Years ago, I started seeing an engineer’s name associated with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers on a number of releases. Working on Tom’s Runnin’ Down a Dream documentary, The Live Anthology box set, the Mudcrutch side project, as well as The Heartbreakers’ fantastic last two albums – Mojo and Hypnotic Eye, Ryan Ulyate was there to capture, mix, and help produce one of the best songwriters and rock bands of the last 40 years. Ryan’s archive digging and mixing on the posthumous releases American Treasure, Wildflowers & All the Rest, and the recent Angel Dream (Songs and Music From the Motion Picture She’s the One) are absolutely worth investigating, and his forays into surround and Dolby Atmos mixing are setting new quality standards. But Ryan’s studio history stretches back much further, tracking a ‘70s pop song for Robert John (“Sad Eyes”) and producing massive Latin hits for Juan Gabriel and others. He even had a ten year stint working with Jeff Lynne [Tape Op #92], leading to album sessions with George Harrison.
But let’s let Ryan Ulyate tell these stories….
Everybody knows you from working with Tom Petty for so many years, plus archiving his work. How did your career begin?
My dad was a musician, and I found his tape recorder when I was a kid. I got myself a tape recorder when I was a 13, a TEAC that had sound on sound. You could take the 1/4-inch stereo and bounce one thing to the next track. I got a 4-track TEAC when I went to college when I was 17, and I put a little studio together. I was always recording music. I got my foot in the door at a real 24-track studio [Studio Sound Recorders] in 1978, and I worked on a record. The producer was George Tobin, who had an artist called Robert John; he did a track called “Sad Eyes.” It was Robert’s song, and he wanted to cut the vocals with me. We cut the vocals, and he said, “Stop me if you hear anything bad.” I said, “Really? You want me to do that?” He sang it, we cut the vocals, and then they picked that track from the album and it went to number one. Within six months of getting my foot in the door, I’d worked on a number one record!
You were fairly young, and right out of college?
Yeah, I was 21. Right after that, they [George Tobin and Studio Sound Recorders] had an association with Ariola Records. A French artist, Alain Chamfort, came in, and the first record I ever cut everything on was his album [Poses]. Then a Latin guy, Juan Gabriel, showed up. I did two albums right then, and Recuerdos went on to be number one. Alain Chamfort’s single, “Manureva,” went to number one and sold a million and a half copies in France. Juan Gabriel – the guy was huge, so after that I got all these French and Latin artists showing up, and I went independent in 1982. I’ve been independent ever since.
They were searching you out based on the credits?
Yeah. I ended up working with French people, like Johnny Hallyday, who was the “Elvis” of France.
I looked at your discography and thought maybe you didn’t even live in the U.S., initially.
Yeah. Back in those days, artists who had their act together knew that if they could come to L.A. they could make a big record. The studios and musicians were pretty established in Los Angeles at that point. I worked with these artists, even though I didn’t speak any French or Spanish. When I went independent, I did some work with Herb Alpert [Tape Op #140]. I bounced around and got pretty far into the Latin world. I ended up producing some for Juan Gabriel; he had an artist, Isabel Pantoja, who I worked with, and her Desde Andalucia was the number one Latin album for eight months. Crazy. Then that played its course out, and I got into doing sound design. This is way too much about me. [laughs]
No, I wanted to find out the path that led to where you are now!
Well, it’s interesting. I met Craig Harris, who became a good friend of mine. He was one of the first guys to get the first Synclavier, with a direct-to-disk system. Eight channels that you could record to a 30 megabyte Winchester hard disk that cost $10,000 and was as big as a refrigerator. I was fascinated by the technology, so I started working with him. He was doing sound design for 30 second national TV spots, like Budweiser [commercials]. He’d done a lot of sound design for films, like Back to the Future; making crazy sounds, speeding them up and slowing them down, and making collages. I spent three years doing that. Honestly, that helped with everything I’ve done since: working with sounds, 30 second spots, figuring out voiceovers, dialog, and how to do all that. It helped me when I jumped back into record production. After that, I got involved in doing sound for theme parks, and I did all the music and sound design for an attraction at a Japanese theme park. While I was there, I met David Bianciardi, who was the show control designer. He and I decided to create this interactive entertainment, where we were going to have a club where you walk into it, there’s a central beat going on, but you walk into different zones. You walk into a zone, looking at real-time computer graphics you can affect by your movements, and you’re also changing the sound of samples. We created this whole prototype of an Interactive Dance Club that we premiered at SIGGRAPH [Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques] in 1998. It was fun trying to figure out the “future” of music, but I guess the world wasn’t ready. Right after that, a friend of mine said, “Jeff Lynne’s looking for an engineer.” I showed up that day and ended up hanging out with Jeff Lynne for about ten years.
