Engineer) at Cello when we sold them a 9k, I installed it and taught people how to use it, blah blah blah... I ran into Jim Scott in the hallway, as we do... We were talking earlier (off, NFA) about the magic of big multi-room facilities... He's like : "Hey, what you do, what are you working on ?..." I just happened to run into Jim Scott, who I'd met briefly in New York City, and he's like : "What are you doing here?!" I said :"Well, working for SSL, installing this console..." "Why are you doing that?!" [Laughs] I told him the whole story. "Oh, got it, that's cool! You should work here!" I said : "That'd be nice! That would be very cool...."
A week goes by, I ran into him again - 'cause basically when I didn't have anything to do at the office, I'd go to Cello - because it was just fun to hang out with those guys! There's always something going on, someone making a cool record. Bill Bottrell was there at that time, it was just this whole... magic time at that studio. Jerry Finn was there, Jerry Harrisson form the Talking Heads was there, Rich Costey was there, like, you know... Dave Schiffmann was engineering a record here, Andrew Scheps was over there, Rick Rubin was in this room, Jim Scott of course. There was this hub of like intense energy happening at this studio. I wanted to hang out there whenever I could. Again, I ran into Jim Scott in the hall and he's like : "Hey, my assistant just quit out of nowhere. He's been working for me for 3 years, he just quit, he's done with the business, he's going to work on his parents' farm. You wanna work for me?" I said : "Yes!" [Laughs] I went to SSL and I quit! [Laughs] That day! And that was September, 10th. The next day, september 11th happens and I'm like : "Oh sh***, I don't have a job!" 'Cause now all the studio productions have been postponed, everything is up in the air in America, it's all crazy. And of course everything sort of settled down and came back and then I worked with Tom Petty, and the Chili Peppers, all these great records in a row, with Jim Scott. And yes, working in New York was very different from LA, very different vibe, like "It's cool, man, everything's fine..." It has to be professional but there was this veneer of like - oh not a veneer, because it's not artificial - but there is this sort of "glowing" sense of "cool" in California, that's a little more relaxed; sh** still gotta get done and be tight, like in New York but it's just a little more relaxed...
Jim was very different than Michael, you know. Michael is like very precise, lots of outboard gear, all this kind of thing; whereas Jim was like, big Neve console, big Fairchild compressor, big Gates compressor, go! Play, stop, I can mix anything! [Laughs] You know what I mean? That was his sort of attitude, like the complete opposite, hardly any outboard gear, and just like mixed in 3 hours. Boom, cool, it's done, here is my sound! We did a lot of recording, a lot of mixing; I learnt a lot from Jim. Again, like a very dear friend and a mentor to me. So that's where I started getting my gigs, working with Jim. Again, like sort of we were discussing earlier, Jim runs out of time to do this gig and he's like : "Hey, you go in that room and YOU do it!" Ok, cool! Now I'm working with John Frusciante! [Laughs] What is this? How the hell do I get here?! [Laughs] But again, keeping that work ethic going and working harder than anybody else, working harder than the guy in the chair you wanna be in. Because when I sat down with Jim, I was like : "This is incredible, Jim has got such a great vibe going..." He's got these tapestries and these christmas lights and all this cool gear and all these microphones, everything set up in a very certain way. "This is what I wanna do! I want his chair. I wanna be Jim Scott. I wanna do what he does."
And so I observed and tried to stay a step ahead of him and, you know, I must have done something right 'cause he would give me these jobs! That's sort of how everything progressed. The long story! [Laughs]
But that's a very very cool and interesting story!
It's a lot of fun and the thing that I think about most in the progression from intern with my dad at age 13 to engineer, mixer and producer at the age 39 is just : "Nose to the grindstone". Keeping your wits about you and recognize the opportunity. People say they never work for free, and this kind of thing, but I wouldn't have got to where I am without working for free. At some stage in my life, at some crucial stage in my career, there's always been some kind of "freebie", whether it's producing an EP for a shitty little punk band, that I gave to Jerry Finn to get the Blink-182 job; or doing a test mix for Rick Rubin to get the Red Hot Chili Peppers record. Recognizing these opportunities is very crucial in this business.
Well, you have to be involved.
