This interview was conducted via email on January 14th, 2006 with record producer Matt Squire (Northstar, The Receiving End of Sirens, Panic! At the Disco, The Junior Varsity, Hit the Lights, etc., etc., etc). I don’t know how to thank Matt enough for the work he put into this interview. It was extremely long, he’s a busy man, and yet he still came up with detailed, thorough answers.
How and when did you first get involved with producing/engineering? Your answer to the previous question may answer this, but what did you start with first, and how did you then adapt to the other?
I was always playing in bands and had home recording rigs. First, a 4 track, then an 8 track, and then computer rigs. About 4 years ago, I started recording more than playing–first, The Cancer Conspiracy for Big Wheel and then an Explosion EP, and so on from there. I have been very fortunate to be a part of some great projects along the way.
What projects have you been working on lately, and what all do you have coming up?
Just wrapped So They Say for Fearless and Hit the Lights for Triple Crown. Right now I am working with A Thorn For Every Heart–gonna be a truly special record. They are on to something new and it’s real exciting to watch it unfold. Great dudes too. Next up is Cute Is What We Aim For–real fired up for that one. I have a # of demos from them and there is some great stuff there. After that, Boys Like Girls, Permanent Me, and a couple more in the works.
Did you go to school for either producing or engineering? If not, how did you learn to produce a record/engineer?
I never went to school for this, but I did go to school. Actually, I have a degree in psychology–I think it actually kinda comes in handy with production. Anyways, Brian McTernan taught me almost everything I know; we’ve been very close friends since we were like 12 (we played in a bunch of bands together too!). My bands have taught me the rest: I learn more every record cause every band has a unique set of needs. That’s what makes it exciting–there is no right way to do this! That’s why recording school isn’t exactly the answer. That said, I know some dudes who have learned a tremendous amount in school. Sometimes I wish I had taken a class or two.
Do you ever wish you could just focus on the production aspect, or do you enjoy both producing and engineering?
Sometimes I wish I could just produce. I have to admit that sometimes the technical stuff gets in the way, but the two are also very intimately connected. I have gotten sounds that have led me in different directions on a song; sometimes, that fresh take absolutely makes the song…
When a band comes to work with you, do you consider yourself a “fifth Beatle” of sorts, where you contribute to the sound, direction, and give your input on chords/progressions/melodies/rhythms/song structures et, or do you take the Steve Albini approach, where you just try to capture the sonic vision the band is looking for? I’m guessing you find a place in between, but how do you know where that place is? How do you know if you’re giving too much input/changing the songs too much?
I really like to get inside the head of the band and make my ideas a part of the process (so I guess “5th Beatle”). It’s not a “my way or the highway” kind of thing though; it’s more like I believe in the “objective ear.” I can come in and say, “Hey, I don’t get the chorus” or “Why does this song have so many parts?” A band can dig a part because its fun to play and that’s part of music, but maybe it doesn’t SOUND good. I’m pretty blunt with bands and I kinda encourage people to argue back: the compromises are what make the records cool in the end.
How open are bands to having someone else change their songs? Ever had any serious disagreements? If so, how do you resolve them?
Some bands are more open than others. It’s a trust thing. I am coming from a place of respect and most bands feel that. The changes are about making the music as good as it can be. It’s not about trying to make things more “marketable.” I have had serious disagreements–why not? There is enough mediocre music out there: I’d rather fight and have it come out good if that’s what it takes. Resolving these disputes is about compromise, and it comes down to the strength of the relationship. Come to think of it, I am pretty sure I’ve had serious disagreements with every band I’ve ever worked with.
If you could, please take us through a typical recording session with Matt Squire, starting with when the band contacts you, pre-production, tracking, etc., all the way up through when you send off the final masters.
1. Band gets in touch and sends me demos. 2. I prepare the band for “prepro” [pre-production] (which is a lil intense in my case). 3. Band shows up and we get right into it and start getting the songs together in prepro (band practice style). When we’re satisfied that the record is in good shape, we start tracking: drums, then bass, then a couple of days of guitars. Then I stagger vox and guitars for the rest. I hate doing all the vox at the end ‘cause it burns singers out, so the stagger thing really works cause we sing like 1 song a day and surround that time with guitars and overdubs and stuff. Then I mix, which I like to do alone. I can really get into the mix and there are no distractions in the room. The band then makes suggestions about levels and panning and stuff and we’re set. It never rolls the same way twice, but that’s the basic layout.
