Tom Petty producer Ryan Ulyate backs hi-res audio
Hi-res audio has a major artist on board, releasing his remastered music catalog in a big way.
Music shouldn't always be loud. Shout the melody — and fans of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers will name the hit tune. Soft and loud — think background harmonies, or hand claps — those details are what Petty and producer Ryan Ulyate don't want listeners to miss. It's why a remastered catalog of Petty & The Heartbreakers — with a vastly expanded dynamic range — was just released on Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez and why Petty himself appears in an accompanying video explaining the benefits.
Producer Ryan Ulyate (left) and Engineer Chris Bellman, of Bernie Grundman Mastering
We asked Ulyate to elaborate and share his thoughts on the hi-res remasters and hi-res audio in general. Put simply, he says, hi-res best reveals the work, time and expense spent crafting superior audio.
Q — Who approached Tom with the idea about converting his catalog to hi-res?
“It started last year before Hypnotic Eye came out. Both Universal and Warner Bros. (the catalog is split) wanted to redo and master it for iTunes. I worked with Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering and we had the tapes sent there. Chris and I spent some time going through all the tapes, which were remastered at 24 bit, 44.1 kHz. We had already gone through one level of mastering and since the tapes were there, at that point, I believe it was Universal who said, why not do them in hi-res? Warner was contacted and at some point everyone thought it was a good idea.
“The second motive is preserving the legacy of this music. No one knows how long the tapes are going to last.”
Q — What was Tom and the band's reaction after hearing the hi-res version?
“I played Tom the first album, (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, their self-titled debut released in 1976). He heard stuff he never heard before — he was going 'Oh, that's right, we did little hand claps there, that's right. … Oh, did you hear the background harmony there?' You can hear inside the music more. He heard, and is thrilled with that.”
Q — Had you been a high-res enthusiast previous to this project?
“I've been telling people that if you have a really good vinyl system, it behooves you to get a dedicated music server and utilize that (analog playback) system for hi-res. Don't have a (computer) that you do your taxes on and send e-mail, where you keep music files. Create a ‘hi-res only’ library on a dedicated machine— that's the way to go. If you want portability, get one of the new portable players and some good headphones. Listen through the signal chain and make sure the headphone amp is powerful enough to drive the phones that you like. If it isn’t, then you can also add a portable headphone amp.”
“A lot of what people don't like about (digital) is (songs) are made loud because of the compression. We don't do any of that, hi-res files are mastered a lot quieter than for CDs — you can have dynamic response and transient response. Transient response (the ability to faithfully reproduce sudden sonic peaks) is a big, big deal to me. When a snare drum hits, if you look at the waveform, you'll see a spike. That's the full transmission of the instrument through the loudspeaker. When music (is compressed) all the spikes have been chopped off. There's no impact. The music sounds flat and one-dimensional.”
“I've been on the (hi-res) train for a while. I think we started with — it was 2008 that we started putting Tom Petty albums on Blu-ray, and we used Blu-ray as a hi-res medium. We did stereo and 5.1 mixes. I wanted to do it in 5.1 to create more value for someone buying a disc like that.
Q — Is hi-res audio mastering likely to grow more popular?
“The great thing about this is that if you want to hear exactly how (the music) was made, you'll buy the hi-res version. Or if you want something that fits into your iTunes library for when you hit the 'shuffle' button on your iPod or iPhone, you'll buy the MP3 version, which is louder. I think you really need to play it on a good system to hear the difference.”
Q — What's the future potential for hi-res downloads in a music landscape dominated by streaming?
“That's a really good question. For me, I like having something tangible. I still have my vinyl and I still own CDs. There's nowhere near the fidelity with streaming that there is with hi-res. It's not there; it might be there one day. The reason vinyl has had a resurgence is that there's a certain ritual to it. It's getting the record out of the sleeve and laying it on the turntable, putting the needle down and sitting back. I would love to have hi-res have that same kind of experience. For me it is the same thing — sitting down and paying attention. To me it's about paying attention.”
Q — For listeners who have a great hi-res system, how close will these Tom Petty files sound to what you and Tom heard in the control room during playback?
“They're exactly the same. In the case of the newer albums they are the same thing. Starting with Mudcrutch (released in April 2008), we've recorded all digitally; we record in Pro Tools. Everything you're hearing is what we're hearing.
“At a certain point analog tapes did degrade. When making an album (in analog) it was not uncommon for the sound to change — the high frequencies get dulled down because you've played (the tapes) too many times over the heads. I love the sound of analog, but digital is getting a lot better. Digital, for editing and workflow, makes recording an album much more creative.”
Q — Can you give us an example?
“When we were recording Hypnotic Eye I got a call one evening from Tom and he said 'Hey, can you come over? I've been working and I've written a line that goes much better in 'Burnt Out Town,' —which is on the album. So I went to his house, we put up a mike, he sang the line and we dropped it in, in less than minute. That technology made a better record because he was able (to do it) and it was easy to do. The analog world isn't like that.”
Q — Is there a comparison between vinyl that's been mastered from a digital source and hi-res digital?
“Vinyl imparts a beautiful character that is pleasant and can sound great when it comes from a digital source. I still think the thing that's really great about this, like Tom said, is you work really hard to make (a recording) sound a certain way. And this (hi-res) is the first time a listener can hear it the way it was made. I don't think we have to compromise now. If you want to hear what the artist intended, and what the artist was listening to, this is the way to go.”