Ryan Ulyate on Mixing Tom Petty's Wildflowers in Dolby Atmos Page 2

Mettler: I was thinking about that specifically when I was listening back to the hi-res version of "You Don't Know How It Feels." While I was listening to it, I visualized how the "Feels" video was shot from, essentially, a 360-degree view going on around a stationary Tom as he performs the song. I matched that visual to what I was hearing because it's a perfect fit for the Atmos version.

I also think Steve's drumming is especially revelatory on that track, because that was really one of the first times we had heard Tom with a different drummer besides Stan [Lynch, the earlier-noted original Heartbreakers drummer who left the band in October 1994]. It really stood out as, "Wow, this is a bed that Tom's been waiting to build off of for years."

Ulyate: That's right. Yeah, absolutely. And the Atmos just really highlights that aspect of it.

Mettler: I'd also say, right out of the box with a track like "Wildflowers" itself—I mean, talk about being minimalist, but that one sets the table for where I have a feeling I'm going to be literally in the Garden of Eden when that queues up in Atmos, you know? (both chuckle)

Ulyate: The fun thing about that track is that, in the bridges, there's an orchestral arrangement [the late, great composer/conductor] Michael Kamen had done. He did these really nice, subtle, George Martin-esque arrangements that are in "Wildflowers," and while they support the song in stereo, they just bloom in Atmos. You just hear it.

And I made a decision about the orchestra—the orchestra lives in the clouds. The orchestra is in the height speakers. When you're listening to "Wildflowers" and you get to that middle section, all of a sudden, the whole thing just lifts up—and it's beautiful.

Mettler: Oh, I love that. Since you mentioned the orchestra, I have to imagine the back half of "It's Good to Be King" is going to be quite fantastic, if the orchestra is in the clouds on the second part of that track.

Ulyate: Oh, "It's Good to Be King" is pretty epic! (laughs) It's pretty damn epic. It's great. It's one of my favorites, if not my favorite Tom song. And, yeah, you're right. You'll like the orchestra on "It's Good to Be King."

Mettler: What did you do with Mike Campbell's guitar solo on "King"?

Ulyate: I threw Mike up into the height speakers, and that's the only place the solo is coming from. It's just like, all of a sudden, there's the guitar.

Mettler: It's a new way of thinking.

Ulyate: It is. Like I said before, just to have a door open where, all of a sudden, it just pops up and pops out and it's like, "Wait—it sounds like there's a guy playing an electric guitar in the clouds!" What can be done with Atmos literally is endless. You can go anywhere.

Mettler: We have to talk about Steve Ferrone again here too.

Ulyate: Oh yes. I had isolated the drums when I was building the track up, and I just sat there and listened to the drum track for the whole song—and there's a certain kind of a swing on that track. Everything Steve plays in that track is just so right on the money, you know? I sent him a text and basically said to him, "I just listened to your isolated 'King' track, and you're a monster. You're just great." (laughs)

Mettler: I love hearing that. Steve's the one extra ingredient who takes things into a new stratosphere, quite literally. He made everything on the album that much better. Everybody just ups their game with him behind the kit.

Ulyate: If you know anything about Ferrone—a lot of times, if you look back there at him, he is usually always singing the song. And that's something. When the drummer's singing the song, that means he knows where he fits in, you know what I mean? He's not going to put a fill in the wrong place. That just shows me the dedication these guys had. The dedication they had in serving the song and serving Tom's vision was something else. And it's really, really spectacular how that comes through even more abundantly clear on the Atmos.

Mettler: Is there something in Atmos that surprised you, or a track that maybe changed because you got to give it extra dimension, so to speak?

Ulyate: Yeah. There's one track, "Don't Fade on Me," where we decided to use the alternate version. And in that version, it's just two guitars, a vocal, a harmony vocal, and a solo guitar. Not a whole lot is going on—but when you hear it, it's just spectacular.

I also decided to put the solo guitar up in the clouds. When the solo guitar shows up, it's once again like that thing I mentioned before—the clouds open up, the sun peeks through, and it's just like, "Woah!" It's kind of spiritual, you know?

Mettler: Yeah. I mean, you're literally taking us to "A Higher Place," to borrow another Wildflowers song title.

Ulyate: (laughs heartily) There you go, "A Higher Place." There's your title.

Mettler: "Ryan takes us to a higher place." (more laughter) Well, going back to 2014 or so when you guys started to work on expanding Wildflowers, did Tom give you any specific sonic instructions? What kind of conversations did you guys have about how this project was to unfold?

Ulyate: Well, we didn't have any conversations about surround. We were just concerned with putting together, as Tom called it, All the Rest.

Mettler: So, just to be clear, it was already called All the Rest at that point?

Ulyate: Yeah. We'd put the All the Rest disc together, and I think we might've completed it in 2014, or 2015. When we finished that disc, the second disc in the box set, Tom had sequenced it, and he had approved all the mixes. We had gone through everything. We had made that album, and finished it. At that point, we were just concerned about the "stereoness" of the songs. We weren't even thinking about a potential surround mix.

Mettler: Were there any sonic instructions he gave you like, "Let's make sure that we do BLANK"?

Ulyate: Well, some of these tracks were originally on the She's the One soundtrack [which was released in August 1996 as the companion audio for the film of the same name directed by Edward Burns].

Mettler: Right, like "California."

Ulyate: Right, and another particular one was "Hung Up and Overdue." Now, there was definitely a sonic conversation on that track, in that Tom didn't like the way the tracks were mixed on the She's the One album. He thought it was too rushed.

