The Feel Factor

Producer and engineer Matt Wallace isn't one to waste time; he thinks fast, talks fast, and moves fast. One result of this seemingly boundless energy
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Producer and engineer Matt Wallace isn't one to waste time; he thinks fast, talks fast, and moves fast. One result of this seemingly boundless energy is his mile-long discography. It ranges from early hits with the genre-bending funk-metal group Faith No More (including Angel Dust [Slash/Reprise, 1992], voted in May 2003 by Kerrang magazine as the “No. 1 Most Influential Album of All Time”) to work with the Replacements, John Hiatt, and Train, among others, and the current multi-Platinum success of Maroon 5's Songs About Jane (Octone, 2002).

A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Wallace was on track to be an English professor when music recording intervened. His first studio was in his parents' garage; his second was in a funky Oakland, California, storefront. Since then he's labored in facilities from glamorous to grungy. These days he's most often found at Studio Delux, the personal studio that he carved out of a former rehearsal space in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles. That's where I caught up with him one morning for a chat about the art and science of record production.

You never apprenticed in the music business; instead you learned on your own.

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FIG. 1: Among the outboard gear in ­Wallace''s racks is a Teletronix LA-2A (left rack, bottom), a CBS Laboratories FM ­Volumax compressor (middle rack bottom), and an Altec 1567A tube mixer-amplifier (left rack, second from top).

That's true. I made 30 or 40 records on 8-track before I even had a whiff of 24-track. I had to combine lots of stuff. And because I was already making records at my own place, I only assisted for a couple of months — which was kind of a shock, actually. My first session was with David Crosby — midnight to 8:00 a.m. That was horrendous for me; normally, I'm asleep by 1:00 a.m.! At the end of the session, everybody was leaving and there was this big mess. I was thinking, “Isn't anybody going to stay and clean up with me?” But no, that was my job. I had no idea that was going to happen. It made sense to me to clean up my own studio, but somehow I hadn't realized that as an assistant I'd be cleaning someone else's bathroom!

You have your own studio again.

I have to admit I didn't want to open this studio. At one time, I had a studio in the Ocean Way complex in Hollywood. Creatively, it was great, but the hassle of keeping it booked when I wasn't using it and the amount of money I had invested in equipment was just too much. I didn't want another studio, but my manager suggested it, and he was right. With recording budgets as limited as they are now, it makes a lot of sense to have a place where I can work on projects without the time pressure of a commercial studio.

I just did a record for Warner Bros. with Caleb Kane, the kind of record where a lot of experimenting made sense. Because we were working here, we were able to stretch out. I don't recommend that style of working for every record, but for Caleb's, it was right.

Sometimes constraints are good.

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Wallace shows off the Gold record he received for Songs About Jane. The CD has since gone multi-Platinum.

Usually. [Laughs.] That's something I miss now that I use Pro Tools instead of 24-track analog. I believe that limitations are absolutely essential to making great music.

I love the idea of having a limited amount of space to work with; that way, you have to make decisions early on. If all 24 tracks are filled and you have another overdub idea, you have to decide what you can erase in order to make room. If you can't make a record on 24 tracks, you've either got a crappy song, the band doesn't know how to play, or something else is wrong. A hundred tracks in Pro Tools can work fine in some situations, but it prolongs decisions. Eventually, you still have to decide what to listen to. You have to know what the concept is.

Is that why you're such a proponent of pre-production?

I think that pre-production makes or breaks a record. You've got to have the song arranged correctly with the right parts, or you'll suffer in the studio and the end product won't be as good as it should be.

I tell bands all the time that I want to spend 30 to 40 percent of the pre-production time listening to the song on acoustic guitars. I don't care how heavy a rock band is — I want to sit down and get the right key for the singer, figure out how the chords go together, see how the riff works, and determine whether we have a song. Maybe it needs a bridge or a musical excursion. We need to know all of that before the band members even turn on their rock instruments. Because when you add volume and energy, anything can sound good.

You're talking about limitations again.

