Tom Petty’s first US number one album was mixed almost entirely without hardware — and with only two plug-ins!
“Focusing on the music, rather than on the gear, is a real lesson and challenge for everybody who is an engineer and/or a mixer,” says Ryan Ulyate. “Even if you don’t play an instrument, you need to be a musician at heart. I don’t want to be constantly updating things. Throughout my career I’ve always had my favourite bits of gear, and I want to make sure that I can always work with them. It’s very annoying when things change and a company suddenly says, ‘This or that plug-in is no longer compatible with the next update.’ Imagine if a vintage gear company said, ‘Sorry, you can’t use your Pultec any more.’ For me it’s like: ‘Wait a minute, that’s part of my sound!’ That’s just unacceptable. I’m making music and if I’m acting like a system administrator all the time, I’m not having any fun. This is one reason why I froze my system in 2006.”
During his 35-year career, Ulyate has worked extensively with a select group of household names that all played in the Traveling Wilburys: Jeff Lynne (and Electric Light Orchestra), George Harrison and, most of all, Tom Petty. Ulyate has worked with Petty almost exclusively since 2006, recording and mixing his solo album Highway Companion (2006), and recording, mixing and co-producing the first, eponymously titled album (2008) of a reunited Mudcrutch, Tom Petty’s band before the Heartbreakers, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Mojo (2010) and Hypnotic Eye (2014), plus working on several reissue and live projects by the band. Hypnotic Eye was the band’s, and Ulyate’s, first US number one.
Ryan Ulyate knows a thing or two about the value of music and how to record it, because his father, Bill, played in the 20th Century Fox Orchestra, often under composers Lionel and Alfred Newman. The young Ryan discovered his father’s mono quarter-inch tape recorder at the age of seven, immediately became entranced by it, and never looked back: he says “recording is all I’ve ever been interested in”. The young Ulyate set up his own studio in the ’70s, using a TEAC four-track, and began working in commercial studios in 1979. He quickly found success when he engineered a record by Juan Gabriel (a big artist in Latin America in the day) that became a huge success, and a similar thing happened soon afterwards with an album by Alain Chamfort, who was big in France. The follow-up work Ulyate received from these two territories allowed him to go independent in the early ’80s. Following this there were some detours, including four years working as a sound designer for Synclavier whizz-kid and TV commercial music writer Craig Harris and a number of years working on advanced interactive music projects, but Ulyate’s prime focus remained the recording studio and the world of rock & roll.
Ulyate set up his own studio, located in a shed close to his house with great views over the Topanga Canyon, in 2006. At its heart have been a Pro Tools system and D-Command, as well as an elaborate monitoring system, including monitors by ATC, KRK, Genelec and Auratone and three Bag End 18-inch subs “to shake the floor”. Ryan’s Place, as the studio is called, was only used for mixdown during the making of Hypnotic Eye. Most of the recordings took place at Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ long-standing storage and rehearsal place, the Clubhouse, with some of the overdubs tracked at Petty’s Malibu home studio, Shoreline Recorders. Ulyate gives the lowdown on the recording and mixdown process, which took three years, off and on
“The band have long stored their gear at the Clubhouse when they were not on the road. In 2007, when Tom got together again with Mudcrutch, they decided that they did not want to record in a studio, so we turned the Clubhouse into a studio. The way we did that was by setting up a monitoring system, the Avid Venue system, which is run by Greg Looper, so they had wedges and monitors as if they were rehearsing for a tour. The Venue system feeds a Pro Tools rig in a separate room, where I am listening to what the band is doing and recording it. It’s a great way to record, because the band is all in the same place and listening to each other. They’re not wearing headphones and are able to play off each other in an organic way. We also found a way of keeping the volume relatively low, so leakage is not too much of an issue. But I would rather have some leakage and a better performance than no leakage and a mediocre performance any day.