He had his own studio at that point?
Yeah, he had his own place. I got to meet Ringo [Starr], Paul [McCartney], and George [Harrison], before he passed. A dream come true!
You worked on Brainwashed, George’s final record.
Yeah. That was a special project. The Concert for George – the tribute concert they did at the Royal Albert Hall – that still is a high point for me.
I assume that’s what led to meeting Tom Petty?
That’s right, because the Heartbreakers flew out for that. The first time I actually met Tom was when he came over to Jeff’s to listen to the playback of one of the tracks we had mixed on that concert. Then Jeff produced [Tom Petty’s] Highway Companion album.
Right, which you were the main engineer on.
Yeah, exactly. I got a good credit on it; I got to work with Tom, Mike [Campbell, guitar], and Jeff. Getting to know those guys was a joy, plus seeing how Tom worked. There’s this great story: Jeff says, “Tom’s coming over. I want to get everything ready for him. I want to have it set up right.” I said, “Okay, let’s get the amp all mic’d up and everything going.” We had the amp out in Jeff’s room and Tom’s in the control room with the guitar. Tom had brought Alan “Bugs” Weidel, his longtime right-hand man. Tom’s sitting there; he plays a few chords, plays the parts a little bit, and he goes, “I don’t like the sound of this guitar.” I’m thinking, “Oh, shit; I’m screwed.” He goes, “Hey Bugs, get me a different guitar.” And I thought to myself, “I like this guy.”
Right. He’s not going to turn around and blame you.
No, he gets what the deal is. We got along really well.
How did that work lead into you working with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers?
Well, Tom had this way; if he liked you, he’d call you up. All of a sudden I got a call from Tom, or Tom’s manager, saying, “There’s this other little thing, and Tom wanted to know if you’d be into doing that.” Tom said, “I want to cut this track. Can you help me?” I called a friend, we booked a studio, cut that track, and it was such fun. We cut [“I’m Walkin’”] for a Fats Domino tribute album [Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino] they were putting together for the Tipitina’s Foundation. What a great session. These guys were great to work with. We brought in Jim Horn; he played the saxophone parts and nailed it. After that, I started getting more calls. They were starting to work on this documentary film [Runnin’ Down a Dream], so they were pulling me in to ask if I could mix some songs for that. Then, when the Highway Companion album got done, they had gone out live and they were promoting the single, “Saving Grace,” from the album. They recorded live at Bonnaroo, and they asked if I could mix that. At one point, Tom said to me, “Look, I’ve got this idea about my old band…”When he’d made the documentary, they went back and interviewed everybody.
Right, back to Gainesville, Florida, and his pre-Heartbreakers band [Mudcrutch].
Yeah. A lot of the interviews were with the Mudcrutch guys; Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh. Tom got this idea, “Why don’t I make an album with those guys? Wouldn’t that be fun?” He called me up and said, “Look, I wanna make an album, but I don’t want to make them feel all intimidated. I don’t want to go into a studio to have red light fever and all that, because these guys have been off doing other stuff.” Mudcrutch was going to be Tom, Mike [Campbell], and Ben [Benmont Tench], and then Randall on the drums and Tom Leadon on guitar. Tom Petty would play bass in the band.
Like he used to.
