“This band is so efficient, it’s scary.” It was November 16, 2012, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were already hard at work on the follow-up to 2010’s muscular Mojo. Petty was calling from an office adjacent to the control room at The Clubhouse, the longtime Los Angeles rehearsal space and recording facility for where he and the band have done some of their finest work. I asked Petty how he felt the sessions were going.
“We’re going for it as hard as we can,” he replied. “I don’t even do demos anymore. I come in and show the guys my songs on guitar, and then we just start playing. After every pass, we listen, make arrangement suggestions, and then we go back out and try them. Usually by the fourth or fifth take, we get it. So a song goes from crime to capture in one day, and that’s pretty exciting.” Three of the songs this ever-taut band captured that November eventually made it to the final cut for Hypnotic Eye (Reprise), released July 29. From the raucous crunch of “American Dream Plan B” to the fuzzed-out bliss of “U Get Me High” to the shuffling honky-tonk of “Burnt Out Town,” Hypnotic Eye finds Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers continuing to pump out wide-ranging rock & roll blood on the tracks.
As good as The Heartbreakers are as a band, their not-so-secret sonic finishing ingredient is one Ryan Ulyate, Petty’s veteran respected co-producer and engineer. In addition to honing Petty’s stereo mixes for the past two decades, Ulyate has spearheaded brilliantly immersive HD 5.1 surround sound mixes for classics like 1979’s seminal Damn the Torpedoes, 2009’s all-inclusive The Live Anthology, and the aforementioned Mojo, and he’s upped his game for Hypnotic Eye’s 5.1 mix. “What’s always driven Tom and these guys is the creative process,” Ulyate explains from his perch in front of the mixing console at Ryan’s Place, his Topanga Canyon studio. “It’s in their DNA. They’ve gotta make the records. That’s part of who they are, and they’re just so damn good at it. It’s a joy and a privilege to be a part of it.” In a separate interview posted on Digital Trends, Ulyate and I discussed why 24 bits are crucial, why peak limiting is a hassle, and why Eye’s 5.1 mix is so rewarding. Here on HRAC, we go even deeper by discussing some of his favorite Eye mixes, his 5.1 wish list, and how good this album sounds on vinyl. I’ve known Ulyate for a number of years now, and I can tell you this: When it comes to championing the work he does in hi res, he won’t back down. “There’s no excuse for people not to hear what we’re hearing when we make this music,” he says emphatically. “No excuse.”
Mike Mettler: What’s your philosophy about hi-res recording?
Ryan Ulyate: My philosophy is: People should be listening to nothing else. By far the most important thing with hi res is the fact that you get more bit depth. The difference between 16 bit and 24 bit is massive. It’s like 256 times more stuff there. The sampling rate, on the other hand, is less important. I’ve actually found that 96k is probably the sweet spot. I don’t think rock & roll is good at 192. There’s something about slicing it up that many times that, to me, softens up the midrange.
The only thing I can say about the lo-res file is this: Listening to it on your laptop speakers is probably better because you’ve got the peak limiting that glues everything together. The crappier the speaker, the better it is for the lo-res, I think. But we’re talking about those little, tiny, tiiiiny speakers, you know. (laughs)
Mettler: Hi res is really the best way to hear this album — especially on the Blu-ray version, which contains that great surround sound mix you did.
Ulyate: Thanks! Like I told you the last time you were here, I’ve got these speakers, and I’ve gotta use them for something! (both laugh) You know me, Mike — I love Blu-ray. And I did this surround mix the way I did Mojo. It’s not a turn-your-head-around mix with stuff flying around behind you. The focus is still in front. The band is still in front of you; it’s just that you’re in the band a little bit more. You’re inside the music more. There’s nothing radical about it. It’s so pleasant to listen to when you turn it up. If hi res gives you the ability to hear the musicians better, then surround takes it up to the next level.
Mettler: I totally agree. Ok, let’s talk about some of your Hypnotic Eye mixes. Start with “U Get Me High,” which has a pretty funky intro, and also features Tom in the right channel and Mike Campbell in the left when they’re trading off guitar licks.
Ulyate: Yeah, and actually, they do that live now too, which is great. I just mixed a live version of that song, which is going to go out on a radio show. They totally stretch out that ending now. Think about how that groove and that big chord is going to hit in a big venue, with the reverb splatting off the back wall. It’s one of those tempos you know is going to go over so well in a big arena. [Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are on tour from August 3 through October 10; see all the dates here.]
Mettler: I really like the breadth of “Red River,” which has a really cool guitar and organ breakdown right in the middle of it. How did that one come together?
Ulyate: That song went through several permutations. (chuckles) It starts out with this big riff that Tom came up with. When you hear the first chords of that song, it’s like “Wow” — there’s just something about it that really grabs your attention.
When we went to finish it, Tom wasn’t really happy with the verse, or the chorus. (chuckles again) So we went back, and he wound up rewriting the verse and the chorus. In the space of that rewrite, the song kind of took this turn, and I love it because it’s got everything this album has. A lot of the tunes are written around big riffs: First you have a big riff, and then you have a vocal. I think that’s why the album is so powerful, because of the way Tom wrote the songs. He structured it where you have space for a big, loud guitar thing, and then you’ve got space for a vocal so they’re not fighting each other. That makes for a big, powerful record.
