* Matt Verta-Ray and N.Y. Hed *
Tape Op # 25, Sept/ Oct 2001
Matt Verta-Ray has been a fixture on the New York scene for many years. He has released two full lengths and a handful of EPs with his band Speedball Baby, been a member of Madder Rose through our first two albums, and recently recorded a side project with Ali Smith as The Oubliettes. He also started NY Hed Recording Studios, of which there are now two - one in SOHO and one on the Lower East Side. He's just finished recording and co-producing (with Billy Miller), a record by R&B semi-legend Andre Williams, soon to be out on the Norton label, and is an extremely good lookin' man. We've been friends for a long time, and since a lot of our conversations sound like Tape Op interviews anyway, we thought we'd do one for real.
an interview by Billy Cote
Billy Cote: I know you have a long history as a musician, but give me a bit of your history as a recordist, from the time you started putting together gear for the first NY Hed Studio.
Matt Verta-Ray: The first thing I bought was an Otari MX 5050 8-track 1/2" recorder. I bought it from a studio called Bair Tracks that I had recorded at. It was a pretty cool place, kind of reminiscent of the studio we're sitting in now, actually [Peligro/NY Hed on Spring Street]. It was a basement studio, but they were trying to scrape the film off the Lower East Side vibe - trying to make it a legit place. Although, the first multi track tape recorder I got was the one I ended up selling to you. Remember? The 4-track reel to reel with wood paneling on the side...
BC: Yeah, it weighed like, 50 or 60 pounds...
MVR: Yeah, I got it from this Christian rock guy in California. I don't think he understood the multi track aspect of it. He was like, "Oh good 4 tracks, I can record 4 different things." So on one track he would record 2 hours of Led Zeppelin. On another track he would record his accoustic Jesus songs, and so on. He gave me one of his tapes as a take-up reel. When I played his shit and turned all the tracks up at the same time it was so Satanic, probably counter to what he intended to do. Anyway, I think I got that when I was 22, back in 1985. I had that 4-track for like, 5 years, and soon 4 tracks seemed too restrictive, so I got the Otari along with a little Trident mixing board. And eight tracks seemed okay for a while. You remember we recorded the first Madder Rose demos on that, which later became seven inch singles. Just really minimal gear. Drum machine, you know, finding our way. Around that time was the beginning of NY Hed.
BC: After you got your 8-track recorder at Ridge Street [the original NY Hed], did you sound proof right away?
MVR: Yeah, but I didn't plan on making it a commercial recording space. I did it so I could bleat away on my saxophone without bothering the neighbors. I had the luxury of only recording myself, or bands that I was really interested in, so my whole history as a recordist evolved in a very relaxed, unusual way. Now that I have to pay the bills with it, I have a more intense work ethic about how I record. But I'm really glad it got to evolve that way because I got to do all kinds of experiments that you just don't do when a client's in there paying. All the experiments I did totally inform the way I approach recording, I think for the better. But, I have to make an admission: for years and years I mixed all kinds of albums on the "wrong" head of my machine. I never used the playback head on my machine like you were supposed to, the theory being that the playback head is more full frequency. Oh, well.
BC: Did your approach change when you got the 16-track 2" [Ampex MM-1000]?
MVR: Well, I recorded a lot of stuff that got released on the 8-track, like the first 3 Madder Rose 7 inches and B-sides, the early Speedball Baby EPs, the first Subsonics record which was my first real producing job. When I first got the 16 track it did change things, because I never ran out of tracks with 16. In fact I think number of tracks is a bit of a red herring. Now at the new NY Hed location we've got this new (new to us, that is) Trident 80-B mixing board and a spanking new Sony APR 24 track 2", so we've taken another step in terms of legitimacy. But I don't think you need the best gear to make a good recording. I think brains and philosophy coupled with a good concept and piece of music make a good recording. If you have crappy gear you definitely have to work harder, but it doesn't mean it can't be done. And by the same token, having really dope gear doesn't mean you'll make a good recording, and the proof of that is on the radio. My thing back then was, I could record okay, but I had a real particular aesthetic about what kind of recordings I liked. In the back of my mind was always: "producers mix records". People could make home recordings but you needed a real producer to mix them. Mixing to me was some magical realm that I had no entry to. My friend Paul Kolderie [see Tape Op #22] helped me out of that mess. He said to just mix to your ears, make it sound like music to you. Whatever other rules people impose are their own rules. If you just make music the way you like it to sound, then you're independent of whatever the industry standard at the time is. Which is great advice, really and it's served me well through the years. Ironic because Paul [Kolderie] and Sean [Slade] are known for producing records that are up to and exceeding the industry standards.
