David Hewitt is proof positive that sometimes nice guys finish first. This year's TEC Hall of Fame recipient — an eight-time TEC Award winner previously — is a true giant in the world of mobile recording, and he's one of the modern industry's pioneers. His company, Remote Recording Services, has been going strong for more than a quarter-century now, thanks to his enviable engineering skills, his remarkable “people” skills and what are arguably the best remote trucks in the business: The famous Black Truck begat the legendary Silver Studio, and now the White Truck (see “Inside the Polar Express” sidebar) is crisscrossing various states to capture the magic and spontaneity of live music events.
Much has been written about Hewitt's work through the years in the pages of this magazine, but we knew relatively little about his origins and how he and his company evolved. So that is the focus of this interview.
Where did you grow up and how did you get involved in audio?
Well, the CliffsNotes version is I was born in Montana and my father was an Air Force pilot, so we moved all over the place, which was very good training for the remote business. [Laughs] I haven't stopped yet. Love of travel is probably a prerequisite to this kind of business. I spent my high school years in France and Germany from 1960 to '64 — those were some of the best times of my life. It was a wonderful time to be there. Among other things, it was the golden age of sports car racing, which I was really into. Later, I was in the Air Force, too.
Were you a tinkerer, an audio guy?
My early days were pretty much all mechanical, but not audio so much. I started flying with my dad when I was a kid, and then that crossed over into my love of sports cars and I got completely mesmerized by that whole thing. We used to go up to the Nürburgring, which is one of the famous racetracks in Germany — you could race around in your civilian car, and it was one mark for the car and a mark for each person in it. You did this at your own risk!
Anyway, I got into working on engines really deeply, and when I came back to the States, I dived into it completely. I was working with various sports car elements. I worked for Bob Holbert Porsche [the champion race car driver who also had an auto dealership near Philadelphia] and at one point, I also went on to work for [multiple Indy 500 champion] Roger Penske when he had his first Chevrolet agency. He had his first Can-Am car, a Lola T-70. Just my luck, when I got my first crack to go up to Watkins Glen [Finger Lakes, N.Y.] with him, the car crashed and that was the end of that for a while.
Were you a musician at all?
A frustrated musician, yeah. I played a little guitar, a little bass, and like so many people in this business, it was about girls! I had a couple of girlfriends that were singers, but I wasn't good enough to make the cut in the band. I think I was too lazy to practice. But I figured out how to twist some knobs and that got me interested in the whole recording side of things. That was around the Philadelphia area in the late '60s. There was some rock 'n' roll going on there and a lot of jazz, and, of course, R&B was always big there.
Were Joe Tarsia and Sigma the big players in town?
Sure. Joe had been the chief engineer at Cameo Parkway Records [home of Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, et al], and then he went and [started] Sigma. What moved into the Cameo Parkway Studio was Regent Sound, which was started by Bob Liftin of Regent Sound in New York. He sent Joel Fein down to Philadelphia to run the studio, and Joel Fein was nice enough to let me hang out there. There was no job, of course, but it was the usual story: I was there for three months with no pay, and then Joel finally convinced Liftin to pay me $50 a week.
“And then one day, the chief engineer doesn't show up for a session because he has car trouble, and then…”
[Laughs] Not quite! Actually, I think it was that poor Joel was completely overworked; he was the only engineer in the place. So I got to start picking up some of the acts coming in. We had Stevie Wonder in there, the Dixie Hummingbirds, who were a wonderful gospel group. And, of course, a lot of R&B.
Is this 8-track, 16-track?
By 1970, Bob had invested in Ampex MM1000 16 tracks — those big ol' mastodons. But when you got them to run on-speed and stay up, they sounded great!
Is that where you first encountered remote recording?
