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Ryan Ulyate On The Brilliance Of Tom Petty And Reworking His Classic Hits

‘It was emotional, there are some real strong songs that I’ve lived with, and certainly, everyone else has, for a long time.’

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Tom Petty and Ryan Ulyate - Photo: Chase Simpson
Tom Petty and Ryan Ulyate - Photo: Chase Simpson (Courtesy of UMe)

Engineer/producer Ryan Ulyate has been a fixture in all things Tom Petty in the 21st century, whether Petty was solo, with The Heartbreakers, or in his reunited pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch. Since Tom’s 2017 passing, Ulyate’s been the vault master bringing archival Petty projects into the world. In reworking Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits in Dolby ATMOS sound, he’s managed his trickiest task to date: creating a new way to experience the Petty classics forever embedded in millions of heads and hearts.

Listen to Tom Petty: Greatest Hits (ATMOS), out now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did the experience of revisiting the Greatest Hits album differ from going back to the Wildflowers sessions or the American Treasure box in terms of what you encountered emotionally once you started working on it?

Well, that’s a really good question. Since these are the big, treasured songs inside everybody’s heart, I felt especially duty-bound to make sure that I gave them respect and treated them with care. So, it was certainly a high honor to do it, as it is to do anything with Tom and his catalog. But these ones especially were kind of the crown jewels, so to speak. So, I felt it was really incumbent on me to get this right, take my time, make sure I didn’t miss anything, and just give this extra special music the attention it deserved. And it was emotional. I mean, there are some real strong songs that I’ve lived with, and certainly, everyone else has, for a long time.

Can you explain basically what Dolby ATMOS and immersive sound actually are?

It’s a multi-channel playback format that’s available in the world of speakers, and it’s also available in headphones. In speakers, what you do is you put some speakers in front of you, behind you, and above you, and you move the sounds that normally come out of two speakers in stereo, and you have more places to put the sounds that make up the songs, and the individual tracks.

That puts the listener more in the middle of the music than looking at it, or at a distance from it when it’s coming out of two speakers because the music is coming out all the way around them. So, it’s called immersive audio, and it is immersive. It is an immersive experience. With speakers and with headphones, they have ways of encoding these decisions you make. Let’s say I decide, “Oh, I want to put this guitar up high in the high speakers, and then I want to put this backing vocal behind me in the rear surround speakers. And I want to put the vocal here, and I want to move all these instruments.” When you then translate that to headphones – and there are two ways of doing it, Dolby has a system, and Apple has a different system – the effect is it takes those decisions that you made when you placed them in speakers, and it replicates those decisions with two speakers coming into your headphones.

Were there any surprises you encountered when you started working on this project and diving into the multi-tracks?

It’s a discovery because when you hear these songs, you hear them all as just this sound…layering this guitar with that guitar and how this works with this keyboard. Sometimes when you hear that on a record, you don’t really know what it is. It’s just this really cool sound. But when you break it apart and you go, “Oh look, it’s this one 12-string here playing this little riff here. And then they doubled that with a six-string, and Benmont [Tench, Heartbreakers keyboardist] played something on the piano,” and you see all the elements… I think it gave me more respect for the craftsmanship that went into these songs. Obviously, you’ve got what the songwriters are saying, but then you have to convey that musically. So, this was a really fun discovery of how those pieces got put together to make that song work and get it across.

Did you notice subtleties in the tracks that you hadn’t before?

Yeah, absolutely. For example, during the Jeff Lynne era, the songs that Jeff was producing with Tom and Mike [Campbell, Heartbreakers guitarist] – “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin,’” and “Running Down a Dream” – those have a lot of layering in them. It just sounds like a powerful guitar when you’re hearing it, but it’s actually like three guitars. It was really fun to see the way those songs were constructed. When you hear them back in the immersive mix, you get to hear all these elements come together in a really interesting way.

What do you think Tom would’ve said if he could hear this?

I’ve had several moments where I’ve been in there playing it back, and I was going, “Man, I wish he was around. I wish he was here. I wish he could hear this because I know he would love it.” He was a believer in music. That was his life. That was the most important thing. And so, any way you can experience that deeper, he would be into. We were always trying to find new, more profound ways of expressing it. That’s what I think the great artists do. They’re always going forward. And I know he would’ve heard this and just loved it because it’s so compelling. You sit there and listen to it, close your eyes, and it just transports you.

I know he had an organic approach to working, but he’s also the guy who famously rejiggered Damn the Torpedoes countless times before he finally cut it loose. How much attention did he pay to the sonics on the technical side of recording compared to the feeling and foundation of a track?

I think it was pretty well-balanced. I started working with Tom in 2003 or so, right before the Highway Companion album, which Jeff produced along with Tom and Mike, and I was the engineer on that album. And he was definitely into the layering of it.

During my first session with Tom, I was a little nervous: I was working for Jeff, and he said, “Hey, Tom’s going to come in, and he’s going to do a couple of songs.” It wasn’t like we were doing an album or anything like that. He was just going to come in and play around a little bit. He said, “We’ve got to get a guitar sound for him.”

So, I put up a mic and an amp, and I remember Tom came in with Bugs, Alan Weidel, his longtime roadie, equipment manager, and right-hand man. He picked up the guitar, played a little bit, and went, “I don’t like the sound of this guitar.” And I went, “Now I’m in trouble.” And he went, “Bugs, get me a different guitar.” And I thought, “Oh, thank God.” So, he was really into the nuances and subtleties of sound. I mean, “Sorry, not this Stratocaster; I want the ’59 Stratocaster with the maple neck, not the ’61 with the rosewood neck,” so he was very dialed into all that stuff.

