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Ryan Hewitt is a GRAMMY Award-winning recording and mixing engineer who’s earned No. 1 records with Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Lumineers, blink-182, Little Big Town and more. With an impressive list of credits ranging from icons like Sheryl Crow, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Alkaline Trio, Hewitt has experience in a wide range of genres. Although the music always changes, one thing stays the same: Hewitt relies on his trusty Mojave mics to capture the sound he’s looking for.
Recently, we sat down with Hewitt to talk about his work on the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album—read on to learn what gear he used on the new record and some of his go-to mixing techniques.
How did you get started with recording and producing?
My father is a recording engineer. He did live recording on his remote truck before I was born. I started going on the road with him when I was 12 or 13 years old. I just wanted to be around dad, but I fell in love with music and being on the road and the whole recording scene. I started recording myself in one of my bands in high school, but unlike most people starting on a four-track in their basement, I started in my dad's studio with a Neve and a 24-track. I just skipped right to the state-of-the-art gear—I was quite spoiled at a young age in that regard.
I wound up going to school for electrical engineering, which made me want to go back to recording even more. But, at the behest of my father, I studied something outside the realm of recording engineering and went and worked with electronics and did the whole school thing, played in bands, did front-of-house for shows that came through this school and fraternities and stuff like that. I made this plan while I was in school to move to New York City after I graduated.
During the summers between my college years, I would go work for my father and then wound up getting an internship at Sony studios in New York, where I met Michael Brauer and became his assistant. I also got to do some jingle dates and film scores and all sorts of things. Soon, I got bit by the mixing bug, since we didn't do a lot of tracking at Sony.
I wound up working with some of my other mentors, like Phil Ramone and Elliot Scheiner. I learned so much about how to make records, how to behave in a studio, how to not only get sounds, but also performances out of people, how to encourage people, and how to bring the best out of the music and out of the musicians. I started learning a lot of different aspects of the music business from the very beginning of my career, which led to me starting to produce, engineer and mix on my own. Once I moved to Los Angeles in 2001, I met Rick Rubin, Jim Scott and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Here we are, 22 years later and I've just finished their latest album. I'm skipping a lot of details, but there’s been an organic buildup of my career through meeting people, diving in and getting into the right rooms at the right times. I feel extremely grateful that I got to experience so many different aspects of the music business and continue to do so. It's definitely been quite a ride.
What is it like growing up in a mobile recording studio?
It was wild, man. It's everything you have in a regular recording studio, packed into a truck. Some things are different though—instead of cleaning toilets, I cleaned fuel tanks and washed the truck. I still did coffee runs, though—I'll never forget running for coffee during a U2 show on the Rattle and Hum tour, going backstage and seeing Larry Mullen Jr.
It was similar to a traditional recording studio in the sense that every day was different. I grew up in suburban New York and then moved out to the country in Pennsylvania, so we were primarily based on the East Coast, but we still worked with all sorts of different artists. One day we’d be recording Jon Bon Jovi at The Capital Center in DC, the next day would be an orchestral recording at Carnegie Hall, followed by a jazz date at The Village Vanguard.
Those are just some of my childhood memories of running around with my dad in the truck. We were schlepping cables across the curb, rolling cases in the door, setting up and tearing down. I started working 20-hour days when I was 13. We’d be up at 6 AM, drive to the gig, load in, do the show, tear it all down, test the recording, back it up and head back to the hotel by 2 AM. It was quite an experience. Honestly, the biggest thing I got out of working in the mobile truck was my work ethic. You had no time to screw things up.
My dad always said, “There’s no second chance.” Everything had to be set up perfectly, with fail-safe options in case something did break. You had to make sure you had spare parts on hand, have a backup plan in case of problems and be very quick on the draw. I've been able to take a lot of that knowledge into the studio with great results.
Tell me about your current studio setup.
I spent years working on analog consoles and tape machines and that sort of stuff. But about 15 years ago, I built my own studio for mixing and doing overdubs that was based around a hybrid system with Pro Tools, a summing bus and a bunch of outboard gear. I’d been working like that for quite some time, but when the pandemic hit, I decided I needed to be a little bit more mobile. I wanted to be able to travel and mix without being tied down to any one place, so I changed everything and went entirely in the box.
Right now, I do all of my mixing on a computer with a Universal Audio Satellite, a pair of speakers and a pair of headphones. The whole thing fits into a Pelican case at this point, so I’ve really streamlined things quite a bit. When people ask for multiple revisions on a mix, people don’t want to wait for you to recall your whole setup—you need to be able to make changes right away. Remote mixing is the norm now—most people don’t come to mixing sessions and they want to be able to make tweaks days, weeks or even months later, so working in the box just makes the most sense for me.
So, my personal setup is entirely computer-based, but for the latest Chili Peppers record, they wanted to record and mix the whole thing analog. We wound up using an SSL G+ console mixing down to an Ampex half-inch tape machine—we actually mastered from the tape straight to the vinyl, too! I'm happy to do whatever the client wants to do, you know?
When did you first start using Mojave mics?
