Sonic Brushstrokes

Although some of Matthew Smith's symphonies last more than 40 minutes, it takes less than 30 seconds to realize how unusual they are. Smith, a painter

Although some of Matthew Smith's symphonies last more than 40 minutes, it takes less than 30 seconds to realize how unusual they are. Smith, a painter for most of his life, abruptly put down the brush eight years ago and has since turned to composing music full-time. Archaic (Innova, 2005) is his first release as a composer and solo artist, highlighting three larger pieces created between 2001 and 2003.

Matthew Smith

Working from his attic studio, Smith eschews traditional orchestration. Instead, he draws sounds for his symphonies out of his collection of odd and exotic instruments — from the anklung (a set of Asian bamboo pitched rattles) to jaw harps to orchestral percussion. His pieces are orchestrated with unpredictable combinations of these instruments. For example, Archaic begins with his Symphony 8, which is “scored” for eight jaw harps, six Suzuki violins, strings, and percussion.

I use the word scored loosely, because Smith's works are primarily improvised. With few preconceived ideas, he composes by tracking into his Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 1 and 96 I/O rig (running on an Apple Power Mac G4/933) from start to finish. He typically close-mics his instruments with a Neumann KM 184 and a Blue Dragonfly through a Great River MP 2 mic pre. Using a 22-inch Apple Cinema Display for viewing Pro Tools, he builds up extremely dense textures by layering, often tracking more than 20 passes of the same instrument.

Smith's process is almost completely intuitive and spontaneous, and is totally organic. He relies solely on recorded acoustic instruments and never uses synths, samplers, or sound-design processing. He deviates from his normal production process on just one piece on Archaic, recording some of the tracks with a gifted chamber ensemble called Zeitgeist (for which he named the piece).


Smith prefers strings, and his admitted favorite is the Suzuki violin, a one-sixteenth-size violin designed for small children. “I borrowed my four-year-old son's violin and never gave it back. The sound is hauntingly plaintive and voicelike.”

Once his initial tracking is complete, he sifts through the tracks, using a subtractive process involving Pro Tools' mute and volume automation to carve out the form of the composition. Most of the tracks on Archaic are complete takes that have been shaped in that way, with relatively little editing. “The digital domain allows me to be the composer, the performer, and the conductor. I spend days finessing the balance of automated volume and muting. The layering of a group of instruments can create a sound that cannot be traced to its original sources.” On Archaic the technology is a tool that enhances, rather than directs, the process.

Smith then subtly applies EQ and compression using Waves Renaissance plug-ins, and adds dimension using the Renaissance Reverb. “I like the sonic ambiguity of a close-miked instrument mixed with the reverb of an orchestra hall,” he says. “It's a kind of unstable marriage of intimacy and deep space.” Smith monitors his mixes using Mackie HR824s. Archaic was mastered by his long-time friend Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering.

One great strength of a DAW is ease of use, which gives musicians such as Smith direct access to high-powered creative tools. “I always tell people how lucky I feel to be around right when all this complex digital gear has become available to the home-studio composer.”

For more information,