Red Hot Ryan Hewitt Makes His Mark with Chili Peppers, Avett Brothers, Flogging Molly, and More

Ryan Hewitt UAD
Photo by David Goggin

Few people are lucky enough to grow up in the music business. Ryan Hewitt had the fortune of being raised in and around recording studios from an early age; the perfect springboard for his career as an in-demand engineer/mixer for bands including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flogging Molly, the Avett Brothers and Chili Pepper John Frusciante’s solo projects. Ryan’s dad, David Hewitt, is an award-winning remote recording engineer, and Ryan was placing mics for him before he could even reach the faders on a console. With an incredible work ethic and attention to detail, Ryan has quickly become one of the most sought-after young engineers in the game today.

Did you go to work with your dad a lot?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. I used to go to work with my dad at Record Plant all the time, when I was a kid. He worked in the remote division of Record Plant, New York.

Did you like going to work with him?

It was the best. It was so fun. When I was a kid, I didn't know anything, so I would hang out in the tech shop, and get in trouble with the guys who were all stoned and stuff in there. [Laughs.] I didn't know what was going on. I was just playing music in the jukebox, and running around like a maniac.

But it's where an engineer named Tom Swift turned me on to the drums. I remember him sitting me at Tony William's yellow Gretsch drum kit, and teaching me how to play, kind of a straight kick-snare-hat thing, and I was just sold from then. I made my dad buy me a drum kit a few months later. And that was the beginning of the end. [Laughs.]

Is that what you wanted to do when you grew up?

It was kind of weird. My mom had this fantasy of me going to the University of Pennsylvania and becoming an architect or a doctor or something like that. Typical Jewish mom kind of thing where she's saying, "You have to do your homework because you have to go to MIT or U Penn, and you're going to be an architect, and you're going to do this, that, and the other thing," and I was actually excited about that.

Then I started playing music, and my father had always said, “You can do this, but obviously you see how hard this business is. I'll support you if you want to do it, but you have to go get a degree in something legitimate so that if you decide you don't want to do music anymore, at least you have some kind of background. And if you do decide to do music, you'll have a different background than everybody else who's trying to do it."

Did you go to college?

Yeah. I went to Tufts University, and I got a degree in electrical engineering. I had dreams of being George Massenburg, but that was quickly squashed when I found that I wasn’t going to actually design anything. [Laughs.]

So you're also a drummer. Did you play in bands?

I had bands all through college, and I sort of took over the campus sound company. I was like the A-V nerd guy. I ran the sound company, and mixed pretty much every live event that came to school without a full P.A. rider on it.

Did you have an advantage, growing up in the business?

For sure. It's funny, my dad is so humble about his talent, and his legacy at this point. He's kind of known as the father of modern live recording, but he doesn't take any claim for anything about that. So he didn't necessarily teach me a whole lot about engineering proper. The main lessons he taught me were kind of the background to actually doing any job, which is mainly having a strong work ethic.

My father is over-prepared for everything he does. He'll contemplate the smallest details for weeks before a job, if it's left to him. Working in the live recording business, as a kid and as an adolescent, showed me how to prepare for a job. To expect absolutely anything and everything to happen, or to go wrong, and just be ready to fix it or work around the problem, and deal with last-minute additions.

And of course, the connections that I was able to make through my father definitely helped me out. But despite that, because I worked my ass off at every single thing I did--in the studio or out of the studio, in school, whatever--I feel like my work ethic was my main advantage.

That's a great thing to learn from a parent.

Yeah, it sure is. He is nothing if not a hard worker. He's all about just getting the job done, and making sure everything's right.

After college, what did you do?

After college … [laughs]. So I went to a nice school, spent all that money, and then I got a $5-an-hour job being a runner at Sony Studios in New York. And it made my parents very proud. [Laughs.] It's like, all my friends, people in my electrical engineering class were going off getting jobs at Raytheon and the like. Crazy, high-tech companies, doing computer programming, designing missile systems, all sorts of really—I wouldn't say necessarily exciting things--but certainly well-paying jobs that made them nice and comfortable.