“We liked this way of recording so much that we also used it for Mojo, and again for Hypnotic Eye. The Mudcrutch and Mojo albums were our jumping off points in terms of our approach for the new album. We knew we could get really good results recording the band live without headphones, but what was different with Hypnotic Eye was first of all that Tom was writing different songs. I noticed in particular that the lyrical content seemed a little deeper. Also, we had proven that we could make an album of live performances with Mojo so this time we were going for whatever the song needed and worked hard on adding different sonic colours and adding instruments. This meant that we spent more time at Tom’s studio doing overdubs. We also really concentrated on the grooves for the new album. We really wanted to make sure that the rhythm tracks were super-solid. Overall we were more interested in getting the right feel and arrangements, rather than that it had to be live. If we got the stuff live, great, but we were not so much on a mission as we had been with Mojo.”
Like Mudcrutch and Mojo, Hypnotic Eye was co-produced by Ulyate with Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell. “The great thing about working with them is that we’ve all done this long enough to know that you should always try a new idea and not shoot it down before you heard it, but at the same time we know whether it’s going to pay off the moment we hear it. We don’t spend a lot of time going down fruitless roads. That really was a joy. We were able to work really quickly and were on the same page as to what we thought was good and what we thought could be better. There was in fact a lot of collective experience in the room in terms of making decisions. I’m in the control room while recording, but when the band is working out the arrangements I’m in the same room. I get to make suggestions, and sometimes they listen to me!”
Elaborating on the recording process at the Clubhouse, Ulyate explains how arrangement and production decisions were made. “A typical day would be everyone arriving at around three o’clock, and Tom will have written a song, which he’ll play for the band on an acoustic guitar. He does not make demos because he wants to see what the guys bring to the table. So he plays them the song, and the band will then practise it and work on the arrangements. Everyone is concerned about tones, about the instruments we use, about the tempo, the arrangements, all those things. After an hour they’re ready to do some takes. At that point I’ll go into the control room. The great thing is that I don’t have to worry about whether someone needs more kick in their headphones or something. I’ll make sure it goes down and make it sound like a record. The band will never do more than half a dozen takes, and after that we may do some overdubs. If we need more than half a dozen whole band takes, we’re probably realising that we’re on the wrong track and we’ll come back another day with a different approach.
“Tom’s Pro Tools system is in a rack, and it goes between his studio and the Clubhouse. So I use that to record on. It gets fed from the venue with D-link cables. The Avid Venue system has 48 inputs, and went directly into our Pro Tools rig which had two 192s, so 24 inputs and outputs. Greg Looper and I have had discussions about the mics that we set up there, and what we used for Hypnotic Eye was, on the kick, a Shure Beta 52 and SM91 and a Yamama Subkick. The snare had an SM57 on the top and a condenser Neumann KM184 at the bottom, we had a [Neumann] KM84 on the hi-hat, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, the overheads were AKG 414s and the room mics were Stephen Paul-modified Neumann U87s — he put really thin diaphragms on them so they have a little more top and bottom. That’s it. Everyone was in the same room as the drums, and there were no baffles. It really was like a live setup. All the mics for all the instruments went straight into the Avid preamps that are part of the stage Venue system.
“Most of the electric guitar amps would have had a Shure SM57. Scott Thurston plays harmonica using the green Shure 520DX ‘bullet’ mic, Benmont Tench has AKG 414s on his Leslie cab and also two 414s on his Steinway piano, acoustic guitars were recorded using the Stephen Paul U87s, the bass is all DI, and Tom’s vocals at the Clubhouse were recorded with either a Telefunken M80 or a Neumann M150, and an SM57 in one song because we wanted some more grit. At Tom’s place we used a vintage Neumann U47 on the vocals, and we also used a mic made by Charlie Bolois of Vertigo Recording Services. It’s basically a new Neumann U47 capsule in front of a circuit that uses a 6072 vacuum tube, like the C12 has, and a modern, low-distortion output transformer, combining what I think are two really nice sonic signatures. Charlie made it for Tom, and calls it the ‘Hypnotic Mic’, and we love it!