Yeah. So, that was the lineup. But Tom said, “I don’t want to intimidate them. Is there a way we can take the Clubhouse and turn it into a studio?” The Clubhouse is where Tom kept all his gear and guitars, and where they’d usually rehearse before tours. I worked with his front-of-house guy, Robert Scovill, who at that point was working with Digidesign. They’d come up with this VENUE System live board where you could run everything through the board, and it would also record flat to Pro Tools. I set up a Pro Tools room in one of the offices next door and turned it into a control room. They brought that board in, we put Mudcrutch in there, and then we tracked them as they were rehearsing. They weren’t wearing any headphones; they had [monitor] wedges. They thought they were just playing, and I was secretly recording an album in there.
That’s the perfect way for a good rock band to stay comfortable!
Yeah. We made so many albums with that setup. That’s how we proceeded from there on, with [Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’] Mojo, Hypnotic Eye, and everything else. We fell into a cool groove, and a great way to make music.
Mojo and Hypnotic Eye both feel like a band playing the songs live.
It is. That’s the thing that’s so great. All those guys in that band are so good. At that point, Tom was not going to play them demos. He didn’t want to influence their take on the song by playing a demo of it, so he’d come in and play the song on acoustic guitar. “Here’s the song.” Everyone would gather around and listen. I once clocked it – from the time he came in and played the guitar and to the time we got a decent take was 35 minutes. “Okay, that’s good. Come on in and listen.” They were so intuitive. It also meant that when we’d hear it back, we could immediately get if it’s going in the right or the wrong direction. We all got to the point where it was, “Yeah, we could spend another three hours and make this a tiny bit better.” Or, “We could cut our losses right now and say, ‘Screw it, this is not working.’ Let’s move on to something else and try a different idea.” Where they were at as a band, and he was at as a writer, was joyful and effortless.
I’m sure you’ve been in sessions where it’s all becoming very tedious, for one reason or another. It’s nice to step away from that world.
Yeah, that’s the thing I loved about him, and that’s why I was always so lucky. I was working with people who were at the top of their game, and also smart enough to know not to fall into those traps. We made some great music; I’m proud of Hypnotic Eye, especially. Tom always kept the bar high, and everybody was going to get over it. There were several times we’d cut tracks, and we’re saying, “Oh, this is great!” He’d say, “No, we’ve done that before. Give me something else.” On [Hypnotic Eye’s] “American Dream Plan B,” they played it once and he said, “No, I want a badass bass part. I want it stripped down. How can we make this thing powerful with just a bass thing?”
How did your role come up with working on what Tom Petty had in the vaults?
I dipped my toe in when we did The Live Anthology. At that point we’d just finished the Runnin’ Down a Dream film, and Warner Bros. said, “We want to do a live album.” We had done a live album in the Runnin’ Down a Dream film. [Director Peter] Bogdanovich edited it around a 2006 Gainesville concert that they did. When you bought that DVD, you got the big, 4-hour plus documentary, and then the other disc was that entire concert on its own. If we put out another concert from the same era, it’s the same tunes. Tom, Mike, and I got the idea, “Well, how many tapes do we have in the vault? Let’s look at all of them and come up with the greatest live album, ever.” That took one year to do. It was 400 reels of tape, digital tracks, and 3,200 rough mixes. It was crazy. I spent at least three months transferring tapes and making rough mixes. I’d get a mix set up, bounce it to two tracks, hit record in Pro Tools, and go have lunch.
It’s a lot of work.
I never had a problem with that. That’s the engineer part of me, the nerdy part who wants to keep on drilling into this until I find that little gem. Tom wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to say, “Oh, let’s find that concert from Boston and use that. Give ‘em a record and let’s be done.” It’s like, “No, this could be the best.” We went through all those takes and found what we thought were the best takes of all those songs, and then we came up with all this material. Tom took another couple of weeks and sequenced it, because he was into the running order of [albums] and how that tells a story. He sequenced each one of those four discs as its own mini-concert. There’s an arc to it. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned since Tom’s passed – and we’ve done these other projects, like American Treasure and Wildflowers & All the Rest – is that I’ve tried my best to stay within that lane, in terms of thinking about how tracks are sequenced and what the larger story is that they’re telling. Being an archivist, if all that work gets you to the point where you can bring out something that’s wonderful and everybody’s going to love, then it’s a labor of love.
