Artist Interview: Matt Still
By Marsha Vdovin
Matt Still is a Grammy-winning engineer in Atlanta. He works extensively with Elton John and the hip-hop duo Outkast. Because he travels all over the world recording Elton, he has to have a very defined set of gear. That set includes many Universal Audio products, including the brand-new 2-LA-2 Twin T4 Leveling Amplifier.
Letís start by talking about your background.
I was born and raised here in Atlanta. I started playing the piano when I was four years old. I've been in music my whole life. When I went off to college, I just started to hang around studios as well, because I wanted to learn how to record my own music. It just snowballed from there. I didn't really set out to become an engineer and a producer, it just wound up that way. I found people needed someone to work on a session, so I'd hang out and do it, and it just went from there. The place I interned at was called Bosstown. It was owned by Bobby Brown at the time. After a few years, I was offered the position of chief engineer there, so I took it, and started engineering full time at that point. Outkast now owns that studio. It's called Stankonia. That's pretty much how I got into engineering.
I'm freelance. I just work wherever. I work at just about every studio around Atlanta as a freelance engineer. But my main client is Elton John, so I work with him in London, New York, L.A., Vancouver, Las Vegas, here in Atlanta--wherever he goes is wherever I record him. But around Atlanta I do a lot of work with Outkast. I won a Grammy with them for Speakerboxxx. We do a lot of work at their own studio, but because they're so busy, we also do a lot of work at a studio called Tree Sound, and another one called Doppler. Those are two of the better-known studios in Atlanta.
I love the Speakerboxxx album!
Yeah, it was a great album. I worked with them on Speakerboxxx, as well as Stankonia, and their greatest-hits album. I actually played keyboards on one of the songs on the greatest hits, this single that they had, as well as "Bombs Over Baghdad." I've been working with Dre and Big Boi for a while.
Dre just got married, and the last thing that I worked on them with was the Idlewild soundtrack. I've been so busy with Elton since then, I really haven't had a chance to be in town much to work with them on any of the projects that they're doing.
It added a lot of warmth from the very beginning, and that's something that you have to fight to try and get into the digital world.
What do think of the 2-LA-2?
I think it's great. I love it. It's nice to have an LA-2A-type compressor in a stereo unit. I pulled it up yesterday on some old mixes that I had done, and I used it across some subbed background vocals, and some horn tracks, as well as some stereo acoustic guitar and some electric guitar. It sounded great on everything. It added a lot of warmth from the very beginning, and that's something that you have to fight to try and get into the digital world. It was a really nice unit. I really enjoyed getting a chance to try it out and see how it sounded.
Did you test against other units?
Yes, I put up inserts with the 2-LA-2, and the 2-1176, and I also have a Summit DCL200. They're all different beasts, but it's stereo compression that I wanted to compare. I love all three of them. It performed very nicely against all of those.
Do you use any of the UAD plugs as well?
I use the TDM versions. I use the 1176 plug-in quite a bit, and the Cambridge EQ is nice, as well. But I do a lot of processing outside the box. I try to do as little plug-in, in terms of EQ and compression, as possible. I try to get the sounds going into the box. I do my EQ and compression before I convert from A to D, so I do the least amount of processing once I get inside the box.
So you generally mix "in the box" as opposed to through a console?
I do mix in the box, yeah. I've tried mixing through consoles, and some in boxes, and they add a different sound. But it's not necessarily a better or worse sound, it's just a different sound, to me. I've worked inside the box for so many years that it's a different way of mixing, and it's a totally different approach to engineering. It takes a while to get used to it and be comfortable with it, but once you make that move, it's really hard to go back, to want to mix out through a console. At least for me … that's the way I feel.
What have you been working on with Elton?
We're going to start the next album in February. We just did a track for a Fats Domino tribute record. We did the BB King version a while back. There's a tribute album coming out for Fats Domino, and Elton did "Blueberry Hill." I went out to Las Vegas and recorded him there, and then came back to Atlanta and overdubbed a few extra musicians and background singers. I believe that's coming out this month or next.
Do you have favored signal chains for recording?
The things that I use my UA gear on a lot are the drums, the 8110 is what the drums always go through. I use one of the 610s for the snare. I use the 610 for the guitar. And I run the bass through my LA-610.
Do you have preferred settings for recording the bass?
Bob Birch, his bassist, has a lot of different basses that we use, so it really depends upon which bass and what sound we’re looking for. The LA-610 has a nice curve line, and a nice, overall warm compression that just really allows me to get a nice overall pump with the bass where I don't hear it, so it just has a nice, smooth sustain to it. It's just a really nice, smooth, overall warm compression that lends itself well to the way Bob plays the bass.
So you just listen for the sweet spot?
