Matt Malpass was nice enough to take a break from recording to do the interview. Malpass started his career by interning at a rap studio in Atlanta. Before his internship, Malpass was in various bands with his brothers, recorded tracks in New York while still in high school, and after graduating he went to a tech school in Florida for a computer networking degree. After working a job in networking, Malpass quit his job to pursue a career in music.
The intern job gave Malpass enough knowledge to be able to open his own studio in Atlanta, Marigolds and Monsters. He started out by working with a lot of bands on the label One Eleven, such as Rookie of the Year, Rory, Inkwell, and Devin Lima. Since then he has produced, engineered and mixed tracks/albums for Tides of Man, Decoder, Lydia, All Get Out, Hey Monday, and Train. Malpass also has his own band with Leighton, singer of Lydia, called The Cinema. Read on to hear his story and the importance of being persistent in the music industry.
Rob Marcacci: Where did you grow up?
Matt Malpass: I grew up in a city next to Atlanta called Augusta. It is about two hours outside Atlanta. There is not really much going on in the town. I was homeschooled there and wasn’t able to be involved in any music programs. I was stuck inside the house all the time. I definitely came from a place where there was not much of an opportunity for what I wanted to do.
RM: Were you homeschooled throughout middle and high school?
MM: Yeah. I went to elementary school then middle and high school I was homeschooled. The cool thing about that was it gave me a chance to get into the music thing. My brothers and I started a band with some other people. We did some tours and went to New York to record. That was the first place I figured out that was where I wanted to be. I could see myself working in a studio.
RM: You got to record in New York while you were still in high school?
MM: Yeah. It was at The Loft in New York. I was one of the guys that wrote a lot of the songs in the band and so I was always next to the mixing board with the producer. I remember at one point the producer looked over and said, “hey you know what, you should be getting an associate producer credit for this.” Our time in New York recording with the band was a real eye opener for me. At the time it seemed like an unrealistic job so I didn’t pursue it then but it was the first chance I got to see it.
RM: When did you and your brother initially get interested in music?
MM: My grandpa was a drummer in an old jazz band back in the day. My other grandpa was a guitar player in a country/folk band. Growing up we were always around music and even when the other kids would go out to play basketball my brother and I would just be in bands. We would teach ourselves how to play and do little concerts in the house. The music was always around us. I have always been obsessed with music. Anyone that has that drive at an early age should see it as a good signal that you have something you should pursue. It was something I could never get away from.
RM: Going back to the New York trip, were your parents supportive and cool with it?
MM: I guess not everyone has this but my parents are really supportive. My brothers were the managers of our band in high school and my parents gave their blessing to the whole thing. My dad came to New York with us when we recorded because my brother Jeff, who now works in the studio with me, was 11 years old at the time. My dad came up with us to chaperone. A couple years ago, when I was working as a computer network engineer, I quit my job to go into music. They were supportive of that decision even though I quit a job that was really successful and had good retirement. The hard part is you never know if you will make money in the new career or end up dead broke.
RM: At what point did you feel it was right to leave your job?
MM: It was really impulsive. A lot of my friends looked at me and were saying, “oh I can’t believe you’re going to do that.” Honestly, it was sitting at a desk job and having to wear long-sleeve shirts. I knew it wasn’t what I was supposed to do. I went to school for computers, had a decent job, but it wasn’t making me happy. I thought I would be stuck the rest of my life sitting at a desk doing something that I didn’t want to do. I quit that job and around the same time I got married; which looks terrible getting married and quitting a stable job but my wife supported me.
Then I decided I wanted to start by producing. I was in Atlanta at the time and I opened the phone book and literally called every single studio in Atlanta until I found someone who was looking for an intern at a studio.
RM: Where did you go to college?
MM: I went to a tech school down in Fort Walton Beach, FL to get my MCSE, which is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer degree. My grandparents lived down there so I stayed with them while I was in school for a year. The whole time I was playing in bands too. I was trying to do the band thing while realizing that I wasn’t going to make any money doing that so I needed a fallback career.
RM: So the networking degree was just a back up?
MM: Yeah pretty much. My dad is in computers and it was the logical thing. I grew up around computers. In the long run it ended up as a good thing because I use computers to record all the time. It is good to have extra knowledge on that.
RM: Did you learn anything from the degree that you can use now?
MM: Umm… No. (laughs) Not at all. It was more about learning a specific thing in networking.
RM: Do you look back and wish you went to school for music engineering?
MM: I don’t know about going to school for music engineering. I have friends that went to Full Sail for engineering and with those schools you get whatever you want to get out of it. Some people will go that are not passionate about the career and don’t get much out of it. The way that I learned how to do everything was self-taught. Staying up until four in the morning reading engineering handbooks and watching videos about Pro Tools. Also, interning at a studio. So if I would have went to a music school knowing that was my career then I probably would have learned more.
