As a seasoned professional producer, mixer, and engineer, Toronto-based Richard Chycki has worked with a vast array of musical artists, such as Rush, Dream Theater, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, and Jeff Healey.
How did you get into recording?
I was the proverbial "young kid starting a band." I began recording myself because I thought that was a part of what musicians did. There were no engineering/production schools at the time. The formal "work your way up in the studio" hierarchy was the de facto standard in those days. I started reading and self-educating about signal flow, microphones, and learning the staples of recording. I still have the demos of the first recordings I did back then. They're absolutely terrible, but they taught me about project management at a young age, i.e., learning the task and being able to get the job done and out the door. I started subsidizing my income by tracking other artists while I was trying to get a record deal for my own band. I was working at a recording and rehearsal studio with a lot of band traffic coming through. They would listen to me doing my own music and say, "Hey, do you want to record us?" Local bands were sending music to labels, so there was this grassroots circulation of my recordings developing. Labels started to call and say, "Hey, did you record this? Well, we have a band that we need to track. Interested?" It started off by being the pre-production [demos], where they just wanted to get some song ideas down, but that quickly turned into records to cut. I ended up working with this guitar player named Jeff Healey. The Jeff Healey camp always used top-end producers, so I was exposed to guys like Thom Panunzio and Joe Hardy. I also worked with a young songwriter/producer named Marti Frederiksen on some Jeff Healey tracks. At the end of our work with Healey, he said, "I really like working with you. We're going to work together again in the future." That's always a really great thing to hear! I told him to call me anytime. I went on my way and did some other recordings. About eight months later, my phone rings, "Hey man, it's Marti. I'm working with a band and want you to come record some drums." All I knew was the gig was in the Boston area, and that it was five days of recording drums. At the end of our conversation, I asked, "Who's the band?" Marti answered, "Oh, it's Aerosmith!"
It was amazing. He had called me on a Wednesday. Monday I was at Long View Farms Studio setting up drums and mics for Joey Kramer. That was a record called Just Push Play. Steven [Tyler] and Joe [Perry] asked me to stay on for the entire project as head engineer for the 11 months the album took to complete. It sold just shy of two million records in America. The single "Jaded" was number one on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. That album was the dividing line for my career.
Did you travel around a lot in the early days?
I traveled, and I still travel all the time. I have clients in Europe, New York, and Los Angeles.
You do a lot of tracking and mixing.
I wear all hats. I do track. I do quite a bit of mixing, and I do production. It varies, from project to project. I recorded and co-produced vocals for a new Dream Theater album a couple of months ago. I mixed Rush's Hemispheres in surround for their 40th anniversary box set release. My involvement really varies from project to project. I have my separate bag of tricks, and I pull them out depending on what the project needs of me.
Do you carry gear to sessions?
I have some tracking gear, but I am a complete computer guy when I mix. I used to carry around racks and racks of equipment, and now it's just a computer with lots of software and hard drives. Lots of computing power. That's how I do my work now.
Cool. You mentioned the Hemispheres remixes. How did you approach them and keep the spirit of original co-producer Terry Brown's sound?
You're exactly correct. In my opinion, Hemispheres is one of Terry and Rush's best pieces of work. They really did a fantastic job. From what I understand, it was a long and very difficult record for the band to make. I can't speak highly enough of both the band and Terry for the work that they did together. For Hemispheres – and all of the 5.1 surround catalog remixes I've done for Rush [Moving Pictures, 2112, Signals, Fly by Night, A Farewell To Kings] – it's not a full remix, per se, where one would re-conceptualize a mix. What the band and record company wanted was a strong tribute to the original mix. For example, Hemispheres is 40 years old. The process is the utilisation of modern technology to recreate 40-year-old vintage mix concepts. That is what the overall mantra was for the mix process. Then, the mix was spread into a modern hi-res playback format, like 5.1 or Dolby Atmos. For every final mix that I deliver, the mixes are submitted as high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit WAV files. The record company will convert those files into whatever format that they need for the upcoming product. I would be happiest if the format I deliver was the format sold, but it's a constant balancing act. As you know, media has a finite amount of bits you can fit on there, so concessions have to be made sometimes. If you're printing a master, you print it at as high a quality as possible. For me, 96 kHz has the advantage in the upper frequency spectrum. It's smoother. For processing of plug-ins there's more resolution, and the same goes for mixing. Twice the calculation, over a given period of time. But like anything else, different means to an end for different users. I've done a lot of records at 48 kHz in the past. It's all viable.