“Tom has a vintage Neve 24-input board at his studio, and we use that for mic inputs. We recut Steve Ferrone’s drums on the song ‘Red River’ at Tom’s place, and we ran the drum mics through the 1073 pres, and the overheads through Tom’s outboard UA blackface 1176s. Tom also has a beautiful old Fairchild stereo limiter, and for the song ‘Sins Of My Youth’ we ran his vocal through that, because we wanted it a bit more funky and eerie-sounding. It was all part of giving the album more colour. Any analogue outboard used in the making of Hypnotic Eye came into action at Tom’s place, on the way in. By the way, Tom also has the same monitors as my studio, mainly two ATC SCM50s and one Bag End Infrasub 18 for super low end. His studio is in a small guesthouse on his property, and it has some acoustic treatments, but usually we just open the back door and let the sound go out. He’s recently had a new studio designed and built in his garage, which we got to use on a few drum, guitar and keyboard overdubs during the making of Hypnotic Eye.
“The process during the making of the album was that we recorded most of the tracks at the Clubhouse, usually in groups or series of sessions lasting three or four days or so, and I’d then take the results to my studio, where I’d do really good rough mixes of the songs we recorded. I’d then go over to Tom’s studio, where he and Mike and I listened to these mixes, and decided what the songs needed to finish them. If necessary we did overdubs at Tom’s place, and I then came back to my own studio again for editing and the final mixes. I then took these final mixes to Tom’s place again, where the three of us listened again and fine-tuned the mixes. Having two identical Pro Tools systems is really practical because all I am doing is moving hard drives between our two places.”
The verse of Hypnotic Eye’s opening track and first single is a slice of punk-like, trashy rock, complete with distorted vocals and bass, while the chorus opens up into the kind of melodic rock more typical of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. After the second chorus there are acoustic guitar and electric guitar solo breaks leading into third and fourth choruses that are padded out with backing vocals and lead guitar licks. Ryan Ulyate explains how the track came into being: “Tom brought the song in with the opening riff around which it is built, and when we had the whole band playing it, Tom went: ‘This is just too ordinary, it needs to sound more edgy and stripped-down.’ So we had the idea of the verses being more bass-driven, with fuzz on the bass. This meant that there was a big contrast between the verses, which are stripped-down and distorted, and the choruses, which are full-on with several guitars and keyboards and everything. We wanted to make the contrast between the verses and the choruses big. When you have made 18 albums or so, as Tom has, it’s always a challenge to get something fresh, and the stripped-down verse was one way of doing it.
“I pushed the sub-bass up during the guitar solo, because we really wanted the guitar to jump out at you and tear your head off. The louder the lead guitar, the louder the bass has to be. The loudest, raunchiest guitar in the world will sound wonderful if it has a ton of bass underneath it, without the distractions of rhythm guitars, which can cloud things up. This allows you to bring out the solo. We weren’t going for subtlety with this record: if there was a guitar solo, we wanted to hear the guitar solo! If there was a vocal, we wanted you to hear the vocal. We wanted things to be in your face.”
- Drums: Massenburg DesignWorks Hi-Res Parametric EQ, UA 1176, Digidesign Long Delay II, SoundToys Decapitator.
“The drums are really simple. First and foremost it’s about having a great drummer, and getting a good balance! I have the Massenburg MDW EQ plug-in on various mics on the kit and added the 1176 on the toms. I edit out the sections where the toms aren’t playing to get rid of the ringing, which I don’t like. I have the UAD 1176 plug-in on the room mics to smash them and get a compressed sound. There’s a little bit of a slap on the snare drum as well, 98ms, using the Digidesign Long Delay II, and it’s also run through the SoundToys Decapitator. It trashed up the snare a little bit. In the dry sections it sounded cool to have that.”
- Bass: Massenburg DesignWorks Hi-Res Parametric EQ, UA 1176, SoundToys Decapitator, Massey THC.