Yes. Bob Liftin was all about television audio and big band and all that. One day, there was a TV pilot they were going to do at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, which was right across the street from the studio, and they wanted us to record it. I'd gone out before with equipment, dragging around cardboard boxes full of stuff — that was cruel and unusual punishment! But this was a 26-piece orchestra — a big deal. So I started calling around trying to see if I could get a truck [for the recording] but none were available. So I called Chris Stone [of the Record Plant in New York City] and he was so great: “What do you need? No problem! Of course we've got a truck for you!” He really knocked me out. So he sent this truck down and it had a 24-input, 8-bus DiMedio console and a pair of MM1000s in this dinky truck — it was crowded in there! [Laughs]
So it was me and Carmine Rubino, who was a big engineer in those days, and Frank Hubach [also an engineer and tech guy], and the fourth guy who was dragging the cables was Jack Douglas, who went on to be a great producer with Aerosmith and John Lennon. We had such a good time, and it just made my hair stand up! Everything happened so fast. Problems would pop up and the guys would dive on 'em and they'd get solved. It was tension, release, tension, release — and yet they all remained calm and they had a great attitude. They were all so friendly and encouraging, and afterward, Jack said, ‘C'mon up to New York and we'll show you around.’ So I did go up there and checked it out, but they weren't hiring, so I decided to go out West in [what else?] a Volkswagen bus and try my hand out there. I made the rounds out there — in the Bay Area, where Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren were setting up the Record Plant in Sausalito, and then down in L.A., but there were no jobs, so I went back home figuring I'd save up some money and then move out there and figure something out.
So I went back to Record Plant in New York to see what was happening, and I walked through the front door and bursting in to greet me is Frank Hubach, who had been left in charge of the remote truck after Tom Flye moved to California to work at Record Plant in Sausalito. He sees me coming, and he literally grabs me by the shirt and says, “What are you doing right now?” Before I could answer, he says, “Get on that truck!” So with no change of clothes, no nothin', we drive to a show somewhere in upstate New York, and we did what I think was the first of the King Biscuit Flower Hour [radio] shows. It was Mahavishnu Orchestra and some dinky band called Aerosmith opening for them! It was fantastic! Then we drove immediately to Boston — this is in the dead of winter — and we dragged everything out of the truck into the Symphony Hall — the consoles, the machines — and took them up two floors and set up in there to record the Boston Pops. I'd never been that close to a symphony before; I was pretty much a rock 'n' roll and jazz guy, and that blew my mind completely.
Then, in fairly short order, Frank Hubach decided to leave and he took off, so that dumped the truck in my lap, and that was my big break. But, boy, I was struggling. I had to engineer all the gigs that didn't have a guest engineer coming in, and those were pretty deep waters. But you learn in a hurry.
At some point here, you decide to take the leap and start your own company.
Well, that truck was so long in the tooth — it was an old Wally Heider truck that had been modified to death and it still was just not enough. We had mixers stacked up and the inputs were starting to grow and grow, and I finally convinced [New York Record Plant owner] Roy Cicala after a couple of years to build a new truck. And that was the Black Truck, which was probably the first of the heavy-duty, audio-only remote trucks. It was deadly serious: a Peterbilt chassis built from the ground up to be a remote truck; not a converted dry goods van. [Laughs] It had proper insulation and lead-lined walls. It was a real studio. We had a custom API built for it — 44 inputs, which seemed like the whole world at the time!
What else did you change from the previous, less-satisfactory truck?
Mostly it was about the I/O. We used the Record Plant standard AMP connectors and built our own Jensen mic splitters, and we had monster AC [240 to 208-volt] isolation transformers, which the old trucks didn't used to have — they had all sorts of grounding problems. So all of a sudden, life got much easier in terms of troubleshooting. Most of the buzz and grounding problems went away.
Did the fact that you had built this sensational new truck affect the kind of gigs you got?
It just made it all easier. We'd been doing big-input gigs for a while. Bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. ELP had 60 inputs for a three-piece band, which was unheard of in those days! These days, a single performer might have 60 inputs.
Hewitt and broadcast mixer Ed Greene at the 76th Annual Academy Awards
Photo: Howard Massey
How did the Black Truck become yours?
In '79, when I finished the Black Truck, I became an independent contractor. I fired up Remote Recording Services, but I was still director of remotes at Record Plant. It was one of those deals where they let me do some side work on the condition that I watch their interests and take care of their remote needs.
One of the reasons I [started my own company] is that digital audio was starting to happen then, so I bought a [Sony PCM-1610] and a BTU [¾-inch video recorder], and we used to rent that stuff out. And when the [Sony] 3324 came out, Neil Young had the first two in the country, I think, and right behind that a guy named John Moran from Houston. John and I struck up a deal, and I used the machines a lot.
I left Record Plant in about '85. They didn't want to do the digital stuff or post work particularly, and we had some other disagreements. So I left — on good terms — and I still used that truck. By the following year, I had negotiated with Roy Cicala to buy the Black Truck, and it wasn't long after that that Record Plant New York went under. After that, we took on a higher profile as Remote Recording Services and we moved an hour north of Philadelphia in Bucks County. For me, it was a quality of life issue. For what I was paying for rent for an operation in the New York area, I could build my own building! Besides, you're in a truck. It doesn't matter where the headquarters is.
