I recently sat down with Ryan Ulyate to discuss Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers chart topping Hypnotic Eye album, which he recorded, mixed and co-produced. He walked me through the entire process of crafting the #1 rock album—from jamming and tracking the songs at Petty’s rehearsal space ‘The Clubhouse’, to the collaborative workflow used during overdubs and mixing, to mastering and delivering the finished songs for various formats.
Throughout the project, Ulyate used Pro Tools and VENUE live systems to maximize the artist’s creative freedom—not only to capture the most and organic performances possible—but also to retain the maximum flexibility and control during the entire process.
“I can start being a lot more creative from the very beginning—the very second they start playing—which frees me up too. It’s moving at the speed of creativity.”
TG: What was unique about recording and mixing Hypnotic Eye—can you take us through that?
RU: Well, what’s unique about it is that when we do the tracking it’s completely tied into the VENUE system that we have at the Clubhouse [Petty’s rehearsal/recording facility]. What’s great is that we’ve got great room for doing a monitor mix for the guys when they’re playing live. They’re listening to it on wedges—they’re not listening on headphones. They’re playing like a live band and I’m off in another room recording it, because all the signals get passed through the VENUE to the Pro Tools rig in the control room. They work out the arrangements of the songs on their own, and what I get to do is record the songs on my own. I’m not worrying about trying to get people monitor mixes or deal with that part of tracking—they’re talking to [monitor and recording engineer] Greg [Looper] about that. We’ve got it to the point where we don’t turn the monitors up that loud so I don’t have too much of a problem with bleed. There are certain things we do to lessen that problem, but it just gives them the space to work like a band on their own, and it gives me the space to work like a mixer on my own.
Then at some point after they’ve worked on it a little bit, they come and listen to what it sounds like as if it was a record and go out there and readjust. It gives them the space to really hear each other and just play in a more organic way, and it changes the way the music feels. The music just feels better when you do it that way. So we’re starting off with tracks that have a better, more live kind of feel. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to overdub stuff, but it just gives us creatively a really good jumping off point. And it’s leveraging my ability as a producer and as a mixer to sit there and mess with this stuff while they don’t even know what I’m doing. So it gives me the space to actually start looking at what they’re doing from a perspective of a record, as opposed to the perspective as a tracking engineer, which is basically usually just get all this stuff down and don’t screw it up. So I can start being a lot more creative from the very beginning—the very second they start playing—which frees me up too. It’s moving at the speed of creativity.
“It also really frees [Tom Petty] a lot creatively because he knows at any point, at any point in the process of making this record, we can get into any song and address any issue.”
TG: That’s great… So what happens next in the workflow?
RU: The next thing that happens after we get done tracking, I end up with the drives that we’ve cut at the Clubhouse. I come back to my studio in Topanga and now I sit there and I’ve got the time to make really detailed, decent rough mixes of everything. I get the mixes sounding as good as they can in my studio, on my time. I then take the drives over to Tom’s home studio in Malibu. He’s got the same rig, so I just move the drives in my car. I have the exact same Pro Tools system as Tom has, the same plug-ins, same everything, same version of software. It’s a mirror. There is not one thing different between the two systems. Tom and I listen to the rough mixes that I’ve done at home and we think about what we’re going to do. Tom, Mike, and I will just do it and say, “Okay. Well, we need to do the vocals on this, and we might need to do an overdub here or overdub there.” And so basically, since it’s all ‘in the box’, we can hear a song in as long as it takes to open up a session,(which is maybe a minute?), and we’re working on it.
“…I will never work outside of the box, because what it does is it allows me a creative freedom and a certain artistic creative speed to work with the people I work with that we’re not going to go back and change. We’re not going to go backwards to where we’re setting up a bunch of outboard gear and slowing things down.”
TG: So you’re easily able to move around—from the recording space, to your space, to his space—and all of the mixes translate including everything that you’ve done with automation and plug-ins. It all just flows seamlessly and it takes just minutes to go between songs?
RU: Exactly. That gives us a certain kind of a freedom which is good for two reasons. First off, it means the session moves really quickly and we’re not spending any time on tech stuff. All we’re talking about is creative stuff. It works flawlessly. We’re moving at a certain speed of creativity that an artist like Tom is now used to because of this technology. We can get into any song and address any issue in a matter of minutes. So once again, Tom does something and now I can take it back to my place. He’s not sitting around and watching the paint dry. I go back to my place and I fine-tune the overdubs that we’ve got and we come back again and we keep on working on it that way.
