HOLLYWOOD: Last weekend at Universal Mastering, mixer/engineer Ryan Hewitt (The Avett Brothers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlisle) led the first of what is to be many Master Classes focusing on the art of engineering and mixing records. It was the inaugural Studio Prodigy Master Class, a new educational series Hewitt created with partner Hanson Hsu of Delta H Designs, and sponsorship from Tonelux, Universal Audio, Burl, Chandler Limited, Sterling Modular, Royer, and SoundToys.
Studio Prodigy has been in the works for some time. According to Hewitt, it took meeting Hsu to really get things underway:
“I’d talked to a handful of people about this over the years, and everyone said ‘You should really do that!’, but no one really offered me any help or guidance. When I met Hanson, I told him about this idea and he was really excited about it. It was also the perfect fit for the ZR acoustics rooms at Universal Mastering where you can sit anywhere and hear exactly what’s going on up front.”
Hewitt developed the Studio Prodigy series to provide a mentorship/learning experience he saw falling off in the recording industry.
“The opportunities for learning from the great engineers of our time are rapidly disappearing with the advent of ‘professional’ home studios,” he notes. “It’s become more difficult to be able to pass down knowledge, and since that was how I learned everything, through my father and my mentors that I assisted for years, I had to find another way to share my knowledge.”
Studio Prodigy 101
For those that haven’t had the opportunity to learn through tried-and-true channels, the Internet has become the go-to resource to learn about engineering and mixing. To put it lightly – it is not, however, always the friendliest or most-informed arena for those who need real assistance.
Like Hewitt, I was lucky enough to learn how to mix by assisting a successful mixer (Bob Brockman) for many years – I still remember what a revelation it was for me when I watched him mix for the first time, so much of what had seemed mysterious to me before became instantly clear. What I learned in countless sessions over the years I cannot imagine coming close to learning online, in video tutorials, or in a classroom.
Studio Prodigy, for me, felt like being back in a familiar ‘assisting’ situation (without having to stay late printing mixes and writing recalls). Being able to listen to what someone does, and hear the choices they’re making, is huge when you’re learning how to mix, and here, we had the added bonus of being able to ask a lot of questions during the process – something that it is usually not possible in the midst of a “real” session.
For Saturday’s class, Hewitt brought in a song he had recently mixed for singer/songwriter Dan Wilson’s (Semisonic, Adele) latest album. He worked through it the way he would a typical mix session: focusing on getting sounds for individual elements, leveling things out roughly, and then “turning on” the automation and riding the faders.
Hewitt likes to start off with drums, and had some cool tools he likes to use. One thing that specifically stood out to me was his Aphex 201, an older rack-mount aural exciter he used for adding some subharmonic information to the kick drum. A modern digital equivalent of this tool is the Waves Renaissance Bass plug-in. Either way – hardware or software – this is a great way of adding low-end that isn’t quite there, and a great way to not be forced to incorporate samples, which, to my delight, Ryan noted he is “morally opposed” too.
One of the key points Hewitt made throughout the session is simply that there are many ways to achieve stellar results, and that his way is no more right or wrong than another; the tools are far less important than the person using them. Of course, it takes some experience to have the confidence to make some of those decisions, but remembering the old adage “if it sounds good, it is good” is really important to keep in mind, especially if one has formed the impression that having racks upon racks of expensive analog gear is necessary for “pro” results. Better tools definitely make the job easier, but not having all the best options doesn’t prevent a good end product; in fact, being forced to find creative solutions often can make for a better end result.
And, like some of the other Master Classes out there, like Mix With the Masters, Studio Prodigy is not just for beginners. There were a wide diversity of people in attendance to this inaugural session, some with many years of experience as engineers, some composers, hobbyists, and studio owners. Still, there was something for everyone to take away as the day went by, from the philosophical, to things as simple as a preferred equalizer or compressor for a given instrument.
The specific macro concept, however, was in demonstrating the modern practice of mixing with a hybrid of traditional analog gear, and in-the-box methods. In Hewitt’s case, his setup allows for 16 channels of analog inserts and 16 channels of analog output fed into a summing mixer. As we saw during the session, while this allows for plenty of analog options, there were still many plug-ins engaged in the digital domain…once again the results super-ceding what many may consider the “right” way of doing things.
While in general we as engineers have accepted the hybrid method as de facto at this point, it’s always great to see someone else’s way of employing it. There are many different approaches, allowing for a very unique personalization of workflow.
Overall, it is safe to say that the first Studio Prodigy session came off as an unqualified success. When the cost of other programs of this nature are taken into account, the $500 price point does not seem excessive, especially given the access and attention available to each attendee…not to mention that the unbelievable quality of the listening environment makes it easy to hear every detail. Personally, I really enjoyed the opportunity to check out someone else’s workflow, which along with Ryan’s humble attitude and genuine desire to share his knowledge, made for a rewarding day in the studio.