From Outkast to Elton

We’re excited to bring you an interview with Grammy Award winning Producer, Engineer, and Mixer; Matt Still. Based out of Atlanta, Georgia, Matt works with a variety of artists from Elton John to Outkast. Matt enlightens us on what it’s like to win a Grammy, and record an orchestra at Abbey Road.

Plugin Alliance: On your website it says that you “started playing piano at the age of four…” Do you come from a musical family?

Matt Still: Actually I don't. I'm the only one in my immediate family who is musical. When I was four, I would hear songs that I liked and then go figure out how to play them on the piano. My parents immediately got me with the local piano teacher for lessons. She was very sweet and had kind of a typical “church lady” thing going. After about six months of lessons with her, she realized I should be studying with someone who could take my talent further. That's when I started studying with William Noll who at the time worked with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and was also the head of the Choral Guild of Atlanta. I studied with him until I went off to college.

PA: What were some of your early musical influences?

MS: The first album I ever owned was Pink Floyd's “Dark Side of the Moon”. I would listen to that album for hours and hours. It really opened my eyes a bit. I was also influenced from groups like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rush, Yes, and Genesis. As a keyboardist, Rick Wakeman was a god to me. Then of course there's Elton. If you've never listened to “11-17-70”, do yourself a favor and get that album. Elton, Dee, & Nigel were at the top of their game.

PA: What was the first piece of gear you owned?

MS: The first piece of musical gear I owned was a Minimoog, which I still have to this day. As far as once I became an engineer, the first piece of gear I bought was a Neumann U87. It was expensive as hell for a struggling assistant engineer, but worth every penny.

PA: Do you remember the first project you mixed?

MS: The first complete album I mixed was the first record from Third Day. A buddy of mine, Dave Mardis, was producing them and brought it to me to mix. I also got to play a little Hammond on there as well. We mixed it at Bosstown in studio B.

PA: A lot of aspiring engineer/producers would kill to get an internship at a studio like Stankonia — formerly known as Bosstown. How did you manage to make it happen for you?

MS: The very first internship I got was with a composer named Rich Goidel. He wrote music for commercials. Whenever we needed to go into a studio to record and mix, we went to Soundscape Studios (which later became Bosstown). I got to know the studio owner & manager and kept begging him to let me intern at the studio. Once I finished my time with Rich, they let me intern at the studio, and within 3 years, I was Chief Engineer.

PA: When did you start working with Outkast?

MS: I've known the guys in Outkast since their first record “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik”. They were working on that record at Bosstown. At the time, I was always working on other projects. The first record I got to engineer on for them was “Stankonia”. I also got to play some of the keyboards on “B.O.B.”.

PA: Sonically, Outkast’s Stankonia record was quite a departure from what was happening in hip-hop at that time, as one of their engineers, how did you balance the desire to create a new sound with audience expectations of what a hip-hop album should sound like?

MS: One of the great things about Andre and Big Boi is that they always stretch the boundaries. They don't allow themselves to be constrained by expectations. If you give people what they expect, then you've given them nothing new. Even during the sessions, people who heard what they were doing could recognize it was different. When we were recording some keyboards on “B.O.B.”, Andre wanted to come up with an intro for the track. He asked me to play some “Beethoven sounding stuff”. I found a sound he liked and within a couple of minutes came up with the intro you hear on the song. Now I wouldn't compare what I played to Beethoven, but Andre knew my background and tried to push me in a certain direction. I wasn't the only keyboardist on that track, but Andre was able to take multiple musicians from a wide range of influences and pull together a cohesive song that didn't fit into any mold. It's probably my favorite track off the album. Andre and Big Boi stay true to themselves and create music that comes from a very honest place. It's not contrived and the audience appreciates that, and I think that has become their expectation now.

PA: You won a Grammy for your work on Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”. Do you have a favorite Grammy memory you can share with us?

MS: The nomination for “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” was the third year in a row I had been nominated in the Album of the Year category (Outkast/”Stankonia” and Nelly/”Nellyville” being the first two). It was also the first year that the album I worked on was the favorite to win. My wife kept telling me not to be too attached to a particular outcome. And by the way, my wife is an actress and, if I do say so myself, quite stunning. So we're walking down the red carpet where the press is trying to get interviews with everyone who walks by. Guess who they kept trying to interview? Yep... my beautiful wife. She would try to direct the conversation to me, but once they looked at me, they had no interest. So it was quite humbling. But that's ok. I'm not in this to be a rock star.

Matt Still, Elton Johm, Brandi Carlile, Jason Lader

PA: You’ve worked with Sir Elton John for a number of years. How did that come about?

MS: The first time I worked with Elton was in 1993 on the “Duets” album. He has a residence in Atlanta and wanted to do part of the record here. He came into Bosstown, where I was chief engineer, and worked on five of the tracks. Each song was a duet with a different artist and producer. So, every few days, one artist, producer, and band would leave, and another group would arrive. Elton and I were the only constants during that time. This went on for a few weeks. I guess Elton felt comfortable working with me and over the next few years he would come back into Bosstown to record a couple of smaller projects. In 1996 he was to write the music for the Disney musical “Aida”. He was going to write it in Atlanta, but at a smaller more private facility. He called and asked if I would work on it with him and of course I said yes. That's when I went freelance and have been working with him regularly since.

PA: In a typical month, how much traveling are you doing and how many different studios are you working in?

MS: There's nothing typical about my schedule. Some years I stay at home in Atlanta and don't travel a bit. Some years I'm gone more than I'm home. This year has been moderate for travel. I'm always at the mercy of the artist’s schedule, so I just have to remain flexible.