Was there ever a period in your life in which you wanted to settle down and be in one place, or have you always had that sort of wanderlust that's required by your profession?
It's sad, but true — I get itchy. I love the country, I love the city, but I need to keep movin'. It's in the genes at this point, I guess. But you definitely pay a penalty, and your family pays a penalty for all the time you spend on the road. It's the sad part of the job.
When did the Silver Studio come onto the scene?
Well, the next part of the evolution is that in 1989, we crashed the Black Truck. It rolled on an icy highway out here in Pennsylvania, around five o'clock in the morning. I got cold-cocked. I was sitting shotgun and the seat-belt popped and I went flying. I'm very lucky to be alive. So there's your forced evolution. That brought about the birth of the Silver Studio, and here we are 16 years later!
In the “Silver Studio” during Oscar celebrations in L.A. are (seated, L-R) owner/engineer David Hewitt; World Studio Group CEO Chris Stone; (standing, L-R) assistant engineers Phil Gitomer and Sean McClintock.
So it's another opportunity. What did you want to do that you couldn't with the Black Truck? It's even bigger, isn't it?
It is. We definitely moved it all up a level to make the biggest and the best, and to have room for the producers and room for multiple machines. Because at this point, you're getting into locking up 24 tracks and you've got some digital and you've got this and that. Here's a great example: Early on in the Silver Truck, we did three dates back to back, each one of them [in] a separate format. We had the 24-track Studers, which at that time were the A820s, for one date; then we had a 32-track digital with the Allman Brothers because they liked the Mitsubishis; and then we had Sony 3324s for Carole King. We had no time to go back and swap machines between dates, so we had four big, hulking multitracks, but we had the room for them.
The Silver Studio has a Neve VR?
Yes. That console has been amazing. It's virtually bullet-proof. It's now had 14 years on the road and it's just great.
I understand you have a new partner in the business.
Yes, Karen and Jim Brinton bought RRS in 2003 and brought their business skills and experience to the company. Karen established her office in New York to be closer to the clients. I continue on as the president and chief engineer.
And now you have a new truck.
Right, the [business] climate has changed, so once again, we built another truck — and we didn't wait until we wrecked the previous one! [Laughs] And the reason we did is I didn't want to tear into the Silver Truck and make a modified half-analog, half-digital concoction — although we've always had digital recording capability on the Silver Truck. We figured if we were going to make a dedicated digital truck, we'd do it from scratch. The Silver Truck still has a healthy client base — like we went down to Nashville and did Neil Young's Heart of Gold DVD and film. We had four 24-track analog machines all locked up. We still do the [Rolling] Stones and some of the old guard — and the new guard that likes the sound of analog.
But for all the TV production and things like that, we had to field a digital truck. It has a smaller footprint — it's about half the size of the Silver Truck. We did some modern acoustics, thanks to the wonderful Sam Berkow of SIA Acoustics, who did the acoustic design for [the Polar Express], and it worked out spectacularly for us. I love the sound we get in there. It has a pair of Yamaha DM2000s and it's all run on MADI. Some of our very good clients, such as Elliot Scheiner, are Nuendo-based, so we've got that and Pro Tools. We actually have three Nuendo rigs based on the AMD Dual-Core processor. Those AMDs are just rocket ships!
On a fundamental level, though, I'm guessing that what still thrills you is the art of it. It's the show, the music.
That's exactly right. In the end, all the technology should be transparent to the music. These days, you've got a lot more people in the chain. There's almost always video involved and that brings its own, shall we say, “unique elements,” and it's much more involved. In the overall product, the audio is only one of many things that's going on. But we still want it to sound as good as it possibly can. We still care about the music. It's everything to us.
Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.
INSIDE THE POLAR EXPRESS
“If you're going to build an all-digital truck, smaller doesn't make it lesser,” says Sam Berkow, lead designer of the new Remote Recording Services truck (pictured on this month's cover). At the time of our interview, the truck was parked outside of Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, set to record and mix the fifth annual Jazz at Lincoln Center Spring Gala fundraising event. “With this truck, you can get a client something they won't find in any other digital truck around the world, which is a great mixing environment. What we set out to do was create an environment where Dave Hewitt, who's done 2,000-plus shows in an analog truck, would not only feel comfortable, but would also want to mix.”