And I went the exact other route, to New York to make $5 an hour working in the mic locker at Sony Studios.

But again, that work ethic that my father instilled in me made me work harder than everyone else. I'd work my eight-hour shift, and then I'd stick around and help the assistants out with whatever they needed done that night.

"So now I have my UAD on everything, and I'm using the EMT 140 Plate and the EMT 250 as effects. And it's just so much easier. [Laughs.] There are no other words for it than it's just so much easier."

And that's how you rise up in this business. Actually, most businesses.

Exactly. I'd help all the assistants. I was like, "Just give me something to do, anything, even if you just have me sit in the corner and watch what you're doing, that's fine with me." And they're like, "Anything, huh? All right, cool. Format these SSL disks." I'm like, "Great, cool, show me how to do it." So I wrote it down in my little notebook, and I sat there and formatted SSL disks for a few hours.

Or I'd format digital tapes. Or I'd file stuff, or do recalls, all the kind of mundane assistant tasks that need to be done. If an assistant sees that someone's excited, and hungry about knowledge, and if they're also a good judge of character, they can see that the guy's going to want to do it right and impress them so that they're allowed to hang out more.

The other way I got promoted there, very quickly, was that one of the techs was an amazing guitar player, and wound up producing Grant Green Jr.'s record. They had no money for it or whatever, I can't remember the exact circumstance, but he asked every assistant in the place, "Do you want to engineer this?" On like Fourth of July weekend. And everyone said no. He asked every runner, "Do you want to engineer this session?" Everyone said no. He finally came to me. I was the last guy asked. I was the new guy, at the time. He's asks, "Do you want to engineer this thing?" I'm like, "Hell yeah, I want to do it. Let's go!" I'm a big Grant Green fan, and I love jazz and blues.

So I showed up with all these legendary, monster players from New York City, in this little studio. Here I am, like pretty much my first real session, outside of working for my dad. So we're bobbing along, and I got all my sounds up, and one of the producer's friends came in who was a frequent client of the studio. He's asks, "Hey, who the hell are you?" He hadn't seen me before. I told him that I was the new runner.

He sat on the couch, and gets up after a little while and says to me, "I'll tell you what, tomorrow you're not a runner anymore. I'm going to go talk to the manager. You're my assistant on my session tomorrow." I was like, "What are you talking about? I'm not an assistant." He says, "You are now. You shouldn't be a runner, what are you doing?" [Laughs.] So he went to the studio manager the next day and said, "I want this kid as my assistant. He shouldn't be a runner any more." So I was promoted just like that.

It was really exciting, because I took the job that no one wanted, and not only was it an amazing couple days of sessions, but I got my promotion out of it, and skipped ahead of all the other guys who didn't want to do it.

I worked at Sony for probably four years as an assistant. And like all things, you gotta leave at some point. So I just kinda left, and started doing a little bit of freelance work. I worked for Phil Ramone as his engineer at his home studio.

That must have been a great experience!

Oh, yeah. That was a really great experience on a number of levels.

Now you live in LA. What made you change coasts?

While working at Sony, I'd become friends with Don Warshba and all the guys at SSL. So they hired me on a freelance basis to teach people how to use their consoles. Including the new, at the time, Axiom MT. This is going back to like 1998, something like that.

Meanwhile, my mother had moved to the West Coast, so I had been coming out here to visit her and a bunch of my buddies from college who had moved out here, too. I remember I was on my way home from a trip to LA, and SSL called me and said, "Hey, our guy in LA just left. We need you to come out as soon as possible to replace him." I told them I was just on my way home from LA, and that I had a gig on Monday but could come back on Wednesday. And they said "Great, here's your ticket."

So I went out there, and after a week they told me, "Hey, you know, if you want this job, it's yours, here's the salary, here's the blah, blah, blah." And I said, "Yeah, let's do it." I just went home, got my stuff, and moved to LA, all in the space of three weeks.

