In just a few short years and at a relatively young age Ryan Hewitt has become one of L.A.'s first-call engineers in a notoriously competitive and dwindling market. The son of a well-known remote recording engineer, Dave Hewitt, Ryan's made records with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Alkaline Trio, Heavens, Blink-182 and Tom Petty. He's also made several amazing solo records with RHCP guitarist John Frusciante. Despite of his success, Ryan is a super nice guy and very easygoing. I found this out firsthand when we sat down to talk at The Pass Studios while he finished up a Chili Peppers b-side mix. His website ryanhewitt.com, has a lot of ino on it and is well worth checking out if you're curious about his sessions. In fact, there was so much info on Ryan's site that I literally only had a couple of questions prepared for him. Luckily Ryan's an enthusiastic talker, and responded profusely to my questions with very little prodding.
Where did you go to school?
The education thing is a bit of an issue for me with kids going to these recording schools. I went to Tufts University, outside Boston, majoring in electrical engineering. I didn't get the recording bug until I started running the P.A. company at school. They gave me the keys to the equipment shed and I just ran with them! I'd do live to 2-track demos for Tufts-based bands with a DAT machine my father gave me. I borrowed an 8-track from a friend and started doing multitrack stuff in the middle of the night in the equipment shed. It was hilarious! Before going off to Tufts, my father said, "I really don't think you should get into this business. It's a really tough gig. It's hard on your relationships. It's hard on your future family. You're away all the time. Go and get an education in something stable." The music business was not really an option for me in my household. My mother's family is all Jewish with the stereotypical rants — "You're going to school! You're going to an Ivy League school!" They all wanted me to be an architect, but electrical engineering was closer to what I thought I wanted to do. I enjoyed it. I learned to design circuits, solve problems empirically, deal with signal flow — things that are underlying principles of the recording studio. I never actually got to build audio equipment in the end, which is what I really wanted to do then. I started playing in bands and recording and partying instead, and that was the end of that. I graduated with a fine GPA and now all I remember is V=IR! I remember sitting in front of the computer doing all these circuit simulations and saying to myself, "No fuckin' way am I going to sit in front of the computer all my life." This was before Pro Tools of course, and all my idols were working with 2 inch machines. Now here I am sitting in front of a computer all the time, but at least I'm having a lot more fun than many friends in my electrical engineering class!
What was the impetus to move out west when you could have stayed on the East Coast and worked there?
When I was on the East Coast I was working at Sony as an assistant for about three years, where I assisted Michael Brauer for a long time. He was a fantastic teacher and mentor. Eventually I decided I was done with Sony because Michael no longer worked there, and the focus of the studio became hip-hop — I wanted to rock! Around this time I started getting some engineering work with Phil Ramone. I did a few sessions with him and he took me on as his home studio engineer and tech. I wanted to take the leap into full time freelance work, but it's incredibly hard to leave the comfort of the nest that is the studio — which is a fairly well paying, somewhat steady job — to go off and do something on your own that you're not quite sure of. What made the transition easier was a phone call from Don Wershba at SSL. He called me because I had built up a relationship with the company through Michael Brauer, and our work on the then new 9000. The SSL guys would come over all the time showing us new tricks. They asked me if I wanted to consult for them, introducing and supporting the Axiom-MT (their new digital console) in 1998. They sent me to England and trained me on all their products from top to bottom. That gig helped me to pick up a lot of work, and introduced me to a lot more studios and engineers in New York.
You must have been in Oxford then, right?
I was in Oxford for a week. I came back and at about that time I rekindled a lot of friendships with people from college who had moved out to L.A. My mother had also moved out to Monterey, California around that time and so I had been visiting the West Coast a lot. I remember a very specific trip where I got back to New York, got off the plane and into the car to go back to the city and it was raining and — this is like a movie pitch — and I could see the skyline as I was coming down the ramp to go through the Lincoln tunnel and I was like, "You know what? I'm done with New York. If someone called me tomorrow and said, 'Move to L.A.,' I'm going to go." A week later SSL called me and said, "Our guy left in L.A. We need you to go out there and fill in for a while, see if you like it. If you like it, you can have the job." I went out for a little while — and it was my first office job, my first nine to five. It was the first time I ever had health insurance and all these perks of a regular job. So I took the gig. I went back to New York, packed up all my gear, had a party and moved to L.A. I was at SSL for ten months. It was the best job I could have asked for at the time because of the great reputation of the company. SSL has consoles in practically every single studio in L.A., except the one we're sitting in! As a result, I got to meet nearly every single studio manager in town, a whole bunch of great producers, great engineers and rekindle friendships with people I'd met years before — maybe through my father or people I'd assisted in New York when I was a kid. It was one of greatest years of my life. I could work nine to five and still do studio sessions with my friends at night. That's what led me to work at Cello. We sold a console to Candace [Stewart] and Gary [Myerberg] at Cello. I got to be friends with them and I was hanging out there a lot. It was right down the street from the SSL office, so whenever I wasn't doing anything at the office I'd go down there and see what was going on and who was working. Bill Bottrell was in there, Rich Costey and all these amazing cats. I would just go over and say, "Hey, is everything okay? No problems? Good. All right, cool, I'm just going to hang out with you." Then I ran into Jim Scott at Cello. I had recorded a Natalie Merchant show on the truck in New York with my father, and Jim wound up mixing it. There was Jim working in this room with all these tapestries and incense and tape and great microphones and great bands. He says to me, "Hey, what are you doing? You should be working here. You should be working at Cello, not doing some desk job." The next day his assistant left! I ran into Jim again that day and he said, "My guy just left, do you want to come work with me? I'm doing the Chili Peppers record next month." It was just this series of fortunate events that continues to lead me to where I am today. That record was By the Way. I gave my resignation to SSL on September 10, 2001. The next day the shit hit the fan and every single session in town was cancelled because everyone was freaking out. I left this cushy job at SSL and then the country was in turmoil and I had a month of no work.