You have to be involved, you have to be out and about, you have to insert yourself into the place you want to be in. If you wanna be the top engineer and mixer, you gotta work for the top engineer and mixer. Find out how that guy does his thing. Then absorb that, and move on to the next guy. Find these places to learn. And if it's not working for these guys, it's then taking a seminar with them. Reading about it, but finding information from the place you wanna be. Not the place that's next to you, or the place that's beneath you, as many these online forums are, like guys arguing over which hundred-dollar Chinese tube condenser sounds best? That doesn't matter! Look at the guys who are making the successful records you wanna make! And find out what they're using. Find out how they think, how they hear and what they're listening for in a hundred-dollar Chinese capsule tube microphone, or what have you, whatever it is you're looking for. It's not about the piece of gear, it's about how you see it and what you're listening for. I can use a sh*tty little microphone to get a very hi-fidelity sound, but I have to think about : "How am I going to do that?" You know? Which sh*tty little microphone? Just put one in my hand and I would find a sound with it! It doesn't matter. Yes, I'd like to have X, Y and Z. I'd like to have this piece of outboard gear, I'd like to have this mic pre, ok, but today I don't! So what am I gonna do? I'm gonna use this one!
And do the best with it.
And I'm gonna do the best ! It's still gonna be my sound, because I place the microphone, I eq it, I compress it, I do whatever. If I don't have the optimal setup, I go to plug-ins or, you know, find a new way of doing things! But I'm still listening and I'm still looking for the sound that is mine. With this player, with this instrument, in this room, today. [Laughs] You know what I mean?! There's all these things, it's just like : "Oh but why don't you use that..?" - Well, I don't have that today. So I'm not using that today!
I understand. You're making the bridge to what I wanted to talk about next, which is gear and the way you work, and the pieces of outboard, microphones and other stuff you're using. I've seen that you have quite a broad collection of outboards and equipment. You set up your own studio, 1 or 2 years ago... What do you have? What do you use and why? What do you love? What do you always use in your sessions? Maybe let's start with the recording process...How do you set up a recording session? Which microphones do you use? I know you love Mojave microphones for example... Why?
I mean if we wanna start from the beginning of a recording session, when I get things set up, I set up for everything. When I was assisting Jim Scott, and now when I record for Rick Rubin, and when I do my own productions, I wanna be ready for anything. So being from a remote recording background, I have spare everything set up. Not only do I have the drums, my usual drum mics you know : kick inside, kick outside, sub kick, snare top, snare bottom, toms, cymbals, hi hat, room, blah blah blah... I have an extra couple microphones sitting around, just in case... "Oh we need to do a percussion overdub" - Yep, I got that. No problem. "Oh we need like a crazy room sound!" - Yeah, I got that. No problem. It's sitting right there, ready to go. With Rick, everything's live so we do drums, bass, guitars, vocals, fiddle, whatever's in the band, that's present. Everything's recording all together.
At the same time?
Yeah, at the same time. 'Cause it's all about the feel, you know, of getting a take of the song. No things can't be fixed, or overdubbed or edited later, whatever, but if everyone is playing, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. And so they play to that. They feel that.
And they build something from that.
And you're building something from that. You're not just playing the drums and then the guitars, and then the bass, the vocals and all these things that are artificially perfect - which can be cool, I make records like that too, that need to sound in that particular fashion - but the real passion I have is for making a live record in the studio. As much as possible. And again, I don't have any rules, like "Don't have to get this perfect right now, fine, that can be a scratch vocal, that can be a scratch part, that's fine!" but we need to know how this is gonna fit together. We have all these things set up, I like to take a DI from the guitars, if I can, so if we need to reamp it later. Because we've got to move fast, to catch this inspiration, and if the guitar player doesn't have the perfect guitar sound, we can reamp it later, fix it, whatever, but we have that moment, that feeling, that character, in his playing because the drummer's right there. He's seen the drummer and they're doing something together. That's off the moment and that won't never happen again, no matter how much you wanna try as an overdub; it won't be the same as sitting in the room - maybe in the same room as the drummer, maybe in a booth, or in the control room, who knows? - but THAT moment won't never happen again. And so if you have that DI you can reamp it, fix it, whatever, if I have to do that. I like to have the sound at that time but you can't spend an hour getting a guitar sound while the whole band is sitting around.
'Cause you need to move fast.
Yeah, you need to move fast, and again you need to keep that inspiration going so when I work like with Rick Rubin, we're doing 2, 3, 4 songs a day, in a short day, in a short span. He's like (snapping his fingers, looking at his watch) "Let's keep this train rolling, 'cause the band is hot!" He's not get bogged down in...choosing whether this overdrive pedal is better than this or... That kind of thing. Because if you get the feel right, you use your basic skills as a basic engineer to get a great sound at the get-go, stare off your own way, then it's gotta be pretty great.
Then it's easier to build, mix and produce.
