Many of us would love to have worked on 1 percent of Matt Bayles' discography.
Since the late '90s, Matt has engineered and produced dozens of influential records for groups such as Botch, Burnt by the Sun, Murder City Devils, Harkonen, These Arms Are Snakes, The Blood Brothers, Minus the Bear (with whom he played keyboards for four years), Planes Mistaken for Stars, Helms Alee, and multiple records by Isis and Mastodon, including Mastodon's Grammy-nominated Blood Mountain. For this interview, Matt and I sat down twice — first over burritos in San Francisco and later in Seattle at Matt's home base, Red Room Recording, which he co-owns with drummer/producer Chris Common.
You came up in the traditional way, assisting in Nashville.
Well, I was primarily an intern in Nashville. I did a semester of proper interning and then engineered country demo sessions, all on tape. When you're recording Nashville session musicians, even the third- call guys are machines. That's been a blessing and curse, because when your introduction to doing sessions is people who are really phenomenal at their instruments...
I guess there are certain skills you don't foster in Nashville sessions.
You have five or six people playing — drums, bass, lap steel, acoustic and whatever. At the end of a take the drummer's played it perfectly and the rest of the guys are yelling out where their mistakes were. You have to read the chart and know whose voice it is.
"Back me up to bar 24!"
Exactly. "Go in at 36 for two." Fifteen minutes after you've done the room track, everyone's fixed their stuff and you've moved on. But I definitely didn't want to stay in Nashville. I had some experiences there that were indicative of the type of place it is, such as telling an engineer his wife was on the phone and getting yelled at — weird things like that.
After you moved to Seattle, you assisted Brendan O'Brien on a few records.
I assisted him on [Pearl Jam's] No Code and Yield, and then worked with him as an engineer here and there when he'd come out for quick things.
Can you pick a couple of good lessons from the experience?
The thing I learned from Brendan most is that he just wants to capture that moment. If he spends five extra minutes getting the snare perfect, and that's five minutes where the band would be standing around waiting, he'll sacrifice [the snare sound]. I always felt that the thing he tried to do most was not let technology bog down inspiration. He's also a freak of a guitar player — one of the best musicians I have ever seen. He has perfect pitch. He tells great stories. He's one of those dudes where you're like, "Yeah, I understand why you're successful."
You also assisted Terry Date.
I assisted on [Deftones'] Around the Fur. I have the utmost respect for Terry and I definitely learned from him.
I remember the first five seconds of that record being like, "What the fuck is with that kick drum? How is that even sonically possible?"
He does things differently than Brendan. Brendan will use samples when he needs to as a last resort. But Terry uses samples as he goes. I had never really seen that. He pushes the boundaries of EQ'ing kick drums and snare drums.
Were Seattle rock sessions different than country sessions in Nashville?
Absolutely. I got to see the ebb and flow and learn how to kick back a little bit. [On Soundgarden's Down on the Upside] Kim Thayil wouldn't play guitar until he got the crossword done [laughs]. So he, Ben Shepherd and I would sit around for the first three hours of the day — like on a Saturday, when the New York Times crossword is really hard. They'd end up calling friends to get it done before we started tracking. Adam [Kasper], the producer, rolled with it. He knew that's the way Kim liked to work. Seeing that record was a good education, even in contrast to Brendan. Brendan's about keeping momentum going. "Hey man, let's do something! We're here. We're making a record!" Brendan has tremendous enthusiasm — I wish I had that kind of personality. I'm excited about what I do, but I'm also a "sit down and get in focus" guy. Plus Brendan also has an engineer and I only have me.
Do you usually work with an assistant?
No. We have an intern who helps out at Red Room, but I'm faster than most assistants. I've wired three or four studios, including my own. It's easier for me to do it than explain. With budgets, I can't afford to pay somebody. I'd love to teach someone and have them be useful, but I don't have the resources financially.
Okay. Botch's We Are the Romans — great record or greatest record?
[laughs] Well, according to NME it was the 67th best record of the first 10 years of the century.
It's a huge leap from their first album, American Nervoso.
