L.A. GrapevineEngineer Ryan Hewitt talks about his work on the Red Hot Chili Peppers forthcoming double-CD; O’Henry Studios closes its doors 2/01/2006 7:00 AM Eastern
In our increasingly isolated society, where people can't hear their neighbor outside of the earbuds stuffed in their ears, where bands can make a record by e-mail and an engineer can mix it from the other end of the globe, it's a nice change to hear about bands that choose to share the same space, and about young engineers who can take old-school techniques passed on by their mentors and make them compatible with today's super-advanced recording equipment.
In the case of engineer Ryan Hewitt, that side-by-side teaching came from some of the best recordists in the industry, starting in the Remote Recording Services truck with his father, esteemed live/broadcast engineer David Hewitt, when he was just 13 years old. A little later in life, say, after college, Hewitt learned more tricks from Elliot Scheiner, Michael Brauer and Jim Scott. Not a bad start.
Dozens of assisting gigs and a few choice lead engineer credits (Blink-182, John Frusciante, Alkaline Trio) later, we find Hewitt entrenched at The Pass in the middle of mixing the forthcoming album from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a double-disc tentatively titled Stadium Arcadium produced by Rick Rubin. As a mix engineer, Hewitt had some singles and indie albums under his belt, but none at such an established level as this funk-rock foursome and their renowned producer. He's using everything he's learned through the years, from splicing tape to engineer/artist psychology.
It's not his first time working with the Peppers. In 2001, Hewitt moved to L.A. to work at Cello Studios with Scott on their album By the Way. After that, guitarist Frusciante enlisted Scott, with Hewitt assisting him, to engineer and mix Shadows Collide With People. “That ended up taking longer than Jim anticipated, so he told John, ‘Take Ryan in the other room and keep working, and when you're ready, I'll mix it,’” says Hewitt. “That wound up turning into two or three months of work, and we became good friends. About a year later, I recorded and mixed a series of six solo records with him on Record Collection.”
During that time, Frusciante mentioned that he'd like Hewitt to record the Chili Peppers' next record, but when the time came, Rubin hired Mark Linett. But Hewitt got a call anyway. “John and I could work quickly together and had a good rapport,” Hewitt says. “At the end of a 10-hour tracking day, John wanted to do more work, so they brought me in to do all the overdubs with John and [bassist] Flea. I also ended up re-cutting what are potentially the first two singles and recorded the basic tracks for a bunch of other songs.”
The band recorded at Rubin's (reportedly haunted) Laurel Canyon mansion/studio (site of BloodSugarSexMagik) with Flea, Frusciante, drummer Chad Smith and lead singer Anthony Kiedis nearly elbow to elbow with each other. Amps bled into drums, drums bled into amps, and Kiedis ran through scratch vocals as they put down the basic tracks together. A Neve 8068 and Studer A800s captured the whole thing onto 2-inch tape. “The band is all about good sound, and they love working on tape,” says Hewitt. “They're incredible musicians, and they're all way into '60s and '70s rock 'n' roll, where the imperfections become signature to the song. They don't necessarily believe in ‘perfect.’ It's all about a vibe and a feeling being created. Working on tape takes commitment!”
They went for the live feel, but stayed for months of guitar and vocal overdubs. Hewitt handled Frusciante's at both the Laurel Canyon mansion and Frusciante's home studio (which Hewitt helped him build), while engineer Andrew Scheps recorded Kiedis' vocals at the Laurel Canyon site and at Rubin's home studio.
Hewitt thought his job would end there, but he didn't get off that easy. He auditioned and won what I'm calling the “2005 Great Chili Pepper Mix-Off.” “They didn't have a firm idea of who they wanted to mix the record, so they had me and four other guys do a test mix,” says Hewitt. “We all mixed the same three songs, and then Rick and the band listened to them blindly without knowing who was who and picked the mixer. It was nerve wracking. When I did the test mixes, I just went for broke and did what I like to do, which is make things big, exciting, live and just rock! If you had told me five years ago I'd be mixing a Chili Peppers record, I'd have told you you're crazy. It's an amazing opportunity.”
Working in The Pass' Mix Room on the automated Neve 8078A, they're wielding tape again, mixing the 38 songs they recorded to an Ampex ½-inch machine, using Pro Tools for backup and the Tonelux Universal Console for extra faders. They even edited on tape, cutting between different takes on songs that weren't one-take wonders.
So aside from maybe a little tape hiss, how's it sound? “Everyone's asking me, ‘Are they bringing back the funk?’” Hewitt confides. “All I can say is, ‘Yes.’”
Sad but true: Just a few days before the holidays, O'Henry Sound Studios ceased operations. For the past 13 years, the three-room facility has hosted a range of music and film projects. Of the former, guests include Macy Gray, Lyle Lovett, Charlotte Church, Los Lobos and The Wallflowers, to name a few. But the studio's appeal as a film scoring and mixing site took hold early on, as well, with such projects as Anchorman, The Passion of the Christ, Elf, 13 Going on 30 and the second two Matrix movies passing through the doors. O'Henry had one of the more popular live rooms in L.A. — Studio A, a 50×32-foot space, paired with a sprawling, 88-input custom console with API modules and EQs and 5.1 monitor matrix, among other features. The studio had recently installed a Digidesign ICON in Studio C and outfitted all three rooms with Pro Tools|HD3.
Watch for further information on O'Henry in this column and on www.mixonline.com. And meet our new L.A. editor in this space next month.