September/October 2007, Tape Op (USA)
Many thanks to Bojana, for typing it out.
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In just a few short years and at relatively young age, Ryan Hewitt has become one of L.A.’s first-call engineers in a notoriously competitive and dwindling market. The son of well-known remote recording engineer Dave Hewitt, Ryan’s made records with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Alkaline Trio, Heavens, Blink-182 and Tom Petty. He’s also made several amazing solo records with RHCP guitarist John Frusciante. Despite his success, Ryan is a super nice guy and very easygoing. I found this out firsthand when we sat down to talk at The Pass Studios while he finished up a Chili Peppers b-side mix. His website, ryanhewitt.com has a lot of info on it and is well worth checking out if you’re curious about his sessions. In fact, there was so much info on Ryan’s site that I initially only had a couple of questions prepared for him. Luckily Ryan’s an enthusiastic talker, and responded profusely to my questions with very little prodding.
Where did you go to school?
The education thing is a bit of an issue for me with kids going to these recording schools. I went to Tufts University, outside Boston, majoring in electrical engineering. I didn’t get the recording bug until I started running the P.A. company at school. They gave me the keys to the equipment shed and I just ran with them! I’d do live to 2-track demos for Tufts-based bands with a DAT machine my father gave me. I borrowed an 8-track from a friend and started doing multitrack stuff in the middle of the night in the equipment shed. It was hilarious! Before going off to Tufts, my father said, “I really don’t think you should get into this business. It’s a really tough gig. It’s hard on your relationships. It’s hard on your future family. You’re away all the time. Go and get an education in something stable.” The music business was not really an option for me in my household. My mother’s family is all Jewish with the stereotypical rants – “You’re going to school! You’re going to an Ivy League school!” They all wanted me to be an architect, but electrical engineering was closer to what I thought I wanted to do. I enjoyed it. I learned to design circuits, solve problems empirically, deal with signal flow – things that are underlying principles of the recording studio. I never actually got to build audio equipment in the end, which is what I really wanted to do then. I started playing in bands and recording and partying instead, and that was the end of that. I graduated with a fine GPA and now all I remember is V=IR! I remember sitting in front of the computer doing all these circuit simulations and saying to myself, “No fuckin’ way am I going to sit in front of the computer all my life.” This was before Pro Tools of course, and all my idols were working with 2 inch machines. Now here I am sitting in front of a computer all the time, but at least I’m having a lot more fun than many friends in my electrical engineering class!
What was the impetus to move out west when you could have stayed on the East Coast and worked there?
When I was on the East Coast I was working at Sony as an assistant for about three years, where I assisted Michael Brauer for a long time. He was a fantastic teacher and mentor. Eventually I decided I was done with Sony because Michael no longer worked there, and the focus of the studio became hip-hop – I wanted to rock! Around this time I started getting some engineering work with Phil Ramone. I did a few sessions with him and he took me on as his home studio engineer and tech. I wanted to take the leap into full time freelance work, but it’s incredibly hard to leave the comfort of the nest that is the studio – which is a fairly well paying, somewhat steady job – to go off and do something on your own that you’re not quite sure of. What made the transition easier was a phone call from Don Wershba at SSL. He called me because I had built up a relationship with the company through Michael Brauer, and our work on the then new 9000. The SSL guys would come over all the time showing us new tricks. They asked me if I wanted to consult for them, introducing and supporting the Axiom-MT (their new digital console) in 1998. They sent me to England and trained me on all their products from top to bottom. That gig helped me to pick up a lot of work, and introduced me to a lot more studios and engineers in New York.
You must have been in Oxford then, right?
I was in Oxford for a week. I came back and at about that time I rekindled a lot of friendships with people from college who had moved out to L.A. My mother had also moved out to Monterey, California around that time and so I had been visiting the West Coast a lot. I remember a very specific trip where I got back to New York, got off the plane and into the car to go back to the city and it was raining and – this is like a movie pitch – and I could see the skyline as I was coming down the ramp to go through the Lincoln tunnel and I was like, “You know what? I’m done with New York. If someone called me tomorrow and said, ‘Move to L.A.’, I’m going to go.” A week later SSL called me and said, “Our guy left in L.A. We need you to go out there and fill in for a while, see if you like it. If you like it, you can have the job.” I went out for a little while – and it was my first office job, my first nine to five. It was the first time I ever had health insurance and all these perks of a regular job. So I took the gig.
I went back to New York, packed up all my gear, had a party and moved to L.A. I was at SSL for ten months. It was the best job I could have asked for at the time because of the great reputation of the company. SSL has consoles in practically every single studio in L.A., except the one we’re sitting in. As a result, I got to meet nearly every single studio manager in town, a whole bunch of great producers, great engineers and rekindle friendships with people I’d met years before – maybe through my father or people I’d assisted in New York when I was a kid. It was one of the greatest years of my life. I could work nine to five and still do studio sessions with my friends at night. That’s what led me to work at Cello. We sold a console to Candace [Stewart] and Gary [Myerberg] at Cello. I got to be friends with them and I was hanging out there a lot. It was right down the street from the SSL office, so whenever I wasn’t doing anything at the office I’d go down there and see what was going on and who was working. Bill Bottrell was in there, Rich Costey and all these amazing cats. I would just go over and say, “Hey, is everything okay? No problems? Good. All right, cool, I’m just going to hang out with you.” Then I ran into Jim Scott at Cello. I had recorded a Natalie Merchant show on the truck in New York with my father, and Jim wound up mixing it. There was Jim working in this room with all these tapestries and incense and tape and great microphones and great bands. He says to me, “Hey, what are you doing? You should be working here. You should be working at Cello, not doing some desk job.” The next day his assistant left! I ran into Jim again that day and he said, “My guy just left, do you want to come work with me? I’m doing the Chili Peppers record next month.” It was just this series of fortunate events that continues to lead me to where I am today. That record was By The Way. I gave my resignation to SSL on September 10, 2001. The next day the shit hit the fan and every single session in town was cancelled because everyone was freaking out. I left this cushy job at SSL and then the country was in turmoil and I had a month of no work.