I really wish I had gone to school and majored in music theory just to get the basics. That all just came with the territory of producing music and learning as you go.
RM: When the producer in New York wanted to give you an Associate Producer credit did that spark your interest in producing?
MM: It kind of was. Some bands that I’ve worked with I found myself in the same shoes as them where you are in the studio and one guy from the band will have an interest in recording. Three people I still keep in touch with from bands that I’ve recorded will email me with questions about Pro Tools and recording. It is almost like a long distance mentoring. You see the same thing in someone else and want to help them and encourage them. The moment in New York gave me confidence when a professional producer was saying that I could do this.
RM: What’s the most important thing you learned when you had to go through the yellow pages to call every studio in town?
MM: I‘ve had people call me and ask, “Are you hiring anyone? Can you use an intern?” Most of the time I say no but there have been a couple people that have been so persistent I couldn’t say no. Not only that they were so persistent but also they proved themselves by saying, “well I could do this for you. I’ve done this before.” They came over to the studio and said, “listen, let me mow your grass for you and then I can watch you mix. I really want to see how you do things.” That’s what I did too. I called every single person. Instead of being discouraged when 99% of the people said no, when one person said, “well the grass needs to be cut at our studio if you want to come do that and you can hang around” that kept me going. I was so persistent with that studio that I got hired on after interning. Then I was hired on as an assistant engineer then an engineer. The only way I would have gotten that is by never stopping. In this industry, for producing and engineering, it is so tough that if you don’t go above and beyond the call of duty you honestly will not make it anywhere. You have to prove yourself.
RM: What was the name of the studio you started at?
MM: It was called The Zone. The funny thing was that it was a rap studio. When I started working there it was right when Lil Jon blew up, then the Ying Yang Twins. I started off as an intern making $150 a week and tried to prove myself. Then finally something happened with one of the engineers and he got fired. All of a sudden my boss said, “hey Matt we have a session with Lil Jon and Ying Yang Twins tonight and the other engineer is no longer here. You’re up.” My first engineering session was working with these guys. The guy that I worked for was a big mixer for rap songs on the radio. Working under him I learned about mixing and slowly started doing that.
I eventually got really sick of being in a room with ten rappers smoking blunts and doing shots of tequila. I finally quit that studio and borrowed some money from a friend to start my own studio.
RM: When did you start your studio Marigolds and Monsters?
MM: It was seven or eight years ago. I had all the knowledge of being in a band and recording before. In the rap studio I got all the technical knowledge of being an engineer and how to mix and run a session. I knew that if I could borrow some money and get a little bit of gear that I could start my own studio. I quit the rap studio and my wife wasn’t sure if I was going to make any money or not. We were also getting in debt by borrowing money and getting the studio equipment. The next year I would call every band that I knew and ask everyone to come to Atlanta and record. I would give them a really good deal. Eventually people started calling me, which was a change because I started out by calling bands myself.
RM: What was important to have in your studio when it was built?
MM: As far as gear goes, it is pretty cheap these days for a decent Pro Tools set up. One of the records I did, which people still come to me for, is Lydia’s record called Illuminate. I did that record on a 002, which is about a $700 piece of gear. Right now I have a Pro Tools HD 3 set up and that runs about $15,000. Honestly, I think if you have somewhat of a decent Pro Tools set up and at least one good vocal mic, enough mics to do drums, decent pre-amps you’ll be ok. I probably recorded the Illuminate album with $10,000 worth of gear. It wasn’t a huge studio set up. If you are starting out it is more important to know what you are doing and be able to say, “this song isn’t very good, maybe we should try this.” You need to have good knowledge on how to run a session. It’s all about how you use the gear.
RM: How else did you learn besides interning and reading?
MM: You have to be able to fake it too. I learned how to use Pro Tools really efficiently when I interned. That’s one good thing about being able to intern with someone because you can see how that person, who has been doing it for years and years, does it. You can watch and absorb that information on where to place the mic, how to set the track up, how to overdub, etc. A lot of times the things I needed to know I didn’t know. I pretended like I knew. We would be in the middle of session and the band would ask to do something specific. I didn’t know how to do it but I faked my way through it and as you fake your way through it you learn how to.
Even now, I just got done doing a rap album. Leighton, from Lydia, and I just co-produced the album and wrote the music for it. I don’t know much about rap besides engineering the vocals back in the day. This guy asked us to produce his rap album and write for him. Instead of saying, “hey I don’t know how to” I said, “sure come on down and we’ll write a rap album for you.” It actually turned out really cool. Don’t be afraid if you don’t know how to do something. You will not learn if you are physically doing it.