If I remember correctly, I got my first Mojave mic in 2005. I was doing a solo record with Glen Hughes, the bassist from Deep Purple. Chad Smith from the Chili Peppers was producing it and there was no budget, so we decided to record it at his house—he had this massive, great-sounding living room at his house in Hollywood. So, we set up the drums in the living room, put the amps in a couple of closets and borrowed a couple of Neve BCM10 consoles from Jim Scott and set up a control room in the pool table room for this guerilla recording session.
At the time, I was using this technique I learned from Dave Way, where you put a couple of large diaphragm condensers in front of the drum kit instead of over the top. I tried the Mojave MA-200 mics and they sounded great—honestly, that’s probably 70% of the drum sound for that record. I basically used kick, snare and those two front mics on Chad, who’s one of the most dynamic, powerful, loud and forceful players on the planet. I just fell in love with that sound.
Of course, that approach won’t work on every record or with every drummer, but it worked really well for that session. I did the exact same thing years later on Chad’s Bombastic Meatbats record More Meat, which we recorded in my Venice Beach loft in 2009 or so.
What is it about Mojave mics that you love so much?
They have a familiar sound—it feels like there's nothing getting in the way with their minimalist circuit design. The cool thing about Mojave as a company is that David Royer is a genius. Plus, they make microphones at several different price points that all sound great. Generally, inexpensive condenser mics don’t sound good to my ear. Even though the MA-200 mics are in that price range, they sound like real microphones. There’s no ringing in the capsule or harsh high-end. They sound great and they always get the job done. They’re super durable and they last forever.
They have a ton of different options to choose from—there are FET mics, tube mics, large diaphragm mics, small diaphragm mics, multi-pattern mics, and single-pattern mics. I’ve got a couple of MA-300 mics, an MA-1000 and an MA-37 that I love. Mojave just makes really quality mics with quality parts. They really believe in their product and that’s a good feeling.
You mentioned that you’re a big fan of the MA-37—what is it about that mic in particular that you like?
I love the original C-37 and C-38 mics—I actually have a few of those. So when Dusty at Mojave told me they were working on the MA-37, I said, “You gotta get me one of those.” I was lucky enough to get one of the prototypes while I was doing this Chile Peppers record. Unfortunately, it was sort of late into the recording process, but I was able to use it on some guitars and synths that we put through amps.
We also recorded a horn section with it—I always loved the C-37 on horns so I wanted to do a comparison with one of my vintage models and the difference was negligible. Of course, each of the vintage mics have their own unique sound, but the MA-37 is right there in the ballpark. It’s warm and full-sounding yet detailed. Plus, it’s brand new, so you don’t have to worry about it breaking or running into power supply issues like you do with a vintage unit. I’m all about it—it’s become one of my go-to mics. I used it on a bunch of stuff with the Chili Peppers, too.
What are some of your favorite pieces of outboard gear?
My mix bus is typically the same whether I’m working in or out of the box, which is an SSL or Smart bus compressor and the Chandler Curve Bender. I use the plug-in versions when I’m mixing in the box and the analog versions when I’m mixing on the desk. The compressor gives me the smack that I’m looking for in a rock and roll mix, while the EQ imparts a cool tone and helps add clarity. They really make the record sound like a finished mix and glue everything together. Other than that, the 1176 is probably my favorite compressor for just about anything else.
So you feel plug-ins are pretty comparable to their analog counterparts these days?
Well, if you’re trying to emulate, it’s never really going to be exactly the same, is it? I don’t really bother with comparing plug-ins with analog designs—I just know that when I put a Universal Audio 1176 plug-in on something, it does what I want it to do.
I have just about every emulation plug-in on the market and some of them sound great in and of themselves. It doesn’t really matter if they sound exactly like what they’re emulating, as long as they do something cool and feel good to use. The only thing I’m worried about is whether it sounds good or not. That’s how I choose which plug-ins I use. There are a lot of plug-ins out there that sound original and unique, with their own character. Others are like Swiss army knives, like the FabFilter EQ and multi-band compressor. They’re just tools to get the job done and mold your mix.
Mixing in the box can be fun but it can also be overwhelming because you have so many options. If you’ve got too many plug-ins on something, it’s probably not right. But if you keep it simple, you can mix quickly. Plug-ins are a blessing because you can have like 20 of them set up at a time. I have a bunch of delays and reverbs with different settings in my templates so I can experiment with different sounds quickly, whereas in a studio, you might only have one or two reverb sounds to choose from.
For example, if you only have one 1176, what are you going to use it on? I have an unlimited number of 1176 compressors now. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know, but people still love my mixes. If it’s a great song, whether it's mixed in the box or on a desk is superfluous.
What’s your approach to recording drums and why?
It depends on the music: I've recorded drums with two mics and I've recorded drums with 22 mics. It really just depends on who I'm working with and what their objective is. If I'm working with someone who's constantly changing their mind, I'm gonna put up a lot of mics. But, if I put up a lot of mics, they've all got to sound great and be in phase. They’ve got to work together. You can't just put something up and not listen to it—I don't believe in that.
