Rich Chycki on Mixing Rush and Dream Theater with UAD Plug-Ins
From his work with Dream Theater and Aerosmith, to his 26 Gold and Platinum records with Rush, Richard Chycki is an indisputable veteran of the rock scene. Known to use over 40 mics on [Rush drummer] Neil Peart's massive drum array alone, the Toronto-based engineer/mixer is no stranger to intricate musical production. Chycki spoke to us about how he records and mixes such dense and powerful rock records, and how UAD-2 plug-ins help sculpt and define his work.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Toronto, Canada. I’ve lived and worked in Los Angeles for a number of years and my recording work still gives me the wonderful opportunity to travel to different countries.
Were you a musician when you were young?
Yes, and I still am. I’m a guitar player and songwriter by trade, learning my chops with guitar-centric music but I’m a fan of many different genres. The musician perspective has been invaluable for my production work.
How did you get into engineering?
My love for music has always included an inseparable mix of songwriting, arrangement, performance and sonics. I recorded my basement bands during my teen years. Ultimately, I really wanted experience in major recording facilities, so I cold-called the local SSL console distributor and asked them to borrow a console and computer manual — which I read religiously from front-to-back. I even carried a crinkled photocopy of the Computer Shortcuts laminate to review until I really knew them.
So I would be on a session as a guitar player and I’d end up dialing in my own sounds, eventually recording and mixing my own projects entirely. Record labels liked the quality of the recordings and started offering me recording work with other artists. I was very fortunate to have word of mouth give me more opportunities to work with so many great producers and artists. It still works that way for me to this day.
“Learning on classic equipment and using tried-and-true recording methods gave me a strong foundation for experimentation and pushing the sonic envelope — especially with the power of today’s digital technology.”
Do you have your own studio?
I do, it’s called Street of Dreams. It’s a complete mix suite tailored for both stereo and 5.1 surround. DVD releases for Rush, Dream Theater and Skillet have been mixed there. It’s my home base but I still travel as projects dictate.
Rush in surround must be amazing!
Yes, it is. In my nine years with Rush, we’ve worked together to earn 26 Gold and Platinum sales awards for North America. Interestingly, 24 of them are for surround releases. So, I think there is a significant demand for the format — possibly because it’s a more intimate and enveloping experience with the artist.
Are you using Pro Tools?
I’m a Pro Tools user, and a strong advocate. I’ve been using it since the Sound Designer II days.
"Rich and I both have a long history of using UA gear, and we continue to share our many analog units with each other. In the studio, Rich's knowledge of the ins and outs of analog devices is deep and very creative. Using UAD plug-ins has made any transition from demo to the final stages much more convenient. Not only am I able to provide a clearer presentation of the sounds that I might have in mind, it also saves a great deal of time."
- Alex Lifeson
Did you cut your teeth on tape?
I did. I started in all-analog studios before DAWs had become a studio staple. Learning on classic equipment and using tried-and-true recording methods gave me a strong foundation for experimentation and pushing the sonic envelope — especially with the power of today’s digital technology.
Do you have any UA hardware?
I would guess you use those more for tracking.
My UA hardware compressors are part of what I call my “sound good spray” recording collection — everything that goes through them sounds enhanced in some way. I use them a lot as part of my recording chain.
Especially when you’re tracking guitars?
Absolutely — and bass, and vocals, and drum room! [Laughs]
Tell me about your process for the last Dream Theater album. I mixed Dream Theater, their 12th studio album, on an SSL Duality at Germano Studios in New York City. Given the size of the project, I spent a fair amount of time at my studio doing pre-mix work — pre-processing and condensing tracks and often using select UA outboard gear while doing so.
How do you use UAD plug-ins during the mix process?
During the mix, I set up my UAD plug-ins on solo-isolated aux channels to operate as analog outboard effects units. I had tremendous success with this configuration. The EMT® 250 Reverb plug-in in particular is one of my absolute favorites, as well as the EMT® 140 Plate Reverb. In fact, I’ve requested both of these plug-ins in surround format!
Did you use any modulation plug-ins?
With guitarist John Petrucci, we used an actual hardware Dimension D in the initial recordings for some of his solos, but I ended up doing some embellishing with the UAD plug-in version. Switching between the two in the mix was seamless.
I'm also a huge fan of Dirk Ulrich's Brainworx bx plug-ins. He’s very forward thinking and makes plug-ins with particularly interesting, unique features — not to mention that the algorithms he develops are so musical. I’m thrilled to have some of his plug-ins ported over to the UAD format. The ENGL® Amplifier Plug-Ins Bundle is on my “try now” list!
“The Sonnox® Oxford EQ plug-in has been a workhorse for me since the Sony days. It’s stellar for surgical/reparative work or broad, musical strokes to add flavor.”