How do you prepare to work with a band? Do you listen to previous recordings? See them live? What if they’re a small band with no previous demos, doesn’t play shows, etc.?
I do whatever I can. Demos are great, especially bad sounding ones. The crappier the recording the better, so I can just concentrate on the song. Seeing the band live can help of course; seeing TREOS with Casey for the first time was insane for me. Just blew my mind. It was in a VFW in MD with like 100 people and no sound system–and they sounded insane. It definitely influenced my take on how to record them.
How do you set the right tone (pun intended) for a session?
Meaning 1: Every band is vastly different, so I try and get different sounds for each band. Northstar shouldn’t have the same drum sound as ATFEH or whatever, etc. Meaning 2: I like to break the ice on a session with prepro and kinda tearing apart a song. We should feel like the sky is the limit from the get go and there is nothing like working hard to get the details on a song to create that feeling.
I heard you’re quite the work-a-holic – do people ever get pissed off that you wake them up/work them hard?
I like to bang pots and pans (ask Hit the Lights). I think bands should work hard, I think I should work hard. There are a lot of bands, there are a lot of great producers; I feel like hard work is the only way to make something GREAT. I try to limit the hours these days cause if I work too long any given day, I tend to stop listening and that doesn’t help anyone. The bands that do well with me have a similar work ethic: Panic[! At the Disco] worked their tails off in the studio, perfecting electronics, rewriting vocal parts, etc., and the dudes in TREOS practice their instruments all of the time (geeks).
What’s the best way for bands to get in touch with you? Will you work with unsigned bands?
I love to do demos and records. I like a healthy mix on my schedule. Bands can either contact me or Matt Galle and it goes from there. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and I try and get back to people as soon as possible.
What software do you use? Why did you choose it over all the other programs out there?
I use Pro Tools. I used Cakewalk when I first started and then it crashed. Pro Tools has a good file management system so I can rebuild a session if it crashes. Pro Tools also has cool tools like beat detective (drum quantizing program)—it’s pretty fun, like playing video games.
Vocal mic of choice? Do you use it for all vocals, or does it depend on the singer?
I’ve got a couple. I like these Rode NTVs (tube mics), and on scratchier singers, I like a Neumann TLM 103 (solid state). The Neumann tends to smooth people out a bit.
Guitar mic of choice? Best mic placement?
[Shure] SM57 with a [Sennheiser] 421 pointed at the same speaker in a “v” (so they are in phase).
I’ve been dying to asking you this: the drum tones you got on Northstar’s Pollyanna amaze me every time I listen to the CD. How do you go about getting your drum sounds (particularly, what did you do on Pollyanna)? They’re incredible. What mics do you use?
Thanks for that compliment!!! I think drum tuning is an important skill for a producer/engineer. That’s part of it. Getting the drummer to hit hard and consistently is a real big part of it. A cool reverb-y room is nice (Northstar was done in a real cool drum room). I do use triggers but they are blended in and I have them turned down pretty quiet. If I turn them too loud, the drums start sounding too cushiony (ughhh…). I like the drums to sound pissed; the triggers I use are usually just the sounds from the band that I am working on at that time so they sound exactly like the real tones. The mics I use are kind of funny–I use 57s, an AKG D112, Sennheiser minis on the toms, and Neumann M149s as overheads. It’s almost a live mic’ing setup, but that’s what sounds good to me!
Which monitors do you use?
I use Genelec 1031s. They’re real bright, so I got a Genelec subwoofer to help with low end judgement. I’ve had them for a while, so I’m used to the way they sound vs. a car or something.
What kind of gear do you keep around in your studio (amps, guitars, drums, etc.)?
I have a couple of Les Pauls, a real sweet Marshall JMP and a Greenback cab. I’ve also got an Ampeg SVT classic bass amp. I have some mix and match drums that sound real awesome. As a general rule, I like to use bands’ gear so that every record sounds unique, but I have my standbys here.
What’s the one piece of equipment you can’t live without?
Can’t live without my Alan Smart Compressor—that’s what I mix through. I use an analog console to mix and that compressor just pulls it all together. I don’t understand the whole computer mixing environment—I’ve heard some people make it sound good, but I just can’t seem to get my ears around it.
Have you ever used a POD or other amp-modeling device? What’re your take on those?