Yeah. Because with settings, I find there's no magic setting. The settings change every time, because it's a different instrument, he's playing it differently. Even with the drums and the guitar, I never think, "Oh, well I've always got to have it set this way, because that's the way he plays." They're musicians; they change, the instruments change. If I just go to a standard setting, then I'm not listening. Then it just loses the life, I find. The settings always change, to me. From day to day, even. I'm hearing it differently, they're playing it differently. I never try to live and die by a single setting.
Do you prefer the 8110 on drums?
The 8110 has a little bit crisper sound to it, to me, which I really like. The transients on the toms and the kicks sounds really great. The 610 has a little bit more crunch to it, and you can really actually over-drive it a bit, with pumping up the gain and cutting down the level, so that you get that little bit of grit in there, which is really nice sometimes on guitars. It's just really a matter of taste. Between those two mic pres, it really gives you a nice-enough set of choices.
Is there a specific room where you like to track Elton?
The last album that we did, we actually did at a theater here in Atlanta. The first time we stepped into a studio was when we mixed. Everything was recorded in a place called the Center Stage Theater, here in Atlanta. It's about a 1,200-seat venue. We just set everybody up out on the floor, right where the stage would normally be. There were no walls, there were no red lights or anything. I was in the room with the guys, and they just played it down live. I was able to minimize some of the bleed, but it was actually less than I was expecting, and it turned out really well. In Atlanta, in terms of studios, we do a lot of work either at Tree Sound or The Silent Sound. Tree Sound has a nice, big room, where we go whenever we're recording with the band. Silent Sound has a small room, which can fit his piano in there. If he's just writing songs for something, we may go to Silent Sound, because it's a bit closer to his home here in Atlanta, and he'll just write there. But when we record with a full band, we'll go out to Tree Sound.
Do you bring a lot of your own gear when recording at various studios?
Well, everything is in road cases. It's a studio on-the-go, and I have everything that I would need. I have my Pro Tools all racked up, I have an HD-5 Excel system in rack cases, and I have all my mic pres, all my EQs and compressors all racked up. I have a patch bay set up so that I can easily route things through different mic pres and EQs and compressors. I'm not married to any one signal chain. I have my headphone system that I can use anywhere we go, and in any room. I just make sure that it's all put in really nice road cases, so that it survives the trip. I'm not really concerned with it necessarily being so compact, because we've got a lot of other gear, besides just the recording gear, with the rest of the band, and all of their instruments … and the piano. It's just making sure that we can easily move it and quickly set up and break down wherever we need to be.
What do you think help gave rise the Atlanta scene?
I think the culture down here is very rich, and it's very diverse. You find a lot of different influences in this area. I think Atlanta and the South was a very untapped place, then La Face Records moved in here, L.A. Reid and Babyface opened up La Face, and that really, in my opinion, opened up the country's eyes to the music coming from the South. You had not only Outkast, you had TLC, Toni Braxton, Arrested Development and Jermaine Dupri down here. You've got Dallas Austin down here. There was a lot going on down here and L.A. (Reid) and (Baby) Face recognized that. That was, I think, a big part of Atlanta coming into the R&B and hip-hop scene. Rock-wise, you have Brendan O'Brien who lives down here, and he's brought a lot of big projects through … a lot of the Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam records. He did the last several Bruce Springsteen records down here as well. It's just been a great place for music the last 15 years.
Do you think the Atlanta culture contributed as well?
There is a Southern charm to Atlanta. Atlanta's got great food and great entertainment. And it's a great place to live. I could choose to live in New York or L.A., but how much more work can I do? And I'm getting it all from Atlanta. With Elton I travel around a lot. I'm living where I want to live, and it's just a great place to raise a family, and have as your base.
Did you have mentors while working your way up?
You know, you take a little bit from a lot of different guys. As an assistant engineer, you try and pick up little bits that make sense to you from different engineers. There are guys that I've worked with here in Atlanta, there's a guy named Alvin Speights I learned a lot from. I used to be his assistant. There's a guy named Thom Kidd, he's a great engineer. I learned a lot from him. Those are probably two of the main guys that I looked to, as an assistant, to try and figure out what they were doing, and take their techniques and make them my own. A lot of it came from experimenting. When I was at Bosstown, the studio manager, his name was John Marett, and he allowed me to bring in my own band, or other bands, and just figure it out. A lot of it came from that. Taking the basic principles that I learned from guys like Alvin, Tom and Greg Penny, and then experimenting some. Just trying different mikes here and there, trying a different compressor on this, and finding out what sounded good and what sounded bad, and what to avoid. It came from spending a lot of hours recording a lot of different people.
Do you have any advise for those coming up through the ranks?
Spend as much time as you can in the studio. Nothing beats hands-on experience. I would sometimes spend days in the studio, and I would take any session that I could get. No matter what kind of music it was, if it was high profile, or if it was just some local band that walked in off the street that had some money. I would spend several days there, sometimes, and I would just sleep on the couch. I had my toothbrush, and I would just get up, brush my teeth, and have a new day of recording. So spend every hour that you possibly can in the studio. That's the best way to learn the craft, and the art.