Tell me about some of the artists you've worked with. You just did the Heavens record with Joe Steinbrick and Matt Skiba from the Alkaline Trio.
Yes, they're awesome, really fun guys. I had talked about this record with Matt during the Alkaline Trio's Crimson record that I recorded. There was one song where he doubled his vocal an octave down and it was just the two of us in the room and I said, "That's a really great vocal range for you. You should maybe think of doing songs specifically like that." He said, "I've got a whole other record like that." So I told him, "If you ever need help with that record call me." Right after that he introduced me to his friend Ben Lovett, whose record I went on to mix right after recording the Alkaline Trio. Ben is quite a character, and he wound up producing and chopping and engineering and creating a lot of atmosphere, and in different parts he sang. He's one of those "I- hate-you-because-you-play-everything" kinds of guys. Ben and I got along really well mixing his record, and then they started Tthe Heavens record in his house in Mount Washington. He's got a great little home studio in his basement. When it came time to mix they called me up, and it was really fun because I'd never mixed anything like that before with beats where they wanted it to be played in a club with really loud drums. I'd mix it to where I liked it, which is with drums fairly loud to begin with, and Ben would come in, "No, no man. Drums loud!" So, we're sitting there together finishing the mix and I'm pushing and pushing and I think I turned the drums up four dB and he's like, "That's it! That's bangin'! Put it on the big speakers!" There were a lot of creative sounds going on in there, just completely unorthodox recordings of all kinds of things. So it was really e-rethinking the traditional guitar/bass/drums scenario and rethinking what role those instruments played in the music and how they were to sound and how I was to balance between them. Joe Steinbrick specifically said, "I don't want this to sound like a punk rock record. Don't make these guitars sound like Alkaline Trio. I want them to sound a little softer or maybe a little quieter in spots, not as clear and defined. It can be a little dirtier, a little more dark sounding." It was fun to put a lot of reverb on them because I had just come off the Chili Peppers record, where not many effects went on that record as a whole. The Heavens said they wanted to have things like the Depeche Mode, New Order and Cure vocal sounds — lots of reverb, lots of delays, lots of effects. It was really fun to have a lot of creative license with that.
Cool. And then Tom Petty's The Last DJ — that must've been a fun record.
That was really a fun record. That was the second record I did with Jim Scott as his assistant. George Drakoulias was producing that and since then we have become really good friends. That guy is amazing. He's another guy who plays all rock instruments and he knows a lot and he just brushes it off as if it's nothing. He's reserved about his opinions, but then he'll really get in there and give you one when it's necessary. I think the guy is supremely talented and incredibly smart. He's a bit of a goofball. He loves to have fun and he's very sarcastic with a really dry, biting sense of humor. The band was obviously sick — ridiculous musicians — and they cut everything live all together in the room. There was one song that they were having trouble with and George hired a Pro Tools guy to come in and chop up Steve Ferrone's drums, but he was a hip-hop guy. All he did was put it on the grid. Tom came in and said, "No that sounds terrible. What did you do to it?" George hired another guy and he did the same thing. I was in the back of the room — the assistant — and I said, "Well, let me have a shot at it." I had no idea how to use Pro Tools. I knew how to turn it on and open a session and that was about it. I had done maybe one or two sessions on Pro Tools for a friend, but made him do all the mouse work. So I stayed all night for several nights in a row just trying to figure out what I was doing. If you go about it with a musical ear and not your analytical eyes, it's not that hard. I figured out a few things to where I could get around, and I did some edits and I played the song for them. I don't even know if I actually really did anything significant to the tracks. There were a couple of things here and there where it seemed the band wasn't locked together, so I tweaked them a little bit. That song just didn't gel, so it didn't make the record. Later, Tom did a vocal on a song and he said, "You know I'm a little sharp on that, but I like that performance. Hey Ryan, can you fix that?" So if it was a little sharp, I'd tune it down a little bit. Tom said, "That's fantastic! I didn't know you could do that!" He had never really experienced Pro Tools before because he was always very tape-oriented, and if it wasn't right they'd just play or sing it again. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he's right on because he's a phenomenal singer. George then turned to me and said, "All right, go tune all the songs." So I stayed all night for several nights in a row figuring out how to tune vocals. George had me go at it with the idea that we'd tune it, make it perfect and then play it for Tom. Whatever he didn't like we'd throw away. He wound up not liking most of it because it was unnaturally perfect to him, but we did use a few fixes here and there. So, that's how I figured out how to use Pro Tools.