How do you typically track guitars?
I usually take a split direct from the guitar using my Radial JD7 and route it to a number of amp/speaker setups that are all miked. They all come up on the console and we select and blend as each song requires. I always record a DI track, as well, so I have the option to re-amp — mostly to add another amplifier texture after the fact. On Dream Theater, we generally went back and forth between the Mesa Boogie Mark V in IIc+ mode and an original Mk IIc+ amp when we re-amped. John doubles most of his tracks. Typically, there are anywhere from three to 12 guitar tracks per song with a DI for each track.
Rush is well known for using Moog Taurus Bass Pedals in their early years. Many of the songs on Clockwork Angels have low synth bass parts in them. What was used for those sounds?
The original Taurus pedals used since A Farewell to Kings are still around. But for Clockwork Angels, we used the Moog Taurus III synth pedals, which sounded fantastic, and they’re rock solid.
For you, is there any "missing ingredient" from mixing in the box with a modern digital console and/or DAW?
I prefer using whatever tools it takes to get the job done. I was doing mixes in the box years back when it was considered a big taboo, but I’ve also been mixing on SSL’s since I started. I have a few pieces of classic gear that are important to my mixes so I’ve ended up in a hybrid method of working — some in DAW, some in analog. It’s the best of both worlds and the bottom line is there are no set rules.
In Dave Grohl's movie, Sound City, there seems to be a bit of disdain for making records with Pro Tools or DAWs.
[Laughs]. Dave and I we talked about this exact thing when I went to see him and the Foos perform at Wembley. I agree with the situation of overuse of auto tuning and other DAW correction. But the fact is, a DAW can be used as simply as a linear recording device like a tape machine so in the end, it’s the user deciding to what extent technology will be put to use. Recording to tape simply removes the option to manipulate audio — like throwing the cookies in the trash when you’re on a diet so you can’t eat ‘em. But new tape does smell much nicer than ProTools — and fresh baked cookies beat both!
I know you work on an SSL board. Have you used the UAD SSL 4000 plug-ins?
To me, SSL is simply "the sound of rock." The SSL 4000 Series Console plug-in performs really well in concert with the Duality board. I don’t feel either one is a replacement for the other; but they’re great-sounding tools that are both powerful and versatile.
When I was mixing the latest Dream Theater album, the Duality console that I was using, is a 48-track analog console that also has up to 48 assignable dry returns (no EQ, compression or level automation). Some of the tunes on Dream Theater are upwards of 160 tracks, so we definitely had some of real estate logistics to work through. I multiplexed audio to come out of different returns at different times, automating the UAD SSL 4000 Series Console plug-in to do EQ changes for each different piece that was coming out of a particular channel.
Have you used the Ocean Way Studios plug-in?
Yes. I’ve actually worked at Ocean Way Studios, so I know the character of the studio, and UA and Allen Sides did a formidable job emulating its sonics.
In mixing, there’s a random element to what’s going to be coming in. On occasion, I’ll get a single mono ambient track and I’ve used the Ocean Way Studios plug-in to expand this very small mono ambient microphone into a full stereo room. It sounded wonderful.
With the positioning of the microphones within the room’s algorithm and choice of microphones, the possibilities are endless. You really can take a well-recorded mono instrument and give it this stereo ambience that sounds very authentic.
Rush and Dream Theater’s music can be very dense with a lot going on, yet you can distinguish every instrument and every detail so clearly on their recordings. How do you keep it from becoming just a wall of noise?
Both Mike Mangini [Dream Theater drummer] and Neil Peart from Rush have immense drum kits and complex playing styles. With upwards of 40 mics around the drum kit, phase coherency and leakage control are paramount so the kit continues to feel like one big well-defined instrument — not to mention the physical challenge of cramming that many mics around a drum kit and keeping it all out of the player’s strike zones!
Once we have sounds for everybody, their great chops are put to work in arrangement. In simplest terms, everybody listens to each other and they cooperate by leaving space for each other or thrusting in the same direction. Mangini is particularly adept at vocalizing with his kit. So in essence, even though the music seems complex, the individual pieces are well defined and planned out, so they mesh beautifully. The result is a lot of forward momentum in the music.
A lot of power.
Exactly. It’s power, and that’s what the fans pick up on.
Do you monitor loudly or at a reasonable level?
I try and stay under 90dB. I have my moments where I crank it up for excitement and definitely when I’m setting up the bottom end. But when I’m making all the crucial blend decisions, my listening level is relatively quiet and spread across a number of different speakers.
How do you fight ear fatigue?
That is something to be concerned about. I try not to stay in the room if the artist or label wants to punch it and the SPL is really high. So I save my ears by making myself absent and visiting the coffee machine!
Studio Photos by HotHouse Creative Inc.
— Marsha Vdovin