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Why Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers won’t back down on HD audio

tom petty to get his own siriusxm channel  amp the heartbreakers photo by mary ellen matthews
Image used with permission by copyright holder
As early as November 2012, Tom Petty knew he and The Heartbreakers were already onto something special in the studio as they worked on the follow-up to 2010’s muscular Mojo. “This band is so efficient, it’s scary,” Petty told me during a break in recording from an office adjacent to the control room at The Clubhouse, the band’s longtime Los Angeles rehearsal space and recording facility. “We’re going for it as hard as we can. 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 the final cut for Hypnotic Eye (Reprise), released today. 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 TownHypnotic Eye finds Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers continuing to pump out wide-ranging rock & roll blood on the tracks.

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 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. “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.” Ulyate recently sat down in front of the mixing console at Ryan’s Place, his Topanga Canyon studio, and told Digital Trends why 24 bits are crucial, why peak limiting is a hassle, and why Eye’s 5.1 mix is so rewarding. And nope, you don’t have to listen like a refugee.

Digital Trends: I’ve seen a number of people say Hypnotic Eye is a “traditional rock-and-roll record,” but I think there’s more to it than that. Each song clearly has its own sonic character.

Ryan Ulyate: Yes! (laughs) You made the right call in seeing that they all have their own sonic textures. I’m really, really happy with the album, because I think you’re right — every song has its own identity. The whole point is that Tom was going to work on it until he got the best songs. And then each song was going to lead us in how it wanted to be done. I think we took it to a real interesting place.

Did you record this album in 24-bit/96kHz?

No. It was 24/48, because that’s native. We recorded the basic tracks at The Clubhouse. They go through Avid VENUE software, and that’s all set up for 48.

What’s your philosophy about hi-res recording?

My philosophy is: People should be listening to nothing else. There’s no excuse for people not to hear what we’re hearing when we make this music. There’s no excuse.

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.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Back when the 192 I/Os first came out, we did a shootout between analog tape, 24/48, 24/96, and 24/192. I remember liking 96 and 48, but not 192. I was trying to get more bite out of the guitars and vocals with 192, and I just couldn’t EQ into it. 192 just softened it. But for orchestral and more lush-sounding recordings, 192 is… pleasant.

The fact is, everything imparts a color. There is no such thing as colorless. Vinyl imparts a color, digital imparts a color, 24-bit imparts a color, 96k imparts a color. In the end, you just find the color you like the best, and you work with it.

Do you have any issues with “standard” recordings?

The issue is peak limiting. When you’ve got a world of people expecting a certain kind of level out of a CD, you have to use peak limiting. Your CD cannot be 6 dB quieter than someone else’s CD, so you have to use peak limiting. And peak limiting really is a thing that can make music fatiguing. All of our CDs are peak-limited, and we do the best job possible at it. But the reason why hi res sounds good is it doesn’t have that, and we’re able to make mixes not as loud.

This makes me think of how a track on Hypnotic Eye like Full Grown Boy displays a quieter groove than the song it follows, Red River. Hi res gives you the opportunity to truly get across that kind of textural shift.

The fact is, everything imparts a color. There is no such thing as colorless. Vinyl imparts a color, digital imparts a color.”

Absolutely. And we let that track [Full Grown Boy] sound a bit dark, too. The vocal is a bit funky-sounding on purpose. We wanted it to have a certain kind of sonic character. We weren’t really going hi-fi on everything; we went for whatever the song felt like it wanted to be.

Did any track reveal itself differently while you were working in hi res?

I think Red River is a good example, because that song went through several permutations. I love Red River because it’s got everything this album has. It starts out with the big riff Tom came up with, and when you hear the first chords of that song, it’s like “Wow” — there’s just something about it that really grabs your attention. A lot of the tunes on this album are written around big riffs — that is, you have a big riff, and then you have a vocal. That’s why the album is so powerful, because of the way Tom wrote the songs. He structured them where you have space for a big, loud guitar, and then you’ve got space for a vocal so they’re not fighting each other. That makes for a big, powerful record.

There’s a lot going on harmonically in that song. The chorus is pretty big, and the hi res allows you to “see” through it more; that’s the only way I can describe it.

I’d describe it as being able to hear the separation between the instruments and discern every element in the mix. It’s not all jumbled together.

Right; it’s kind of 3D. It’s more like Avatar, or something. (chuckles) You get more separation, even if the mix is really dense.

Hi res is really the best way to hear this album — especially on the Blu-ray version, which contains that great surround mix you did.

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.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Keyboardist Benmont Tench plays mellotron on a few tracks [Full Grown Boy, Sins of My Youth, and Shadow People]. How did you work that into the surround bed?

As with Mojo, I tended to keep the main guitars in the front, and I was able to bring Ben’s keys, organs, and mellotron a little bit more towards the rear. You have this wall of guitars in front of you, and then the keys pull off to the sides more. It’s a great way to hear the band. Ben is so integral to the sound, but he doesn’t jump out and say, “Hey, it’s me, it’s me.” Especially if you’re a fan of Benmont, you’ll better hear how he takes these textures and brilliantly weaves them into all the songs. If you didn’t have him there, it just wouldn’t be The Heartbreakers.

Your 5.1 mix makes me feel like I’m onstage or in the studio with the band, because Ben is physically situated off to the side in both scenarios.

Yes, exactly! That’s exactly right. It’s kind of like the band is onstage, but they’re a little bit more around you.

Ryan Ulyate
Ryan Ulyate Image used with permission by copyright holder

That’s what I like about the surround mixes you did for Mojo, The Live Anthology, and Damn the Torpedoes — these guys are right here with me. I’m a “partial” observer in the room with them, I guess you could say.

That’s great. I just want to stand up on my desk with a megaphone and say, “Buy the hi-res files on HDtracks! Buy the Blu-ray!” Because we very consciously wanted to make this an album. That’s another reason we didn’t make it run that long. We wanted to make it something digestible. If you notice the way the songs transition into one another, and all the segueways — even though Hypnotic Eye is not a “concept” album, we wanted it to be something you put on that takes you on a ride.

Mike Mettler
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mike Mettler is the music editor of Sound & Vision, where he also served as editor-in-chief for 7 years. His writing has…
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