Were you using Auto-Tune or something like that, or were you just using the pitch change plug-in?
Yeah, I was using Auto-Tune. It was an immense education and just a fantastic way to fall into things.
How about Blink-182?
Oh, that was a really fun record. Jerry Finn happened to be working at Cello doing an Alkaline Trio record. We had met in passing in the halls when I was in the back room working on a John Frusciante record [Shadows Collide with People] with Jim Scott. Jerry kept walking by the door and he'd stop in and shoot the shit, talking about cars, gear and whatever, and we got to be friends. One day I passed him in the hall and I said, "Will you listen to this record I did and tell me if it sounds good, if I did anything good on it because I just don't know." He was like, "Yeah, I'll check it out in a couple of days." It was the first thing that I did completely myself — recorded, mixed, produced. I did it for free for this random band that was referred to me bysomefriends. A couple of days went by and we kept seeing each other in the hall and he didn't mention it so I'm thinking, "Oh, it just sucked." He came in the next day and he said, "That thing sounded great! Where did you do it? What did you use?" We had an interesting conversation about that and then a month later he called me and he said, "Hey, do you want to do a record together?" Before I even asked what it was I said, "Yes!" "Okay, we're going to start in February. We're going to do it in San Diego in a house. It's going to be five days a week. So let's talk next month and we'll sort it out." "Hey, by the way what band is it?" I asked him. "Blink-182," he replied. I was like, "Holy shit, you've got to be joking!" I was freaking out. We went down to do that record in this big mansion that they had soundproofed and it was one of the best times I've had making a record. Those guys are so much fun and despite what they say or what people think about them, they're very talented musicians. They played every note of that record on tape. That's one thing that Jerry's really particular about — everything goes to tape, [though] vocals and keyboards and such went to Pro Tools simply because it was easier. Setting up in a house like that, where it's not supposed to be a studio, was the most incredible thing ever. Everything about the control room was wrong. Everything about the tracking room was wrong. There were parallel walls. There were all kinds of weird reflections going on. But we just used it to our advantage or tamed problems and made everything work. I'm really proud of the sounds that are on that record because it was a lot of work to get them. We had to move amps from room to room to find the right sound and try different mics and put gobos in different places. It was really, really fun.
You end up with really unique sounding records when you're in weird spaces like that.
Absolutely. Not to knock studios, because I love working in studios. Obviously a studio is a controlled environment and everything works all the time and you have everything you need in one place, but I've done three or four records at this point in houses and those records are the ones that stand out in my mind as being the best sounding and the most fun to make — because it's such a casual atmosphere. You're not thinking about the hourly rate of the studio when it gets late and you want to do another take. You're just chilling out in a house and if you want to go swimming, there's a pool in the backyard. If you want to eat, there's a fridge over there. If you want to chill out you can go outside in the yard and relax. You can get away from things. You can go to your bedroom. You can do anything you want. That drum sound is unique to you and that record and that room. A house lends itself to sonic experimentation. You have different rooms to try for different vibes on different songs. From that standpoint it was rad.
Studios are great for mixing. My studio is in an old warehouse with lots of windows and natural light. When I'm in regular studios like this I feel kind of odd. They're great, but...
When you're in a house there's a little bit more personality. It's not thought out, it's not trying to be a studio. It's your living room, your dining room or the guest house.
You know what time of day it is.
Yeah, there are windows. You can open the windows and air it out. It doesn't smell like a studio where dudes have been living for 18 hours a day for the last 30 years.
When you do things on tape and then do the vocals in Pro Tools, do you just transfer the tape into Pro Tools and forget about the tape?
In situations like that I'll transfer the tape into Pro Tools as a safety, making sure everything is locked and referenced properly. Then, when it comes time to mix we go back to the master tape.
You fly the vocals back to the tape?