“There’s quite a lot going on with the bass. The verse bass is the main riff, and it’s going through the MDW and the 1176 and then the Decapitator for some distortion. I then copied the verse bass to the track below and did the same thing, except that I rolled off below 200Hz. Both these tracks are fed into the two aux channels below, Fuzz Bass 1 & 2, where they are run through the Massey THC (Total Harmonic Corruption), which is like an analogue distortion pedal. The two aux tracks are panned at nine and three [o’clock]. So the verse bass gets a little distortion from the Decapitator and a lot from the Massey. All this was designed to get more top end out of the bass. We were starting to lose the bass on smaller speakers with the stripped-down sound, so I used the EQ and the distortion to get more power. Of course the fuzz box also created the badass sound that we were after. I rolled off the extreme high end of the fuzz tracks, but pushed them around 5kHz. Below the two aux tracks is the chorus bass, and it’s also going through the MDX, 1176 and Decapitator, but not as radically treated as in the verse. Below that is the Bass Sub, which is the verse bass run through the Dbx 120A subharmonic synth, which generates an octave down. It’s mixed pretty low, and I brought it up for the solo section of the song. There are no treatments on the sub-bass, other than a high-pass filter at 20Hz.”
- Guitars & keyboards: Massenburg DesignWorks Hi-Res Parametric EQ, UA 1176, Massey THC, Digidesign EQ III.
“The top guitar track in the session is Tom playing along with the bass riff with a more or less clean sound, which really helps with definition and adds some upper harmonics, and I had the MDW and 1176 on it. Below that is Tom’s chorus acoustic guitar, recorded at his house, where I had recorded it with a Neumann 87 through the Neve 1073 mic pre and the hardware UA 1176, so I got the sound I wanted before it went into Pro Tools. During mixing I added 3dB of 1kHz to make it a bit more aggressive. The next track down is Mike Campbell’s verse guitar, recorded from his [Fender] Princeton amp. He always plays through a Fender Deluxe and a Princeton at the same time, and I record them both, which is great, because they have different tones, which gives me more options. They usually sound great when I bring them both up, but sometimes one sound is better than the other for a particular section or song. So I’ll mix and match. Here I use only the Princeton amp track. Below that are Mike’s Princeton and Deluxe chorus tracks, and then Scott Thurston’s chorus guitar track. They all had some MDW and 1176.
“Scott played an overdub in the bridge, just clean power chords, which is the next track, and below that there’s Mike’s ‘Low Chorus Fuzz’ guitar, which is another overdub done at the Clubhouse. It’s a big part of the record, and I recorded it with loads of microphones, including room mics, and in the end it sounded best with just one track and the guitar in mono. Further down are five tracks of Mike’s solo guitar overdub, the main solo being track ‘MCS P’ (for Princeton). I duplicated that track, and ran that through the Massey THC again, to grit it up more. Both tracks are panned down the middle, in mono. The two tracks below are Neumann 87 room mics. When I record overdubs in the Clubhouse I always include the room mics to see what they bring to the table, and in this case they sounded great because during the solo it’s just the bass and the solo guitar, so the room mics added size. The room mics went through the MDW and 1176 plug-ins: just like with the drum room mics, I smashed them, and I brought them in at a fairly low level.
“Finally there are four acoustic guitar tracks, which were Tom and Mike doing an overdub at the Clubhouse. I set up two 87 mics with Tom and Mike facing each other, recorded one pass and they then doubled it, to get a big sound. It sounds great in surround with one guitar in each channel! Right at the end of the guitar section is a track with a six-string bass riff that Tom played as a lift into the guitar solo. Tom played that with a Magnatone amplifier, which had a built-in chorus effect. It was recorded at his place, using a 57, going into his Neve 1073 and 1176 hardware units, and I added nothing in Pro Tools. The keyboards were all recorded live, apart from the two piano overdub tracks, which have the Digidesign EQ III rolling off below 300Hz, and the MDW/1176 combination. The Wurlitzer again has the 1176 and the MDW is rolling off below 300Hz and at 4kHz, because I’m going for the mid-range. The Leslie high horn has no 1176, just some MDW rolling off 250Hz, and rolling off 150Hz on the low speaker.”
- Vocals: SoundToys Decapitator, Massenburg DesignWorks Hi-Res Parametric EQ, UA 1176, Digidesign Long Delay III.