With the Chili Peppers, for example, it's sort of a standard rock setup: kick in, kick out, snare top and bottom, toms, cymbals, hi-hat, some room mics, and usually a distortion mic under the snare, which I actually never used. It was cool, but that band doesn't need that sound.
You have to be aware of what you're doing and bring the character of the band to the forefront. I know a lot of people who just want to do their thing, regardless of what they're working on. But for me, I'm more interested in making the band sound like the band. They don't need to sound like me.
My drum setup is completely variable based on the music. On a John Frusciante solo record, we put two mics on the drums so they would sound a certain way. For blink-182, I used a totally different setup from Chad Smith. And the country record that I do is gonna be totally different from all that. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to be aware of the end game and what you want the result to be.
I'll work with a band to get the sound they want. Say there’s a band who wants a very dry and thick sound, I'll mic that in a totally different way. I might go for ribbon mics on a certain drummer versus condenser mics on another. Sometimes I use an X/Y configuration for overheads, other times I’ll use a ribbon blumlein pair and sometimes I’ll use a spaced pair. It really depends on the end game and on the drummer.
There are two guys who I record in Nashville all the time, Jerry Roe and Fred Eltringham, and they set up their drums completely differently. You get a completely different sound out of them and you’ve got to mic them differently.
Jerry sets his kid up really wide so his cymbals are spread around and you can get a lot of separation between the cymbals and the drums, so I mic him using a spaced pair, and maybe a mono overhead to pull it together. Fred sets his drums up real tight and small, so an X/Y setup over his kit sounds way better and actually creates more space. You’ve got to approach things based on what you're hearing and where you're going.
With Chad Smith, I tried an X/Y configuration over him and it sounded terrible. It was so small sounding because his kit is high and wide. We weren't getting the detail and width of his kit. So I wound up going with a spaced pair of AKG C12s and that's just the sound of Chad Smith playing on a Chili Peppers record.
Do you have a go-to signal chain for recording vocals, or do you use a different approach every time?
Different singers are going to emote differently, so you have to know what that singer sounds like in the room and what they want to sound like coming out of the speakers. Is it going to be a dry record or a wet record? My approach to those things is going to vary.
For instance, with aggressive rock vocals, I’ll typically use a dynamic mic and some kind of burly preamp that I can distort if I want, into a compressor that I can smash. On the Chili Peppers record, I used a Shure SM 7, into a Neve 1073 preamp and a UA 1176. It's hard to go wrong with that for a rock record. I've also got an SM 5 that I think sounds even better than the SM 7, but if someone wants to be able to hold the mic, you can't use that one because it's got this big cage around it. But on a crooner, you're going to use a big mic that they'll sing further away from.
So with Harry Connick Jr, I used a C12 from a couple of feet away through my branch channel strip with no EQ and just a tiny bit of compression to help sort of reign in some peaks. You have to use something that works for that person's voice and pay attention to harmonic distortion and top-end edginess.
Every singer can have different nodes or resonances in their voice. Like, Seth and Scott Avett have this kind of raspy 2.5k sound, which is accentuated if you use the wrong mic. But if you use the right mic, it just falls in line with the spectral balance of their voice. It's highly specific, I think.
Those are sort of two of my favorite chains though: the Shure SM 7 into a Neve 1073 and UA 1176, maybe followed by a Tube-Tech CL 1B. For a big sound, I would use a big condenser mic, like the MA-1000. That mic is incredible, I've used it a lot with some nice, smooth tube channels.
What's a typical day like in the studio for you?
Well, if it's a mix day, I sit down and warm up my ears by listening to something fun, something that I'm familiar with. I don't do that all the time, but if I’m inclined, I'll sometimes just listen to a bunch of stuff to get me in a mood. But typically, I just sit down and start mixing. I try to take frequent breaks because it provides perspective on the mix. If I hit a wall, I just walk away and instead of trying to deconstruct my mix and backtrack.
If it's a tracking date, I'm there super early, making sure everything's set up, phase checking mics and making sure everything's working. I’ll get all of the headphones mixes together and test everything out. On a typical tracking date, I'm there three to four hours before the band because I like getting my hands dirty with stuff: setting up mics, getting the Pro Tools session together or tape machine aligned or whatever.
At the end of the day, I have a post-game where I make sure everything is correct, backed up, or sent off if the client needs rough mixes. It just depends on what the mission is for that day, but I like to work hard and bring my A-game every time I come into the studio. I feel like you have to, otherwise, you're unemployed. No attitude, check your ego at the door. We're there to have fun and we have to remember that if we're not having fun, what are we doing?
Are there any exciting projects that you're working on right now that you're able to talk about?
Well, the most exciting thing is that I'm building a Dolby Atmos studio. I’m throwing my hat into the Atmos world. I've been having a bunch of fun with that and there are a bunch of exciting projects coming up that I can't really talk about yet.
I'm working with this young artist named Noah Kahan and we're mixing his record right now with some really talented people involved. I'm super excited about that. The first single, “Stick Season” just came out a couple of weeks ago and it’s doing really well. I think that they're gonna drop another song pretty soon, and I have no idea when the record's coming out. The Atmos mix on that one is going to be incredible because the record has tons of space and was recorded beautifully.