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Page 2: Inside Track: Red Hot Chili Peppers 'Black Summer'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineer: Ryan Hewitt By Paul Tingen
Published July 2022

Patching In

In June 2021, after eight months at Shangri‑La, Hewitt decamped to EastWest studios in Los Angeles for the final mix process. Amazingly, this took another eight months. One reason was the enormous amount of material. In interviews, the band have said that they worked on about 100 songs in total, and ended up recording almost 50.

Inside Track“Yes, there were many songs to mix,” exclaims Hewitt, “but also, mixing on analogue is slow! It’s linear: you cannot work on more than one song at a time, and have to finish the mix of the song you’re working on before you can move to the next one. Some songs took one day to mix, but others took five.

“Also, mixing is a collaborative effort, and everyone had input, and sometimes we’d go off on a tangent, and if it didn’t work, we needed to bring it back to focus. At other times, someone would say, ‘I think there should be something happening here,’ and all of a sudden we were doing an overdub during the mix. It also took time because the band members generally were elsewhere, apart from John who often came in to help mix.

“John would send me his first mix notes, and then he often would come in and we’d work on a bunch of stuff. We would do treatments like I was talking about before, processing through the modular synthesizer, or very specific reverbs. He’s very particular about reverb, and I learned a lot from him about how to integrate reverbs into a mix.”

“EastWest’s SSL sounds aggressive and punchy, and I used its wonderful EQs and compressors all the time.”“EastWest’s SSL sounds aggressive and punchy, and I used its wonderful EQs and compressors all the time.”Photo: Ted White

The decision to mix at EastWest was taken by Hewitt, who opted for Studio 5, which sports a 64‑Channel SSL 4064 G+ desk with Ultimation. He again used two Studer A827 24‑track tape machines.

“I had mixed Stadium Arcadium on a vintage Neve, but as the record started coming together, I realised that I wanted to mix it on an SSL. EastWest’s SSL sounds aggressive and punchy, and I used its wonderful EQs and compressors all the time. At 64 channels it is not the biggest, but it was enough. It has old‑school SSL automation, which is very archaic. I’d forgotten how simple that system is.

“I had not mixed on a desk for years. So I again had to learn how to ride a bicycle, so to speak! But it was fun. It just takes focus and practice. Once I had patched everything in and pushed up the faders, it was easy. I had the rough mixes for reference, and I knew what was on the tapes. Generally, I had 40 tracks of music to mix, and that left plenty of channels for effects and parallel compressors and things like that.

Inside Track“I had ideas for the outboard gear, and I patched in the things that I thought would work. Some things stayed and some things went. Ultimately I settled into a groove, and pretty much left the same things patched in for most of the record. I have particular techniques in the box that I use to make things punchy and loud and aggressive and whatever, and some of those are doable in the analogue domain and some of them are not.

“Some of the things that I learned from mixing in the box and that worked on the console were using multiple parallel compressors and things like that, and bussing things together in certain ways. But I realised that I did not need many of my in‑the‑box treatments to get the results I wanted. The parallel compression makes things a little louder, but I did not add any drum samples at all. So I was manipulating real drums.”


With regards to his actual mix process, Hewitt explains: “For the first few songs I had to figure out my levels and my parallels and bus processing, but after that I would get a balance very quickly, and then I’d work on the details. I can bang out a mix in the box in a couple of hours if I need to. But at the same time, when you have the luxury of having the elevated presence of this band and Rick Rubin all wanting to contribute to the process, it’s such a pleasure to spend the time and the effort to push things to the limit.

“Of course, you think about ‘What is this band supposed to sound like in 2022?’ The band has been around for nearly 40 years, with different personnel. I love referencing modern records, but at the end of the day, no one sounds like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. My first job was to bring out and enhance their unique sound.

“When you work with a band, any band, you start figuring out what the sound of the band is. And you start your mix with the essential elements of any given song. With the Chili Peppers that’s obviously guitar, bass, drums and lead vocals. I focused on that first, to make it sound unstoppable. It has to sound epic, even if it’s a ballad. That involves levels, panning, EQ and compression. I work really hard to get that in place before I started adding bells and whistles.”

According to Hewitt, getting the vocals to communicate also is an essential part of his mix. “My job as the mixer is to make you feel the emotion of the song. If you can’t hear every word the singer is saying, you can’t get attached to the message or the meaning or the feeling of a song. So we spent a good deal of time making sure you can hear every word. If you handle the vocal correctly, it’s not that hard. There are no tricks to it. Get the EQ and compression settings right, and ride the words that need to be ridden.

“I had done a certain amount of automation in Pro Tools, using Clip Gain, and also some EQ, before I committed the vocals to tape. I’ve become accustomed in the box to using FabFilter Pro‑Q 3 to take out little problem areas in the vocal, and using [Oeksound] Soothe to dynamically EQ things, but the interesting thing about getting away from the box is finding that you don’t necessarily need all that stuff. Part of the joy of old records is having edginess in there, and not necessarily fixing every single thing, whether performances or frequency content. So on this record I found a balance between aggressively fixing things and then just leaving certain things alone, with the heavy lifting done in analogue. My vocal mix chain was most often a UREI 1176, followed by a tube compressor, which could be an LA‑2A, a Tube‑Tech CL‑1B or a Fairchild 660. After that I’d have a Pultec EQP1A, a GML EQ, and an Empirical Labs DerrEsser de‑esser. I also added parallel compression with the [Empirical Labs] Fatso, which helps keep the vocal right in front of the mix.