Oh yeah! Talking about drums - because we were on this subject first - you have different and distinct sounds on the Avett Brothers than on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. How do you mic those drum kits? What are you using generally? Maybe you have some things that you always do, like ribbon microphones on overheads or rooms...? Do you have this particular mic that you "thrash" with a heavy compressor or a distortion....?
I mean, everything depends on everything else. And so, when I hear the band... Well, first of all, you gotta do your homework. So you have to listen to the band, their CD's beforehand and I like to ask bands : "What are you listening to? What are you into?" and then I sort of decide what direction I want to go in, with sounds. I LOVE drum sounds, I'm a drummer, I love getting really great drum sounds. I mean, I love getting great everything sounds, but drums in particular I find a big challenge because of all the microphones you sort of need to get a modern sound...
The phase issues...
Yeah, the phase issues, tuning issues. There are so many different things involved in a great drum sound, it's a huge challenge. So, when you have a great drummer, with the great drum set, in a great room, it's so easy. Everything else is easy. And whether you use this mic or that mic, is sort of a personal preference. It's like : "Do you like sugar in your coffee?", you know? I don't think like... again, given a handful of really great mics - whether you use this one or that one that doesn't matter - I mean, I'm not gonna use a crappy mic but for a "hi-fi" sound I like C12's as my overheads, I like Mojave's as overheads but I also like Coles! So it just depends on the flavor that you go for that day. Again, what preamps do you have, this sort of thing. Like if you have dark Coles microphones, you need sort of a bright preamp or something with a sweet top-end. So if you have a 1073, it's gonna sound really good. But C12's sound really great, 87's are good, they're all gonna add their own little character and it just depends on the instrument and the room.
And the drummer!
Yes, of course! That guy! So everything depends on everything. When you set that drum up, I like to move the kick drum around, and find the sweet low-end spot in the room, and then sort of set up from there. I would build the kit and try some different microphones, things like this. I mean, I will actually think like : "Ok, in this kind of room, there're this kind of issues in here, so I will start with this microphone and if this microphone doesn't work, then I try something else." You know, lately I've been into this AEA stereo mic as an overhead but sometimes it doesn't work! Because it's a Blumlein and so it looks at the ceiling and if you have a really weird-sounding room, it's not gonna happen, you'll need something more directional. We all have to use a certain amount of our intellect to choose microphones intelligently but we don't always have a big mic locker to choose from so we have to sort of use whatever happen to have. I have a collection of microphones that I like and so, when all else fails I have those and I know they're gonna work and so I go with those. But I mean, kick drum... D112, D12, 421, you know, whatever's around. Snare drum 57's, toms I like 414's, 421's... Hi Hat I like ribbon mics or 57...
What did you use on Avett Brothers' drum kit? 'Cause it's really pristine and quite "hi-fi" compared to Blink-182 or RHCP stuff.
Hum... the Avett's...yeah it was a D112 on the inside, FET 47 on the outside, SubKick, 57's on the snare, 414's on the toms, C12's overheads. I think I had a pair of Royer's and a pair of Mojave's as rooms so 2 different flavors and I may have had a green bullet under the drum kit for kind of ...
...Vibe? My "stunt mic"! [Laughs] Yeah but you know Blink-182 is very similar. A very different drummer, a very different drum set, a very different end-product.
Travis (Barker) plays pretty loud!
Yeah, Travis is THE loudest drummer I've ever recorded. It's harder than anybody I've ever met. So you have to threat that very differently. And it's more about separation of sounds on that. Jerry had all these processes that we did to the toms...
What do you mean?
We just had like a parallel thing going, during recording that we did with a BBE 422. It's very complicated, with triggers and gates and things like that. But it was a pretty cool sound and we needed it 'cause he has those plastic drums, you know, the plexiglas drums so there's no low end coming out of that drumkit at all. Everything was sort of "manufactured".
Let's move on some other instruments like guitars, keyboards. I found something on your records : the guitars always sound "loud and proud" but never aggressive. A little bit "in your face" but never "scratching your ears" or whatever. It's always hard to deal with guitars' sound.