It was just another really exciting, serendipitous kind of thing. I remember right before I got that phone call, I had made another trip maybe a month before out to California, and I came back to New York, thinking, "You know what? I'm really sick of this. I'm ready to leave New York. If someone called me to take a job in LA, I would do it." And sure enough, it happened, and it was just the most perfect situation.

This SSL gig must have helped you make all kinds contacts in LA.

Exactly. Working for SSL, I got to go and meet every studio owner in town, and tons of engineers and producers. I drove all over LA, got to know the town very quickly. It was just perfect. I met everybody and anybody in the business. And I certainly knew how to use an SSL console after that! That was amazing.

It took me to Cello--well, what was Cello at the time--where I met Candace [Stewart] and Gary [Myerberg] and started hanging out with them a lot. I reacquainted myself with Jim Scott as well. And the same thing happened. A year after being at SSL, I was over my commitment, and Jim's assistant just left one day. And he was like, "Hey, want to come work for me? I'm doing the Chili Peppers next week." [Laughs.] And I just said, "Yeah, let's do it." Same thing.

During the time my father was in New York City running Record Plant Remote in New York, Jim was running Record Plant Remote in LA. So he knew my father really well. And we thought the same way about setting sessions up, and the importance of being prepared. We just got along so well. We worked together for probably close to two years, on ten or twelve records. It was another amazing learning experience.

So now you're freelance, independent. You have a home studio?

I do.

Do you prefer tracking or mixing?

I really love both, but I like mixing the best. That's definitely the most fun for me.

And of course, you now have a UAD QUAD card.

Oh, yeah. And it was just in time for the stuff I do for Guitar Hero. A buddy of mine from college, is the director of audio assets at Guitar Hero. We reconnected maybe a couple of years ago and he asked if I wanted to work on some mixing for them. So I've been doing a bunch of mix matching for Guitar Hero. For the Guitar Hero songs, I have to take the original multitracks and match the mixes, from the original record, and then print stems of them to work with the Guitar Hero format. I've done stuff for Dire Straits, Fleetwood Mac, Blue Oyster Cult.

Ryan Hewitt Rack
Photo by David Goggin
Are you getting some kind of stems from the masters?

I'm getting first-gen copies of the original multitracks. They do a transfer off site. In the case of Dire Straits, Mark has his own studio, in England. So he took the original—I think it was on a 3348 Sony machine—and he transferred it into Pro Tools himself.

I don't ever get the actual analog masters, although if I ever get a tape machine, I'm going to start doing the transfers myself.

It must be exciting to re-experience history up close like that.

Absolutely. I had a direct copy from 24-track analog master from Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin' for You.” That was my favorite song as a kid. The video for it was rad.

But the coolest thing about it is that because I'm such a nerd, I go on line and I research where they mixed the records, and what console and equipment they had. So in the case of the Blue Oyster Cult thing, they had the Harrison 3624, which had the same EQ that UA modeled from Bruce Swedien. It was brand new at the time, so they had all these articles about how Blue Oyster Cult is mixing on this console, and blah, blah, blah. I'm like, "Sweet! I have those EQs. Done!"

So I just put one across every channel on the multitrack, and I could match the mix almost instantaneously, because I had all the same frequency points, and the same characteristics on the EQs.

Like, for the snare drum, I remember, I was like, "Hmmm, this isn't sounding right. This sounds more like a Pultec." And I slapped the UA Pultec Pro plug on there, in addition to the Harrison 32C Channel EQ, so it still had the sound of the Harrison going straight to the Pultec, and there was my snare sound. It was so cool, and so easy to then match that mix with the same kind of tools.

Then I did Dire Straits' “Money for Nothing,” which was originally mixed on an SSL 4000. So I just put the UAD 4K Channel Strip across every channel, and the same thing. I would try to match the EQ, and if it had slightly different characteristics, I know what's in that room. At Power Station, they have a lot of Pultecs, and they probably had a Fairchild 670 at the time, and a couple of other things.