Yeah. We'll fly the vocals onto a slave tape if we have the budget to have a second tape machine or if we have tracks available on the first machine. On the Blink record we did that. We had forty-eight tracks of tape and everything that was in Pro Tools went to tape.
You're not editing the whole song then. If you do, you're doing it...
All on tape.
Do you do much editing of the 2 inch and then lay down the code and then go to Pro Tools?
All the time — actually, another engineer friend had a really great idea that I totally copied, where he makes the assistant stripe all the blank tapes so that you have a consistent time base and you know where all your edits are going to be. You'll know specifically where everything is so you don't have to rely on counter times that might move around to remember where a take was. My take sheets will have the SMPTE number rather than the counter number, and I'll even write out the song form, so that I know exactly where every part is when it comes time to edit. When I'm editing tape, I'll dump the song into Pro Tools first to do test edits so we can make sure everything is going to work. I'll also record the time code into Pro Tools on a track and then feed that out to a code reader. This way I can just play the edit and the Lynx tells me what piece of tape that piece of the song was on.
If you cut that, then isn't the time code useless?
Yes, but then you re-stripe it later. The initial striping is just for editing purposes so I know where everything is, because then it's quick and I can look at the Lynx and know exactly where I need to go. It winds up making my job way easier. Especially when I'm editing between three or four reels.
So that was pretty much the same process you used for the Chili Peppers record too?
It's different in that with Jerry, we'll record drums first to a click and then we'll edit the drums together on the tape and then we'll overdub guitars and then bass and then everything else. With the Chili Peppers, the whole band was playing together and so the whole band would be edited across the tape. If the band played it well then we'd use that piece and then another piece and another piece and cut those all together. It was a bit different because you had to really think about your edit points to make sure that everyone was together and you didn't clip anyone's note. The tempo changes since the Chili Peppers don't play to a click, so we always had to do test edits to make sure that everything worked together and that nothing was going to speed up or slow down all of a sudden.
Did you use Pro Tools at all on that record or was it totally analog?
Just for Anthony's vocals, which were recorded by Andrew Scheps. There were also some assorted overdubs that happened at the end when I had the tapes doing overdubs with John. But Andrew had to do a quick piano or percussion thing at Rick's. Everything went back to tape for the mix whenever possible.
What's it like working with Rick Rubin? Does he have a permanent studio at his house now?
He's got a house in Laurel Canyon where the Chili Peppers did Blood Sugar Sex Magik. It's a permanent studio in that nobody lives there, but he doesn't own any of the gear that's there. They'll rent a Neve and they'll rent a tape machine or Pro Tools depending on what's needed. There's Plexiglas put in between what used to be a study and the ballroom, which are now control room and live room, respectively. The live room is huge, but it's all unfortunately been carpeted and there's a big American flag hanging from the ceiling and draped on the walls and lots of curtains so it's really dead. But it's an amazing place to do a record. There's tons of room and there are all different kinds of spaces for experimentation with sound and echo. The foyer in there is just astounding and there's another room that the drums on the first track on Blood Sugar Sex Magik — "[The] Power of Equality" — were tracked, where you hear the drums and all this crazy room sound around it. It's this little room, probably fifteen feet square, but with marble floors and two glass walls. I heard they recorded that drum kit with two mics. He has another studio at his main residence in Hollywood. It's a proper studio there with a console and tape machines and Pro Tools and gear that's set up permanently. They track some bands there occasionally, but mainly it's for overdubs. Rick's got a phenomenal nine-foot Bösendorfer in the living room and there's some glockenspiels and some strange instruments hanging out and a couple small rooms for recording.
What's he like to work with?
His input is completely unconventional. He's not a sounds guy. He's not going to say, "Give me more midrange," or anything. He's going to say, "That sounds good," or "That's not quite right." With the Chili Peppers, after the first take they would come in and make sure they liked the sounds and then they would go out and do more takes. To me it seems that Rick is more about the vibe of the session — to make sure everyone is happy and able to give their best to the music. I feel that he's about the songs themselves, and he's about making the arrangement ideal and perfect and featuring everybody or nobody depending on what needs to happen — that it's not overplayed, that it's not too busy, that it's not too boring — that when something needs happen, the right thing happens. He's a fan of music and so he approaches it with a fan's ear. He makes no bones about saying what he thinks is appropriate for a song. He might say, "I'm getting bored here, something else needs to happen there," or "That intro needs a little something extra. It's too sparse," or, "There's too much shit going on here, pare it down. We need to get rid of something." During tracking he's more sparse with comments and he maintains a very even-keeled level of energy in the studio. A lot of musicians get tremendously excited about something they just did, or a producer will get all fired up and excited, then if it's not as perfect the next time they do it they'll get really bummed. So you have this giant roller coaster of emotion going on. Rick is able to maintain an evenness that smoothes out the roller coaster ride. If something is amazing he might say, "That was great," and everyone will be happy. If something was not that great he might say, "You know, that's not so good. Let's do that again." But no one gets bummed out because it wasn't like, "This is amazing! This is fucking unbelievable!" and then "That sucked!" He's always conscious of the truth doing the job in a studio, and that to me is a feat unto itself.