RM: What has your relationship been like with bands and labels? For example, you did all the albums for Rookie of the Year. Did you get those jobs through the band or did their label One Eleven contract you for the job?
MM: With those guys I just got hit up by the band. That was one of my first breaks recording them. Ryan, the singer, is a good friend and he convinced their label to let me record them. I worked my ass off to make a good record. The band kept coming back for their next albums. They would tell the label they wanted to go to Atlanta to record with me. One Eleven liked how Rookie’s albums sounded and sent me more bands to record. That is how it happened with different labels too. You work with a label and they see that you do a good job on one project then they trust you to do another band and so on. As long as you do the best you can, a lot of bands will keep coming back to you. Same deal with the labels. They like when you stay on budget and give them a great record.
RM: Is there a specific genre you like working with the most?
MM: Lately I have really been getting into electronic and pop music and maybe it is because I have been doing rock and indie rock for so long. Recently I had a chance to work with some pop bands including Relient K. I also worked on a beat for Jesse McCartney. Then Leighton and me did The Cinema, which is really electronic music. We also did some rap stuff along the same lines. It is more fulfilling for me to create a beat or track and have just one or two other artists in the studio then having a whole rock band and having to deal with the issues that come with five guys in a room arguing about something.
RM: I know you produced the first Tides of Man album Empire Theory, did you also produce Tillian Pearson’s upcoming album? From the clips he posted it seems that he is going the electronic route too.
MM: Yeah, for sure. I did the first Tides of Man album and then they went with someone else for the second one. Tillian, the lead singer, and I stayed in touch. He heard The Cinema record that Leighton and I did and hit me up about helping him with a pop project. He liked the sound of The Cinema and wanted something similar. He came to Atlanta and had two or three songs in demo form and we recorded eight songs and wrote most of them from scratch. He told me the direction he wanted to go in and we both sat there and came up with the beats.
RM: Let’s say an artist comes to you with not much prepared. How do you guide the writing to help cater the artist’s specific sound when you work with so many different genres?
MM: Everyone has a specific sound. A lot of times when I co-write with someone I’ll throw in my ideas, which might be similar to other ideas I throw out with artists, but what makes a difference is the way the person I’m writing with interacts with it. I could throw out an idea and record a beat with Leighton of The Cinema and he would take it and make something different. With TIllian the process was very similar. I would write a structure for a song and give it to him and he would come back and say, “lets change this and add this on.” It is not really me thinking how I should write for someone else, but more about me putting my ideas out there to that person I am writing with. Then they can turn it into their style. You can hear what Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic does. He writes and produces his music and also wrote the song Halo for Beyonce along with songs for Kelly Clarkson. You can hear his influence in their songs but the artists will take it in their direction.
RM: Could you explain to everyone the difference between producing, mixing and engineering?
MM: This took me awhile to figure out. I would always wonder what the difference between the engineer and the producer was. I feel that the engineer is someone who knows all the gear, knows exactly how to find a guitar tone that someone needs and he would have enough knowledge to have everything sounding great. An engineer could say, “Ok if I use this mic, and this pre amp I could make the guitar part sound awesome.” The producer is someone who comes in and says, “should that even be a guitar part? Maybe that should be a keyboard part. What if we don’t even use a guitar in this song? Let’s change the chord and make it sound like this. Did you think about changing the key?” The engineer will take what has been decided and make it sound the best it could possibly sound. Then a mixer is someone who will take the final track and will then put their spin on it. I’m mixing two records right now and I haven’t even seen the band. Someone else recorded it and then it was sent to me. A mixer will take what the producer/band had in mind and make it the best that it could sound for their vision.
RM: When you first started producing was it hard to flat out say to bigger bands if something in a recording wasn’t working?
MM: There are definitely egos that come along with bands that are bigger. Even if a band has been around for a long time they might be hesitant to listen to you. I remember when I was working with Train. I used to listen to them in high school and then I found myself sitting behind the mixing board with them. The singer is in his forties and I’m this younger guy; it was kind of intimidating to look up and tell somebody, “you know what, that take sucked. Can you do it again?” If an artist is good they can realize that you both are working together for the same end product. I’ve worked with people that have bigger names than me and they are completely open because they take my ideas as valid because they respected me. If two people have a mutual respect then you both are going to listen each other to get the best outcome.
RM: Do you have any stories, without calling bands out, about complete disasters for people to avoid when going into the studio?