I have a POD Live XT. It’s got a bunch of the EFX in it from the Line 6 pedals. I only use it plugged into an amp though; straight in, it sounds pretty gnarly to me, but they are great tools for demos.
I was reading an interview a while back in Tape Op where a producer mentioned that he’s often had to bring in studio musicians (many times late at night, behind the band’s back) because some of the bands he’s worked with were utterly incompetent at their instruments. Is this a decision that you’ve had to face? If so, how do you break the news to the musician?
It’s a tough one cause you want the records to come out great but I’d rather push someone to learn how to play than just bring in the ringer. If the band comes out of here as better players, then I’ve really done my job. To date, I have never replaced a band member or tricked a band or anything like that.
When it comes to drums, it’s possible to slide all the hits around, quantize them, etc.—would you consider editing the hell out of shittily played drums instead of bringing in a session drummer, or do you only quantize, etc. to fine-tune?
I use this technique on most drummers that come through, but it’s really only an “icing on the cake” kind of thing. I punch in drums for hours so that the performance is near perfect before editing and then I “beat detective” the tracks to get them 100% on. A lot of the records that I have been working on lately have had elecronics going on–beat detective-ing is essential to getting the analog instruments and the synthetic ones to roll together.
This is a pretty hot topic right now at AP.net, but what’s your take on the use of auto-tune in recordings? When or why will you use it (or not use it)? Is it just another tool (like tuning a guitar)?
Auto-tune is a real cool tool, but only when a performance is great to begin with. I spend hours on vox and get them as close as possible. I then auto tune them with a graph so they don’t do that squiggle thing–I can’t stand that sound! My goal is for my auto tuning to be relatively transparent–like beat detective, it is the “icing on the cake,” not the main ingredient.
As you’ve been doing a lot of work lately, and have a lot of projects coming up, does that affect whether or not you commit things like EQ and compression at the time of tracking, or do you save all that for the end?
I try and get a lot of stuff right during tracking, especially with Pro Tools cause I think digital tracks don’t take EQ quite as well as tape tracks did. My mixing is more about levels and panning than trying to “fix” things that weren’t right to begin with (or at least that’s the hope). I do a lot of my guitar effects during tracking too–something about the delay pedal hitting the amp is way more appealing than the plug in after effect.
What studio tricks have you developed over the years?
It’s tough; the tricks that make one record awesome don’t seem to work on the next one cause bands are all unique. On the Panic! record, I used very little compression cause I was trying to make so many things fit into a very dense mix, whereas on Hit the Lights, I was nailing everything (with compression) cause I wanted to make a bigger sound with less instrumentation. I guess the trick is to just try and improvise as much as possible and not get too stuck on any one trip. I can say with confidence that it’s not really about studio gear or mics or any of the more technical stuff. A great guitar played by a great player through a great amp is 95% of a great sound.
Should the production be a vehicle for the song, or vice versa?
Depends on the song. Take an artist like Bjork–the production and the song are so intimately connected, it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Honestly, nothing means more than a great song (one that stands the one guitar, one vocal test), but I have been amazed at what can happen when a great harmony or guitar lead finishes the idea.
How do you avoid cluttering things up on a recording?
Headphones, headphones, headphones.
What’s your take on analog vs. digital?
Digital has given us a new level of perfectionism to reach for. You can punch way more and that is exciting. I miss the sound of cymbals on tape but that’s about it. Tape machines are real hard to maintain and it’s costly. I feel like I concentrate way more on the music (which is what counts) when I don’t have to worry about whether I calibrated the heads properly or what not.
Of all the bands you’ve worked with, who has had the most talented musicians?
Well that’s tough. I feel like I have been truly blessed in this area—I have been around some real virtuosos. Let’s just say that the list is long…
Do you have to like the band’s music to work on their project?
Yes, absolutely, 100%. If I don’t like songs when a band first arrives, I make sure that I like them by the time prepro is over. Making records is SO tough–I can’t imagine what it would be like to make one that I didn’t believe in.
With what bands have you had the best sessions (Hit the Lights had to have been fun)? Which record that you’ve done is your favorite, musically? What about production-wise?
Picking favorites is hard to do–I have learned so much from them all, and I’m not just being diplomatic or whatever. And to answer the Hit the Lights question, they are a blast, but we slaved that entire record. They have a great work ethic and we were grinding the whole session. I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite, production-wise, but I do feel like I started to discover my “sound” during the TREOS record.