So he’s got that big riff, and then we came up with this really cool verse. It kind of gets folksy in the verse, and then you’ve got this heroic chorus. And Mike did a great guitar solo. We found this old Gibson electric-acoustic guitar, one like The Beatles used to play. I don’t know the model number, but Tom does; it’s an acoustic guitar with an electric pickup on it. I miked the guitar, but we also ran it through a Vox amp with reverb on it and got this really cool sound. Once Mike got the sound, he did the solo in one take. I looked at Tom, and he went, “Ok. Next! We’re done with that!”
Mettler: When Mike nails it, he nails it.
Ulyate: Yeah! That really fuzzy solo is indicative of some of the things Tom wanted to get on this album. We really wanted to get more aggressive, fuzzy, in-your-face kind of tones. And then after that, it goes back into the chorus. Man, I love that song.
Mettler: Me too. Now walk me through the surround mixes for “Shadow People” and “Forgotten Man.”
Ulyate: “Shadow People” is actually pretty straight ahead; I put some of the delays with the vocal behind you. “Forgotten Man” has a bunch of acoustic guitars — four of them — so it was fun having them in the two fronts and the two rears.
Mettler: Do you have a current 5.1 wishlist, as in, “If I could do blank in surround, I’d love to”? In other words, you have access to the master tapes for any album you want. Which ones would you do?
Ulyate: If I could do anything in 5.1… (slight pause) [George Harrison’s] All Things Must Pass. I think that would be fantastic. That’s a pretty good choice right there.
Mettler: I like it. Maybe the two Traveling Wilburys records should be done in surround too.
Ulyate: The Wilburys records would benefit from that, absolutely.
Mettler: How about something from the home team’s catalog? What Tom Petty album would you want to do next in surround besides [one we can’t mention here because it was discussed off the record]?
Ulyate: In Tom’s catalog, um… I’d say the whole thing! (both laugh heartily)
Mettler: Ok, yes, but where would you start? I think Hard Promises would be a good one, since you already did Damn the Torpedoes.
Ulyate: Long After Dark is pretty good too.
Mettler: A lot of people overlook that album for some reason.
Ulyate: I know, they do. And sonically, Long After Dark — did that one follow Torpedoes?
Mettler: Hard Promises came first, in ’81, then Long After Dark was right after it, in ’82.
Ulyate: So Hard Promises followed Torpedoes? Yeah, that’s a great album. And they had that same production team, too [Jimmy Iovine and Shelly Yakus], so, sonically, it just carried on from Damn the Torpedoes. In some ways, I think it sounds better. As good as Damn the Torpedoes is, they really had that sound dialed in on that album.
Actually, I just went through the entire catalog because we did a Mastered for iTunes thing, so I’ve definitely scrutinized every song these guys did. I worked with Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering. We had the master tapes for every album. We went through them, re-EQ’ed them, and remastered them for iTunes — which basically is 24-bit, but with peak limiting. It translates the music into iTunes better, but at the same time, we have the notes so we could run the entire catalog in hi res pretty easily.
Mettler: Oh, you have to to that. Now tell me about how Hypnotic Eye sounds on vinyl.
Ulyate: Ok. We did two versions. There’s the two-sided version, which will be for less money. It’s 140-gram, and it’s got all 11 songs on it. Then there’s the three-sided version that has the bonus track [“Playing Dumb”] — 12 songs, 180-gram, split across three sides, and the fourth side has this really trippy etching. That’ll be for the super-duper hi-fi audience. It’s got more level on it obviously, because the sides aren’t as long.
An we consciously wanted to make this an album. If you notice the way the songs transition into one another, with all the segueways — even though it’s not a concept album, we wanted it to be something where you put it on and it took you on a ride. That’s another reason we didn’t make it too long. We wanted to make it something to digest. Something we’re realizing now is that 40 to 45 minutes is about the sweet spot for being able to sit down and deal with a chunk of music. The limitations of vinyl sort of defined the limits of our attention spans, which is a good thing, so there were a lot of songs we didn’t put on this album.
Mettler: How many songs do you have left over, can you say?
Ulyate: We cut about, probably, 8-10 songs more. In the end, this album started to reveal itself to us about a third of the way in. And Tom said, “Well, let’s try it. We’re not going to know if it’s any good until it’s done and we hear it out of the speakers.” We’d listen to the song and go, “You know, this is a great song, but it’s not for this album.” At some point, the music started telling us where it wanted to go.
Mettler: Which song would you pick as a real good, drop-the-needle-on kinda track?
Ulyate: I think “Shadow People.” That song to me is so badass, that track. (chuckles)
Mettler: I like that slow sequence about 3 minutes into it, where it goes into that different zone —
Ulyate: It’s got a great groove and the bass is huge. One of the things I’m happiest about, one of my contributions to the band, is that we got bottom end on this record. (laughs heartily) We always do so well with the guitars, and there’s some distortion too; that makes it so cool. One thing I learned thanks to Neil Young is that you can have the most nasty, aggressive in-your-face, ear-destroying guitar tones in the world, and as long as you have a lot of bass, that’s what makes it work — the thing that just tears your head off. If the bottom holds up, it becomes the most pleasant thing in the world. It sounds good.
Mettler: I know just what you mean. Neil knows how to give good crunch, especially when he’s playing with Crazy Horse. And this band — The Heartbreakers know how to flex every muscle they have.
Ulyate: Absolutely. And Tom is in such a good place right now, creatively. So is the band. I mean, these guys, they’re really at the top of their game. Creatively, they’re just on fire right now. And since we’re able to make such great music, I say, “Let’s just keep doing it.”