How did you start working with Rush?
In 2004 Rush was doing a charity event for the tsunami that had devastated Indonesia earlier that year. I got a call from a friend of mine who works at the Rush office, and he said, "Rush is going into the studio to do a version of "Closer to the Heart." They're going to film the event for a broadcast and they need an engineer. There's no money because it's a charity event, but do you want to do it?" I immediately said, "Rush? Yes!" Alex Lifeson [guitar] and I hit it off. We were laughing and joking around the whole time. We ended up doing an 18-hour day, but it was a ton of fun and it turned out great. A few months later, I got a phone call from Alex and he said, "What are you doing? We're working on this DVD [R30: 30th Anniversary World Tour]. You want to come down to my place and talk?" I went to see him, and we just hung out, drank coffee, and, again, had a bunch more laughs. He asked me about how I'd approach mixing R30. I told him I'd mix in Pro Tools. He said, "You can't mix in Pro Tools!" Keeping in mind this is 2005, clearly, he wasn't sold on it. I offered to return the next day and bring my Pro Tools rig in to play back some music. I pulled everything out of my studio, set it all up in surround at his studio, aligned the playback rig, and proceeded to play back some surround mixes I had done. He was super enthusiastic about it. He asked if I wanted to try doing some R30 mixes, and he loved it. It was really well-received. Not long afterward, I was asked to work with producer Nick Raskulinecz [Tape Op #50] to record and mix Rush's Snakes & Arrows. It was a fantastic experience. Nick is such a great producer and he's also a Rush superfan! We always have a great time working together – a lot of chemistry, having fun, and making records.
In terms of bands you're working with, like Dream Theater and Rush, you seem to be getting work in a certain genre.
In the case of Dream Theater, I had a bunch of Rush history and the lead vocalist [James LaBrie] is a longtime friend, so it's a pretty natural relationship that formed. For me, good music and good sound transcend any specific genre, and I enjoy working in many different genres of music. But once there's a level of success in a particular genre, calls for more work are often focused in the same area. Having said that, I've done work with Pink, Seal, and many non-progressive bands and artists, and I enjoy working with all of them. I've been really fortunate with all the artists I've spent time with.
I first heard of you through the Keram Malicki-Sanchez album, Come to Life. He worked with Ryan Brown on drums. Then you had the best of the best with Neil Peart. How do you approach tracking and mixing with drums?
Well, for Keram's project, Al [Alex] Lifeson brought me in to mix a couple of tracks. That in itself is not quite the same as working with Rush or Dream Theater, where I'm tracking the drums and then mixing them. If I'm tracking and mixing, I'll do what I'd call pre-mixing as I'm working through a session. I'll do all my tom rides and EQs, grouping, and routing, some tracking compression, plus mutes for unused tracks, and so on. When I'm tracking, I pay particular attention to phase, given the amount of mics I have set up around a kit. Both Neil Peart and Mike Mangini [Dream Theater] have 30 plus mics set up around their respective drum kits. They're not all in use all the time in a mix, but with the main core mics – the kick, snare, overheads, and room – checking phase is critical. I distance all overhead mics equally from the snare drum so that the snare is stable in the center field of the stereo image. From a mixing point of view, sometimes I have to make adjustments [in order to] achieve that strong stereo image. From an overall perspective, I try to keep everything as clean as possible. It's attention to detail, because that detail is cumulative across all of the tracks. Dream Theater's The Astonishing topped out at 577 tracks on the largest song, so keeping everything clean and organized is really important when you get into that many tracks.