“The most consistent vocal effect came from the Eventide H3000, on the Doubler setting or Micro Pitch Shift, plus and minus 12 cents, just to give the lead vocal some dimension and some width. I also have an old Yamaha E1005 analogue delay that’s a great‑sounding echo and adds some unnoticeable distortion that really gives this depth and volume to the vocal.”

Inside Track: Ryan Hewitt with some of the outboard processing he used on 'Black Summer'.Engineer Ryan Hewitt with some of the outboard processing he used on 'Black Summer'.Photo: Jen Rosenstein


Moving on to the instruments, Hewitt adds: “On guitars I used the console EQ a lot, as well as API 550s. If things didn’t sound aggressive or tuneful enough, I’d go for API or Pultec EQs. I sometimes used the Vacuvox compressors on the acoustic guitars. On the bass, I would bus the amp and the DI together and use an 1176 and a Lang PEQ1, sometimes a tube one, sometimes a solid‑state one. Occasionally I’d switch to a dbx 160 if it was a more aggressive, faster song. But there was not a ton of compression.

“On drums I used a lot of CAPI LC25s and LC40s. They’re similar to API 560 graphic EQs, but they’re detented. The 25s and the 40s have different frequency points for boosting and cutting, and one of them has really good EQ points for kick, and the other for snare. I also enjoyed using the Empirical Labs Fatso compressor on the overheads for a little compression and a little more high‑frequency attenuation, and sometimes the Undertone Audio Unfairchild.

“For effects we used a bunch of old reverbs. The main reverbs were the AMX RMX16, and occasionally I’d use an EMT 250 or 140 plate. We used John’s TC Fireworx a lot for delays and reverbs. I also used a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo occasionally, and a Lexicon PCM 42. All the things you find lying around the studio [laughs]!”

Bouncing Down

On the mix bus, Hewitt says that he kept this “really simple. I just had the Alan Smart C2 compressor and the Chandler Curve Bender mastering EQ. I had a wet/dry blend on the bus compressor, so if I felt that something was squeezed too much, I could bleed a little bit of the dry signal back in to restore the dynamics I wanted. Sometimes bus compression sounds awesome, but sometimes you can lose a bit of the groove or the punch of the kick drum. I also would occasionally connect a low‑cut filter to the sidechain of the compressor, so I could manipulate the compression a bit more.

“That’s another technique from in the box that I used in the analogue domain, and for which I found the hardware to do it. I’m aware that some people put 10 plug‑ins or so on their mix bus, but the thing about working in analogue is that you already have the distortion and the saturation that many of these plug‑ins try to add! I’ve got the distortion from the console, and the saturation from the half‑inch tape I’m mixing to. So you could say that’s part of my mix chain. Sometimes I’d smash the half‑inch to get a certain sound, sometimes I’d hit it gently.

“We used a vintage Ampex ATR‑102 to mix to, running at 30ips, and I had it aligned at +5dB over 185nWb/m, and no noise reduction. We used ATR tape for this as well, and it sounded great. Bernie Grundman cut the lacquer for the vinyl straight from the half‑inch. He added a tiny bit of EQ here and there, but for the rest he did it basically flat. He was very happy with my mixes, which made me feel good. For the digital transfer we went from the tape recorder through a Burl Bomber B2 converter, straight back into Pro Tools, at 24‑bit/96kHz, and Vlado Mellor did the digital mastering.”

So after all that, did Hewitt feel that doing Unlimited Love almost entirely on analogue was worth the additional time, money and energy? “Analogue sounds great. But at this point, it’s a very boutique process. It takes effort to seek it out and to utilise it in the way that it’s meant to be used. What matters is how you’re making the music, and what your intent is.

“For the Red Hot Chili Peppers using analogue was a self‑imposed limitation, that helped them to create the record they wanted to create. What I love about this record, and about the mixes, is that they are moments in time. They’re not over‑complicated. But they have an intent. I think that all great bands, great musicians, and great artists have this intent of making something very particular‑sounding. It is what makes them distinctive and exceptional.”

‘Black Summer’

The track list for ‘Black Summer’.The track list for ‘Black Summer’.‘Black Summer’ is the first track and lead single from Unlimited Love. Ryan Hewitt elaborates on his mix process for the song: “This was probably the seventh or eighth song I mixed. It was one of the simpler songs to mix. It’s just four guys playing bass, drums, guitar and a lead vocal, and there’s are three overdubs: a tambourine, John [Frusciante]’s backing vocals, and a piano.

“The song has a really interesting arrangement, because it builds from soft to very loud and back to soft again. So it has massive dynamics, and the key to mixing this song was to make all the dynamic moments really shine and hit you. After I sent my first mix pass to John, we added those anthemic echoes at the end, using his TC Fireworx. Those two little things elevated that song so much, it was incredible.

“John also wanted to hear the mix without the piano part, which became mix 3. Rick had a few changes, and we tried some different EQ on the guitar. I think we got up to mix 6 or 7, and then we all sort of realised that mix 2 was the best one. I did a recall for mix 2, because we wanted to make some minor adjustments to it, but the recall did not feel like mix 2. It was a very subtle difference, but everyone agreed that the original mix 2 was better.

“It was not perfect, and did not achieve every tiny thing that everyone wanted. But the feeling of that mix, the rawness of it, was paramount. In the end everyone was ecstatic with the mix, and it went to straight to number one [on the US Rock Airplay and Canada Rock charts].

“With a band that’s been around for 40 years, there are things that are more important than mix details. With this song, there are no gimmicks, there’s no over‑thinking, nothing is over‑wrought. It’s just four guys playing with a handful of small treatments. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s emotional, it’s authentic, and exactly the way the band wanted it.”