“We use the Neumann M150 to record Tom’s vocals at the Clubhouse, because it has a tight pattern which diminishes the amount of bleed. You can see the verse lead vocal track, and immediately below it two vocal fix overdubs, because Tom changed a couple of lines, and below that the ‘Voc Amb’ track, which is the ambient mic that I always have set up close to Tom, pointed away from him. If I have to drop in a line, I can add some of the ambience that was on the original vocal mic. I also put that ambience at the beginning of the song before the vocal comes in. The verse vocal has a substantial effect on it, coming from the Decapitator, set on the ‘Old Radio Voice’ preset. Tom has this character in his lyrics, and he felt that it enhanced it to make it more lo-fi. It also meant that his voice sounds bigger in the choruses, when the effect disappears. The verse vocal goes through the 1176 and the MDW, with which I’m just rolling off some low end and adding at 8kHz.
“The chorus vocal is from the same live take, moved to a different track because I applied different processing. It also had the 1176 and MDW. I pushed a lot of 3kHz, to get it to cut through more. Tom sang the chorus part rather softly, because it fit his character, so it needed EQ to come out more in the track. All the vocal harmonies in the track were recorded at Tom’s place. Below the vocals there’s the ‘Vox slap delay’ aux track, which has the Digi Long Delay set at 150ms, and I ran it through the Decapitator, at the same setting as the snare drum.”
“Right at the bottom of the session is the Stereo Sub track. The entire session is sent to that. It functions as a stereo fader, without any effects, and from there it goes to the stereo outputs. I’ll bounce the final mix to disk, and will then import it back into the session, and into other sessions as well. When I start a new song I’ll import these mixes and have them on a separate stereo output, so I can always A/B what I’m currently mixing with what I have done before to make sure things sound consistent.
“The mastering was done by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, and I will bring my Pro Tools rig along for that. I’m on 24/48, so for CD mastering we go out of my system, A-D into his board, which converts it to 16/44.1, and I add peak limiting to turn up the volume, but nothing too drastic, because I want to continue to hear air around the instruments, not a wall of mush that has no dynamics left. We also listen to how the mix sounds through his signal chain. We’ll often make adjustments to the low end, sometimes to the top end or particular instruments. I’ll do the latter in my system, because I prefer to address instrument levels like that, rather than via EQ.
“Once we have done CD mastering we turn the peak limiting off, and we listen to it again and make adjustments for the HD version. Chris finishes the 24/48 files, and they get sent to Warner Brothers and they encode the FLACs and send those off. So we make sure everyone can hear exactly what we heard, if they want. I’m really fanatical about that, as well as about people hearing albums. Music appears to be going the way of fast food, consisting of low-quality snacks, ie. single songs in lossy formats. We really made a point of presenting a four-course meal with Hypnotic Eye! We gave it the ideal length an album should have, which is about 40-45 minutes, and made sure that the songs flowed together with transitions between songs, and that people can engage with a musical journey with an arc.”
With Hypnotic Eye being Petty’s first-ever chart-topping album in the US, and his highest-charting album in the UK since Into The Great Wide Open in 1991, it appears that Petty, Ulyate and the band were spectacularly successful in this, demonstrating that reports of the decimation of everyone’s attention span is greatly exaggerated. There’s also a message, somewhere, in the fact that everything was done on a 2006 DAW with 95 percent of the processing applied by just two plug-ins!
Given Ryan Ulyate’s long-standing involvement with a handful of old rockers, it’s perhaps surprising to find that he works entirely ‘in the box’. However, the fact that he “froze” his system in 2006 means that until very recently he worked with Quad G5 Power PC Macs from that year, running Mac OS 10.4 and Pro Tools HD version 7.4cs11, and 95 percent of his processing was applied with just two plug-ins. All the Tom Petty-related albums he’s engineered were recorded on this system.
“I’ve been very happy using the same Pro Tools system for seven years, because everything works, and I don’t spend my time chasing down the latest upgrades. Once Pro Tools got to version 7.4, all the main really important mix features had been integrated, and any new developments since then have not really been that important for our process. In any case, I value stability over being cutting edge. The two plug-ins I use for most of my processing are the Massenburg DesignWorks Hi-Res Parametric EQ, and the TDM version of the UA 1176, which is not compatible with Macs that run on Intel. I love that plug-in so much that it’s one reason I froze my system in 2006, as well as Tom’s system, which is exactly the same system as mine.
