We recently had a moment to speak with Matt Wallace, a super-talented audio engineer and producer who, with Bill Gould, co-mixed the latest Faith No More album, Sol Invictus. In fact, Wallace has a lengthy history with the band and is now the only outsider, since day one, left working with the group. A very interesting man and an equally interesting read.
You have been working with Faith No More since the beginning. To what do you attribute your long-lasting working relationship?
Wallace: We seem to be like-minded in musical sensibilities and were, at the beginning, and even still today, very driven and dedicated to capturing some unique and exciting musical expression. Also, because we’ve worked together for so long (and shared lodging) we’ve sort of become like family.
Technology has changed drastically since you began working with the band. What are the major pros and cons of working with the newer equipment?
Wallace: The cons of working with digital recording equipment are, to some extent, sonics (us old-school engineers/producers/mixers liked or got used to the ‘sound’ of analog tape) but, more importantly, the sever lack of limitations. What I mean by that is that, while recording on 24 track analog tape, you have to be very selective as to what performances and instruments you capture on tape because there is ‘limited real estate’ or, more clearly, limited musical information storage area.
So, if your analog tape is full and you have another idea to capture you have to decide what you’ve previously recorded that you are comfortable with erasing to make room for your new idea. With the advent of Pro Tools and other digital audio workstations is that you have virtually unlimited space for recording. The primary disadvantage with digital is that most people don’t self edit as they’re recording so, by the time it’s time to mix your hundreds of tracks down to a stereo, two track piece of audio that consumers can enjoy, then many decisions are left to the very end of the process and oftentimes it’s incumbent on the mixer to make decisions as to what is kept and what is muted.
And, for better or worse, because the technology has gotten so good that, with digital, you can not only capture a performance but you can alter it. In the days of analog recording you had to be able to sing and play your instruments whereas today’s musicians can rely on Auto-Tune to correct their errant pitch and Beat Detective to correct poorly played rhythmic elements. And, along with the fact that you CAN fix/correct performances means that a lot of people decide that they SHOULD correct the performances and, thus, a lot of music runs the risk of becoming homogenized because everyone is ‘in tune and on time’.
Part of a musician’s style is how he or she arrives at a musical note. Maybe a drummer wants to play ‘behind the beat’ a bit which makes for a certain feeling in a song. Maybe a singer wants so sing a note that’s slightly flat and then bends up into pitch thereby creating some tension and release. But, because people can ‘fix’ these things (and they generally default to ‘fixing’) then a musician’s style or approach has the edges smoothed over and things that he or she intended are done away with in an attempt to create ‘correct’ or ‘perfect’ performances.
The down side to analog tape is that all editing was destructive in that you were physically cutting the 2″ master tape which has its own perils. With digital you can edit whatever you want, however you want and, at the end of the day, you can either keep an original version to return to or you can undo all of your edits until you return to your starting place. Some would see limited tracks to record on as a negative but I feel that it forces people to self edit and create the best possible music. Limitations push us to squeeze every last bit of our creativity out and into the light.
One of the pros of modern digital recording is that a large outlay of money is not needed nor is a large room in which to record. Buying analog gear was a pretty substantial hurdle to overcome because of the high costs and, so, with the advent of physically smaller digital recording systems it is possible to record in pretty much any environment. There is tremendous benefit in making it easier for more people to express themselves and I feel that this only makes music stronger, more eclectic and ultimately more exciting.
What does your current mixing set up consist of and how does it differ from your setup back in the beginning?
Wallace: My current mixing set up is different in that I have my own mixing studio instead of renting out (generally on a daily basis) a large, professional mixing studio in which to work. Because of the technology, it was essential to hire a pro mixing studio.
When I started I worked on analog 8 track and would mix to analog 2 track. I then graduated to professional 24 track (and 48 track) studios. But, now that technology has changed so much, I have had my own studio again for the past 10 years. I have a Pro Tools 10 system with a bunch of outboard analog sound processors that augment the substantial amount of available audio ‘plug ins’ that are part of the creative process within Pro Tools. Now, at the touch of a button, we have access to hundreds, if not thousands, of different ways to uniquely shape our sound whether it be reverberation, delay, equalization, compression, replacing drum sounds, etc.
The biggest difference with digital is that I can work on multiple songs (or even multiple artists/groups) within a single day because the transition and set up time within digital is very, very quick. A decade or so ago most of us mixers would mix one song a day so that we could send (originally by Fed Ex) a copy of the mix to musicians (if they weren’t local) so that they could listen and give their comments/suggestions. So, because it took an overnight delivery service to provide artists the ability to hear a mix, we would have to leave our mix set up on our analog console so that we could make changes to it before we moved onto another song.