Yes, and focusing the concept of the song. Some bands are more riff oriented, so working this way is not as appropriate. But for most bands, if you can hear it sung and played on acoustic guitar, you can tell what you've got. A lot of times what bands actually bring in isn't a song, but an amorphous conglomeration of different parts. Okay, if it's a jam band, let's meander! Or if someone's trying to be experimental, like Yes or King Crimson, that's another story. But most bands are trying to work within the pop milieu. So even if you're a heavy band, you have to have something resembling a chorus.

It's all about selling emotions. We're selling emotions to people who are going to part with their money to buy a song because of what it makes them feel. It moves them: “Oh my god, someone else felt what I felt. Someone understands my life.” Or, “That's going to help me get through this terrible time.” Or, “That's making me so excited I want to go out and party!”

So the emotion isn't necessarily created by the lyrics?

Sometimes you can get a feeling from the music even if you don't understand the lyrics. To me, though, good lyrics are essential; they're what connect me. But, of course, I'm a former English teacher.

I admit that for immediate impact, lyrics aren't crucial. But if you're talking about a song that will last, a song that's going to be covered [by others], it's got to have a brilliant lyric. By brilliant, I mean it could be a gorgeous pop ballad, or it could be “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC. Great lyrics do different things.

There are wonderful songs that have been around for eons that connect with people emotionally. People play them at weddings, or bands cover them. That's exciting. There aren't a lot of people writing that kind of music today, and that's why a lot of current artists are doing covers. Today, music is more lifestyle based.

Meaning?

People just get a vibe from a song. It's not better or worse; it's just the style, like a lot of the nu-metal stuff, the more aggressive music that's about angst and rebelliousness. There's a style to the shows and to how fans dress. Instead of being song based, the music is band based.

Niche music.

It can be disheartening when music is compartmentalized. Obviously, labels and artists are often going for a specific demographic, which can make a lot of money. But that makes it more difficult to cross-pollinate, which is part of what makes the music business interesting. Because if you're listening to different kinds of songs you might think, “Whoa, what if I wrote a country song that has a heavier edge?”

It's really radio that's compartmentalized. Downloading — legally, we hope — seems to be changing that, which is great. People download everything from old Frank Sinatra tunes to things that are contemporary and crazy. They're interested in finding music, not just being fed it. That's reassuring.

Most of the bands you work with write their own songs.

I help find material when I work with singer-songwriters, but, for better or worse, bands tend to be self-contained. I do think, sometimes, that if band members can relax their egos a bit about songwriting, they can gain a lot. Certainly, many of the best bands in the world start off by doing covers: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Motown artists. I don't think you can expect someone to be both a great writer and a great performer all the time.

Sometimes A&R people will tell a band they want them to write with someone else, and the band won't want to do it. I tell them that the worst that can happen is they'll waste a day or two. The best is that they'll write a great song. Or, they might get a different perspective and write their own different kind of song. It's really a no-lose situation, even though I understand that it can feel a little artificial. But, egos being what they are, it's often hard to get beyond them.

Speaking of egos, how do you feel when someone else mixes one of your productions?

This surprises some people, but I don't care as long as it's great. [Laughs.] I often mix by default because I think I'll ruin it less than somebody else. Seriously, I don't think I'm brilliant, but I can usually do a pretty darn good job. But if someone else can do a way better job, that's great. I'm the producer, so first and foremost I want the record to be brilliant.

Do you engineer your own projects?

I have a main engineer, Mike Landolt, and Posie Muliadi is our second in command. But I still do a lot of the Pro Tools work — because of budgets and because, although there's a very artistic, musical way to use Pro Tools, not many people use it that way. I don't use Pro Tools hard to the grid. If sections of the drums are leaning forward, I move the whole section back 10 or 20 ms until it feels good against the click. Within that, a certain kick or snare may be ahead or behind a bit, but that's okay. I want it to feel consistent but not inhuman. I've had arguments with bands about that, about recording in general. You've got to let some rough edges in, some mistakes and some wild things. That's essential to creating great music.

You've said that one trick of production is choosing which mistakes to leave in.