Yeah. Wildflowers & All the Rest is the most recent release. I found that fascinating that you and Tom had been able to put together the first bonus disc there, right?
Yeah, the second disc, All the Rest, Tom put that together in 2015. All the songs on the All the Rest disc were cut in the same timeframe that they were doing Wildflowers; July ‘92 to April of ‘94. We’d also started going through the demos, and we had about seven of the demos that could have been a bonus disc. There was a lot of thought that he put into it. The first thought was, “Do I re-sequence Wildflowers and put these songs in a new order to get back to that mythical 25 track count?” He thought about it a lot and said, “People are so used to this album the way it is that I don’t want to touch it.” Then the idea was to make All the Rest stand on its own. His thought was, “If I give it to the label, they’re going to put it out and it may or may not sell. What I need to do is find a way to promote it.” He had an idea of putting on a Wildflowers-only tour. Maybe not even a tour; maybe a residency. He was proud of Wildflowers, for obvious reasons. In the meantime, tours and albums intervened. That was going to be the next big thing we meant to do, when he came off the road in 2017, and it didn’t happen.
But his family – his daughters and his wife [Dana] – picked up the ball. We got the brain trust together: Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, with Adria, Dana, and Annakim Petty. We all put our heads together and did our best to put something out that we think he would love, making sure that we’re honoring what we think his wishes would be.
I remember mixing Elliott Smith’s New Moon album after he’d passed, and I would end the night wishing I could turn around and say, “Does that sound right?”
Do you get a sense of it though? Do you get a vibe?
Same as you, I worked with him when he was alive, so I remember what he would say and what his decision-making would feel like.
I think we all get the voice in the back of our heads. Mike talks about this too. I get the voice in the back of my head going, “Nah, nah.”
The one I always hear is, “Let me re-record that. Let me write new lyrics to that.” These are both songwriters who were always on a quest to be better.
That’s exactly right. If Tom could find a way to make something better, he would. When I’d be going to master the album the next day, he’d say, “No, come in. I’ve got a better line for the third verse of ‘Shadow People.’” I’d come in, punch it in, and be like, “I’m glad you called! That’s a lot better line.”
With putting together a retrospective, especially with The Live Anthology, you’ve got hundreds of takes to choose from of a certain song. How do you whittle it down?
Well, Mike Campbell and I have talked about this before. It’s easier than you think. It’s gotta have a good groove, a good feel, and a good vocal. Tom has to be on his game, and the vibe has to be right. After that, the songs usually take care of themselves, because The Heartbreakers are so good. If we’ve got good Mike Campbell, great Tom Petty, and great groove, then it gets on the shortlist. Then it’s a matter of feel. On Wildflowers & All the Rest, there’s a live version of “Cabin Down Below” that we used, and there was another version that was good, but the “Cabin Down Below” that we picked ended up being “swampier.” That was the only way we could describe it. It had this feel, and therefore it fit into the set in a certain way. What can also define what a good take is is where it is in the set that we’re creating. Sometimes there’s a faster version. “Oh, this is good right here because we need some tempo. We just got through an acoustic track.” In other cases, it’s like, “No, hang on a second. This feels a little frantic.” When you have good takes to pick against good takes, it’s how they fit into the overall flow of the work.
You’re working with Mike and Benmont to pick takes for a lot of these projects?
Yeah, let’s put it this way: Nothing gets out without everybody weighing in on it.
That makes sense. On Wildflowers & All the Rest, there are remixes where there is a different emphasis on the parts, like “Hung Up and Overdue.” What are you looking for when you’re making a remix and re-presenting the song?