As an engineer working with Rick, you got a lot of room to work out what it sounds like.
There's a lot of room, and specifically with the Chili Peppers — I can't speak to other bands he's worked with — they have a lot of autonomy. Rick knows they're going to come up with a fine product, so he's not around a lot during the overdubs, because he trusts all those guys to do their thing. He trusts his engineers to make sure that things are recorded well and in tune. His main interest is in getting the basic track down, because if you have a bed track that's amazing, you can put whatever you want on top of it and the track is going to support it. Sometimes the songs are pared back and simple. Sometimes they need something more. But Rick knows that they're going come up with the parts. When the band writes the songs together they'll all come up with ideas for overdubs and they'll know well in advance of actually recording what they're going to do in the studio. Rick's other focus is the vocals, and he was there all the time with every single lead vocal that Anthony sang. They would try different things. They would change lyrics. They'd swap verses and they'd refine stuff right down to the very end when we were mixing. I've had to track vocals in the middle of a mix. Anthony wanted to re-sing something, so Andrew would do that, or John needed to do an extra background vocal, so I'd run up to his house and do it. We'll think a song is done and then Anthony would say, "No, I think that I can beat that," and then he'd go in and he'd beat it. It's a process where it'll be whittled down to the perfect song in the end.
Let's talk about John [Frusciante] a little bit. You've done tons of work with him. You said a lot of the overdubs for the Chili Peppers record were done at his place, and obviously you've worked on all the solo records he's done in recent years. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship and the work you've done over there?
I started with the Chili Peppers by assisting on By the Way. Then John went to do a solo record right after that and asked Jim Scott to record and produce it. It was supposed to be two weeks of tracking, two weeks of overdubs, two weeks of mixing. It turned into this giant record that we spent four months on, but after four weeks of tracking, Jim had to do another gig. He said, "Take Ryan here and go in the other room and finish the record." I was scared shitless. It was another instance of being thrown in to the fire. All the basic tracks had been done with Jim, so we had to finish all the overdubs — the guitars and synthesizers and vocals. At the beginning I just frankly said to John, "I just want you to know at this point in my life, I don't have a really great ear for pitch, so I won't really be able to tell you if you're sharp or flat." He said, "That's okay. I'm not going to ask. I'll know." John likes to work extremely fast. He didn't want to wait for the tapes to rewind or wait for me to patch stuff, so I got really efficient working with John. Because I learned quickly how he wanted to work — and he was really particular about a lot of different things — we got a really great working relationship together. We weren't friends or anything at that point, but we could work together quite well. He could come in and I'd have everything set up exactly how he wanted it and I knew when he needed a break — just being the psychologist in that sense of knowing when someone is so frustrated or tired that you need to suggest a break for them because they can't do it themselves. "Hey, why don't we order some dinner?" or "Do you need anything out there?" That kind of brought us together as friends a little bit. That was three months of our working together one on one before he and Jim went on to mixing, and I went on to Blink-182. Then a bit later he wanted to do more solo records. He had all these songs written. He said, "I'm going to do a Chili Peppers album in a year and I have fifty-some songs that I want to record before then. Are you interested?" I'm like, "Yeah, of course I'm interested!" Then he said, "But I want to do it super minimal, 16- track, like it's the '60s — two mics on drums. I don't want to do anything perfect. I want it to be completely the opposite of my last record. I want to make a whole record in a week." I was like, "Yeah, let's do it man!" We had this aesthetic where we went in with minimal stuff — not modern sounding in the least. I listened to a whole bunch of '60s records — spent a lot of time with The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Nick Drake. John fed me all these other records to listen to as we worked and I checked them all out and then we went into the studio in a way I'd never done before. I'd never done a two- or three-mic drum setup. I got all the Beatles' books and started looking at pictures of how they did it back then, and just read up on how to do this stuff and listening with a fresh ear to really hear what was going on. John and his friend Josh [Klinghoffer] would play the whole song straight through on guitar and drums, come in to the control room and say, "All right, cool. Let's do a vocal." "Allright now let's do bass, now let's do this..." The first session we had three songs done, recorded and mixed in two days, which for me (coming off a year-long Blink-182 record where we did twelve songs), that was pretty amazing. With that level of musicianship and organization and free-spiritedness it was really something to behold. John said, "Okay that's the first three songs of the record — let's do the rest." We would convene one week every month for six months and we'd do a record. Monday through Friday we'd record, Saturday we'd mix and then Monday we'd master. It was a completely crazy schedule. It was fourteen-hour days. We'd walk in and hit record and just go. Then we'd take a dinner break and go back to it right up to the last minute. John would say, "What time did we come in today, noon? We can work till two, right?" It would be one fifty-five — "Let me do a vocal." I'd put the tape up and he'd go out there and do a one-pass vocal — then we'd go home. I look back at these records now. My fiancée is obsessed with John's records, and every time I get into her car, these records are on and I hear these songs again and again. John wanted to leave imperfections on the record, and they become endearing qualities that make you want to hear it again and again, and something new comes to the ear on each listen.