So I would just use whatever sounded right, if it didn't sound like the SSL channel. I used the EMT 250 Classic Electronic Reverberator. I used the EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverbs. I was able to match the mix so well that I got it past Mark Knopfler in one try! [Laughs.]

Your whole approach is just brilliant.

It was so exciting. It was really amazing to sit there and get that same vibe that they had on the original mix. The UAD Powered Plug-Ins just made the job so much easier, and much quicker.

I love that you know what outboard gear was in the original studios.

Well, yeah. It's just so nerdy. A lot of it is extrapolation, based on the time period of the recordings. If a record was mixed in 1981, you just kind of look up what came out in 1981. Because I’m a nerd, I always want to use all the new stuff, so I'd imagine that, you know, in 1981, or 1976, people were thinking the same thing. Like, "Wow, the AMS DMX just came out. Let's use that." Or, "the RMX, this is the hot shit now, let's use it." Or the EMT 250, or whatever was new and hot at the time.

On a lot of records from back then, the vibe was so determined by the new equipment at the time. Like that Dire Straits "Money for Nothing," that snare sound is clearly the AMS non-lin sound. It's just so obvious. Now, that's something that UA needs to model. [Laughs.]

So I assume that means you're pretty happy with your UAD-2 card?

It's really made mixing in the box, mixing at home, just miles ahead of where it was before I had the UAD stuff. Not only am I seeing things that are familiar to me, in the form of a Neve module, or an SSL channel strip, but it just sounds great.

I was talking with Will Shanks there at UA, about the Manley Massive Passive EQ plug-in, and it's just like, is it exact? I don't care. It sounds really good. When I put the Manley plug-in in my buss, yes, it sounds like a Manley. Is it perfect? I don't know. But do I care? No. Because regardless, it sounds great in its own right.

"The more you know, the faster you'll get to where you want to go, and the more interest people will take in you. If you absorb all the knowledge that's being thrown at you, from all angles, there's just no limit. That's what I intended to do at all times, I just wanted to outpace everybody, and out work everyone."

You can tell, I get really excited about that kind of thing, and the difference between the plug-ins, when you go from something like a Neve 1073 EQ to a 1081 EQ or a 31102 EQ on your snare drum, it is as massively different as if you were changing the hardware on your console insert. They all have the characteristics of the hardware that they're modeling, and you have that graphic interface you're familiar with it, you know what frequency points are there.

When you go grab a certain EQ because you like the guitar sound you get when you use that hardware piece, it's there. Yes, it's digital, but it's just got a vibe to it. It's really not something I can explain in technical terms, but you get a sort of warm and fuzzy feeling when you use a Neve plug-in or an SSL, or when I go to the Trident A-Range EQ once in a while.

And the EMT 250 and 140 emulations are just stunning. I think they're light years ahead of convolution reverbs in those applications. They're just absolutely phenomenal.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I'm working on an Avett Brothers live record, for Columbia.

Did you record it?

I recorded it on my dad's truck in North Carolina, last November. It was the first gig that I brought to his truck, as the engineer, and the client. So it was pretty emotional, actually, to have my dad as my assistant. [Laughs.]

So you’re at the mix stage now?

Yeah. I'm mixing it in the box, exclusively, because I'm going to do it in stereo, and once Rick Rubin approves it, I will spread it out to 5.1 for the DVD release. It's pretty much all UAD plug-ins. I think I've got a UAD 4K Channel Strip on just about every channel. It makes mixing so easy.

I actually tried—and I’m not one to make up bullshit stories—but I tried to mix this record in November, before I had the UAD plug-ins, and I was just struggling, and not having fun. Luckily, they postponed the project for some reason, I honestly have no idea, as they hadn’t even heard my struggling mixes, and then they brought it back to life last month. They called me up last month, telling me, "Hey, we want to revive this. Let's get it going, let's mix it."