Wow. File management?
Exactly! It's file management, organization, and a lot of color coding going on within Pro Tools. Just keeping everything clean and organized to stay focused and prevent low level noise, garbage, and little inconsistencies that might muddy up things down the road.
Do you have any conceptual approach to production? Do you study lyrics?
Yes. As far as production goes, I'm still a strong believer in preproduction, where we sit down and work on lyrics, arrangements, and parts, prior to going into the studio. The recording process is the execution of the preproduction. Whenever possible, I like to have core pieces – like rhythm guitar, bass, drums, vocal melodies, and lyrics – worked out so the band can play the song live. It's my preference to capture a performance, including the interaction of the band members. Piecing things together is always possible, but I still think that the interaction of the band is that magic that we want to capture as a producer or engineer. We want to capture that interaction of the musicians. The guitar player has the confidence to know that at the top of bar 74, the drummer's going to do this awesome fill, and he hits his guitar maybe just a little harder. All these things are natural elements of music flow, and it's exciting. Of course, it's not all planned. The spontaneity of solos and experimentation with ear candy can yield some exciting "planned mistakes." In the end, there is the constant checking of, "How does the song feel?" Is it an accurate representation of the artist's creativity? After all, it's their record. If I'm brought in to track a record, I dedicate studio resources to various recording stations. I will have everything set up and ready to go at any time, for anybody. With Aerosmith, we'd end a studio day with plans to cut guitars first thing the next day. I'd come in the next day, and the schedule had changed to cutting bass and some vocals. There was a complete 90-degree change overnight. When I have stations set up, have all of the drum mics up, the bass rig, all the guitar rigs, all the vocal rigs – everything set up. Whole band tracking a new song? Sure! Overdub anything, at any time? Sure! I aim to be prepared for any possibility. Of course, my setups can take a couple of days to get put together completely, but they're good for the whole recording process, where we can just jump from instrument to instrument and get the job done quicker in the long run.
If there's anything improvised, you're ready to capture it and it's a bonus, right?
Always be ready for everything! I always record, especially these days with no tape. Record everything. Improvisations, anything. There might be something where the guitarist plays a figure that doesn't work in a particular song, but it inspires the creation of a whole new song! I recall exporting a guitar track out of a Dream Theater song into a new blank session, and in a day a whole new song was born. I capture everything.
Other artists you've worked with included Dolores O'Riordan [the Cranberries].
I did work with Dolores on her solo record, Are You Listening? I worked with her on that record as a producer, mixer, or engineer, depending on the song. Both Rush and Dream Theater have been a good portion of my recording career. I've also been fortunate to work with Seal, Aerosmith, Pink, Mick Jagger, Skillet, Jeff Healey, and Alice Cooper, plus a number of other bands from Canada. A lot of great musicians.
Why does Dream Theater have you do vocal tracking? What is your approach to it?
I was in a band called Winter Rose with James [LaBrie, Dream Theater vocalist] back in the late Ô80s. We've been friends for 30 years and work together very well. A large part of being able to work through intricate vocal work is trust. Trust frees an artist to try different things in a judgement-free environment. Quite honestly, we waste a lot of time laughing at bad jokes. With respect to vocal setup, my studio is all Dante [digital audio networking], so James has control of his cue mix remotely. For the last album, Distance Over Time, we used a Mojave [Audio] MA-1000 mic into a Manley [Labs] Force preamp and then into an Inward Connections TSL-3 compressor straight to Pro Tools. Can I put one thing out there?
Yeah! Get everything out; philosophies, anything!