I think of all the stuff you've done it's my favorite.
They're real fun and for me. Listening to them as they were made from one to the next, it's cool to hear the progression of ideas. It was just really great to not do the same thing twice. Every time I recorded drums I did it differently. We were treating leakage differently on the different records too — "Hey, let's put the guitar amp over here this time and let's put the drums over there and lets try this vocal mic on this record." Every record has a slightly different aural take on it, but with the same players and same instruments. I used different microphones every time so I was kind of experimenting and refining my idea of what I wanted out of a minimal mic'ing technique. It's really refreshing to be given that kind of creative freedom by John to do whatever I wanted.
A lot of the ear candy overdubs on the Chili Peppers Stadium Arcadium — is most of that John taking the tapes home?
We did almost all of John's vocals at his house. We did a lot of treatments there and we did a handful of guitar solo things and noodle-y bits. We did all his piano parts at his house. His studio is amazing.
He's got some big modular rig he uses for processing stuff?
Yeah, he's got a big Doepfer modular synthesizer that he keeps adding on to and he gets the craziest sounds out of that thing. He'll treat anything. I was just over at his house last night to throw a lead vocal through a little bit of a phaser or flanger kind of thing. Any kind of wacky stuff you hear on Stadium is probably the modular synthesizer. He's a genius with that thing.
I saw somewhere that you built a studio for Danger Mouse. Do you do studio design as well?
I dabble in it. Working with my dad, I had to put together and take apart a studio almost every single day, so I know the inner workings of that process. I've learned system integration from my time with SSL, and my work as an assistant and engineer at different levels of studios taught me practical signal flow applications. I know what I like about certain rooms and I know what I don't like about them. Having a room that is flexible electronically with all kinds of patching available everywhere it needs to be is crucial. A room needs to be comfortable and reflect the owner's personality. It needs to function in a manner that the owner is accustomed to working. Danger Mouse was roommates with my friend Ben Lovett and is also a good friend of Josh Klinghoffer — John's drummer and musical partner. Danger Mouse really wanted to put a place together to do his own projects, and both Ben and Josh subsequently referred him to me after seeing what I did for Ben's studio and John's place. We started working on it and he gave me a budget — not a lot of money. He said he wanted to be able to do tracking, overdubs and a little bit of mixing. I kind of screwed around with the numbers and made some suggestions for workflow and equipment lists. The space he had to work with was less than ideal — an office with short ceilings above a garage with a miserable landlord. I got some construction guys that I have worked with on some other places to come in and we kind of talked about isolating the drums from the floor, building a booth, plugging the windows. I had all these ideas, some of which I read in Tape Op, some of which found I found on Gearslutz — some baffles to hang on the wall, some basic corner traps. Then for the control room, I called an acoustician friend of mine and I asked him for some pointers. It came out pretty damn good. I was kind of surprised.
You helped John put his room together too, then?
Yes, John had bought a bunch of stuff before I got involved — an API console originally from the Record Plant in New York, a Fairchild 670 and a rack of 1176s and Pultecs and a 1 inch 8-track, but none of it was wired. I brought in my wiring guy and I designed a wiring system, but at the time we didn't know if it was going to be a permanent facility at his house or not. I had patchbays and snakes made, — did the whole system integration — and I went about acquiring more gear for him. We bought a 24-track, a 2-track and an incredible piano from a studio that was closing. We bought a bunch of microphones and stands and all of a sudden we got a studio! We're now having Vincent Van Haaf and Jacques Lacroix over there modifying the control room and running all the wires under the floor, building patch panels in all the rooms and putting the equipment racks in the walls.
One thing I'm curious about is that you seem to be able to straddle doing these records like the Blink record and then John's stuff that's just polar opposite. One is very produced and an almost hyper-reality recording, and the other is more documentarian. Do you prefer one over the other?