I’ve seen the band’s old rehearsal space with the countless guitars surrounding them.

It was so fun to make records there. We did both of the Mudcrutch albums there. And we did Mojo there, and we did Hypnotic Eye there. It was so fun to go, “Nah, not that [guitar]. Let’s try that one over there. Just way up at the top.” It was just so fun being able to play with all those different colors.

What were those Mudcrutch sessions like?

It was the full band, and we were going for everything absolutely live on the floor. We had just turned Tom’s Clubhouse into a recording space. It’s where they used to rehearse. They were used to playing there and jamming or running down some songs before they went on tour. But they never really recorded there. So, we turned it into a recording room, but with the idea that we would still keep them playing live without headphones.

I was able to record it because they didn’t play that loudly. I could get enough isolation to where I could record it without them having to wear headphones. And that meant there was more of an organic feel to it. They didn’t feel like they were making a record, they were just playing the songs down, and I was kind of secretly making a record in the other room. They were able to get back to a certain kind of roots. And there was a kind of joy in that music and in that album because of that.

Where was Tom more in his comfort zone, in that kind of situation or building something up piece by piece?

I think he was comfortable with whatever way, really. He wanted to write good songs and make good records. And I think he knew there was no one way to do anything. So sometimes it’s fun to do it the way that Jeff would do it, kind of building things up, and sometimes it’s fun just to play it down and just let it rip. I think as we moved on from the Mudcrutch album, we adopted a little bit more of the live approach for sure. Mojo was very live. And then Hypnotic Eye was a little bit more of a hybrid.

Can you single out a couple of cuts on the Greatest Hits that you think sound the best in ATMOS?

“Breakdown,” I particularly like. That’s from the first album, and it’s real spare. The immersive mix really puts you inside of it. In a funny way, I think it’s more intimate with the immersive mix. Because you’re in this thing, you’re listening to Tom sing, and there’s some guy behind you snapping his fingers. The minimalism of that song and the economy and simplicity of it is what make it so powerful. And that comes across really well in the immersive mix.

Obviously, songs like “Refugee” and “Even the Losers” from the [producer] Jimmy Iovine era, those are just such great songs anyway. You just get to live inside them a little bit more. When you hear it in immersive, Benmont’s organ is a little bit behind you, and the guitar’s in the front. And it’s like you’re sitting in the room with them in the studio when they’re making the record. So that’s really great. But [“Refugee”] is just such perfection in terms of the way that it was put together, the way it was produced, Jimmy and Shelly Yakus, the engineer – what they did with their sound. And you can hear it; it goes up to a different level when you get to those tracks. Not only do you have the genius of Tom and Mike, Ben and Howie [Epstein], Ron [Blair], and Stan Lynch, you’ve got some amazing producers and engineers who contributed to the journey that Tom and the band were on.

When you’re reworking these tracks for ATMOS, do you have a specific goal in mind regarding where you want it to get to?

The goal I want to get to is I want it to be everything that you love about that thing and more. The real care I was talking about earlier is going back and listening to the original masters and ensuring that every decision reflects that. So, one thing I’ll do is I’ll work hard on getting my stereo mix to be as close to what they got as possible. Then I can start moving things around. But you’ve got to take the time to go back and make sure you have all those elements to begin with.

Sometimes it’s not just laid out as easily as you think. You’ve got to be a little bit of a detective. And I’m hoping I got it right, so there won’t be that fan that says, “Hey, there’s a tambourine that you missed on the third verse of ‘The Waiting,’ or whatever. I want to make sure I find all those little things, celebrate them, and get as close to the original intent of the team that made that thing. Then move it around and simply put people inside of it. I think the real joy is just being able to sit down and live inside this music.

So, is it correct to say that the tracks are both remixed and remastered for ATMOS?

Yeah, I guess you could say technically, I mastered it. Once I finished all the individual songs, I went back and made sure that they all flowed together. That’s one thing that was very important to Tom; he was a big fan of albums. He liked listening to an entire statement that a band or an artist would make in one go. Whenever he’d come up with some songs, we’d always be conscious, “Okay, well, this one’s going to be the first one. This one’s going to end Side One, and this one will be the first song on Side Two.” I think the Greatest Hits is pretty much a chronological journey, but still, the way those songs flow from one to another has got to be right. You can’t have one song that’s suddenly too quiet or there’s too much bass. It’s got to feel good going across the whole thing. I did my best to ensure that that was accounted for as well.

What have you learned about the ATMOS process?

My main thing is I don’t want to do anything that’s too crazy or distracting because Tom’s music doesn’t need that. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t need a bunch of stuff flying around the room or having vocals doing crazy stuff. You need to put people in the music and let it do the talking. So that’s my approach; because the music is so good that it takes care of itself.

What would be the difference in experience for someone hearing the Greatest Hits album in its original format versus the ATMOS version?

I think you’ll get the power of the song, honestly, whatever format you listen to it in. To be honest, you could hear it in some crappy little speaker, and if the artist does a good job, the song’s going to get to you. But I think the immersive thing makes it just feel more tangible. It’s like you can touch it a little bit more. It’s not one-dimensional. Maybe the analogy is the difference between watching it on TV and watching movies or IMAX. It’s still a great movie if you watch it on your TV at home. But when you see it on a big screen, it’s very impressive and hits you differently. So, I think the immersive has the potential to engage people in a deeper way. But it doesn’t make the music any different because the music, in the end, is the thing that hits you.

Listen to Tom Petty: Greatest Hits (ATMOS), out now.

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