Hewitt, who has made the transition from a 16-year run in the 44-foot Silver Studio to the 22-foot Polar Express, says, “From an acoustics standpoint, there's no comparison. We were constantly improving on the last design, but nowhere did we have the science and the art that Sam has brought to this project. This truck is a whole different level of treating the acoustics first and fitting the equipment around them, instead of vice versa.”
When starting with a truck, acoustic designers are faced with an array of constraints that generally don't present problems in the typical building-based studio, including the need to reduce weight, protect against road-borne vibration, creatively route cables without the use of troughs and maximize ergonomics in atypically tight spaces. To make matters worse, installing acoustical treatments can limit the designer's ability to effectively distribute conduit cabling and manage signal routing.
“One of the primary tools we have to work with is room shaping, incorporating walls that slant in both the horizontal and vertical planes,” says Berkow, who designed the truck with his partner/senior consultant at SIA Acoustics, Steve Sockey. “The problem is modes: There are certain frequencies that resonate with parallel walls or sets of walls, and are particularly problematic in smaller rectangular spaces. I've broken these modes up by placing bass traps vertically in the front corners of the space and horizontally across the top of the room at the front. Further, the front wall is actually two acoustical panels, slanted inward toward the center of the room a little bit. Secondly, we used soffits that run along the sides of the truck [at the ceiling] to create a series of bass traps that ‘dampen’ unwanted modal frequencies and help create a smooth decay within the spaces, as the soffits incorporate both sound-absorbing and diffusing materials. Once the truck was built, we used our SIA Smaart acoustical measurement software to measure noise levels and optimize the interaction of the monitor systems and the ‘room.’”
In the sweet spot, Hewitt works on the Nuendo platform (96 tracks of Pro Tools are also available) powered by AMD 64-bit Dual Processors, and he faces two Yamaha DM2000 V. 2 mixing consoles flanked by Dynaudio Acoustics Digital Air 6s (surround) and 15s (stereo). Available remote mic preamps include Millennia HV-3s, Aphex 1788As and RME Octomics going to Apogee converters feeding RME 648 MADI converters and running to the truck via fiber optics, feeding again into RME MADI bridges before hitting the Yamaha consoles.
With the warm sounds of Wynton Marsalis' septet floating in, Hewitt couldn't be happier about the advances his efficient new workspace represents. “The power and the I/O capabilities are immense,” he states. “Size does matter, because in cities like New York, a minimal footprint is important. And when it came to the sound, that's got to be built in from scratch — you can't bring the acoustics in with a piece of outboard.”
David Weiss is Mix's New York editor.
In addition to being inducted into this year’s TEC Hall of Fame, David Hewitt has been in the remote recording truck for many high-profile gigs. Find out what else he’s told Mix through the years.
Extended Reading and Quotable Quotes
On capturing Natalie Merchant Live, December 1999
On broadcasting in surround, May 2004: “Surround sound is something that the public has embraced and nobody's going to go back. Actually, the whole surround phenomenon is kind of amusing to me and to most remote mixers, because our goal has always been to re-create what you're hearing in a concert. Trying to do that in stereo was always very difficult, but we always miked in surround, so to speak, to try and get the feel of the live venue. So, essentially, I'm not doing things a whole lot differently."
On HDTV, May 2004: "At the current time, digital equipment simply crashes with more regularity than I'm willing to tolerate, and there are a whole bunch of issues that aren't settled yet, things like sampling rate and bit rate, even format: PCM versus DSD, for instance. When the technology gets to the point where it is both standardized and stone-reliable, then I probably will make the move, not just to a digital console, but also to digital mic splitters because it's so much easier to pipe around that way, and it reduces wire size and bulk. It comes down to the same old two-step: reliability and sound. Sure, I'd love to have total resetability and remote control; that's very valuable. At the same time, it can get you into trouble. When you're forced into doing too much just because the equipment can do it, then the quality can suffer.”
On business, July 2003: “In the upper-end of the field, I sometimes feel like we're in the real estate business. A big chunk of what we're hired for is having the large studio, the acoustic environment and the isolated environment, not to mention the crew and the equipment. For these serious bands, where there's just no contest, they don't want the package arriving in a roadcase. They want a place where they can sit down and be comfortable in an environment like what they're used to.”