You know, same as drums, it just depends on the player, the instrument and the amp in the room, and the context of the sound. Because I'll threat the guitars for a punk-rock record very differently than I threat guitars for a folk record. But again, the end result... the process, in terms of how I think about things is the same. It's like " oh we have to get a great sound that fits with THESE drums and with THESE songs and expresses the identity of THIS band". When we use good engineering practices... keeping microphones, when you're using multiple microphones, checking that they were in phase alignement with the capsules, by turning up the headphones, getting in there and listening for the null point. Moving the amp around, moving the microphones around and getting the best possible sound, as quickly as possible. And sometimes that means taking a day, you know! On the Blink 182 record, there was no deadline so we would spend hours getting guitars sound, 'cause that's how this record was made. It was done like :"Ok, we did the drums, now we do the guitars, now we do the bass". And so it was getting the perfect sound for that. That's what was cool about doing that record with Jerry; he's like : "Allright! Let's try this guitar with this amp! Ok let's try this different guitar with this amp! Ok now let's try the whole together! Ok, let's try this guitar with 3 different amplifiers and 6 different microphones, with these preamps, some through the BCM-10! That sounds pretty awesome! Ok cool, let's play the part!" And we would spend this time finding the sounds, because that became the identity of that sound.
Because some of the songs are "Tum tum tum" (miming the Blink 182 rythmic style) you know? You have to make that sound awesome. And different than the other time they played that on the other song, that comes after that one. It's gotta be different; it can't be the same. But on the Avett Brothers it's like : "Hey I'm gonna plug my Strat into that Marshall!" - Ok. "Its that the best?" - It's pretty good "Ok. I got my part. I'm ready" - Ok. this is the sound! And we make that sound as appropriate as possible for that part. And you know again, I'm exaggerating a little bit on both hands but...
These are different ways of working...
It's very different ways of working with different personalities and different bands. And - as a engineer who doesn't want to be pigeonholed and who wants to be able to do different genres of music - I have to be very aware of how these people like to work and adapt quickly to that process. And if you don't, you stay in one sort of thing. To me, that's boring. I don't want to make punk-rock records every day. I love making those records, I love making Avett Brothers' records; I don't wanna make those every day either. I'd like to go this, then I wanna do a reggae record, I wanna do this and this and this. And keep the job interesting, keep it fresh, and be influenced by all these different processes, so I can bring bits of them to other records.
Recording banjo with the Avett Brothers is different than recording banjo with Flogging Molly. But I can use bits of those processes, bits of those ideas, take them and put them in the other band. Because they wouldn't think that way, like Scott Avett doesn't think like Bob Schmitt from Floggin Molly and vice-versa. But I can say : "How would Bob do it?" And I can tell Scott : "Hey, I know it might sound stupid but what if you just strum chords on the banjo?" He's like : " Yeah that's cool on this song!" Like saying to Bob : " Why don't you try X, Y and Z?" - Oh yeah, cool! Allright! And so we have this cross-pollination of ideas and processes that otherwise wouldn't happen. That's really exciting to me.
Trying to get influenced by other ways, other styles...
Yeah, and at the end of the day, the song has to speak and you have to do what's appropriate for that situation. That's the other overarching idea in all this : doing what's appropriate at that moment, for that music, and that band. That day! [Laughs]
It's always a matter of time!
Yeah, so many things: time, materials, blah blah blah... I don't know... No rules! Do what sounds good!
To make it sound good, you need some equipment. What do you have in your rig? Because you have such an arsenal in your setup. Not only outboards, console, monitors, microphones, you also have instruments, effects, stuff like that. I've read that you're an extensive user of UAD plug-ins, but also you have a Tonelux summing mixer, you're a fan of Manley, Chandler outboards... Can you tell us a little bit more about all of this and how you built your identity through the outboard?
Well, I mean, I saw the home studio thing coming... how long ago is that now?... like 13 years ago. I saw the demise of studios coming, that was imminent; that people were going to be bailing on this high-dollar big consoles and going home somehow. I didn't know it's gonna be mixing in the box 'cause it didn't really exist in a high-fidelity way at a time... Protools Accel HD had just come out... But I saw it coming and I was like : " Allright, I'm gonna start buying equipment so that when this happens and when everything falls apart, I'm gonna be ready!" And so I saw this skate along with working in big studios and buying things that I thought were necessary, that other studios didn't have. Like I bought a Transient Designer, I bought Distressors at the very beginning when they first came out. I bought myself a pair of ProAcs 'cause you got to have your own speakers that you know, that you're intimate with. Then I bought the amp, and the speaker cables, and these things, like Michael Brauer and Rick Rubin and all these guys. And then I started buying mic pre's. I bought a Chandler LTD-1. That was my first nice mic pre!
The replica of the 1073...