I can't say I have a preference other than that working the way I do with John is easier because there's less shit flying around. At the same time, it's harder because you really have to be on point and it's a lot more work mentally. There's a lot more legwork in setting up four microphones rather than forty. There's a lot more patience required in positioning that one mic absolutely perfectly and making sure that the sound is actually going to work with the other instruments later whereas if you have a thousand microphones, you can make it work with anything. I think that the music and the artists that are producing it should dictate the sound. Not necessarily by saying, "I want it to sound like this," because a lot of times when somebody says, "I want it to sound like this record," they don't really mean that. Perhaps they like certain elements of it, but they don't want it to sound like that record verbatim. I think that a band like Blink-182 that's going to be commercial and big and loud and is marketed towards kids on MTV needs to be recorded in a certain manner. You couldn't record Blink-182 like I record John. You couldn't record John like I record Blink-182. It just doesn't work. There are ways of using elements from both styles of recording — both polar opposite styles. To be a fan of music and to be a fan of recording and engineering and producing, an engineer needs to be able to listen to all these sounds and see that many different approaches are valid. There are people who are like, "I never put more than four microphones on the drums. I never mic the high hat. I always put a mic here on a guitar." I think that's unnecessarily limiting the sonic palate. It's like saying you're only going to paint with the color blue. I loved being educated by engineers like Jim Scott, Michael Brauer and Elliot Scheiner and producers like Jerry, Rick and Phil, who all have completely different, yet equally valid approaches to making records. There are so many ways of making a record and so many different ideas and so many different mic'ing techniques that you've just got to try as many as possible. I feel like I need to try everything and I go through phases where I like a certain combination of microphones. But I'll get bored with it and have to try something else, or I'll spy on someone and see how they're mic'ing something! I feel blessed that I can go from something like Blink to something like John and then to the Chili Peppers and to the Heavens and to Ben Lovett's completely electronic chaos and be able to approach them all differently. My goal with my career is to not be pigeonholed or stamped as having a certain sound. I'd like to be known as a sonic chameleon who can bring elements from different styles of recording and production to the session — an engineer with a broad palette.
Do you listen to an equally vast selection of music?
I listen to all different kinds of things, and as I'm turned on to working on different projects, those people will in turn show me new music. I had never heard Fugazi before working with Blink, and listening to Fugazi helped me with making John's record. When I worked with John we would really get into listening to the inner workings of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix records which I had never listened to under a microscope like that. I had always been a casual Beatles and Jimi Hendrix listener. John and I would listen and we'd say, "How the fuck did they do that?" and dissect what was going on to try and figure out how they made Jimi's guitar sound like it was on fire. Then he would turn me on to Aphex Twin or Autechre, The Strawbs, The Move — completely different styles of music, all in one sitting.
Obviously you're not an in-the-box mix person.
I'll do whatever I have to.
Right, but it's not your preference.
No, but I have a little room at Encore Studios called The Runway when I need it. I have a Tonelux Mixer, my Pro Tools rig, all my outboard gear. I did a couple of records in there and one of them came out great.
A band called Casket Salesmen, out of Pomona. They're on tour right now. It's a combination of Black Sabbath and Tool — big, loud guitars, riffs. It was really fun. In that situation the tracks were recorded really well. I have sixteen channels of Tonelux Mixer plus some effects returns so I can use my analog effects boxes. I would break the mix out into the mixer as elemental as I could so I could process the tracks individually with my outboard gear. I'd have the kick coming down one channel and snare down another and all the toms and cymbals down another pair. It's mostly drums that were split out on the mix because there are very specific things I like to do. My Tonelux EQs for drums are the greatest thing in the world! To be able to get out of the box and use analog processing feels really good. Once you get the into the analog domain and use a great summing box, it just puts a little more glue between the elements of the mix and a little more width and depth and height into the soundstage. There are people who have become tremendous at mixing in the box, and I have respect for that, but I don't want to do it because it just feels weird. Obviously, only having a small mixer over there, I have to sum stuff in the box, but I do it minimally and where it's not going to matter as much. On Casket Salesmen, they would have six tracks for one guitar part, so I'd sum those in Pro Tools and then stick it through one of my equalizers or something to give it some more life. I think in-the-box mixing is going to become a necessary evil with the incredible shrinking record budget and I'm fortunate to have a good collection of toys to use so that I can make it slightly better than would otherwise be possible. I would be really upset if I couldn't do that! That being said, mixing in a hybrid situation gives so many more possibilities. You can do shit in Pro Tools you can't do on a console. There are effects in there that you can't get anywhere else and I keep buying them. My money keeps disappearing into my iLoks, but then I get to whip out these crazy effects, some of which I've learned conceptually how to use from John and his modular synthesizer. Now I have digital versions of those modules in my box and I can get similar results. It expands the creative palate.
Define "height". It was interesting when you said that.