It also really frees him a lot creatively because he knows at any point in the process of making this record, we can get into any song and address any issue. On more than one occasion on Hypnotic Eye he said, “You know, I’ve got a better line for the third verse of this song or the first line, I came up with a better one.” Well, he knows that that’s not a big deal. I’ll just show up, put up the mike, open up the session and he drops in the line and in 15 minutes we are moving on. That kind of workflow is the only way to do it and that’s why I will never work outside of the box, because what it does allows me a creative freedom and a certain artistic creative speed to work with the people I work with. We’re not going to go backwards to where we’re setting up a bunch of outboard gear and slowing things down. And it gets even better for mastering.
We wanted to make an album that wasn’t too long, that you could sit down and listen to, that had everything flowing into each other, that was the full experience of an album. We really wanted to push that over the idea of singles and individual songs, which basically the internet and digital downloads kind of tore the concept of an album apart back in the early 2000’s.
So how did we do that? Once we have all the songs in there and done, the one thing I’m doing as I’m mixing is always putting up the songs against each other. So when I’m mixing song A, I’m listening to the song I mixed before and I’m getting those songs to live in the same world, because a lot of what mastering is is just getting the levels to be right between things. So I’m already getting these things in some kind of shape, but the thing is when you start putting them together you realize, “Wow! The snare was really bright and pleasant in that song, but the next song it sounds a little dull and it just sounds a little, you know, it just needs to be more crunchy.”
It’s like, “Well, if I was mastering it I’d EQ it, right?” But since I’m listening to all of the songs right next to each other I’ll open up that session, do a little bit of EQ on the snare and all of the sudden, song A now fits better with song B. So Tom, Mike, and I spent a good week or so just getting the songs to sit next to each other and then adjusting the songs so they all flowed together perfectly. The bottom lined up, the top lined up, the middle lined up, the vocals lined up, the levels between the songs lined up. We did all of those tweaks in a kind of ‘post-mixing’ way.
By the time I got to mastering we really had something that we’d already figured out all of the transitions between the songs. We’d figured out the gaps between the songs. We had a complete album put together before I even showed up to work with Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering.
TG: It’s almost like you’re pre-mastering and making the art of mastering so much easier.
RU: Right. An artist like Tom had issues with the usual mastering process because he made something and all of the sudden it came back and it sounded completely different. So our idea is to try and make it sound as much like we want it to sound before we even get there. Just the idea that you can always go back and move any part along and you can look at the whole thing in a holistic way and it is just the speed which you can do that. So then when we get to mastering, instead of printing files or printing stems, I actually take my computer and my rig with the cards and everything. We go through their signal chain using their D to A converters feeding their analog board and then into their A to D converters, set for 16 bit 44.1K. We monitor it at CD resolution.
The advantage is that I’ve got the complete Pro Tools sessions for every song. I’m not looking at stems. I’m not looking at sub-mixes. I’m looking at every element in the mix! At that point we take it one level further. Now I’m sitting there listening to it with Chris, who I really trust, and we’re making little, minuscule decisions about how much sub-bass on this one song and little things. Does the vocal need to come up three tenths? Little stuff like that, but once again, we’re not doing it with EQ, because I don’t want to change the EQ, because we just signed off on the whole thing, so now we’re just doing these little things to address the fact that we’ve changed the bit depth, that we’re going through some converters. We’re making it 16-bit for a CD and for downloads.
We’re adjusting the mix to make it work for that. So we tweak the mix listening to the signal chain for every song. We put that together. Then we go back and now we’ve got to cut vinyl. Now we go back and we go through this vinyl signal chain, which is full resolution, and we go back and we look at everything we’ve done and we tweak it again, because you’ve taken it out of the 16-bit land and you’ve taken it out of a bit of peak limiting, which you need to make it loud enough to be in the same world as everything else, and once again, Pro Tools gives us the ability to fine tune those mixes for whatever particular delivery format we’ve got.
And it still gets better, because at the very end I do a high res master that’s going to go out for FLAC downloads and blu-ray audio at our native resolution, which is 24 bit 48K. I can also take those sessions back to my studio and do a 5.1 mix, which I did on Blu-Ray. So I take the sessions and it took me about a week and I went through all the songs, about two songs a day, and I was able to make a 5.1 mix of all these things, because everything is already dealt with so well in terms of mixing that it was just a matter of placement. Once again, it just gives you the opportunity to deliver in multiple formats and I will never go back.
“…what’s also really important to understand is that we’re dealing now with so many different delivery formats…you’ve got to change things a little bit in order to translate to every one of those different formats, and the ability to just open the thing up and make those adjustments is crucial.”