Yeah it's a 1073 sort-of-thing but mine is serial number 39 or something so it's got original Neve boards and Neve transformers in it, when Wade first started the company. And I still have it! I use it all the time. So I just started buying quality things that would help me get my sound, that no matter where I went or whatever I was doing, I have something that was good. Is it the best? Maybe not, but it's really great. And so I can take my little 4-space rack with a Distressor and a LTD-1 and whatever else I had at that time. I could track anything and I van have a couple of things to mix with and get things started. So, again I just started buying the things I needed for the studio, more compressors... Then I found a headphone mixer, randomly on eBay , ridiculously cheap. "Oh cool, I buy that!" And then Mogami cables, and then this and then this... And then I have this job recording Blink-182, so I have to put together a rack with a patchbay so I went put together my first rack, with all my stuff, and a patchbay, Mogami, and that sort of things... And again, I worked in big studios for a long time and all of sudden it became impractical to try to find budgets for all these mixes I was being offered like : "Yes I can do this, but you have to pay 2000 dollars a day for the studio!" Like "Are you kidding?!" So... "Ok, well I had to turn enough work that I got to put together in my own place". So I moved house and built my studio at home; that was 6 years ago.
Wasn't that too difficult to set up the studio at home?
No! I mean, not practically! Literally, I finished a gig one day, I took all my stuff to my new house, I set it up and I was working the next day. It wasn't the best studio in the world and it took 2 or 3 years to really dial in. A lot of blood, sweat and tears and emotional things that went with those; a lot of effort, you know, money, this kind of thing, but it was great! I worked there for almost 6 years and I just moved into a new house over the summer to a big multi-room facility so now I have a proper big control room that was designed by George Massenburg in these late 70's [Laughs] along with a nice live room so I can record bands. And it's nice to be out of the house and go to work! When I come home, I don't work anymore.
And separate professional from personal life...
Yeah, it's important to have a certain amount of separation, whether it's just going out of the backyard into the garage you've turned into a studio or driving 10 minutes to somewhere else. But that said, the home studio worked for me for a long time and I did a lot of big records. I mixed all this Avett Brothers stuff in my home studio. And yes I have my Tonelux mixer, and lots of outboard gear that I use as hardware inserts, and sometimes on the way into the summing box. It's developed from a very ad hoc process to a very fluid specific way of working now. It's become very comfortable.
So what do you think of this evolution of working methods? Do you think it's on a good way...? How do you feel yourself into this new ways of working?
Well, I'm of two minds about it. At first, I hated it. When I first moved in to my studio and I was mixing completely in the box, I was like "This sucks! This is so not fun!" But then UAD plug-ins came out and I was like "Oh cool! Now I can mix comfortably with plug-ins and tools that are reminiscent of ones that I know!" Again I kept buying more gear and just getting better as a mixer, as time goes by, so now I'm very comfortable mixing with this hybrid setup. There are advantages : I can do recalls in a few minutes but that can be also a detriment, 'cause like "hey, can you just recall for the 13th time you know and just take the shaker out of the second verse?" (Looking bored) "Well....ok. Yeah... yeah, we will do that, that's... no problem...." [Laughs] So you just sort of run into that a little bit.
But for clients it's great and for budgets it can be really good. But I mix records of all statures; I mean I mixed the Harry Connick record last year and again like Avett Brothers things for Rick Rubin. So there's no shame in doing it in however you need to do. In fact during this seminar, we did the first week on a 9k and the second week I was basically mixing in the box. And I was like "Oh I'm gonna be so much faster, the 9k , it's gonna be so cool to mix on a desk again!" And it was the same! It took me about the same amount of time to get the mix together. I was like "Oh. I thought it was gonna be so much faster on the desk!" But then it's just a different process. It's a different way of working. is there one better than the other? I don't know... I don't think that it's absolutely... you know. This thing has to have this or has to have that, I mean... One of the things I was taught by all these people I worked for - and most especially my father - is just like "Mate, do with what you have!" You can spend days complaining that "I don't have my.. this" or "I don't have my that!" or "I don't have this microphone so f*** the world has to stop now!" It's like "Ok, I got these things, and I got this band, and I'm here to record. Let's go! Let's make a record!"
That's a positive way.
You have to be! If you're not positive, who wants to be around you? Who wants to hire you, who wants to be "Oooh... the moby guy behind the desk making faces of out-of-tune notes", you know? "OoOoh I don't have my microphone, Ooh I don't have this guy, Ooooh... this guy sucks... Ooooh!" No, it's "Ok, hey, let's just do it again, it sounds great, I need you to do this, this, this and this, let's go over for one more take. Ok, cool, that sounded good, we got a hole on this one little thing here, can we just punch in this one line, or just punch in this one drumfill here ?" It's like being positive and patient, and encouraging with whoever you're working for. I'd beat the crap out of my assistant and make him work for his paycheck but with the musicians, it's all about support and being cool and encouraging. You have to be that guy they wanna be around. 'Cause they baring their soul to you, musically.