Well, I never really thought about it consciously until a friend came by the studio and listened to one of my Chili Peppers mixes. I think he may have kind of coined the term. He said, "There's this height thing going on! It feels like things are stacked vertically on top of each other." You know, like you get layers of instruments that you can spread out left to right and you can get something going on front to back, but there's this thing I've kind of learned through different engineers' techniques — no single person individually -how to make vertical space for instruments and for parts. With John, he creates so many different parts that have very specific frequency ranges. I don't even know if he thinks about it this way or more like tonal ranges, but for me it works out as frequency ranges. We'll do stuff like slow the tape machine down to half speed and overdub a guitar part and then play it back and it'll have this ultra-high frequency thing with notes that guitars are not allowed to play! And so on Stadium I really had a lot of height to play with. There was a lot of stuff on the ground and a lot of stuff in the middle and a lot of stuff on top, but the way that we recorded them, the way that John conceived them musically, parts just layer themselves bottom to top. I listen to that record with my eyes closed and I see the instruments in three- dimensional space. I just feel like I can do this thing where I can get a spread from bottom to top and sometimes I'll listen to a mix in retrospect and think it's too bright. But there's all this stuff happening up there. Of course it's bright. It's a bright sound and if it was dulled down you wouldn't get the impact of that sound anymore. Luckily, the way that John conceives of his parts musically, it wasn't necessary to do a lot of EQ carving to make those things fit. Since that record, I've tried to make that theory work for other bands. It really makes life easy when people conceive of and record stuff this way, so that there's not a whole bunch of shit vying for the same frequency range. If everything is playing in the same tonal area, it's really hard to get definition. There are some bands that don't want the definition, and when you solo their stuff you'll find out why. But generally I like a certain amount of fidelity in a commercial recording. By "commercial recording" I mean something that's probably had a lot of overdubs that you need to make fit together. It's great to work for musicians that have an ear for that kind of thing, that don't record a bunch of parts that step on each other, that really jam up in the mix where you have to put that fader all the way up to make it work. Now this part is the loudest fucking thing in the world because has to compete with three or four other things in the same frequency range.
One of the sad clichés of recording engineers is that they're over- weight and three-times divorced. You seem real healthy and you're about to get married.
You have to be healthy. You have to be happy. You have to have a partner who supports you unquestioningly and who knows what you're about and what she's getting into with you. When Sarah and I started dating I didn't have any work for about a month and a half and we spent every day together. Ironically, the phone call I got from Jerry Finn to do the Blink-182 record was the day after I met Sarah, and she was actually sitting on my lap while I took the phone call. I don't think she had any clue at that time that I work as much as I do, because we spent every day for a month together and then all of a sudden I had to leave town to do the Blink record. I was gone Monday through Friday for four months. We had very honest conversations about things where I said, "This is what I do," and, "Yes, this is how much I work. I will work sixteen, twenty hours in a day and come home at five in the morning and then go back out at ten the next day." I've been working those hours since I was 13, going on the road with my father. It's totally normal to me, but I don't like working weeks on end of sixteen-hour days, and fortunately I work with artists who don't like doing that all the time either. If I work with a new band, I'll tell them, "I'm not doing that anymore unless it's like we need to absolutely fucking do this right now." I can't do that anymore. It's not worth it for the project. It's not worth it for my health, for our relationship. It took a long time and many subsequent conversations for us to really iron out that situation, but things still come up, because I still love what I do! When Sarah graduates law school she's going to be working a lot. It's going to get more hectic for a few years while she establishes herself in the law field, just like I am right now in the engineering field. A lot of people don't realize that part of life — the give and take, the unconditional support.
It seems like you got a lot of your early jobs by being the guy who says, "Yeah, I'll do it. I'll stay till four in the morning!"
I sacrificed a lot of my life to my career in the beginning, but it was the only way to get ahead and reach the goals that I set for myself. I wanted more than anything to be making the records that I was listening to on the radio. As far as the fitness thing — as long as you have some kind of physical activity other than pushing your chair from the console to the outboard rack, you'll be okay. I try to go to the gym a couple of times a week, walk or run whenever I can. My drivers license shows me extremely tan from when I first moved to LA. People look at the picture and then look at me all pasty now and can't believe it's the same person. I used to go to beach every weekend when I first moved here and ride my bike twenty, thirty miles. I'm getting back into that these days. I think it's good to work hard, play hard, to keep yourself in shape, to just be well and remember to breathe! It's very important to eat well. When I work with John I lose ten pounds in a week because we eat so well and work so hard. He eats fish, meat, vegetables. There's no sugar in the house. There's no candy. I come to the studio here and they find out I like a certain candy bar, so they buy a whole pile. I quit sugar and bread recently and lost the ten pounds I gained from the candy and feel great! I quit caffeine a year ago. Now I can stay up all night, no problem!