Matt Parmenter is an Austin, Texas-based engineer and owner of Ice Cream Factory Studio, with over 20 years of experience producing, recording, mixing, and mastering music. He's been nominated for a Grammy and won an Emmy for his work with Austin artist Carrie Rodriguez [2018 Lone Star Regional Emmy Award for Audio Engineering]. Matt's studio is known as a welcoming place for both veterans and newcomers alike. Here he chats with Lisa Machac of Omni Sound Project about the history of the studio, his work to create an inclusive space, and his enviable mic collection.

Where was the original Ice Cream Factory Studio?

It was in a warehouse called the Sterling Ice Cream Factory in Cincinnati, [Ohio]. I don't think it's even occupied anymore. At the time it was full of artists, musicians, and some steel sculptors that I had to work around; they were loud! When I was working there it was mostly Cincinnati metal bands. That would have been in the early 2000s.

So, you moved to Austin, kept the name, and found a new space?

Being scrappy and independent, I got a big, old, modular iso booth from VocalBooth. I crammed it into my apartment, then my house, and finally into the space that I'm in now, which has been the home of the studio for the last nine years. Now the booth is holding the EMT 140 plate [reverb] (one of the solid-state mono in/stereo out ones) and a bunch of guitar amps. For the most part, I use it as guitar isolation. It sometimes gets used as a vocal booth if I want an intimate, quiet, tight space sound.

Do you use that plate reverb much?

Yeah, it's incredible on strings, vocals, and anything else I want to cram through it. It's exactly what one would expect from an EMT 140.

Your mic collection is epic!

It's absurd. I have Dave Glassco to thank for that. Dave and I partnered up about five years ago. He brought in a Fairchild 670 [limiter], a Neve BCM10 [console], a [Neumann] U 47 [mic], a couple of [Neumann] M 49s, an [AKG] C24, a Telefunken [ELA M] 251, a [Neumann] U 67, and [Neumann] CMV 3s. The oldest mics that we have are from 1932. He brought in all these unbelievable pieces of gear, and I've been supplementing that with others. I don't shop as much as I used to. I mostly try to make good-sounding recordings!

Who are some of the Austin bands that you started with here, after moving?

Members of Texas Tornados plus Paul Oscher (who used to tour with Muddy Waters) were backing up Murali Coryell. It was Ernie [Durawa] on drums, Speedy Sparks on bass, Joe Morales on saxophone, and Augie Meyers on keyboards. Working with all those guys was amazing. It was also a little nerve-wracking, because they'd been doing this for 60 years. They'd been touring and recording longer than I've been alive. I was trying to provide the most seamless experience possible. I wanted to be completely transparent. At any point one of them could call out, "We like that," and if I wasn't tracking it, then it's gone. It was a lot of listening and not talking. There were a lot of pretty out-there stories that were told about Muddy Waters, as well as getting a call from The Beatles asking Augie about his Vox Continental sound. I got to hear some pretty great stories from them.

You've worked with some older musicians, but what have you learned working with younger bands?

A lot of times, artists will come in with very fleshed-out demos that they've done themselves, so one of the things that I deal with a lot is "demo love." The band will get hung up on something that they want to recreate exactly [like the demo]. I'll say, "Fly it in! Why not just use what you made?" They're like, "Well, but it's a demo." That doesn't matter. Whatever sounds great, that's what we're going with. Trying to exactly emulate demo tracks can be tough, because, a lot of times, honestly, it sounds too good – what they're expecting is something more lo-fi. A minimal one-mic drum setup, or something recorded on a phone, can have a sound that is hard to get out of nicer gear. Rather than trying to chase that rabbit hole, I try to find that happy medium. Or I tell them, "Hey, we can fly in the parts that give the vibe that you want." I try not to automatically say, "Yeah, I've tried that, and it doesn't work." It's possible that something I've tried that doesn't work [before] works perfectly in this artist's context. It's easy to get in your own head. For bands that aren't able to make that separation in their brains, those are the bands where I feel I have the easiest time helping them step outside of their music. I listen to somebody perform, and I can make some notes about arrangement, dynamics, and all that. But, when I record it, I try some of the ideas I have in my mind for how I want the song to change. I've had a few bands that I've worked with here in town that are great '90s-style rock, and they all write in a room where everything's super loud and they can't hear everything. So, they bring it in to me, I capture it, and I'm like, "Okay, there's a big space here where there needs to be a half chorus. The second verse is way too dense and doesn't leave any room for the choruses to be bigger than the verses, so we need to cut those way down to size." That is a lot easier for someone that's not in the band to hear and suggest. The artist that wrote it, demoed it at home, taught it to the people they're playing with, and are playing it live; they're so invested in that and want it to be a certain way – it's hard to step back and see it as someone else would. That's why collaborative production will always be a thing, even if studios change or shrink.