So, I just started all over from scratch. I thought, I have all these new plug-ins. I didn’t even want to hear what I did before. So now I have my UAD on everything, and I'm using the EMT 140 Plate and the EMT 250 as effects. And it's just so much easier. [Laughs.] There are no other words for it than it's just so much easier.

Your story about growing up in the business reminds me of the Putnam family, and Bill Jr. going to work with his dad when he was a kid.

I've met your dad before. He seems like such a cool guy.

Yeah, he is a really great and humble guy, who just does his job and doesn't want any notoriety. He doesn't really like to talk to people. He likes to stay in the truck. His nickname is the Lone Ranger, if that's any indication of his reputation. [Laughs.] But yeah, he was a great mentor. I've been very, very fortunate to have a number of really amazing mentors.

Ryan Hewitt Screen
Photo by David Goggin

Mentoring has been so important in this biz, but it doesn’t seem to happen much any more.

I always like to talk about my mentors, because I think mentoring is really important, and I think it's becoming a lost tradition in the business. I'm trying to stand up for it, and take interns on, and assistants.

I was the cocky assistant; I thought I was hot shit, because I got promoted ahead of everybody else. Like so many things that have happened in my career, the right door opened, whoosh, I was pushed through it. When Michael Brauer's assistant quit, the management at the studio said, "Oh, here's Mr. Hotshot. He needs his ass kicked. Here, Michael, kick this guy's ass." So I went to work for him. He had a certain reputation for working his assistants to death. [Laughs.]

At the time he had a lot of outboard gear. Now he's got ten times as much. And he's very particular about how he works, and what goes on in the room, and how his assistant behaves around clients and things like that. Now, these are all things that I'd had certain lessons in with my father, but then Michael really kicked it into overdrive.

I came in, and I wanted to sit next to him at the desk, and he's just like, "Nope. I don't want to even see you, and I don't want to see you out of my peripheral vision. Go sit it in the back." So I'd sit in the back. One day, I was sitting back there bouncing my leg, and he'd snap, "Don't do that." Another day I'd be falling asleep, and I'm hung over, and he's just like, "Hey, you falling asleep back there? I know you're falling asleep. I can't see you, but I know you're falling asleep. Wake up." He just beat me up about stuff, and it made me really attentive to what was going on in a room. But then he’d bring me up to sit at the desk with him and A/B different sounds, asking me what I thought was better. That really helped start developing my ears. We worked together for two years, and he remains a great friend.

I learned all my mixing chops from Michael, and then I moved to LA, to Cello studio, and I got to work with Jim Scott. It was the same kind of thing with him. I had to learn how he wanted things done, and how to run a tracking date with him. Always have extra mics and DIs ready. Always have water for the artists. Here’s how you mix the cues for the band. So I learned all my tracking chops from a true master.

I'm still really good friends and very close with Jim and Michael. I call them for advice or to just shoot the shit and they call me to find out what the hot gear is. [Laughs.]

What advice do you have for young people trying to get in the business?

It's funny, because now I feel like I'm in sort of a position to mentor students, and kids coming up through the business. I just had my first intern come and go, and I had an assistant for about a year, that I got to teach what I know. That was pretty exciting, because he's now gone off and got a job doing live mixing for Live Nation.

But I think the important thing—I was just talking with my intern about this—is to get an education in something. If you're determined to go to recording school, do it. But it's not the end-all, be-all. I think that the important thing to advance in this industry is to do something different, and not go through the mill that is a typical recording school.

The main thing is to be humble. Because when you come out of recording school or whatever school, you really don't know shit. If you walk into a place saying, "I want a position as an engineer, I want a position as an assistant engineer," they're going to laugh at you. Your resume goes right from the fax machine or the email into the bin. And that's the end of your job chances there.