Absolutely. I have a saying: timing and tuning are highly overrated. If you want proof, listen back to the music of the '60s, '70s, and even '80s. There are some mind-blowing, emotionally resonant performances that are out of tune or off time. But they move you. The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin — they all have wonderful mistakes left in. Or listen to Sheryl Crow's “Leaving Las Vegas.” That vocal is “pitchy” as all get out. The story is that she sang it when she was drunk, and it was really emotive. The next day she sang it again, and it was perfect. But they used the take from the night before because it moved people. Most civilians don't know about sharp or flat, or on or off time. They either like the song or they don't.

Where does sound come into play? Don't you need great sound for a great record?

Sound is important, but it's most important to the people making the records. It's our job, and that's what gets us all off. It's why we get into it. I'm not saying that you don't need the appropriate music for the song, but meticulous, pristine sound? I don't think it's that important. Nobody wants to admit this, but I don't think it's about sounding great; it's about sounding good enough. Don't take that the wrong way; I'm not talking about being mediocre. You want the right sound, but meticulous, insane attention to detail isn't what gets listeners off. It's what gets engineers, mixers, and producers off.

But isn't the sound part of creating that emotion you were talking about?

I'm talking about the process of recording versus the process of performing. If someone gives a great performance, you can have a sketchy recording that will still move people. In a perfect world, both the performance and the recording are great. But there are early — and recent — wonderful recordings that aren't technically great. For instance, check out Alanis Morrissette's Jagged Little Pill. Sonically, that is not a great-sounding record. Most of it was done as a demo on an ADAT. Things are harsh and distorted, and yet it sold 15 million in the United States and another 10 million overseas. Did it sell because it was a great-sounding record? Absolutely not. It sold because Alanis laid out some amazing vocal performances and some amazing lyrics that connected. It actually may have appealed more to people because it feels as though you are in the room, listening as it is happening.

When people agonize over sounds, they sometimes miss the big picture. I've done that. I've made the mistake of saying, “Let's try this microphone or that microphone,” and finally you get this great sound, and you can see that the artist's energy is gone. One of the biggest difficulties in producing and engineering is to decide when to roll forward to capture the energy. Sometimes that's to the detriment of the sound. But I will always believe that the energy, the emotion, and the vibe are paramount. The sound is secondary.

And energy is why you like to have at least two band members recording at any given time.

There's this serial style of recording now, but when you're making singular overdubs and the rest of the band is playing video games or watching TV, you lose momentum. You lack the energy of the community and that sense of everyone being there, which includes, by the way, the engineer and the producer. When we recorded Maroon 5 and Sugarcult, we had a main room going with a Pro Tools rig as well as rigs going in two other rooms that were actually lounges. You get a great vocal in one room, play it in the other room where the guys are working on guitars, and they'll go “Whoa,” and come up with another guitar part. There's momentum and energy.

On some records, we have a Pro Tools rig set up just to screw around on, with a microphone and a couple of guitars. If the drummer wants to play guitar or the singer wants to play tambourine, they can throw stuff down right there. We may use some of it. I'd much rather have them noodling and being crazily creative; at least the juices are flowing and people are getting inspired. Because that's what you want above everything else — to have fun and to be inspired. After that, it's easy.

What hours do you like to work?

I'd like to start at 10 a.m. and finish at 8 p.m. I've done that in the past and found that that way you get more done in a 10-hour day than most people do in 14. Bands initially hate it; but once we get going, it's great. I tell them to come in fed, primed, and ready to work, and we have really productive days. In actuality, we generally end up working 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Do you take a lot of notes while you're working?

During recording, yes, but not during pre-production. During pre-production, I usually run a DAT recorder and make CDs. Lately, I've been working at a place called Amp Rehearsal Studios — the best rehearsal place known to mankind. That studio has rooms with a CD burner and a microphone bolted to the ceiling, plugged into a preamp, and ready to go. You record, walk down the hall to the 10-CD burner, and everybody walks out with a copy.

I always make recordings at rehearsal so the bands can listen to arrangements. When you're working out arrangements, people tend to think they don't like them. Often, that's just because they're learning them and having to think about it. This way they get to listen later.

But for recording, I have binders full of notes. For example, on the drum takes: if I've edited things together and someone wants a different fill, I know where to get one. I'll have written: “great verse groove, good fill in chorus 2,” and so on.

While they're recording, you're writing.