That song originally, like some of the songs that are on the All the Rest disc, was previously released on the She’s the One soundtrack. When we started this with Tom, he said, “I don’t like the way the songs were mixed on She’s the One. They put me in a hurry because the film had to come out.” He felt the songs were better than the way they were presented. When we had a chance to have a second crack at those songs – “Hung Up and Overdue,” in particular – he was like, “I want this to sound better.” I asked, “Who’s that vocal that’s buried at the end?” He said, “Carl Wilson.” I said, “That’s Carl Wilson? Holy crap. Make Carl Wilson be loud.” All of a sudden, we realized this is the only song in the world where you’re going to have a Beach Boy and a Beatle [Ringo’s on drums] on the same track. I’m happy with the way that came out. There’s another song, “Climb That Hill,” where there are two versions. One is just Tom with an open tuning guitar, beating the crap out of it, and it’s wonderful. The other one is an earlier take, and I said, “What about this take? Not the one you guys cut, because they re-cut it in ‘95 for She’s the One.” Tom goes, “Where’d you get that? Shit, that sounds better.” I asked, “Why’d you go with the other one?” He replied, “I dunno. I wasn’t there.” Both takes were good, but the earlier [one] fit in better with Wildflowers.
The Wildflowers Live disc is spread over a good number of years. How are you getting consistency in the sounds when you’re working these mixes up?
Well, the lucky thing about The Heartbreakers is that they always had good people recording their shows. Some of the live recordings were done by Biff Dawes and Westwood One [Mobile Studios]. Other ones were done by Robert Scovill, their front-of-house guy who I mentioned before. When he helped figure out their Pro Tools system, they recorded multitracks every night on the road, starting around ‘02 or so. Scoville knew how to place mics, where to put audience mics, and all that. When I did The Live Anthology, I developed this process. I’m doing it in Pro Tools and mixing it in-the-box. When I get the vibe on the first live track, finish it, and go onto the second live track from wherever [the show] was, I’ve got on my secondary output [from] the first song that I mixed. As I’m mixing, I’m always referring back. That way I can’t get too far out of field. If I have to go back and fix anything, I open it up and make the fix, rather than, “Oh, geez; I put that on the Neve and now I’ve gotta go set it up.” Being able to quickly move back and forth and fine tune gets you that consistency. Whatever sonic hit you take from not living in the analog world, that’s fine. I’m way over it at this point. I don’t think anyone’s complained about the sound of Wildflowers & All the Rest, and the fact is that the only thing that was mixed analog in that presentation is the first album.
By Richard Dodd [Tape Op #105].
Yeah, exactly. The sound of that album is so unique. That was the template; what I was listening to when I was making these other mixes. “Okay, you’d better be in Wildflowers world.”
Did you find yourself wondering what was Richard using, what the thinking was about panning, and so on?
The fact is I found the mix notes, so I know what he was using. But it didn’t necessarily affect me that much. At some point I’m just putting it in the speakers and responding to what I’m hearing. There are certain things he did that I didn’t do as much. Wildflowers is very compressed; there’s a ton of bus compression on it. Everything’s in your face and the panning is wonderful. On “Cabin Down Below,” it starts out with Tom’s guitar in the right speaker, Mike’s guitar is left speaker, and [there is] no reverb. There’s a minimalism to Wildflowers that is one of the main charms of it, so I certainly didn’t want to lose that. But I was into a little more dynamics, if we could get it.
There was an intent to the original Wildflowers mixes to make it push.
Yeah. The fact is that you were also dealing with a different era. The story goes that they had some rent-a-car that had a radio in it. They’d mix everything in the studio, then go into the parking lot and say, “How does this sound in the car?” At one point someone thought they didn’t need the car anymore, and they took it back. The next day, Tom asked, “Where’s the car? Get that car back!” They had to go back and find that same exact car, and they rented it for the rest of the album. The larger point being that the playback medium of the time also suggested the way that you’d mix. We’re in a different world now, with what people listen on.
I feel that going for high audio quality, as well as trying to retain all the clarity of the performance and recording, always helps to reinforce the emotional component of the music.
I agree, 100 percent. I’ve always been a huge fan of high-res; the best you can get it to sound is what I want. That’s what Tom wanted, too. We made sure there were high-res versions, going back quite a ways. We did 5.1 versions of Mojo and Hypnotic Eye. I just did an Atmos [Dolby surround] mix of the first two [Wildflowers…] discs that’s streaming on Amazon and Tidal right now. I don’t know if you can see all the speakers in here.
