PropertyOfZack Producer’s Corner : : Matt Malpass

by Zack Zarrillo - May 4, 2011

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PropertyOfZack’s Label Talk feature has not only been proven to be one of our most successful, but also one of our most interesting features since we debuted it in December with Jesse Cannon. Following Jesse’s feature we shifted gears to record labels, but realized that producer’s had a very interesting view on music as well and that we wanted to start a brand new feature called Producer’s Corner. Matt Malpass is first up for the feature and was kind enough to answer a whole slew of questions on his background in production, his feelings on new production methods, the future of the music industry, and his upcoming projects with Leighton Antelman (Lydia). Please read up, it’s an extremely thorough, but even more enjoyable interview!

Matt, for those who don’t know what exactly you do and just who you’ve done it with, could you go ahead and introduce yourself and give a brief overview about some of the bands you’ve worked with?
Well I’ve been recording bands for the past 9 years or so. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many talented bands of many different statures over the years. It’s kinda hard to put a good list together but I suppose some of the more notable bands I’ve had the chance to work with might be Train, Copeland, Hey Monday, The Ready Set, Lydia, Relient K, Cute is What We Aim For, Holiday Parade, Mercy Mercedes, Manchester Orchestra and Rookie of the Year. A lot of people don’t know I got my start as an engineer at a rap studio — got to do a song with Lil’ John, The Ying Yang twins, ha.
 
You tend to work in polar opposites in terms of the bands that you produce from Lydia to Cute Is What We Aim For to Decoder. Do you think that sticking to one specific genre would hinder your ability to grow as a producer?
I absolutely love changing genres this much, if I stayed within one genre I feel like I might start getting stagnant, using the same tricks or just doing cookie cutter formats. I feel like the more I switch it up the more I learn about music in general, for instance I feel like the things I learned from working with Aaron Marsh and Copeland helped me integrate certain aspects into the Decoder record that might never had occurred to me before. I’ve been really into trying to mix genres recently, trying to come up with something fresh.
 
On the poppier side, you’ve recently done work with Shaant from Cute Is What We Aim For. When can we look for those recordings to find their way into our ears, and how was it working with him this go-around?
Shaant is a genuinely great guy, I have so much fun working with him. We’ve done 2 sessions so far, we have about 8 songs that we’ve co-written, 5 of them are unfinished so right now we’re trying to get our calendars to line up so we can finish. I’m not exactly sure what the plan for release is yet, I think he’s gonna see what happens once we wrap these songs up. I can say that I am super excited for this batch though, I think these songs are turning out super cool—-Shaant is trying some new things with his voice and I really like how it’s working out.
 
What kind of equipment do you use in the studio and what are some of your favorite go-to tricks that you’re willing to reveal?
I’m running protools 9 HD through a DDA DMR 12 console with a relatively modest rack of outboard pre’s and compressors. A lot of the tricks I use are really just combinations of my ADD manifesting itself through my work in ProTools. Any band I’ve worked with can tell you that I just kinda zone out in front of the computer sometimes, finding myself just cutting/copying/pasting/throwing random plugin onto of random plugin just trying to make some sort of sound that’s amusing or different. Most of the time I’ll end up chopping up audio for a joke but it ends up sounding cool so we use it in the song. One of my go-to plugins is SoundToys Echoboy, I couldn’t live without that thing.
 
So much has changed since you started working on records in regards to technology, recording tools, and more. Have there been points where you haven’t wanted to produce anymore because the game that you stepped into in the beginning has now almost disappeared?
Honestly I think it’s almost had the opposite effect on me. I got into this whole thing right as ProTools was really taking off and Analog-to-Digial converters were starting to finally sound good. I have never used a tape machine (gasp) — in fact, I probably wouldn’t know how to use one. I remember reading interviews with old school producers, hearing how they used to do things back in the good old days, and it really makes me think about how grateful I am now to have the technology we have. I don’t know if I’d have as much fun recording bands back in the old school days, back when they actually had to be good and track full-band live together :) I realize that probably sounds ignorant — and I certainly don’t mean that I don’t appreciate the great records from classic bands like the Beatles, I just mean that as a producer I am thankful for all the additional tools technology brings me.
 
