Matt Knobel at Setai Recording
Matt Knobel at Setai Recording

Matt Knobel has a great job. A job that many of us covet. He is the head engineer at South Beach's Setai Recording Studio. Besides being a super-gorgeous, high-end studio, it is located in the glamorous Setai Hotel in Miami Beach. Together with Kravitz Design, Matt set out to create a world-class recording studio with an intimate setting that combines the best of digital technology and vintage analog sound. Setai is centered around an SSL C-200 console and is loaded with UA gear.

How did you start working with Lenny Kravitz?

I was doing a lot of advertising and TV work. During that time I won an Emmy award for outstanding audio, and did some work with different artists--Mark Cohen and David Wilcox as an engineer. Then, just before I turned 30, I got a call from Lenny Kravitz's manager to come and set up a digital audio system, a Pro Tools system, for a weekend. As I was doing that, Lenny asked, "Hey, can you work next week? Do you want to do this record with me?" His other engineer left, and I ended up doing the 5 album with him. With "Fly Away," "American Woman," and all that stuff. I helped Lenny start to understand the new technology, because he'd always been working with the older technology. That record was a real great exercise for him to try new things. When I walked into Lenny's place, there was nothing there. There was a Pro Tools system, and they were using tape machines for delay and plates for reverb. So it was an education for both of us. I showed him about the new technology, and he was teaching me about all the old technology. It was a really great experience. I've been working with Lenny for about 12 years, and about 4 years ago he asked me if I wanted to work with him developing a recording program and a studio in their hotel, and then run it for them. … I thought it was a great idea. It was an amazing hotel. They were real serious about the quality they wanted to maintain, which I thought was awesome. So I moved down to Miami, and now I'm the Director of Operations for the Setai Recording Studios, and I run a studio management company. This studio turned out really great--it's an amazing space. All the artists that come through here are blown away.

Who are some of the artists you've worked with at Setai?

We’ve had Wyclef Jean in, we had Outkast, JayZ we did Chris Cornell's new record there. Timbaland … that was the first session we had, Timbaland with Chris Cornell. They did like six weeks with us. And we've had Three 6 Mafia. The Backstreet Boys have been through there. Jamie Fox has been there. We even did some work for Sex and the City there.

Are you still doing hands-on engineering?

Yeah. Most of what I do is mixing. Right now I'm mixing a project for an artist called Noah Francis, who's an unsigned artist, but he's got a lot of interest from a lot of labels. I've worked with Ricky Martin--it was great, doing mixes for Ricky. I just do the stuff kind of on my own, send them to the artist, or the producer, and just go back and forth. We have a digital SSL, which is great for me, because it's like working in the box, but not. Then I utilize both UA analog and digital technology to really augment the Pro Tools and the digital consoles. I have LA-2As, and some 1176s.

"With the others, you have to work all day to try and get it to sound like what they're claiming it to be. With the UAD, you put it on and it sounds like a Fairchild. It makes it so much easier to get what you're looking for."

You have some of our preamps as well?

Yeah, we have the 2-610. I love it. That mic pre makes some of the lesser microphones sound so good. Marshall makes a microphone, an inexpensive tube mic, which normally doesn't sound that great on it’s, own, but through that 610 mic pre, it's like magic. That mic pre just makes everything sound amazing.

And then I have UAD cards. Those are some of the best plug-ins I've ever heard. Everyone's replicating what you guys are doing. Like Bomb Factory has their plug-ins, and Waves is doing their thing. But you guys really got it right. With the others, you have to work all day to try and get it to sound like what they're claiming it to be. With the UAD, you put it on and it sounds like a Fairchild. It makes it so much easier to get what you're looking for.

When you guys came out with the dbx 160, I was thrilled. That was one of my favorite boxes for a decade. I also love the fact that you have the Roland, the Dimension-D, the EMT 140, all those things are great units that you can't find, or you can't have enough of--and are inconsistent. The older hardware just tends to be not that consistent from unit to unit. So it's great to be able to go to those tools that you've always wanted to go to, instead of having to go to something else to try and achieve that.