I understand ! Just to finish with gear, we were talking about...
I was taking away from gear! [Laughs]
No, no, that's allright because you're building the bridge between parts I want to talk with you! But I just want to know the outboard that you have on your mix bus? What do you use? How many versions do you print...?
I come out of my summing bus and I have a stereo bus processing chain. I have a API 2500 compressor that I have modified; it's got some cool stuff on it. Then that goes into my Chandler CurveBender and then I have a NTI EQ3, the 2-space air EQ that I love. They don't get used all the time, but they're plugged in and so I can turn them on and try them out. If I don't like them I can take them out. No big deal! For my mix bus I use a Burl B2, it sounds phenomenal. It's like, it got a sound. So it's definitely got a vibe to it and makes its own sort of thing. So that's really exciting sounding. And yeah again, sometimes I use them, sometimes I don't, sometimes I use all of them intensely, sometimes just one, (tweaking knobs) sometimes just a little bit but they're great tools to have and I really like having them.
They're part of your personality in mixes.
Yeah 'cause the API is pretty brutal sounding sometimes; it can be tough and that's fun! But it can also be used in a more gentle manner, when a song calls for it. I also have a Elysia mPressor that I use sometimes on the stereo bus; that's pretty interesting. So yeah it's different flavors. My next purchase will be a Smart C2; I really like that. VCA-style.
Do you print stems for mixes?
I try to avoid it. I do the Main Mix, lead vocal up, background vocals up, all the vocals up... If there's any contentious issue like "Man, I don't know if the guitars are loud enough", either happy or someone mentions something about something at some point in the mix, I'll print one up and down - just to have it - in case.... You know it's like I'd rather spend the 10mn now than having to do a recall a month later or something like that... 'Cause like "Ooh sh***, I wish you could make this louder or took that out " or whatever... I just make a mental note and at the end of the day I'll print those mixes.
And then, yeah, instrumental mix, acapella, some people still ask for TV mixes. I avoid stems at the moment - unless someone wants them - I don't think stems ever add up to be the mix that you made. Because of the way I do my mix bus processing and things like that. But if they want them, I'll print them and sometimes - depending on what I'm doing with the bus compressor - I'll leave that on or off. But again, it never adds up right and no one has given me stems and said : "Turn these stems back into the mix !". So it's a difficult conundrum but if they want them for remix purposes or whatever, ohh yeah of course they can have them, I don't care! that's fine!
You talked about assistants and I would like to talk with you about the of the business, the apprenticeship... Do you work with assistants? How do you see this evolution in the music industry?
Well, as I was saying earlier, I think that this is a very apprenticeship-driven career and business. Everything depends on experiences, your trajectory of your career depends on where you've been, what you've done, who you've worked with, this sort of thing. I've gone to assist for some pretty great people, a lot of people have given me a chance, some have taken me under their wings and taught me what they know and I've been able to run with that. There has been some very very kind people in this business for me and so I feel a sort of moral obligation to continue that, and to keep that going. So I've had a few assistants over the years, I mean I've had my studio for 6 years and I've had a few guys - some have worked out better than others , for extended periods of time or not - and I just think it's important - as someone who as a voice in this business - I feel it's important to be able teach what I know and what I've experienced to the next generation, to guys coming up. So I get emails from people wanting to intern or not and I'm trying to put together some kind of program to be able to take people and educate them for longer stance, in different manners. Now that my studio is out of the house, it would make it a little bit easier, so I'm working to get this sort of program going... And this is why I've started Studio Prodigy in America and why I wanna do these seminars over here in Europe. But you know the assistant, anyone who wants to work for me, has to be tough. They have to know what's going on and wanna work. Don't ask me what time we're going home tonight. You ask me that, you're fucking out of the door. Ask me : "What can I do for you when you leave tonight? What can I do after you're gone tonight?" I've told several guys (pointing at his chair) : "If you want this seat, you gotta work harder than me. You gotta stay here longer, be here earlier, and not be concerned with things outside the studio. If you wanna be successful in this business, you gotta be ahead of me. And that's hard, 'cause I work fast.