What have been some of your favorite records to work on in your years of producing and mixing?
I think probably my two favorite records I’ve worked on have been Lydia’s Illuminate record and All Get Out’s forthcoming record (going to be released this summer). With Lydia it was really great because they were so open to experiment with everything, and we had so much time to work with (almost 2 months) so we got to try all sorts of crazy mic techniques and different tones. I remember one night I stopped and had to laugh when I realized what it must look like to watch us stereo mic a disco ball. I had someone hold it up and then two other people stood on either side of it with pieces of cardboard lightly touching the glass speckles and we spun the disco ball to the beat of the song, capturing the sound on either side of the ball with two separate mics panned hard left-right (it was the song “All I See”). We also took a road trip during that record down to Aaron Marsh’s studio to record some piano and vibraphone. Overall it was just really great time and I feel very close to that record.
 
Making All Get Out’s record was great because I love those guys so much and we had so much creativity floating around. We spent at least a week doing drums, changing out pieces and tuning for each part of each song to get the appropriate tones. We had enough time to experiment with different textures of guitar tones and keys/organs, and really develop the songs past the normal point of “well, here’s the drums, bass, rhythm guitar/lead guitar and vocals”—-we got to really listen through and bring each song to life. The vocal takes were always very powerful and real—in the end, there are some songs on that record that I can’t listen to without choking up, they’re so powerful. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
 
Some producers are excited by the fact that it’s becoming increasingly easy for bands to record their own music, but many producers also see that as a threat. What are your thoughts on self-recording and how they may or may not interfere with your job down the line?
That’s a tough one. On one hand I really love that bands have the chance to record their own demos because it makes things so much easier for me when we start recording. On the other hand, yeah, maybe more bands will start to take their own route, which may seem like a good idea at first but I think the more that happens the lower the bar is going to be. There isn’t going to be as much of a standard for excellence, and the music may suffer in the long run for it. The benefit of recording with a producer (minus the actual studio/expensive gear, whatever…) is the experience and the outside ear. A band recording themselves will be lacking the outside input of someone who has dedicated their life to learning how to creatively and efficiently craft the art of music. I don’t know if a home recording could typically replace that (obviously there will always be exceptions, but I’m speaking generally…)
 
With the industry struggling how it is, are you open to working with bands or artists who may not seem very talented to you or are out of your comfortable genre of music if they’re willing to pay higher values for production? Especially if that means that you’ll be able to work with bands that you love for less money?
Unfortunately this is something that is a valid consideration. Without elaborating, there have been times in my career where I’ve worked on projects I wouldn’t call ideal, because I had to pay the studio overhead.
 
Kickstarter is a tool that many bands have been using to raise money for the recording process to be able to work with producers of their choosing. Do you think it’s right for bands to ask their fans for money, especially when they can’t guarantee happiness with their final product?
Man I’m not sure how I feel about Kickstarter. I mean I get it, but I’m undecided on if I think it’s right or not. It makes sense on one hand — if a band has enough dedicated fans, they fund the record ahead of time. If they don’t have enough dedicated fans, well, shucks, maybe they need to start saving their own money (or figure out why they don’t have enough dedicated fans)… But then again, is it fair to put their fans in that position to decide weather or not they can afford to record? Believe me, I’ve seen bands that have no money at all do whatever it is they need to do to get the money they need to record with, weather its saving part of their paycheck, playing tons of fundraising shows or even getting a bank loan.
 
Holiday Parade obviously just used Kickstarter to record with you. Did that change the environment in the studio at all?
Nothing could change the delightful environment that accompanied Holiday Parade into the studio, they were absolutely a pleasure and a half to work with! I hope we do more recordings in the future. 
 
Does it matter to you that the money isn’t coming directly from the band or label’s pocket with services like these?
I think that no matter who is paying for the record my job is the same: make the best record that myself and the band can possibly make!
 
Most people have concerns with record labels selling less music, but how do you handle decreased sales in music as the producer of an album? How does that affect what you’re able to do?
I think part of my job (or part of what I like to make my job) is to continue to pursue new innovative ways to support the artists I work with and the manner in which they can profit from their music. I’ve had long conversations with bands I’ve recorded months after they left the studio where we brainstorm different ways they can market their music to try and overcome the failing dinosaur music industry model. I don’t have all the answers right now but I’m pretty determined to move forward and become part of the new music industry that gets a clue about what’s going on and embraces the change instead of holding to old dying ways. There’s more of a demand for good music than ever, and there has to be a way to support this demand if we position ourselves strategically.
 
