By Greg Cahill
“In making records, everything informs everything else,” says Ryan Hewitt, when asked about what considerations go into a successful post-production phase. Hewitt is an A-list producer and mixing engineer who has worked on rock, pop, and country projects by Johnny Cash, Brandi Carlile, the Dixie Chicks, the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers, and many others. Most recently, he produced, engineered and mixed the critically acclaimed When You’re Ready (Compass) by bluegrass guitarist and Americana artist Molly Tuttle. The album features fiddler Brittany Haas and a host of other string players.
Successful post-production, he says, starts before the artist even enters the studio. “The first time I heard Molly play live was at a 2017 Christmas party for her record label, Compass Records. It was in a small room with about 50 people in attendance. It just blew my mind,” he recalls, during a phone call from his Universal Music Studios in Nashville. “I was just, like, ‘Oh, my god, this girl has talent!’
After their initial encounter, Hewitt and Tuttle began conversing about music. “I wanted to know what had influenced her and what she was listening to now, because she doesn’t only listen to acoustic bluegrass music. We also bonded over Blink-182 and some of the punk-rock stuff she likes and that I had worked on earlier in my career. So pulling from all these different aspects of music and art helped me to get an idea what she was going for in the recording project.
“In this case, I made just a couple of rules: no pedal steel and no banjo because Molly didn’t want to make a strictly bluegrass record. She loved the idea and that kept us from going back to that idea later on and saying, ‘Oh, we should have put a banjo on that.’ Instead, we flexed our creative muscle to come up with other ideas.”
Of course, the boom in DIY software has led to a revolution in the recording industry, but artists often find self-production to be challenging. Hewitt offers up ways in which a professional producer can help solve tricky issues that arise while recording, and especially during post-production.
“The biggest advantage of hiring an outside producer is getting an outside perspective on the project, whether it’s song selection, tempo, key, augmentation of additional musicians, or post-production ideas,” he says. “It’s having someone who can help organize everything, so the musician or musicians can concentrate on delivering their best songs and their best performances.”
Once an artist, string band, or string ensemble has chosen repertoire, worked out arrangements, and balanced the interplay of the instruments and vocals, they’re usually ready to begin the actual recording process. But few performing artists have experience with mixing the tracks (setting the final balance between instruments and vocals, and adding reverb or other special effects), selecting final takes, or sequencing an album—skills that are required for a successful post-production phase.
“Post-production is as important as any other phase, since you are working on mixing the tracks, sequencing the songs, and all of that. In terms of post-production, I like to mix all of the songs and then present those mixes to the artist—that’s where I’ve settled in the world of mixing mayhem,” Hewitt says. “The main problem that young or novice artists will come across is to go down the rabbit hole of details that are not necessarily important to the overall aesthetic of the song. I’ve had friends who are mixing engineers who will get up to version ten, 11, 12, or 17 because the artists aren’t really sure what they’re supposed to be listening for, so they pick out all the ‘bad’ things. But if the mixer and the producer make things the way they know they should be, after being hired by the artist, and then present those mixes, there is less opportunity for nit-picking.
“The artist can then see the body of work for what it is and focus on the overall aesthetic.”
Tuttle made just a single note after hearing the first mix of When You’re Ready, requesting that Hewitt bring the acoustic guitar to the forefront to make the aesthetic less rocking.
“I didn’t take that personally at all,” Hewitt says. “She thought the change was great and then added a handful of little things. There was no obsessing over stuff, no crazy debate about this versus that. I had the same experience when I mixed the Avett Brothers [featuring cellist Joe Kwon]. Producer Rick Rubin and I presented that album [2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion] as a whole. Their note was, ‘We’re not too crazy about that shaker on the bridge of this song. Otherwise, let’s move on.’”
Creating arrangements that allow the instrumentation to serve the song or to respect the vocals is essential. One thing Hewitt tells players of acoustic instruments is to consider the role of the instrument in the song before you decide how to record it. “If it’s a solo thing, then there’s a different way to record it than if it’s part of an ensemble,” he says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all—or one microphone fits all—concept for recording.”
Song selection—choosing the tracks that will be on the completed album—is an important part of post-production and an aspect of the recording process that needs to begin early. “I firmly believe that you have to cut more songs than you need because you never know where things are going to go on a record,” Hewitt says. “You might have a song that you think is the greatest thing in the world, but once you get in the studio it might fall down and disappoint a little bit. Rather than get agitated or freaked out, it’s better to have extra material.
“You can always use the extra material later.”
For the When You’re Ready sessions, Tuttle came in with 25 songs, some more fleshed out than others. Together she and Hewitt whittled that down to 14 songs. The main thing, Hewitt adds, is to “pick songs that are complimentary to each other and that can exist in the same space. Though the album as it has been known as a format is essentially dead, due to downloading and streaming of single songs, there’s an art form to putting together the groove and the flow of an album.”
How the Turtle Island Quartet Found Consensus
Coming to an agreement on a particular mix can be a difficult process for a string ensemble or string band. “It’s definitely one of the more thorny aspects of making a CD,” says David Balakrishnan, first violinist with the Turtle Island Quartet. “In our case, we have gone through different phases over the years.”
For their two recent Azica label projects, produced by Alan Bise, the Turtles blocked out several days in a hall and recorded live to a multi-track recorder. As a result, the sound of each player’s instrument would “bleed through” to one another’s mics, making it difficult to completely separate the instruments in the mix. “So there was not too much control mixing in post-production,” he says. “It was more about editing from several takes. Then, once assembled, through some small adjustments, there was mixing at the end of that process.”
In that regard, the key to success lay in pre-production. “We do much of our balancing levels on the first day of recording—us playing a take and then going into the room and listening back, and working out an approach that we’re all OK with, with myself as the group leader and Alan as the producer having the final say,” Balakrishnan says. “Unless we hit a serious logjam, we go for a consensus arrived at through discussion in the control room. Except for very few instances, I will defer to Alan as the person who has the most objective viewpoint.”
“After that, most of the elbow grease goes into assembling the music through the post-recording editing process, which typically will take three to four months of back and forth. Alan starts us off by going through all the takes and puts up an initial version that works for him, and then sends that to us via email file transfer. I have found myself more able to step back from being too caught up in my own opinion. In the beginning of the quartet’s recording career, I was much more interested in having control because our approach was so new and I didn’t want to get corralled into the classical producing style or the jazz style either, for that matter.
“But that has changed, along with the technology now allowing for so much more latitude, and which at the same time demands more expertise in terms of how to use those tools effectively.”