And I know a lot, I've been through anything in this business. But to get to the next level, you gotta be ahead who's sitting in the chair you wanna be in." It's very important. If the artist is in there, someone says he's hungry, you have the menu book out. If you have to be asked for something, you're behind. You're found behind, whoever is asking this question. If I have to ask you the Sharpie fucking pencil, you're found behind. If I have to ask you to do the recall, you're not paying attention. The assistants needs to be on point, all the time. It's an exhausting job. But I know that I was a good assistant and I know that they are ways I could have been better. I was just thinking about it this morning, like : "Man, there are some things I did that should have got me fired!" But I didn't! It didn't happen, thankfully. But I got beaten up, and I beat up my assistants, I expect a certain amount from these guys. I've written a handbook about things I want, things I expect, things they need to be doing. So then it's formalized. When a new guy walks in, it's like : "Ok, here's your list of shit! If you're done with this, there is the door. I don't need you here." I don't mean it to be like an asshole, but I've got a job to do, and if you're holding me back, from doing my job, if I have to teach you everything, if I have to teach how to place a food order, and how to take money from a band and go buy food and give them change appropriately, why are you here? I can't be teaching you that, I'm here to mix a record, you're here to take care of the band, that's hanging out while we're mixing the record, tracking or whatever. If you can't get that together, you can't do a recall, it's just not gonna happen. There are basic things you need to learn in a studio.
These are sort of life lessons, that if you haven't experienced, if you haven't worked hard to get to the point where I'm hiring you, then we can't continue. Sometimes it's not apparent right away and it makes a little difficult. But whoever I'm gonna hire has to be smart, has to have some serious intelligence. They don't need to be the best engineer in the world, I'm not hiring them to be an engineer, I'm hiring them to be my assistant. I'll teach them how to mix and how to record and this kind of things but you need to have some life experience and allows you to do basic tasks, to learn, to absorb information and be aggressive with the things you need to do; with the assistant speaking to the assistant. It's a tough gig. And it's unfortunate that these positions are few and further between now guys having their home studios, but I think that there are many opportunities in this business for the guys who want them. If you aggressively pursue friendships with people and advice from people, I mean maybe not everyone's gonna write back to you if you send an email to 30 engineers you want to emulate, maybe one will write you back. 2 maybe... And maybe that guy wants you to be his assistant or whatever you want but reaching out and trying to advance your career in any way possible, I think it's important. And I don't answer all these emails, I can recognize "Oh this guy is difficult" I don't want a guy from Timbuctu to move to California to be my assistant, that's not the sort of thing I'm looking for. But again, insert yourself into the place you wanna be, to go to these AES shows, to go to conventions, meet people, hang out, and just be part of the scene, part of the experience - I think - is how one can advance into this business. We can all buy gear, we cal all buy this stuff but how are we gonna make records? How are we going to advance to the next level?
First we need to learn how to work.
Yes, first we have to learn how to order sandwiches! [Laughs]
Just to finish with this interview, I'd like to ask you — Bernard Pivot style — the five questions I always ask: What's your favorite memory about working on an album?
I mean the one that sticks in my mind is when I was engineering the Chili Peppers "Stadium Arcadium". Flea came in, like the basic tracks were done, I had done a lot of work with John, and this is after years after working with John but particularly this moment, Flea came in to do a couple days of bass fixes and we're doing some punches on tracks he had already played. He played one particular thing and he says : "Cool, allright! Next Thing!" And I'm like, I said to him : " I think you can do it better!" and he's like : "What?!" He just kind of looks at me (looking stunned) "Really??!" I said :"Yes, I like it but I think the timing can be a bit better!" And he's like "Play that back for me!" And he listens to it and he says : "Yeah ok, I see what you mean... Allright, let's do it again, but if I don't play it better, I'm gonna be really upset with you!" And I said "Ok... " And I turned my back to the tape machine remote and I'm sitting like "Holy sh*t, I just told Flea he could do it better!" And I'm sitting there, rolling the tape back and I'm contemplating this punch and I'm like just... "F*ck! This is cool! I'm recording my favorite band and I just told Flea to do it again!" Like, I'm here! I have a career now! [Laughs] Hey mom, I got a career now! I juts told Flea to do it again! And he said ok! But that moment was like... I went home walking on a cloud 'cause he did it again and he's like "Yeah it sounds so much better!" and I don't remember what song or part or whatever -it's totally inconsequential - but the fact that I can turn someone like Flea who's my childhood hero of the bass and say "Do that again!" , I'm like "Ok, I'm here. This is great!" That was a very exciting moment.
What's the worst memory that you have?