It's easy to be, "Nope. This is the way it is." We, as Gen X, saw the older generation be the gatekeepers of "the way it has to be." I promised myself that I would never be that. We're still learning, changing, and adapting to the way that things are now.

Absolutely. I used to work with another mix/recording engineer who would never let anybody see his plug-in settings or how he did his work. And, if anyone asked for tracks, he would give them stripped back, “only what was recorded,” tracks. He would never send any of the effects that he applied. He was like, "I cannot let anyone else learn my secrets." I'm over here saying, "I found this mic position that is unbelievable for drums, and everyone should use it! Put a figure-8 ribbon right over the kick drum, beside the tom, and it'll pick up everything." Every time I've opened up to people who are genuinely desiring to be part of music, it's always brought something good. I haven't needed to advertise my studio ever, because the thing that gets around is that I have a welcoming space. I bring non-judgment. I don't expect everyone who comes in here to make commercially accessible pop hits. There's a huge amount of music that is not commercially successful pop hits. Many people in bands I've worked with have been hung up on making commercially successful pop hits. As soon as they start thinking about creating with an audience in mind, I feel they've already lost the thread.

If you do what you love for the sake of it, it's going to pay off rather than trying to monetize everything.

Yeah. It's off-putting when someone is so focused on, "How do I monetize this?" If I meet somebody who's asking me a bunch of questions, and then, "Okay, how am I going to make this into my business?" I don't really want to help them. I have a guy I've worked with on three or four different albums with three or four different projects now. He's one of these traveling guitarists that shows up in every band. We've done a ton of great work together. He suggested the other day that we do a noise project, just for fun. He's like, "You've got all these weird toys. I've got all these weird toys. We've both got weird brains. Let's do something that's completely inaccessible to anyone, including ourselves, then go and perform it one time and call it good." You can make friends and do "friend" stuff, rather than having to make it all business, all the time.

And obviously it pays off. You were nominated for a Grammy.

The project I was nominated for was with the blues artist Johnny Nicholas. His first album [Too Many Bad Habits] was out of print for ages, and Blind Pig Records gave him back the rights to that album, plus all of the master tapes and outtakes. All the master tapes needed to be remixed for a 40th anniversary box set version. We got Bill Johnson and Nick Landis here in Austin to do the transfers. They're both great. Bill's an excellent engineer, old-school style, and Nick is a great mastering engineer. They rescued and transferred all the tapes. I sat with Bruce Hughes, who produced the project. I got to pull up all these tapes that were recorded in 1976 that had never been heard. They finished recording it, they stored the tapes, and that was the last time they were pulled up and played until they were transferred to digital. We had to do a lot of tricky work to try and make these mostly 4-track recordings releasable. There were performances from Big Walter Horton, Boogie Woogie Red, and all these other blues guys that had been dead for years. These were the first time these performances had ever been heard. I did my best to make it sound like they were well-recorded live in a blues club, rather than recorded live in someone's living room.

You also won an Emmy for your work with Carrie Rodriguez.

I was working with the City of Austin on the Notes In Time [video] series. A notable artist from Austin would come in and do an interview and a few songs live in the room; generally pretty low-key and acoustic. We had Miss Lavelle White, Marcia Ball, Darden Smith, and a bunch of great artists. Carrie Rodriguez came in, did one of these episodes, and it was nominated for, and won, an Emmy. I captured the sound and put it together.