Do you have any go-to favorites?

I have my staples. The LA-2A and Fairchild are definitely staples for me, as well as the Neve and Helios. I have the Helios modules, some reissues that I love for tracking, but the fact that now you guys have the plug-in really makes it an amazing, amazing tool. Lenny's got a Helios console in New York that is just beautiful, and now I feel like I have one in the box. A lot of people don't know about that gear. They see it and they just have no idea what it is--but I sure did. [Laughs.] It just makes me smile, because it's some of the hardest stuff to get and some of the best-sounding stuff out there.

Have you ever directly compared the plug-in to the Helios console?

I haven't done that yet. I meant to do that last week, but I haven't had a chance to. I have done it with the LA-2A, the Fairchild and the Neve stuff. And it's like I said: Your stuff replicates the hardware better than anything I've found. It just makes it so easy.

Does Lenny have a new album coming out, or has he been recording?

An album came out February 5, and he's been touring on it.

Where is his New York studio?

The Edison Hotel … but they closed that down in April. So Lenny's kind of doing his own thing. He is so used to touring that we decided to put all his studio gear in racks, like touring gear, so now he's able to travel with his studio. It keeps the quality and the consistency up. Instead of just traveling with the Pro Tools rig, or something like that, he travels with his Helios, and all of his gear. He’s got so much, and he's so particular about the type of gear he uses--he doesn't use the modern gear.

Wasn’t he working with vintage gear like in the late '80s, before it was fashionable?

Oh, yeah. When I first went to Lenny's place, he had an old Neve sidecar, and they referred to that as the new gear. [Laughs.] That was the "modern" technology there. That’s why it was so eye-opening to me. I just had never been exposed to that kind of real dedication to the history of technology.

How many UAD cards do you use?

I have two UAD-1s, and now I have a UAD-2. I want to get an expansion chassis for my home system, and put one UAD-1 and one UAD-2 in each place. I've been playing with the UAD-2, and it's ridiculous--there's so much power on it.

Did you try the Neves on it? How many you could open at a time?

I can get up to 32 channels of 1081 and 33609. Which is insane. On the old cards--I had two--I could get two 33609s, and maybe like eight Neve modules. Now I can just build a whole console, which is incredible.

How is the UAD-2 going to change things for you?

Before, I would always have to be strategic about where I used the stuff. I'd get it to where I want, and then I'd have to bounce it in order to free it up for some other stuff. But now, hell, if I had two UAD-2 cards in this computer, I don't see being stoppable. Some songs that have a lot tracks, but still, I don't see why two cards wouldn't be able to handle everything … and you could put four cards in! With four cards, it would be insane. Like I said, that stuff blows away all the other manufacturers of the same type of plug-ins. Nobody holds a torch to it--just nothing like it. You're not emulating a hardware LA-2A, you have an LA-2A. That's what it is; that's how it feels. Today I was working on a vocal, put it through my LA-2A, my Massenburg EQ, and this and that, and I track it. But today I honestly thought the software version of the limiter of the LA-2A was better for this track. Because I needed a bunch of them, and I didn't really want to spend eight hours messing with it and tracking it. The song is so volatile that to get it to sit right and commit to was a little hard. But I felt confident that the plug-in was just as good as the hardware. Before, I was using the Bomb Factory stuff, and that was joke. It really was. And today I was able to say, "Screw it, I don't need the hardware. It's already great." And I'm a hardware-preferred kind of guy.

Were you aware of UA and the history of it? Was Lenny aware?

Sure. I've looked at the brochures, and seen the history chart, through the years, which is great. The problem is, most of the people that are engineering these days are keyboard players, guitar players--they're not trained engineers, so I don't know that they really care about that kind of thing. I come from a recording background, so engineering to me is a passion. I'm not an engineer because I have to be, I'm an engineer because I want to be, so I'm fascinated by all that. I can't say enough about your company. Your products are amazing. I could talk all day long about how good I feel about standing behind what you guys are doing.