For all of us. Romans is a function of their growth and my growth.
You did a full remix of Nervoso for its re- release. How was it to sit down with your 10-year-old tracks?
We did Nervoso in five days. I made some fatal errors on that, based on lack of experience — like summing the snare top and bottom together, but the bottom snare was too loud. That eats at me to this day. If you know what the first song on the record's gonna be, don't record it first. The song with the too loud bottom snare is the first fucking song on Nervoso! [laughs] I want to shoot myself.
Did you have more time for Romans?
We spent about eight days recording and four days mixing. By that point I knew that Dave Knudson [guitar] was going to have all his parts in one or two takes. I knew that Dave Verellen's voice was resilient. There were a couple songs where we changed some patterns, rhythms and things. And there was the whole chanting part.
How did you do the chanting part [in "Man the Ramparts"]?
That song was recorded in three parts. For the [chanting] middle, we set up a click. If you listen you can probably hear a little faint "tick, tick" in the background. We had a big chunk of tape and they just sang it, the four of them, and we stacked it a few times. Tim [Latona] had a friend, this girl who came in and did the high stuff. I think Tim did a few tracks on his own because his pitch was better. The funniest thing was we never heard it all together until mastering because we mixed to 1/2-inch.
Oh, because of the reverb tails and all?
Right — there was no way. At the very end of that song, I ran the whole mix through a pair of Neve mic preamps on line input and was just destroying it. If you put it up on an oscilloscope, it makes a three- dimensional cube. I didn't see it when I was mixing because I was on an API, but when we took it to mastering I was like, "That is the raddest thing I've ever seen in my life!" [laughs]
It seems like that record was a takeoff point for your career.
That record was the one that got me going. Without that record I wouldn't get Isis. And without those two records, I wouldn't get Burnt by the Sun or Mastodon. And Mastodon is probably the biggest thing I'm associated with, as far as mainstream-ish production.
To me, the Isis records are sonically defined by the snare drum.
Celestial was my first record with them, and Aaron [Harris] had a Kevlar marching triple-ply snare head. It had a certain heft to it. It had some snares, but it was by no means a really snare-y sound.
Sort of. When we got to mixing he was really worried about the kick drum being too click-y. He wouldn't let me put any attack on the kick. I wasn't doing anything extreme, but he was so wound up. So I was like, "Okay, I'm not going to get the kick drum to do what I want if you don't let me do something to it." So I started exaggerating the low end. From there — "Oh, now the guitars seem feeble. Let's exaggerate the low end on the guitars." So that whole record [Celestial] is really thick.
It sounds huge.
It's a direct result of Aaron Harris not letting me put any attack on the kick drum. It's probably one of my most compressed records as far as the 2-bus [is concerned]. I'm pretty sure I was doing like 10:1, 5 to 7 decibels of compression — just hammering. It worked. Every once in a while I'll pull that out and try it, and it's not working. I have no idea how I pulled that off all those years ago. 10:1 is certainly not something that makes it on my mix bus now! On the second record, Oceanic, there's no digital reverb on the drums at all.
I was going to ask that. How much of the drum ambiences are real?
They're all pretty much from the rooms we recorded in. For Oceanic, we were in the Fort Apache B room in Boston. It was a Neve 8068 and this gigantic, tiled room with a stage. We were up on the stage with theater curtains around the entire drum kit and B&K omni [mics] outside of the curtains — 30 feet away in this really wide room. That's the sound. Panopticon is a reaction to all the criticism. Aaron was kind of annoyed by the criticism of the timbale thing on Oceanic, so Panopticon became a lot more conventional on the snares. It was also recorded in a very dry room in Los Angeles. That's why that ambience is what it is. I'm sure there's a little bit of short plate that I added to make it breathe a little more, because the room was quite dead.
Even when the Isis stuff gets heavy, that drum ambience is still there.