I'm curious what you think is going to happen with the arts and music scene in Austin, now that we're becoming such a tech hub.

I see a lot of people coming and going. Every time I find out that a friend has moved, someone else pops up. I've got a lot of clients that have moved away and then come back and work with me again. Some worked remotely, where I was recording here and sending [tracks] to them, or vice-versa. I think Austin will stay where it is, ideally with some push from good local labels, like Modern Outsider [Records], Spaceflight [Records], and some of the regional Texas labels. I can see the Austin scene growing up and starting to compete on the business level with places like Nashville, New York, and L.A., but that's been predicted for 20, 30, or 40 years. It's slow growth. That's fine. The number one issue in Austin for new artists and people trying to make music is that the cost of living is so high that they don't have spare time to do art. They have to hustle all the time, just to make enough to live. That's kind of removing the "Keep Austin Weird” vibe. If we don't have something where they can work for a week and then spend the other three weeks of the month doing whatever they want, then they don't have time to get into that strange, creative headspace. That's causing a lot of my clients to skew more towards the 30 to 50 [years old] range. I recently did an album with a guy who's a career mailman retiree, and it's a great record. He's got the latitude; he bought a home a long time ago. He doesn't have to worry about coming up with a couple grand every month just to live. That was one of the things I loved about Cincinnati. The space I had there was in the middle of an artist community that was all warehouses that were probably super unsafe and whatever, but they were dirt cheap. I see a lot of people moving out to the margins, like out into Manor, Taylor, Kyle, Lockhart, and Buda. I have one band that comes in from San Marcos. They could probably go to a studio that's got a cheaper day rate in San Antonio, but they like working here.

What are your plans for the studio?

I am trying to integrate an old 16-track MCI tape machine into the workflow here in a way that I can use it simultaneously with Pro Tools. So, if I’m tracking to tape, and if we like what the tape brings, we can dump it back in and align it. That's been a big project for me recently, trying to get all of that wired up and working. We still have a few great techs in Austin that do work on old, old, old gear and have been doing that work for a long time. There's an AES chapter here that's great for tech help. The other thing that I feel like I'm always learning, and will never master, is just mixing great-sounding songs. Being a good mix engineer takes a lot of trust in your ears. A moment that was a real switch for me in mixing was when I took an album I'd recorded with my old band to Tim Palmer [Tape Op #99], who's an unbelievable mix engineer. He's got platinum records coming out of his ears, Grammys, and a diamond record for Pearl Jam's Ten. He took this album of tracks that I'd recorded in my little iso booth in an apartment and turned it into an album that sounded like it was done in a million-dollar studio. Watching how he approached the tracks that I recorded completely changed how I mix. It was a master class. It took me from, "Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I fail," to knowing the path from recorded to finished. What I've been working on for the last ten years since is recording in a way that when I hit play on an unmixed recording, it sounds as close as possible to where I want it to be at the end. That's something that I feel I'm still working on. Lately, I'm obsessed with figure-8 patterned recordings, and finding ways to use that polar pattern to capture something that is a little more useful. Doing all of that – plus all of the gain staging, the pre-EQ'ing, and lightly or heavily compressing to get it together – so that when a band records and I play it back, it sounds close enough to an album that they get excited. I get excited, because I don't have to do as much work to take it from there to releasable!

What are you thinking about learning next?

I am always trying to not prejudge or be a dumbass. It's super important to not be a rigid, old Texan asshole, and to enjoy all these various oddballs. That's the whole world of music; people who don't fit into molds. Going back to something that you represent, there are a lot of people who are nervous about going into the studio for the first time. My main goal is to make people feel comfortable and accepted, and that the music that they bring in, no matter what level it's at, is valid. The artistic expression is valid, and I want to capture it and celebrate it. I don't want to try and fit it into a mold. That's not what I do here. I try and give people all the tools to help create whatever it is that's bouncing around in their brain.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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