Which album have you had to put the most effort into, and what made it so difficult?
They’ve all been pretty tough. I can’t remember the last record that didn’t stress me out. I would love for it to be a more laid back process, but for some reason it doesn’t end up that way. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to the band–a band has to have a great product these days, there is no other way.
Seeing as how some of the records you’ve produced are doing extremely well (Panic! At the Disco comes to mind), what have you done to make sure you’re not getting screwed out of anything, financially? Does a successful producer need a lawyer, or is it something you can handle by yourself?
I have a friend who helps me out with my legal stuff, contracts and what not. It’s a pretty simple agreement I have with bands and it’s just something I do so that I can enjoy the rewards of a record that sells well.
Do you handle the project’s overall plan, budget, time tracking, etc. yourself, or do you have someone else do that?
Matt Galle helps with the scheduling and budget issues. Once a record is booked, I lay out how much time is going to be spent on every instrument–making a schedule helps SO much. I used to feel like being organized was kind of a buzzkill, but now that I kinda plan everything out (like, we have to get 5 guitar tracks done today we’re screwed), I find that me and the band are more at ease. Things feel like they’re under control and heading in the right direction. I am also a fan of taking a day off every once in a while to let my ears chill out. Coming back in with a fresh perspective is priceless.
What advice do you have for people who are interested in getting involved in engineering and producing? Do you recommend reading any books or things like that, or should one just get their hands dirty and try experimenting?
Books might help some, but I wouldn’t really know. I think it’s all about instincts and trying to match what’s in your head with what ends up on disk. I’m pretty sure experience is the best teacher. Also, as a producer/engineer, it’s important to listen to your bands and try and process what they’re pushing you to do. Every time I do a record, I feel like I’m learning more. An engineering book is not gonna tell you how to get a great performance out of a singer, and I think that’s the kind of stuff that moves us.
What pieces of gear would you recommend for a beginner to get started with (hardware/software/mics/etc)?
I think a cheap Pro Tools rig is a great way to start (Mbox, M-Audio, Digi002). Some cheap mics (SM57, Sennheiser tom mics, AKG D112–I still use all of these things). BUT, do not learn to trigger drums. Wait until you can get a good drum sound without that kind of help first. Too often, I hear home recordings with bad drum sounds and triggers pasted all over them–yechhh… Drums are an art form and triggers are just an enhancing tool, so I say learn the art form first.
Though this was brought up at the beginning, how does one learn to become a producer?
I think being a producer is about being a musician. My years writing songs and playing shows with my own bands are what help me with this new chapter. The rest is just trial and error along the way.
Could you talk a little bit about the label you’ve started up with Casey of The Receiving End of Sirens? How’s that going? Got any bands you’re interested in? What kind of bands are you looking for?
Can’t really comment on that one yet. Casey and I have a vision and a great working relationship, but we are both very busy. We are trying to figure out how we can do something without compromising our existing careers.
Would you produce bands that are on your own label? How would that work out, business-wise?
Too soon to say. Every project is different and has different needs.
What’s currently in your stereo/playing on your iPod?
I wish I had an answer. I haven’t turned on my stereo in years. I spend 10+ hours a day listening to music, so it’s tough to turn on the stereo. I wan’t to turn on the stereo more….
What are some of your favorite albums, production-wise (it’s ok to include your own stuff haha)?
I love the Muse record and the Mew record–Rich Costey is doing some exciting stuff. Old Pink Floyd records (so ambitious). I like the Jellyfish records a lot (anybody ever heard of them?), Depeche Mode, Violator, U2’s Joshua Tree, The Cult’s Sonic Temple (yes, I’m goin’ there–it sounds insane), NIN’s Downward Spiral (can’t really get into his voice anymore, but the production is so cool!), Bjork, Homogenic (drum machines and strings, yea).
What bands would you like to produce? What albums do you wish you had the chance to have produced, and why?
Hmph, that’s a tough question. I want to have such a cool answer to this one but, for some reason, I don’t. I would love to diversify a lil bit, branch out into some other genres…
What’s the dirtiest or nastiest thing you or one of your bands has ever done while recording?
Well, Nick from Hit the Lights pissed on my house–does that qualify?
Thank you so much for the interview, I know it was long, and you’re a busy man. Any final words you’d like to say to the readers of AP.net, or in general?
Thanks for reading this interview. If anyone has further questions, email me at email@example.com.