I'm doing a lot of pushes on the drums as I'm mixing. In order for the drums not to be knocking-you-over-the-head loud when shit's quiet, you've gotta pull them back. In order for them to not get submerged when shit gets loud, you've gotta push them up. I could hammer everything to death and lose those dynamics — and I'm sure my records have gotten a bit less dynamic over the years — but if everything's loud all the time, there are no peaks and valleys. Isis is one of the best examples of a band that's alternately completely bombastic and then very down.
Across the Isis records there's some change, but I don't think one sounds better than the other. But you listen to Mastodon's catalog, and there is...
Improvement? I think some of that is the circumstances under which they were made. Remission was done really quickly. The weakest part of that record to me is the bass sound. The bass gear we used wasn't good. We borrowed some gear. Troy can play, but we just didn't nail it. Brann [Dailor] didn't want his drums to be as click-y or attack-y as Remission. It worked for Remission because Remission was so goddamn fast. So we went a little boomier. I landed in Atlanta, and the tape machine died the first day I got there. It was an [Ampex] MM1200. They said they had gotten the faster punch mods, but by the time I started trying to do punches I realized it just wasn't gonna work. I think we got the drums and bass done in two days. The next seven days were vocals and guitars at a different place, with an [Otari] MTR-90 so I could actually do punches. Then I had to fly home and back to mix it. So that record was made under less than ideal circumstances. Leviathan we did here in Seattle. On that level alone I'm in my comfort zone. That was tape and a little bit of Pro Tools for extra tracks.
That may be part of what I'm hearing when I say it sounds bigger.
It was a conscious decision. It turned out well, but if I could go back and revisit it I would probably just de-boom the kick a little. There are times where I think it's a bit blurry in the low end — just a little bit. We definitely fixed the bass tone problems on that record. That was the big, obvious thing that we needed to fix.
To listen to Remission by itself, you hear it and say, "This sounds great." But then you put on Leviathan and you say, "This really sounds great." Then you put on Blood Mountain, and it's like, "Wow, it sounds better again." The record starts with those amazing sounding drums.
Yeah. I can't speak for sure, but Brann's really hard to put drum samples on because he's so fast. So I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that most of it was what I actually recorded. [laughs]
Well, I imagine he hits drums very well.
Oh yeah. But sometimes mix engineers put on samples out of habit. They have guys who do it, and their job is to make it perfect no matter what. I'm not saying that happened here — it sounds like what I recorded. We spent eight weeks tracking Blood Mountain. I was the engineer, the producer and the Pro Tools editor. By the end I was pretty taxed. I had Warner Brothers breathing down my neck. I hadn't really dealt with A&R guys being that way. It was his job. I don't begrudge him that, but I struggled with focusing on making the record and also worrying about the label calling me and freaking out about why they didn't have completely produced demos. I knew that if I did completely produced demos that some of those songs would never get re-sung. So I was like, "Sorry, guys. It's gonna turn out great. It's how this band works. You just gotta trust me." But the label thought I was the band's buddy. They thought they were pulling me up out of some kind of friendship/loyalty thing, as opposed to trusting me to make the record. I definitely learned what stress meant on that record. Nothing has ever come close since.
How did Rich Costey end up mixing?
That was the plan the whole time. My management and I both knew that if I was gonna get the production, there was no way I was going to get to mix it. It would have been futile to argue.
Did you work with Rich on the mix?
No, I was doing something else. I checked in with him to make sure that everything made sense when he got it. I got the first mastered version and we all weren't happy with it. Mastered from analog tape, we didn't like it. But remastered from the digital files, we liked it. The tape was adding a low-mid, wub-wub thing that wasn't flattering.
One of the things I've noticed listening to your records is that they're very consistent. They still don't seem very "produced." They have consistent sounds from start to finish.
Depending on the band. Isis doesn't necessarily want to change amps. Or Russian Circles — I might say, "I need a little more treble here," and they'll let me do that. But if I start with, "Let's try this other amp," they'll just say, "No." My way of sculpting at that point becomes mic choices — if I have two or three mics up, switching the balance from a dynamic to a condenser. If I have multiple mics I still try to bus things to one track.
