This was Mix’s most-read article of 2022!
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are back with a new hit album, Unlimited Love, that sees guitarist John Frusciante return to the band for the first time in years—find out how that happened in Part 1. In Part 2, longtime engineer Ryan Hewitt shares how he captured Chad Smith’s thundering drums, and in Part 3, Frusciante talks playing synths with Flea, while Hewitt discusses capturing bass, guitar and more. Here in Part 4, Frusciante and Hewitt revel in the challenges—and benefits—of mixing the album old-school analog-style at EastWest Studios. In final segment, Part 5, Smith, Frusciante and Hewitt discuss some of their favorite songs on Unlimited Love.
ANALOG MIXING AT EASTWEST
Frusciante felt good about the fact that he was able to return to the Red Hot Chili Peppers having had engineering experience on his own records (“Now I have moves,” he says with a laugh), even though the music was quite different. He was heavily involved in the recording and mixing process alongside Hewitt, who made seven solo records with Frusciante. They both agree there is a hint of telepathy when they work together.
For example, Frusciante says, he and Hewitt were recording a digital delay only on certain notes of some horns that had to be manually controlled. “We’re recording the treatment to tape, so Ryan had to be turning up the send at the right time, while I’m at the digital delay turning up the feedback just at the right time, so we communicate across the room in such a great way,” Frusciante explains.
At EastWest Studios, during a visit late in the mix process, Smith and Hewitt fell into a debate about the “sound of analog versus the sound of Pro Tools” and running it through “all this beautiful old stuff.” As Smith puts it, “Sound is sound.” To which Hewitt says, “Pro Tools is great, and everyone talks about the sound of tape and bouncing the sound of the tape into Pro Tools, and that’s fine. But it’s not the sound necessarily that we’re using it for; it’s the pressure, the creativity. If you really want backward reverb, you have to f—ing work for it.”
Also, Hewitt says, it’s not just the sound of the tape, it’s about the documentarian approach: “When you record on tape, you really have to be present,” he declares. “There’s no Undo button; there’s no Apple-Z.”
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Clearly, analog complements the vibe of this band, which Hewitt aptly describes as live music, played in a room, all together. “Not having the power to Undo, that is…,” Hewitt pauses. “It’s like recording without a net to a degree. Of course, we can do punches and cut the tape together, but the pressure it puts on everybody, including me, to get it right going down, is inspiring.”
The mix proved much the same. “In Pro Tools, you can retroactively change things, but with analog, you have to rewind, press Play, and adjust the fader in exactly the right place,” Hewitt says. “‘Oh shit, I didn’t get it, I have to do it again, do it again, do it again. I want this to be muted here—rewind, press the mute button, press the automation button,’ all these things. It’s just a process of focusing and doing. Yes, it takes longer, but it sounds like someone cares. We have piles of gear, an SSL console from the ’80s, running its original software automation, mixing down to an Ampex ATR-102 with ATR tape.” The challenge, he adds, is to find the sweet spot of how hard you can hit the tape.
Hewitt’s recording philosophy is that it should sound like a mix from the jump. “That four-piece, as it comes off the floor, should come very close to the final product,” he says. “It’s a lot more difficult when you are recording with tape. With Pro Tools, you can put plug-ins on and mix as you go. Every time you put the tape up, it sounds different—your console sounds different, your machine sounds different, your idea of what the balance should be might be different. It’s much more demanding to be able to bust out a rough mix. If you record everything so your faders are pretty even and not erratically all over the place, it will be a lot easier in the long run. My goal is to have all my faders at the same level and record into that mix.
“I don’t have a million tracks to record setups of things that might work later in the mix,” Hewitt continues. “The whole point is to make it sound like a record coming out of the speakers when you’re listening to it in the control room.”
A REAL GOOD TIME
Frusciante is happy. He feels his objective of mutual support was accomplished. That said, the other members gave him lots of freedom and no one “ever even raised an eyebrow,” he says. “No one ever said, ‘You’re going too far.” And Hewitt loves the record they’ve made.
“The band that I grew up with was back together again,” Hewitt marvels. “I started listening to the Chili Peppers when I was in junior high, when John and Chad joined the band. It’s an incredible blessing to work with your favorite band.”
The title Unlimited Love sums it up for Frusciante: “That was really the main purpose for it for me. I realized how much I love those people and how one day one of us will be gone and another day another one will be gone, and there was just this feeling that we can still do this right now in a way we never did it before.”