One of the approaches you mentioned before was about engineers and mixers carrying equipment with them from project to project. Well, there are pieces of equipment that are getting on in years; some are incredible but are getting more and more difficult to repair. Studio staples, like the Lexicon 480L or the AMS RMX-16, are being decommissioned simply because they're broken. It would be a travesty if the technology were to become inaccessible someday, because they're unique and incredible. Fortunately, plug-in companies have stepped up and are creating some amazing emulations. Some have gone so far as to license the original code of some of the older digital processors, and the results are stunning! I have put together the hardware and the software in blind sample tests, and it was so close. As a result, I've changed the method of how I mix. I've been really pleased with the transition exclusively into the digital realm. With the quality of the plug-ins that are available now, I can do things that I simply can't do in the analog world. With what we are asked for, with respect to recalls or complex prints as the industry is dictating, it's tremendously difficult to compete within the paradigm of "old world linear thinking." It'd be ideal to say that we never talk about money when we're creating art, but sooner or later somebody has to pay for something somewhere. We've got to be able to do a great job sonically and put it out in a timely way. We've got to be able to monetize our work so that we can survive, right?
The question is: How does one make music sound more "analog" but work within a computer? For me, the number one facet is gain structure. Learn gain structure within whatever DAW you're choosing to use. Know its sweet spot. If you're pushing your stereo bus within your DAW, it doesn't sound the same as pushing a Neve, SSL, or API console while mixing analog. There are myriads of saturation plug-ins that can give that "analog" sound. Brainworx has gone so far as to sample an entire analog console for the [bx_console] console strips, so each instantiation is subtly different.
How do you find working with artists, now that technology's starting to dictate an approach to songwriting?
A lot of the tools that used to be secret weapons are now available to everybody. For example, the Lexicon 480L hardware was a $16,000 reverb in its heyday, and you can get it now for $349 from Universal Audio. If we're all using Fractal and Kemper [guitar processors] and we all use the same presets, there's the danger of homogenizing genres of music. If the playing field is levelled, with respect to tools we have at our disposal, it becomes more and more important to work with those tools to make them our own. I write a lot of presets, but I implore people to use my presets merely as starting points. Modify them. Make them yours. My rule is: If you're in a room with a thousand people and they all have white shirts on, and you also have a white shirt on, it's going to be difficult for you to stand out in that crowd.
How do you maintain that environment of creativity, to give someone time to interpret and change their sound?
Computers can do as much or as little as we want them to do. We can load the session up with a ton of plug-ins and edit the material so it's barely recognizable from the original recordingÉ or we can take our favorite DAW, add no plug-ins, edit nothing, mix nothing, and set it to record destructively just like tape decks from years gone by. Whatever approach to the workflow that you've chosen, if that's what you want to use and that's going to make a better song for you, that's the way to go. Whatever method promotes creativity and yields the best record for you is most certainly the best choice.
How about any kind of highlights or challenges to working with Rush?
The great thing about a band like Rush is that they have a fantastic fan base that loves to listen to their creativity as well as evolve with it. Progressive, in itself, is defined as constant evolution. The sound of the band has always been changing, as opposed to a band that is sonically stagnant with a single sound. In my opinion, Rush was simply not that kind of band. They're unique, with an occasional flavor of influence by current trends. A great example of this influence would be the little reggae moment in "The Spirit of Radio." From what I've experienced, they're a band that expresses themselves artistically, without an agenda to "write a hit." They were great friends and played together incredibly well. They're masters of their instruments, and masters of listening to each other as musicians. In my opinion, that's why their records are great – they listened to each other. It's incredible to watch them jamming out an idea in the studio. For me, as an engineer, a good part of my job is to make sure everything is working correctly during a recording session. But when they would just dig in and jam, I'd be so into watching them perform I'd have to kick myself to keep track of my gig. It was easy to lose myself in watching them perform. That type of magnetism is the "Factor X" for me. They would pull this "Factor X" out at will. The band would propel each member forward, creating a sum total that exceeded the individual parts. This is the magic that schools don't teach. They can't teach this. But a band like Rush, Aerosmith, or Dream Theater, they all listen to each other. In my opinion, that's a main ingredient that separates a good record from a great one. And this applies to the best session players that are out there. They know how to listen, and they adapt their playing to what the musical environment is.