Oh, gosh; you’ve got the “up” speakers.
I’ve got a 7.1.4 [monitor] system here. You should come over to my house, Larry. You’d love it. I’ve got a guy from Dolby coming over later today who wants to hear it. Dolby and Avid were helpful, and ATC [Loudspeakers, Tape Op #140] through TransAudio were helpful in holding my hand and getting this set up for me. Getting back to what you were talking about, the emotional aspect – when you listen to it with that fidelity and immersion – I teared up at some points when I was mixing this, like, “Tom would have loved this.” The more you can make listening a sacred experience, the more I’m into it. Maybe that’s just us, or me. But for people like Tom and Mike, music is that important. Whatever we can do to get that emotion through, and get it in the highest quality, we’re all for it.
I’ve never mixed in Atmos. What do you place “above” the listener?
Well, I’ve done 5.1 [surround mixes]; 5.1’s pretty simple. You’ve got three in front and two behind; that’s easy. Obviously if you’re doing something live, just put the audience mics back there, put the vocal in the middle, and you’re done. But when it comes to Atmos, the extra thing that’s interesting are the height speakers; all the ones up high. There are no rules right now. Wildflowers is a very stripped down, basic thing. They worked really hard to have it not be filled with overdubs, and have it be immediate and in your face. In a funny way, having extra speakers can still keep it just as immediate; it surrounds you. I made some simple decisions early on. I took “You Don’t Know How it Feels” and used that as my template. They’ve got room mics on the drums, so I can spread the drums out; I made the drums feel like you’re in the room. You still want the lead vocal in front of you. I’ve heard people do things in Atmos, like Beck did with vocals, where I think he told them, “Put the vocal anywhere but the front speakers.” It’s great. Beck is such a great artist. But, in this context, I wanted to make it feel like you’re in the room. I didn’t want too much moving around. The “rule” was to keep the guitars and vocal towards the front, put a tiny little bit of the vocal in these height speakers, just to make it feel like there’s a little sprinkling of heaven up there, and then put the keyboards in the side and rear surrounds. I let Benmont live back here, because then you can really hear him. The thing about Benmont, and the parts he plays on Wildflowers, is they’re so subtle. They’re just supporting the song.
Padding, color, and a lot of good parts.
When you break that out, it doesn’t detract from what you’re hearing in an immersive mix, but it helps. There’s this power that comes from all around you. Some of these tracks – like “It’s Good to be King” – they had an orchestra. I made a rule that whenever there’s an orchestra, it’s up high. At the end of “It’s Good to be King” there’s this long fadeout vamp. The orchestra gets big. The orchestra could only be so big coming out of two speakers, because you have to keep the power and groove going. But when I mix in Atmos, we’ve got all the power on the lower level and I can push these strings into the ceiling, into the heavens, and it’s fun.
It’s hard for people who haven’t done a lot of mixing to understand how challenging it is to get everything into two speakers. I say it’s like “jamming kittens down a funnel.” They’re all trying to get out.
Exactly. Yeah, it is! Mixing in Atmos is more of a joyous process, because we have more space. In a funny way, the challenge is really trying to get something to sound good in stereo. For me, Atmos is like having your nice ice cream sundae after you’ve eaten your peas!
You’re working in your own studio, Ryan’s Place?
Yeah, it’s a little 12 by 24-foot shed. When we bought this house 25 years ago, I went in the back and thought, “Ooh, what if I could turn that into a studio?” I made it into a studio around 2000, but it got to be that I could do actual professional work around 2006, right when Pro Tools got to be just good enough. It was also by the time they got to the [Digidesign] 192 I/O interfaces.
Anyone who’s engineering and producing now has to have some personal space to work out of.
For me, it’s been a blessing. At that point, I had a kid who was 4 years old. You can’t have a kid and be a guy who works 18 hours a day in some studio in Hollywood and have a life. Now I could always take a break and drive down to the elementary school and pick him up, or whatever. Having this studio gave me my life back.