PA: Do you have a set list of gear that you bring with you when traveling or does it change for the project?

MS: It can change per project, but a typical Elton session would consist of a Telefunken 251E on his vocal, DPA 3521's on his piano. Drums would have an RE20 & FET47 on kick, SM57 & Beta 56 on snare, DPA 4007 on hat, 421's on toms, U47's for overheads, and probably ribbon mics on the rooms. The room mics is probably where I would get the most experimental. Bass would have a U5 for the DI and and RE20 or D12 on the amp. Electric guitars could have anything from an SM57 to a 421 to a Coles 4038. This is really tailored to the song. Each mic sounds drastically different and I just go with what I think is best for the song. Acoustic guitars will usually get either an M49 or a ribbon mic like a Royer R-122. For mic pre's, I can never have enough Neve 1073's. I also like Millennia, API, & Avalon.

Ochestral Session at Abbey Road Studio 1

PA: What do you do to ensure that a new studio you’re going to work in is set up, both sonically and gear wise, well enough for you to work effectively?

MS: I'll generally start a dialog between the studio manager, the assistant engineer, and myself a few weeks before we plan to come in. I'll make sure the assistant is up to speed on our workflow. If they don't already have the gear I need, I'll send along a list of mics, pres, compressors, plugins & near fields that I'll need. If I have all that, I can usually make wherever we record work. With Elton, I've recorded at the best studios around the world. We also did an album (The Captain and The Kid) at a theatre here in Atlanta called Center Stage. Elton wanted to get away from traditional studio recording and take a more live approach where there were no walls or glass between anyone. He still wanted it to sound as good as it would were we in a studio, he just didn't want the walls. He wanted himself and the band to be able to see each other just as they do on stage. So they could play off each others energy just like they do in his live shows. We were all in the same room together - Elton, the band, and me. I had no control room. But I made sure I had the gear I needed and monitors I trusted. The recordings sounded fantastic. Today's technology makes it easier and more viable to record in spaces that 15 years ago you wouldn't think of.

PA: Do plugins play a big role in what you’re able to accomplish while working on the road?

MS: Yes, absolutely. The way I work now, I'm kind of building the mix as I go. Artists want to hear great mixes, even in the tracking stage. If there is a certain effect that the artist wants to hear, I need to be able to deliver it for them. Now I may be able to get a sound they like from a piece of outboard gear, but then when I get back to my studio to mix, I'll need to make sure I have that piece of gear in the studio for mixdown. If I can do it with a plugin, it's always there.

PA: What are some of your go-to plugins at that moment and how do you use them?

MS: I use the bx_digital V2 on probably every mix right now. I really love everything about it. The mid-side processing, the stereo width, and the mono-maker are probably the most used aspects. Currently my go-to plugin on my drum parallel compression is the Vertigo VCS-2. I find that I can really get my parallel channels to pump exactly the way I want. Also, I just recently started using the bx_refinement plugin. I've got to admit that I was a little skeptical about this plugin when I first started using it. In the past, I had always dealt with harshness through EQ or multi-band compression and been happy with the results. But when I started to actually explore everything about this plugin, I'm really impressed with it. Not only can I dampen the harsh edges of whatever I need, I also have the ability to add in a little saturation, add in a little presence, and then mix between my processed sound and my source sound. It has really made a difference in my mixes.

PA: When did you join the Plugin Alliance?

MS: I've been using Plugin Alliance plugins for about a year now. The bx_digital V2 and the Maag EQ4 were the first plugins I bought. They were both very good choices.

PA: How has working with plugins changed your workflow?

MS: As plugins get better and better, I find that my mixes are staying more ITB. This allows me to work quicker and more efficiently. In the past, when I would mix a song, I would still use a lot of analog gear to process my mix. Now, although I still do some analog processing, it's not nearly as much as it once was.

PA: You spent some time at Abbey Road working on the Gnomeo and Juliet soundtrack. What was it like working at such an historic studio?

Matt Still and James Newton Howard at Abbey Road

MS: It's every engineers dream to take a project through Abbey Road. I was fortunate enough to record the band in Studio 2, record a 90 piece orchestra in Studio 1, and mix in Studio 3. It was surreal at times. Sitting just outside the Studio 2 door was an old four track... J37 No.1. The machine used on Sgt. Peppers. And if that wasn't enough, when I was tracking Elton's band, I noticed an older gentleman walk into the control room behind me during a take. As I was wondering who would wander into my session, I turned to look... and it was George Martin. He knows several of Elton's band members and just wanted to pop in and see how everything was going. So I got to sit and chat with George Martin for about 15 minutes in Studio 2 at Abbey Road. That's 15 minutes that I will never forget. Now putting all that stuff aside, Abbey Road is historic for a reason. They have some of the best sounding rooms in the world. You work in other studios your whole life trying to come close to that “Abbey Road Sound”. On Gnomeo, all I had to do was put up the room mic's and there it was. Recording great musicians in a great room with great gear makes my job so much easier.

PA: Are you interested is doing more movie projects?

MS: Absolutely. It's a lot of fun. I just recently produced a track with The Narwhals for the upcoming Steve Carell movie “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”.

PA: What are you currently working on?

MS: Right now I'm mixing an album for the Best Brothers Band which was produced by John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band. And in October I'll be back in the studio with Elton working on a few new projects.

PA: Now we’ll end where most 20 question games begin – Animal, Mineral or Vegetable?

MS: Let's go with Mineral.

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