That's leftover from tape days. Especially if I'm going to go down the road of having a DI to cover my ass as a reamping thing, I'm not gonna do a DI and three mics for every freakin' rhythm track. Make a decision! If you're not willing to make a decision, what the hell are you doing as a producer? Every track is a decision. Is that performance good enough? Was that one little low note that's bent a little out of tune a big deal?
After we talked last time, I realized that we barely discussed anything technical. Most of what you came back to was psychological.
It's something I'm keenly aware of. There are times I'm good at coaxing and being supportive, pulling it all together and making people not get frustrated if I have them play stuff 100 times. And there are times where I'm not as good at that. The technical stuff is easy for me. There's nothing challenging in it.
No. Mixing's me and my own head.
So the challenge in tracking is not mic placement?
No. I know the tonal characteristics of my mics, preamps, speakers and of pickups. My challenge is not a technical one. My challenge is making sure that moment to moment, I'm doing whatever I can to get the best out of the band. You can ask the Mastodon guys, the Isis guys... We've had our moments of not seeing eye to eye, and it not being super fun. Those moments bum me out. I want to try to keep them from happening as I continue to work, which is perhaps why it's something I keep coming back to.
It's a really important part of being locked in a room with five people for two months.
To sit there for 10 to 12 hours a day, focusing, trying to get the best out of everybody and not have moments of frustration or mental fatigue. You've been there nine hours and somebody's talking about something for the next song. I should say, "Dude, I'm not listening to that right now. Can you write this down and we'll talk about it at a more appropriate time?" But I don't always say that. [laughs]
When you're making a 13-song record in two weeks, how do you keep the schedule under control?
When I have an abbreviated amount of time, my big thing is all about the singer. I'll get that singer singing as quickly as I can. Maybe the first two days will be banging out four or five tracks and getting some overdubs on them. At the end of the second day, the singer can start singing. The idea of making a singer do 13 songs in the last four days is nonsense. More often than not I'll have them sing enough takes to where I can comp a double if I want it. I don't ever have to have them come back and sing a double. That saves time for harmony vocals or whatever you want to do at the end.
Are you building your mix while you're tracking?
Yes. Once I get done with drums I'll yank the patches. I'll put some compression on the kick and snare, pull up a parallel drum thing, dial up a reverb that might work and experiment as time's going on. I'll come in early. Once I wake up I'm pretty much gonna take a shower and go to work, even if the band's not going to be there until noon. I'll set up for the next thing and get some busy work done, or I'll check a comp. Usually I end up comping at the end of the night. I come in the morning and listen to them, make sure you're feeling good about them. If I have time to kill I'll see what I want to double and try and construct it.
I think my favorite record that you've done is that Helms Alee record. Seven days, right?
Seven days to record and two days to mix.
It sounds awesome. It feels loose.
Well, it's human for sure. The girls [Dana James and Hozoji Matheson-Margullis] and Ben [Verellen] can sing, but there were [time] limitations to how many things we could punch. That's all tape. We did 2-inch edits. I love cutting tape. We cut takes together and cut in fills where maybe she did a fill on one take that was better.
Do you do a lot of stuff to a click?
I would give Isis clicks at the beginning of songs when there were no drums for the first four minutes, just so we knew what we were dealing with. But at some point the click track would go away and it would become an organic performance of the track. It's a genre-specific thing. Minus the Bear has lot of tempo mapping to build in the changes they naturally do. Same thing with Polar Bear Club.
And after a number of drum takes, you'll say, "Okay, sit tight and I'll try an edit to see if it works."?
Yeah, then I'll comp it. Once I get the loose edit in, I'll say, "Okay, here's the basic arrangement edit. Everybody happy?" Once they sign off on that, if it's a Beat Detective- specific genre thing I'll say, "Give me half an hour. Let me lock this down." Again, I don't do that every time. For Minus the Bear I use a certain amount of Beat Detective because it's a lot of four-on-the-floor kick drum stuff. It's not because Erin [Tate] can't play, but when you're trying to have sequenced and drum machine tracks, it's gotta be [smacks hands in time].
Despite Erin being a great player.