“Over the years I’ve added the SoundToys Decapitator and the Cranesong Phoenix plug-ins to our systems, because they are compatible, but of course many plug-ins have been released over the years, which is the reason why I currently am setting up two state-of-the-art Pro Tools HDX systems, one for Tom and one for me, which we will be running on Mac Pros with three HDX3 cards for each system. But whatever the exact version of Pro Tools we have, I will continue to use it to enhance performances, rather than edit them to death. I am a big fan of the whole digital approach, and of mixing inside a box, not because of the sound, but because of the creative freedom it gives the musicians. It allows us to move very quickly, and I can simply open up a session for a song if Tom wants to fix just one line. That’s something we can do in five minutes. The sound is another issue. All equipment has a colour, and you work with what you have, making your judgements as to what sounds good and doesn’t accordingly. I think people give too much weight to the equipment that they use.
“Using Pro Tools allows me to record live performances more freely and improve the vibe and feel of our recordings. If somebody plays a big clanging mistake in the middle of what otherwise is a great take, back in the day you used to have to stop and replay. You’d come to the bridge, and suddenly there would be this train wreck, and if you replayed it a few times, everybody’s vibe would be knocked down a bit, and people wouldn’t play with quite the same fire. Or they might even play with fear of making a mistake. But now, the guys know that if they make a mistake they can just keep on playing, because it is so easy with Pro Tools to just fix a big crummy chord in the middle of an otherwise perfect take. In that way you have the best of both worlds. You get the take that has the vibe, and you can fix things and achieve the degree of polish that you’re after. It means that our recordings are far more spontaneous. Of course, the important thing is to polish things, but not to edit them to death. In short, our approach is a combination of new and old.”
The Pro Tools session for ‘American Dream Plan B’ is well-organised, with, from the top, a VCA track, 12 tracks of drums, six tracks of bass, 19 tracks of guitars (including six tracks of acoustic guitar and one track of six-string bass), eight tracks of keyboards, 11 tracks of vocals, two effect tracks and a Stereo Sub track, totalling a modest (by modern standards) 53 tracks. While colour-coding is fairly minimal, Ulyate makes particularly good use of the Comments boxes, where every track is described, often with the mic and/or amp used, and often marked ‘OD’ if it was an overdub. A quick look at the session indicates that very little of it was overdubbed, with the vast majority of the tracks recorded at the Clubhouse. As Ulyate explains, many of the bass, guitar and vocal tracks were one performance, sections of which he copied across to other tracks if he treated them differently.
Ulyate: “All the drum and bass tracks, most of the guitars and keyboard tracks and most of the lead vocal were recorded at the Clubhouse. You’ll see some edits on the drums for example, and that was a matter of getting it really tight and also getting rid of leakage. If Tom replaced a vocal line later on and there was a lot of vocal bleed in the drum mics, I’d find a bar of drums from somewhere else without vocals and plonk that in under the new vocal line. I let the band play live and let the leakage be what it is, but it doesn’t work if you can hear a ghost of a former lead vocal. This is another way using Pro Tools as a way of enhancing live performance, rather than trying to manufacture something.
“The only piece of outboard I used during the mixing of ‘American Dream Plan B’ was a Dbx 120A sub-octave box on the bass. I’m entirely happy to work in the box, but do use the D-Command because I’m old-school, I need faders! For many things I’m OK with using just the mouse and keyboard, though. My other concession to the past is that I need VU meters, so I have eight of them, and they allow me to see how hard I’m hitting things. Because of the way we work, mixing is an ongoing process for me, rather than me sitting down at some stage and saying, ‘Now I’m going to mix this.’ I polish the mix as we go along, and will gradually address all the issues that are there. I will do all the editing before I go over to Tom’s and play it for him and Mike. I don’t really have a mix routine, though I do tend to start with the drums, editing them and cleaning them up, then the bass, then the main instruments, ie. guitars, piano, whatever, and then the vocals and after that I work out how the vocals fit in.
“I use the VCA track at the top to get the overall level of the session, and match it with the levels of the other songs. It has the same function as a stereo fader. So the VCA is for overall gain adjustment before it hits the stereo bus at the bottom of the session. It’s also a way of making sure I don’t overload the mix bus, because in digital you need to be conservative with that.”