I am sure you never imagined the impact that your work with Faith No More would have on the music scene, but how does it feel now knowing you were an integral part of such a groundbreaking, long-lasting band?
Wallace: I certainly had no idea that the music we were making was groundbreaking at the time although when Warner Brothers told us that they loved the album The Real Thing but that radio wouldn’t play it because ‘nothing like this music has ever been played on radio before’ it made me start to think that maybe we did something that was sort of special. But, as I believe it goes in these situations, I think that the impact of Faith No More’s music is better appreciated in hindsight. About 8 years ago Kerrang Magazine said that Faith No More’s album Angel Dust was the most influential album of all time. Now, that may or may not be true but any ‘groundbreaking’ album won’t be considered as such until time passes and we are able to see the ripples of its impact on other musicians and, sometimes, on society.
I will say that, on a personal level, it is an absolute thrill to be part of the Faith No More story and trajectory because we (well, at least original bassist and drummer Bill Gould and Mike Bordin and I) started in my parents’ suburban garage when I recorded their earliest incarnation of their band (at the time it was called Faith No Man). And, after having shared cramped lodging with them, having learned our craft together, and having mixed their first every live show (which was recorded on cassette) to the point where they are headlining their first ever show at Madison Square Garden, it is a deeply appreciated thrill and I consider myself fortunate to have been a part of the process.
You and the band are in the process of re-issuing some of the early albums and I was wondering what it is like to revisit those old recording from an engineers perspective? Do you find they still hold up so many years later?
Wallace: Actually, Rhino Records is releasing the re-issues of The Real Thing and Angel Dust so neither the band nor I are involved in those albums. As to just listening to those records, with the benefit of a longer perspective, I am very happy with the quality of the music. As an engineer/mixer it is easy for me to find fault in my self perceived lack of ability in not being able to truly capture the power and grace of Faith No More as I hear them in my head. For better or worse, the way I approached the sonics of both of those records seems to have worked for their audience and the public in general. However, for me, I feel that The Real Thing has too much high end equalization and compression and Angel Dust doesn’t have enough. But, that said, people seem to feel a connection with the band and their albums and, if I helped in any way, then I am content.
Check out the song “Superhero” here.
Can you describe for me what is your ideal studio, the one you would like to have, the gear you would like to have… the perfect studio?
Wallace: Ideally my ideal studio would have a good-sized control room that looked out onto a large recording studio and, beyond that, would be large glass windows that overlook a valley of trees and hills that I would be able to hike in whenever possible. I would really like to have a mid-sized, old Neve mixing console as well as a mid-sized Quad 8 console in which to record through (with, of course, a healthy selection of vintage microphones). And, all of this would be captured on Pro Tools (sorry, analog tape is almost impossible to get a hold of these days and the quality varies too greatly) and then I would mix on Pro Tools through the very best digital to analog converters currently made.
As someone who has worked in the digital and analog realm do you have a preference and if so why?
Wallace: Well, now that Pandora’s Box has been opened (Pro Tools) it’s pretty difficult to go back to analog because there’s just not the support for analog anymore (one, single analog tape manufacturer instead of the three or four options we used to have) and the cost to maintain the complex, moving parts and analog circuitry that comprise of a tape machine, along with decreasing budgets tend to point me (and my peers) in the direction of digital recording. And, to be fair, it has improved vastly over the years and so, now, it’s the standard. All that being said, I will always maintain that “What you record is vastly more important than how you record.”
You have worked as a producer and an engineer with Faith No More. Do you find it difficult wearing multiple hats? Do you prefer one over the other?
Wallace: Considering I started off as their engineer and then gradually and organically ‘morphed’ into being their sounding board/producer it was such a seamless process that where one ‘job’ ended and the other began just began to blur. I just tried to be available and be of service at the moments that they needed or wanted input. As a band and as individuals, they are all very talented and intelligent and they don’t ‘need’ much of anything outside of their group but, fortuitously, I was able to be present and very willing to help them realize their artistic goals.
I do prefer the idea of being a producer and having someone else engineer while I contribute more as an ‘overseer’ wherein I try to keep an eye on our end goal in hopes that I can better help Faith No More achieve it. But, they are the only band in my career where I have always been engineer/mixer/producer. With other bands I generally do one or the other but, with FNM, they squeezed every drop of creativity and eager support out of me and, together, I believe that we made some inspired and unique music.