Pretty much for everything that goes down. I do my vocal comp sheets live; I don't sit back and listen to it [after it's recorded]. That's too time-consuming. I make notes while we're recording so I can put it together really quickly. I notate if the timing's off or if it's good, if it's flat or sharp. I'll also note the emotional content of a line.

Tell us about your console.

It's a 28-input Sound Workshop Series 34 that my engineer Mike Landolt found somewhere for about three grand. It works really well and I've mixed records on it, although the EQ, which is old, can be a little crackly. Having a decent analog console is important to us; I love the sound of it. Pro Tools is a fantastic medium for storage, but for getting sound into it we like to use tube gear or discrete Class A electronics if possible (see Fig. 1).

Also, it's tough when you're trying to jam all this stuff down a little stereo bus on Pro Tools. For mixing, I always fan the tracks out onto some kind of analog console so I can manipulate them in that domain. There are lots of great plug-ins, but you won't find anything like an old Gates limiter, old LA-2As, or our old Volumax FM compressor that has the sound of classic FM radio.

What do you recommend for a limited budget?

For readers out there with Pro Tools or other digital-recording setups, there are two great pieces of gear: the Altec 1567A is a tube mixer-amplifier for four mics, with line-in and a mono master out. It has EQ at 100 Hz and 10 kHz, and it does to the sound kind of what you get off analog tape — a little bit of squish. You have pre gain and master gain, and it's a gorgeous big sound for $350 to $700. I also recommend the [Empirical Labs] Distressor because, for about a grand, it's so versatile. It ranges from nice delicate compression all the way to “Nuke” — they've got a sense of humor. And you can actually add distortion. That's what we all like.

You do use plug-ins, though?

Yes, for processing on recorded material, if I want something quick. If I have time, I try to use analog gear. On the way in, decent mics and preamps are essential. I use my console preamps, and also I have the Chandler [LTD-1] Neve preamp reissue. But overall, I don't own a lot of gear now. Vintage gear is just too expensive, and so is repairing it.

You're in a good mood lately. Having a Platinum record helps, I'm sure.

I've also recently realized that I had to create time for myself. Making music for a living is enjoyable. It's creative; we all love it. But it's not easy. Most people live under a mountain of stress these days, and that's probably not going to change, so we have to find ways to deal with it. For me, it's important to spend time with my family and to get a couple of weeks off between projects. Otherwise, I'm unhappy in the studio, and it isn't good for anybody. Over time, you learn your limitations — what you do well, and what you have to keep an eye on. Sometimes there's no choice, and you just have to plow through. But you have to grab time off when you can. Otherwise, your life will go by and you'll be old and cranky, discovering that you've missed a lot.

Maureen Droney's engineering credits include Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Kenny G, Tower of Power, and many others. Currently, she is Los Angeles editor for Mix magazine and general manager of House of Blues Studios.

SONGS ABOUT JANE: A PRODUCER'S PERSPECTIVE

Wallace produced, engineered, and mixed Maroon 5's debut CD, Songs About Jane (see Fig. A), which became a Platinum seller, vaulted the band to stardom, and helped them garner the Best New Artist nod at recent Grammy Awards. Here, Wallace offers some insights into the recording of that CD.

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FIG. A: Wallace''s faith in Maroon 5''s music paid off big-time when Songs About Jane defied the odds and became a huge success.

Where did you record it?

It was recorded entirely at Rumbo Recorders, in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.

What kind of budget did you have?

That record was done very inexpensively, by everyone involved. I had to rally the troops, and myself, to do that. I have a family, so it wasn't easy. But I wanted to make this record. It's easy to make records when you have a big, fat budget. On Maroon 5, we couldn't rent a bunch of great instruments, we had to work with what we had. Same on Faith No More [Introduce Yourself, 1987, Rhino Records], which we did with one electric guitar, one bass guitar and one guitar amp. When the chips are down, and your back's against the wall, that's when the really great stuff comes out.

Talk about tracking the vocals.

We recorded a lot of the vocals in a little room, a singular room, no iso. I was right there at the computer, the singer was right there with me. There was no talkback button, so we weren't separated. I could ask a question like “What made you write the song?” The communication was immediate, and we could get more tied in to the emotion of the song.