MM: There have been a couple bands I’ve worked with that fought amongst themselves and just could not agree. It becomes a disaster because maybe the band thinks the guitar player should play a certain part but they are afraid to say it to him. Then when they come into the studio it blows up and results in a fight. This always wastes time and the recording progress is halted because of it. If you go into the studio make sure you are on the same page as everyone else in the band. I can always tell a session will go bad if I’m talking to one member of the band and he says, “listen I should probably tell you beforehand, our guitar player kind of has an ego and he might be hard to deal with.” Then they come into the studio and everyone knows there is a problem and it unravels during the recording time. You have to sometimes walk on eggshells because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
There have been a couple bands I had in the studio where the label pays for it so the band does not have to. The problem with this is that when the band isn’t paying for it they sometimes look at this time as a big party. The band will show up to the studio three hours late, hung over, and no one wants to work. Another problem I’ve come across are when bands try to hook up with girls in the studio and then there are girls just hanging around. Thankfully that only happens with one out of every six or seven bands.
RM: The recent album The Season by the band All Get Out is by far one of my favorite recordings. Would you mind going through the process of recording the album?
MM: All Get Out, I love those guys. They are some of my favorite people. I’ve been friends with them for awhile and we have been talking about making that record for probably a year before we made it. There was a lot of thought beforehand that went into the album. The way we did it with them, and I don’t do this with every band, was the weekend before we started recording we went up to a cabin in the mountains. I brought my laptop and we went through all the songs that we were set to record and we did pre-production. We cut the songs that we didn’t think were strong enough and the ones we thought were strong enough we carefully listened to the structure of them. We rearranged some and I would say, “well maybe this song needs a better chorus.” We talked about the songs rather then just getting into the studio and putting things down right away. We had a good chance with this album to truly think about everything before recording.
After that weekend and we picked all the songs we wanted, we came back and spent a good week on drums. We made sure that if one song needed really hard, really fast drums we would mic it a certain way. We would arrange it in the room a certain way. There are a couple songs that have roomy background drums and I had my drum tech, Lane, play a kit off in the other side of the room. Gordon was playing the drums and Lane would come back and play extra drums behind him just to add another layer. We really thought hard about how to set the drums up.
This is the way I normally do records by knocking out the drums and then lay down the scratch guitar and vocals so we knew where everything was. We spent a lot of time getting the right tones for everything. If something sounded like it needed a weird tone or the guitar needed to sound like it was underwater or split off into a stereo channel we would spend the time on it. One of the guitars on a track had a mic upstairs and had one mic downstairs. One song had a part where bottles were shattering so we all had bottles and went outside. We set up mics outside and you can hear a bunch of bottles shattering against the wall. Instead of just setting up the drums and saying, “ok we are going to record ten songs in a row and not move the mics,” we figured out what every song needed instead of recording going to the next one, then recording going to the next one, and so on. We thought, “what if this has an organ here instead of a guitar… what if this has double drums that pan from left to right… if the song is about this maybe we should make sure the feeling and the tones will reflect what the lyrics are about.”
We had time at the end for Nate, the singer, to work even more on vocals. We fixed some of the choruses to make them catchier. He would stay the night at the studio and I would set up a mic for him and he knows how to use Pro Tools. In the middle of the night we would be re-writing a chorus and the next day he would show it to me. Sometimes we would re-write it again and sometimes he nailed it. Nate’s songwriting is amazing and that record was a blast to make. I hope The Season gets the recognition it deserves.
That album and Illuminate are my two favorites that I worked on. With both of those albums the songs are really good, everyone got along great, and we had enough time to really think about what we needed to do instead of rushing through the recording process.
RM: Any other additional advice you want to give to people looking into recording, engineering and/or mixing as a career?
MM: If you are trying to get into this field as a career the main thing over anything else is persistence. This isn’t something like when you are in college you think, “oh well, maybe I’ll be an accountant or maybe I’ll get into computers. “ You have to have such a passion and such a drive that you are able to be turned done like twenty to thirty times by studios and still have the passion to say you are not going to give up. If I had given up after applying to a couple different studios I would have never made it. Even if you can get your way into interning at a studio you are not going to be able to move up until you prove yourself and that you are dedicated to it.
One bad thing about this industry is that you have to work really late hours. Like tonight I started recording really early and when I get off the phone with you (11 PM) I have to record vocals. You work 12-16 hour days. On top of that you have to have the self-motivation to research, watch YouTube videos, watch tutorials and keep learning. If you are interning at a studio there is only so much that you ask the engineer during a session. You need to know enough ahead of time in able to absorb what’s happening. The main thing I would say is being motivated to listen to records, read about different people that make records, how they made them and get that knowledge.
Check out some of Matt’s work:
All Get Out
Tides of Man