TG: Creatively there are great reasons for doing it this way, but also from efficiency and workflow standpoints it’s hard to beat and it seems there are hardly any compromises, right?
RU: Right. There are no compromises and I think what’s also really important to understand is that we’re dealing now with so many different delivery formats. We mastered it for CD. We mastered it for iTunes, which is a completely different delivery format. We did high res digital mastering. We did mastering for the source for the vinyl, which is different. And with every one of those things you’ve got to change things a little bit in order to translate to every one of those different formats, and the ability to just open the thing up and make those adjustments is crucial.
TG: As you mentioned, nowadays the challenges are delivering a lot of different formats with a lot of different requirements, and leveraging the material to its fullest is critical for artists, right?
RU: Yeah. Absolutely. So I mean a really simple example is that [Tom] has a song, “American Dream Plan B”. It has a line that goes, “I’m half lit. I can’t dance for shit, but I see what I want, I go after it.” Well, we wanted to put it on the radio and all of the sudden I got this frantic call from the record company saying, “We just were about to deliver to radio and we realized it says ‘shit.’” So in 20 minutes I gave them “I can’t dance for SSHH”. Which is a lot better than I can’t dance for BEEP across the whole mix. Simple, but critical. We did a whole thing with FOX Sports where they used a lot of the tracks and they needed to have minus vocal mixes. I was able to deliver that in a couple of hours.
TG: Your challenges are being able to record, edit, mix and ultimately deliver anything, anywhere, almost at any time, as you said, in these different formats and leveraging the most of your products.
Avid Everywhere, which enables collaborators, people like yourself, Tom, and your other clients, to leverage technology to work better, smarter, and to ultimately be more creative. That’s the over-arching vision of Avid Everywhere that our company is driving towards. It’s also allowing people to manage these evolving workflows and business models and leverage them as best as they possibly can.
Then the next level down from that is the physical manifestation of it in the sort of first sets of go-rounds is called the Avid Media Central Platform. In the Artist Suite it’s Pro-Tools, it’s VENUE, it’s EUCON, it’s the pro mixing control surfaces, like ICON, like System 5, like Pro Tools | S6. It’s the architecture that connects all that stuff together. There’s also the Media Management Suite, where metadata tagging will be coming, so you know who played on what, etc…
RU: The integration that I’ve seen between VENUE [live systems] and Pro Tools has dramatically made my workflow better. If that is going to continue across all of the platforms, I think that that’s great. If that extends and you’re able to pull that off into other areas, then I’m for it.
A little sidebar about this, which is connected to what you guys are doing with the Avid Everywhere, is that we recently did a Jimmy Kimmel Live Show. It was at Sony Studios and Jimmy Kimmel bussed his audience down to the sound stage that we were on for the full (tour) production rehearsals. They set up some bleachers and the band did three tracks from Hypnotic Eye.
The great thing about the the connectivity between VENUE and Pro Tools is that [FOH engineer] Robert Scovill and [monitor engineer] Greg Looper are always recording multitrack of every show and rehearsal on their systems. So whenever I need to do mixes of live material I’ve got a bunch of takes to listen to and their all available in multitrack format. That means that any live thing we put out is way better, because we’re recording every night. As opposed to the truck showing up one night and it better be a good show. We get to choose the absolute best takes and put them out.
We needed to mix live versions of two of the songs from Hypnotic Eye, “American Dream Plan B”, and “You Get Me High”. I took the multitracks that Looper had recorded during one of the rehearsals back to my studio. I mixed them for this radio program that was going to be put out on Terrestrial Radio on 300 stations where they interviewed Tom about the album. They played some album cuts, and they played some rehearsal cuts. So I had mixed these two songs.
The Kimmel thing came and they had originally contracted to get an analog truck to do the sound mix, which I would have been in and I said, “Wait a minute! We need to find a truck that’s Pro Tools”, and we found the right truck. It was Music Mix Mobile. I walked into that truck and I gave engineer Joel Singer my session template that already had the EQ and the limiters and the whole business from when I had mixed the same songs from a previous rehearsal. The assignments didn’t change, because Scovill and Looper already had that locked in, so I walked in with a template of the songs and was able to do a mix for TV that sounded just the way I wanted it to, since I had already got that sound on my original mix for radio. To be honest with you, it’s one of the best things I’ve heard on TV. Everybody loves it. We had that jump on it—once again, it was the tight integration of all your stuff that allowed us to do it.