He's pretty solid tempo-wise, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. Daft Punk — all that shit is sequenced. If you want it to feel like that, it's gotta be like that. There were plenty of songs that we didn't Beat Detective. If [it] was a freewheeling rock part, I'd let it be.
I've read a few interviews with bands where they described you as pretty intense, even intimidating, in the studio. But there was also an appreciation for the results you got out of them.
I don't read interviews anymore, because I get pretty down on myself when I feel like all I hear is that perception of me. I know I can be that way, but I don't think it's the only way. But I'm glad they're getting something out of it, because I'm not hard on them for the sake of it. It's not some ego trip. Often with younger bands it's, "I know you're used to doing this really quickly. You did a seven-inch that sold pretty well, but you did it in a day. Now you've got to do twelve songs over a few weeks." The bar's raised, so it's not gonna be just copying and pasting. I still treat Pro Tools as a starting point. It's a tape machine that gives me a chance to keep more takes than I would normally do in case that one cool thing happens. I'll tell them that up front. "I'm going to make you play it right. I'm gonna force you to learn how to make it as good as it can be." I know I'm picky, and part of that comes from me being as hard on myself as I am on anybody else. I consider every record an audition. I can't not care. Every record — I don't care how small or big it is.
You don't know who's going to hear it or what they're going to think.
Exactly. I can't let go of stuff. If something ends up being out of tune, that's my fault. I'm the one who told them it was good enough. No matter who played it, it's my responsibility.
How about mixing records tracked by other engineers? Then you don't have any control over tracking.
I like mixing other records because it gives me a perspective on what people do besides me. When you end up with a little bit of success, you don't necessarily sit and shoot the shit with other engineers who are peers. I don't call up Kurt [Ballou, issue #76] or Alex Newport [issue #53] and talk tech. I have my little niche, and I can't risk losing my niche by getting too chummy. You end up a little world unto yourself. So when you start mixing other people's stuff, you get a little opening out of that cocoon.
Do you do anything besides work?
Well... I try. I have other interests, but I don't always get to see them through. I'd love to go back to snowboarding. I'd play soccer if I could. I hang out with friends. I still try to enjoy watching music and seeing new bands, but mostly my work takes up a lot of my life.
Do you ever see yourself as a family guy?
Finding a woman who could put up with it would be amazing, and I wouldn't shy away from that. Having kids would be a challenge. I really don't know how available a parent I would be. I can't imagine a circumstance where my job, the hours and the travel it sometimes entails, would allow me to feel good about having a kid and not being there. An adult can make a decision. "I love you and I want to be with you regardless of the challenges that your life brings." But a kid? I had plenty of opportunities to go off the rails, and my parents were around more than I would be able to be. So why do I want to have kids and roll the dice, when I wouldn't be able to be there to be a good influence?
How's the Red Room working out?
Between Chris [Common] and I, we've got about as perfect a scenario as we can. We juggle scheduling between each other — my budgets are a little bigger so I can usually go somewhere else if he needs the room. He and I are the only users. It's not a public facility.
Is the room self-sufficient?
Yes. It has been for years. Chris had the Pro Tools rig, mic stands and mics. I had the money to get us in, and I bought a console. It didn't take very long to make that back. For the new space we paid about $12,000 to move in, between first month's rent and buying out the improvements the previous tenant had made. The studio paid $2000 and I paid $10,000. That meant that until I got paid back that Chris made nothing from the studio. It took about a year for me to get that back. On top of paying me back, it paid all its bills for that year. We could charge a little bit more, but at the end of the day Chris and I want the money in our own pockets.
How about gear maintenance?
The studio and the owner of the piece of equipment split repairs 50/50. That keeps us interested in keeping things up and not abusing gear. Without that studio there are a lot of records that would not have been as good. I would rather lose $600 out of my wallet and have three extra days of studio time. At the end of the day, that $600 versus three more days of mixing or performance-improving or background vocals — that makes a record exponentially better, and makes it more likely for me to get hired in the future, rather than me saying, "I've got $600." r
Scott Evans plays in Kowloon Walled City and records loud bands in San Francisco. www.antisleep.com