The worst memory is when I erased something by accident. And again I don't remember who it was or what happened but I erased something on a tape and I was like :"Oh, oh F*ck!! I... I just erased that!?" And the guy in the other room on the mic was like "That's cool, i'll just sing it again, don't worry about it, not a problem." And my heat just sank. I was so bummed. Really, I had to gather myself together. I had to put on like "Ok"... and just drop in, replace whatever it was that we erased and I was just "I'm so sorry". And he's like "Don't mention it. No problem. We know I just sang it better anyway so that's not a big deal." I was just mortified! [Laughs] Fortunately everything was fine and that just how it went.
Which artist would you like to work with? And why?
I go back and forth on this. The Police was my favorite band when Iw as very young and I have this idea of working with one of them, you know, with Steward, Sting or Andy. But then I'm like "Those guys are my heroes, I don't know if I could do that!" That would break the barrier for me to work with them possibly. 'Cause I've heard that there are difficult people!! [Laughs] But I mean who knows? Maybe that would happen someday or not!
There are two people; I'd like to work with Dave Grohl, and that would be fun in some capacity and I'd like to work with Paul Weller 'cause I've loved his music since I was a kid, I've bought every single record he's ever made and he's just got this "style" that just doesn't give a f*ck, you know? He's so brash and just like... Ah, he's just so unique, he's got this voice, he's got such a great band and he's juts got complete control on what he does. I just sort of admire that but again I'm afraid like, if I work with someone whose records I admire, what happens then? It's like "Being John Malkovitch" when you get into that position [Laughs] it's like you see it through these eyes that are not yours and all of a sudden you're making a record the way you would make it but is that interfering with what you like about those records?
I like The Doves but again I listen to those records as an enjoyment. I listen to them in the car, I listen to them at home on a stereo and I don't think about them from a production standpoint. And then all of sudden I took those records into my studio "Oh my God, these records sound terrible! These are bad! I'm wanna make these records sound awesome!" But part of those records is the sound that they have. Paul Weller sound is so "strange" - for a lack of better term - and The Doves records sound, like the first two records, sound that way because they did it themselves in their little studio. They sound amazing! Do they sound like I would make them? Not at all. I would do something probably different. And maybe they would like that, maybe it would be a good combination, I don't know. I'm always afraid of one into work with a band that I sort of admire, for that reason.
You're hired to do an album that you love but it requires you to bring only 5 pieces of equipment. What do you choose and why?
I don't know... That's a good one. Probably an 1176, 'cause it's the best compressor ever made. Eh.... Probably my speakers, my ProAcs. Eh... That's a tough one, 'cause I don't know!... Do I have to bring microphones or they have microphones there? I don't know how to answer this question!
Things that you couldn't work without.
So if I show up at the studio the things I have to have.... So yeah I'd have my speakers, I would love to have an 1176... I'd probably bring my Chandler TG-2, it's my favorite mic pre... I don't know if I'd bring my 500-rack, 'cause it doesn't have a lot of recording stuff in it, it's got mostly mixing stuff in it. I'd bring my lunchtruck, that I call, because it's a 12-space 500-series rack that I had made and it's got a bunch of other Chandler mic pres and Tonelux EQ's and things like that... So that's four... And... Sh*t, what microphone would I bring that I can record everything with?...
Yeah, I guess if we're « wishlisting » things, yeah!... I don't know about a 47, maybe a Fet 47. 'cause that you can record more stuff with and it sounds pretty great, like you can do vocals and.... No! Take it back! I'd bring a UMT 70, 'cause with that you can record EVERYTHING with and it sounds really great! [Laughs]
Ok, great! So you did it, finally!
Well, phew....!!! [Laughs] Good, that was tough!
Finally, do you have any leitmotiv or quote about music that you like to use?
Well, I mean, my father has a lot of great quotes, like a lot of of one-liners that he's accumulated over the years and I don't know of they're his or if he stole them from other people but, I mean, at the end of the day, to me, if it sounds good, it IS good. It doesn't matter how you got there, what you use to get it, what time it is, any of these things. If at the end of the day you think you have something that sounds great , that's all it matters, you know? Gear... I love gear, I buy tons of sh*t and so it's completely hypocritical to me to say this but it doesn't matter. Like if you have some stuff that you know how to use to get a great sound... That's what's most important. I collect all this stuff, I collect guitars, pedals, keyboards and things like this so I can make better records and I can provide opportunity to musicians who otherwise might not have a great LesPaul or a Marshall or some basic rudimentary studio tools that I know I can plug in and get a great sound. But at the end of the day... None of it really matters. Just make it sound great! [Laughs] Isn't that simple?! Voilà! Make it sound great!
That's a great final word!
Thanks a lot Ryan for this interview.
Thank you for having me!