You gotta walk in and you say, "I just came from X, Y, and Z. I'm ready to do anything." Yeah, you might have to scrub toilets, or like in my case, I polished wheels and cleaned mud off the snakes for years for my dad. It wasn't like I got to cut in line in front of that crap. I had to change the oil in the truck, and polish the wheels, and wash it and vacuum, the same things that all other runners and interns had to do.

It's just so important to do whatever you’re told, and do it as best you can. And if your best isn't as good as someone else's best, you're going to get run over. And that's what separates the men from the boys in this business, and gets you noticed more than anybody else. If you do your eight-hour shift and go home every day, and don't express the interest in the operations of the studio, on all levels, you don't get anywhere.

I know a guy who was a runner at a certain studio in LA for like four years, and he just didn't get that you need to do more than put in your time and sit there and play pinball or whatever. When I was at Sony, I hung out in the shop, and I learned how to fix stuff. And I hung out in the mic locker, I hung out in the studios, I hung out in the manager's office to learn about what was going on at all times, all over the studio.

The more you know, the faster you'll get to where you want to go, and the more interest people will take in you. If you absorb all the knowledge that's being thrown at you, from all angles, there's just no limit. That's what I intended to do at all times, I just wanted to outpace everybody, and out work everyone.

Nobody wants to work with someone who does the bare minimum. I have no patience for that in my studio, and I never had any patience for that even when I was an assistant and there were runners around. I would never call a guy who did the bare minimum. I'd always call the people who worked their ass off, and who were interested.

When I was an assistant, I wanted runners who wanted my job. If they didn't want my job, I wasn't interested in having them around. Because what's the point of teaching you all this shit if you don't care about getting my job?

Leslie Ann Jones, from Skywalker Sound, told me once that she thought that the best way to move ahead was to think one job ahead of where you were. So if you were an assistant engineer, think like an engineer, and if you're an engineer, think like a producer.

That’s how I did it. I mean, you don't necessarily want to tell the engineer what to do, or that you missed this or you missed that, but when you're backing up a guy, like Jim Scott or Michael Brauer, you should be--I certainly was--looking at and listening to how he's doing things, what his signal flow is, and understanding exactly how he works.

Before I had my steady gigs with Michael and Jim, I had a little notebook, and every engineer that came in, I would write down just some notes about how the guy liked to work. If he liked to work with the insert mixing on in the 9k. If he liked to mix with Snap Mode on. If he used buss 3 and 4 as his parallel drum buss, with an 1176 set to this.

I wrote it all down: Here were his preferred effects, these were his settings, blah, blah, blah. Then, the next time he came in, everything was ready to go. He didn't have to ask for anything. He didn't have to ask to have the NS-10s set up this particular way on pencils, or I know that this guy uses the REV-7 on the large-hall setting.

I had worked for Elliot Scheiner and kept notes, and the second time I worked for him, he came back in, and he went to reach for the 480, it was already set to his settings. He went to reach for the REV-7, it was already set up. Everything was ready. He didn't have to ask for anything.

You might not get a compliment out of it, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. The guy knows that you're interested. That to me is really exciting.

That's great advice. Anyone coming up through the ranks needs practical advice.

The tough thing about it now is, because there's not a whole lot of studios left, there's not a lot of positions available to be mentored, as it were. Like I said, I just had my first intern, and it's a difficult proposition. It's like, well, the guy's only going to be here for a few weeks, what am I going to invest in teaching him that's going to make it worthwhile for him and for me?

Interns really need to understand that the mentor is voluntarily taking a lot of time out of his or her work schedule just to teach them the knowledge that they have spent a lifetime gathering.

True. Unless you experience working for a hotshot engineer, I don't believe you can really become one. There's just no way.

Even with the internet. You can look up how people patch things, or how they use certain gear, or whatever, but I still believe that you need to be in the room with a skilled veteran to experience the vibe and flow of how to deal with clients, how to deal with situations and problems that will always pop up, even how you deal with the business side.

Just because you know how to use a kick-drum sample doesn't mean you can make a hit record. [Laughs.]

— Marsha Vdovin

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