The CD went through some changes along the way.

The first version of the album was very urban, very hip-hop, very loop driven, with lots of programming and drums that were sparse, chopped, and processed. Near the end of the project the direction changed, and, during mixing, we ended up recording a different kind of drums on a number of the songs. The recording space at the studio where we were mixing was extremely ambient, so we put the drums in a not-great-sounding booth in a back corner, and we hung lots and lots of blankets and deadening. Then we closed the door of the booth almost all the way. We did put room mics outside the booth so we could have that ambience if we wanted it; some of that room sound is on the song “Hard to Breathe.”

Musically, what is it about Songs About Jane that has made it so successful?

Outstanding songs. That's it. When I got those demos, everything was stacked against them: a label that had never put out a record, an unproven manager, an unknown band. If you were betting, you would not bet on that record. But the songs were so good that I wanted to do the record. I thought, “If everyone pulls together and no one blows it, we're going to have a great record.” I knew the potential from the moment I heard the songs. But it was still a big leap of faith, because at that time, their kind of music wasn't being heard on the radio. A lot of my friends and peers said, “Why are you doing this project?” And I said, “I think they're great songs.”

MATT WALLACE ON RECORDING VOCALS

What do you like in a recorded vocal sound?

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FIG. B: One device that Wallace likes to use to get vocal distortion is the Empirical Labs Distressor compressor.

I love the sound of vocals in early R&B or rock, like Led Zeppelin or James Brown. You can hear that the threshold of the mic preamp or of the compressor was set so that if the singer decided to lean into it, you got some “fur” — some harmonic distortion — on the vocal. It's great when a singer works the mic and uses it as part of his or her instrument. You can set it for high gain, and if they want to lean into it and whisper, it will sound really intimate. Then they can lean back if they're going to scream, or they can lean in if they want distortion. I want to hear emotion, but I also want to hear the equipment working. I like that sound of “It's so out of control they couldn't keep the distortion down.” Obviously, the engineer is flying by the seat of his pants!

You've used devices such as the Altec 1567A or an Empirical Labs Distressor to get that kind of vocal distortion. How do you set them?

On the Altec 1567A I usually set the preamp gain to around 7 or 8. I then put the master at around 5, and adjust the high- and low EQ to taste. On the Distressor (see Fig. B), you can get distortion on pretty much all of the settings. Pushing the far right button to indicate either of the distortion settings, however, can work quite well.

MATT WALLACE ON RECORDING GUITARS

You like to have guitarists record while monitoring from wedges rather than headphones? Can you explain?

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Wallace, shown here at his Studio Delux, feels ­guitarists perform better when ­tracking if they monitor off wedges rather than through headphones.

When you have headphones on, suddenly you're in studioland, and you're really aware of that. Most bands are more used to playing live and using monitor wedges. Also with wedges, they can feel the drums better.

How do you typically set it up?

I like to set up the guitar amp and put the guitarist's monitor wedge a little bit in front of it. Since you have the mic aiming at the guitar amp, the bleed from the monitor into the microphone is negligible. Or I'll put the monitor wedge up on a stand right near the player's ears. I'll put the guitars in separate rooms from the drums, but visual contact is very important. I'll sacrifice the best-sounding spot to have the drummer face the band members. I want everybody looking at each other so that they can get that intuitive thing going where they all know when something's going to happen.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Chantal Kreviazuk,Under These Rocks and Stones (Columbia, 1997); coproducer, engineer, mixer

Faith No More,Angel Dust (Slash/Reprise, 1992); producer, engineer, mixer

Faith No More,The Real Thing (Slash/Reprise, 1989); producer, engineer, mixer

Caleb Kane,Go Mad (Reprise, 2004); producer, engineer, mixer

Khaleel,People Watching (Hollywood, 1999); producer, engineer, mixer

Maroon 5,Songs About Jane (Octone, 2002); producer, engineer, mixer

Replacements,Don't Tell a Soul (Sire/Reprise 1989); producer, engineer

Sugarcult,Start Static (Ultimatum, 2001); producer, engineer, mixer

The Virginia Coalition,OK to Go (Bluehammock Music, 2004); producer, engineer, mixer