Mettler: Yeah, I think we all kind of felt like, "Oh, there seems to be something not quite finished here."

Ulyate: Exactly. On "Hung Up and Overdue," when we put the multitrack up, I'm like, "Who's doing all these great background vocals?" And Tom was like, "Oh, that's Carl Wilson [of The Beach Boys]." I go, "Hey, he sounds great. But why is he buried in the background?" Tom goes, "I don't know! We shouldn't bury them." I said, "No, let's not!"

So, one of the sonic discussions was, "More Carl Wilson, please!"—and we've achieved that. And, of course, in the Atmos version of that song—which is the last song on the All the Rest disc—you're gonna hear some great playing by Ringo [Starr, the legendary Beatles drummer], and you're gonna hear some great singing by Carl Wilson. And, like I tell people over and over, this is the one and only time you're going to hear a Beach Boy and a Beatle on the same Tom Petty track. (chuckles)

Mettler: Are there any strings on that track? What am I hearing there?

Ulyate: Well, no, there are no strings on "Hung Up and Overdue." There's some Mellotron and no actual strings, so that must be it.

But I can tell you that, with Carl's vocals, you'll get goosebumps. I mean, I did. I told both Adria [Petty, Tom's daughter] and Dana [Petty, Tom's wife] about this. I said, "I'm sitting in the middle of this room listening to this stuff, and I kinda teared up." And I don't usually do that. I was doing "House in the Woods," and I was just going, "This is so damn good! Tom would f'ing love this! Man, he would have loved this."

That just brought a tear to my eye. You get to hear something, listening to it this way in Atmos, that is spectacular. And I know that he just would have been like (exclaims loudly), "WHOA!" (laughs)


Mettler: What's the one specific, Tom-like phrase he would have said to you after listening to the Atmos mix? How would he have phrased it to you?

Ulyate: Let's see. (slight pause) "It's f---ing great." (both laugh heartily)

Mettler: Well, I'm not surprised. I've heard him say that before. (more laughter) Well, after listening to all 70 tracks here, you could just tell Tom and the guys knew they were on a roll. You could feel it.

Ulyate: And they worked very hard. If you listen to all of this stuff, you hear these guys are just doing exactly what you said—putting in that extra bit of energy to get that last take, to get that little bit of mojo or je ne sais quois, or whatever; that last little bit. They were always going for it with that drive and that dedication—to achieve something that's just higher and better than they've ever achieved. It just shows in all of this work.

Mettler: I agree. That makes me think of the acoustic version of "Cabin Down Below" that's on the Finding Wildflowers disc, where there's that DNA of how you can just tell this is going to even get better. Same thing with that disc's early version of "It's Good to Be King," which also turned out to be something else.

Ulyate: Yeah. That's a really cool, spacy version of it. Benmont [Tench, Petty's longtime keyboardist] always says, "It's like, 'Wow, I can hear my piano for the first time.'" (chuckles heartily)

Mettler: All these great things were just hiding away, like some of the honky-tonk piano that Benmont's got here and there. I also love the acoustic work on something on the second All the Rest disc where you could hear not just fingers on strings, but somebody tapping the guitar body on one of the acoustic intros. I think it might have been on "Climb That Hill Blues," right at the beginning.

Ulyate: Yeah, "Climb That Hill Blues" is probably it. That's where they do that little count-off. And that's another example of the kind of thing in Atmos where a song is wonderful, and it's actually really intense. It's basically two tracks. There are two mikes: vocal and guitar. That's it (chuckles)—but the fun thing is, as I already discovered, when I pulled the guitar track and started throwing it into the sub, it just picked up all this percussion. And all of a sudden, that guitar turned into this beast! (laughs)

Tom was playing with a lot of intensity on that track—and in Atmos, once again, it's just one of these things where it's something that's absolutely minimal. But the result, when you hear it, is really compelling.

Mettler: To wrap things up, let's rephrase my earlier "if you were king" comment. If the greenlight came through and you were told, "Hey, Ryan, we want to do something else from the catalog. What album would you like to take on next?" What would you do? Which one would you jump on?

Ulyate: I would say, whichever one everyone decides is the right one. (chuckles heartily) I don't want to get ahead of anyone on this thing, because there's been such care in terms of the way Wildflowers was rolled out. I have something in my own mind and I have some ideas, but I really want to defer to the estate, and to the family.

It's going to be up to the family and the estate to make the final decision on what to put out, and when. I think it's pretty safe to say there's a lot of material that can be put out. They'll make the decision—but, yeah, I think we'll continue to put out some great stuff.


trynberg's picture

Great interview, thanks Mike. Looking forward to hearing this.

GlennS's picture

"Currently, the Wildflowers Dolby Atmos mix is an exclusive for Amazon Music HD subscribers, who can access it... through Amazon's Echo Studio speaker system."
What a shame so much care is put into this mix and the consumers get to listen to it through a speaker pod that splurts out fake surround sound.

"Do you think the Dolby Atmos mix of Wildflowers will ever get a physical representation?
Ulyate: I really don't know."
It may have been too late for a physical representation but you have the digital file which could be sold and that way people with a true Atmos speaker setup could listen to it properly. I would pay for that.

willdao's picture

C'mon, WEA, give us the spinner!

Nice job, Mr. Mettler...keep us posted about a physical Atmos release, please (as I know you will).

How cool.

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