What about your thoughts more in general? As already mentioned, you’ve been around for quite some time and have seen a great deal of changes in the industry. What are your thoughts on the present and future?
Well expanding on what I was saying, I think its obvious that the old way isn’t working. Major labels are losing record (no pun intended!) amounts of money. I think the future is going to lie in the hands of young innovative people who are willing to take risks, people with drive like Mark Zuckerberg. If you think about it, we are actually in a very exciting place in the music industry as independent artists and production companies; we can make a song right here right now, go through Tunecore and get INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION ALMOST FOR FREE, and tell the world about your release through a variety of music blogs and YouTube. All you need is the IDEA—you have the distribution at your fingertips. Think about that….That would have been UNHEARD OF in the 90’s. You, the artist, have access to the entire world, all from your computer—-all you need is SOMETHING WORTH SELLING. You need a song that will get people talking, a video that is compelling enough for the viewer to pass it on and on and on and it becomes viral. Take advantage of the potential of viral marketing!
 
Most people have turned their attention to your new project with Leighton Antelman. Your relationship obviously grew from producing Lydia, but was it an easy decision to make music together?
It was pretty seamless actually. During the final session where we were mixing Lydia’s last record Assailants, Leighton mentioned to me that this was the last Lydia record that they were going to make but that he still wanted to make music. I think what happened is that we got drunk that night and I ended up showing him a handful of songs that I had been working on for myself—I had the idea to release a solo record of my own stuff with me singing. I think as I played those songs for him it became obvious to me that my vocals just weren’t gonna cut it, ha :) He seemed to be really into the direction of the songs and we just came up with the idea to collaborate and come up with a batch of songs together with him doing vocals. So I bounced a few instrumental tracks of the songs I had been working on and he took them with him and worked on them during their farewell tour. During that time I used my days off to write new music and I’d just send him what I came up with. He would put down more music and vocals on top of it and send it back—and finally we came up with enough stuff that we decided we should put out a record. He flew in to Atlanta 3 or 4 times and we ended up finishing about 10 or so tracks, which I’m currently in the process of doing final mixes on.
 
How would you compare the current songs to the type of music Lydia was creating at the end of their run?
Well one thing I was digging about the last Lydia stuff was the electronic/programming aspect that we were putting into it, that might be one of the only common threads between Lydia and this new project (besides, obviously, Leighton’s unmistakable vocal style). One of the stipulations of this project Leighton and I started was that I didn’t want it to sound very much like Lydia so I started off writing the music for each song, (instead of him starting the song) so it would push him to work off of stuff that he naturally wouldn’t start writing on his own. It was a pretty fun experiment actually. During that time I was really getting into and studying pop music— I had this idea where I would create extremely poppy dance-y tracks, pretty ridiculous to the point where in early form they almost sounded like Lady GaGa or Ne-yo tracks, something along those lines. But then I would completely indie-fy them by throwing on a bunch of organic instruments/keys and then let Leighton have his way with them. He would always add elements of spacey guitars and keys because thats what comes natural to him, so with that plus his melodies and lyrics it ended up balancing the songs out and making them really interesting. We’ve talked about weather or not Lydia fans will like the songs— and I’m really not sure, but I’d like to think that both Leighton and I both have good taste in music and we never made a song that him and I didn’t personally like.
 
It can be assumed that fans will hope for the new project to tour. Is that something you would be interested in, or even be able to do?
We’ve talked about that—I think we’re both open to that idea. I haven’t been a touring band for years now so it would be fun to get out of the studio. I think we decided that it would have to be the right situation in order to make it work.
 
Is what you’ve worked on with Leighton different from his upcoming solo record?
Totally different. You can think of our project sort of like a Postal Service thing. Leighton said he always wanted to make a pop record and thats what our record is. Hopefully we’ll make another one, we’re already talked about it. But he just finished writing an entire solo record himself that we’re going to start tracking in June. I haven’t heard any of the demos yet but I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t be able to use descriptions of Lady GaGa or Ne-Yo anywhere near it :)
 
Thanks so much for your time. What else can we be on the lookout from you in terms of production, and is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for talking with me! I’m stoked about the future—I feel like I’m developing a bit of new sound with some of the projects I’m doing right now, I’m excited to expand it. I also just started working with Ozone Management, we’re working on putting some new exciting things together, those guys are great and so on top of things—it’s gonna be a great year for music, no matter what the industry looks like!

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