BC: Yeah, their records actually get on the radio sometimes...
MVR: It's one of their responsibilities as producers at the level they work at. But I've never been under the yoke of any particular expectation that I would sell a lot of records...
BC: Yes, we've both been lucky that way...
MVR: So it's been really liberating. Ever since then I thought I could make things sound however I wanted, treat them as art projects rather than something that had to meet a rigorous check list - is there enough bass frequency? Is the kick drum dropped out at 250? Can you hear the vocal? Yeah! I think the do-it-yourself aspect to things has made it so that piece by piece I've figured out how people make standard sounding recordings, and I've been able to use or not use all those studio tricks as I like. I think if you come the other way, you know, go to the Institute of Audio Research or intern at a studio... remember when you interned at a studio for about a week?
BC: Yeah, I got to order a sandwich for Grandmaster Flash...
MVR: Really? That's interesting.
BC: Ya think?
MVR: Anyway, if you decide to take that route and intern, and you slither your way up the ladder so slowly, while basically getting shit on by producers until you're too scared to do anything... make a mistake, patch something wrong or slow, have the needle go into the red... that by the time you have any power in the studio you don't know what the fuck to do, it's all about not making mistakes. For me, the interesting things about all my favorite recordings are the human quirks in the performance and the technology that interfaces with the performance. Either outright mistakes or weird decisions of vagaries of the technology, those are the things that are interesting in the way a piece of music or poetry becomes recorded.
BC: You just played some tracks of some of the first stuff recorded at the new NY Hed and I'm happy to say they sounded great [The Blackout, Speedball Baby 2002]. The drums in particular had a nice natural ambience to them. How'd you do that?
MVR: Well, you can kind of pinpoint the time that drums started sounding shitty in recordings to the moment of proliferation of available tracks to record them on. (ie. Old School = few or one mic on drums...) If you record every tom, and the front and back of the kick drum and the top and bttom of the snare, and room mics and cymbal mics and on and on, there's gonna be all kinds of phase problems and you're entering a "cyber", if you will, world of recording that does not exist anywhere in nature. You wouldn't mic every string of a guitar, or when you record a symphony orchestra, you don't mic every member, you'd generally just use a stereo pair. I can understand why you would close mic a kick and snare drum, but I think all the extra power that engineers have can totally kill them. For me, I really work to find the place in the room where the drums sound the best for the room mics. If you're gonna actually take your room mics seriously, listen around. I've had success putting a mic to the right of the drummer, behind his or her seat. Put a 414 or even an 87 down there. That tends to be a little grittier. Also, if you put a U87 or some Neumann condenser mic about 6 feet away from the drummer, chest high when you're standing up, that can be pretty nice and trashy in the mix, really adds a lot of power. If you want a kind of Kinks-y thing, compress the fuck out of it and bring it up on its own channel as a sub.
MVR: In recording, it seems the more rules you have, the more your hands are tied. I think you spend the first few years going through all your prejudices and sticking to your guns about various things, but you slowly start filling your toolbox with things that mean more to you musically and emotionally rather than symbolically. People are slaves to the ghosts of what they think is better than they are. But confident, directed artists make really good art. If a great song is performed well, and is recorded on a fucking Edison cylinder or a wire recorder, it's still great music, it's a recording of great music.
BC: Okay, so what about micing guitars? I know how you love guitar, you love to play guitar like when we used to tour you never fucking stopped, so I know you've considered ways to get cool guitar sound. So what have you got?
MVR: My favorite guitar sound I ever got was this old Fender Deluxe amp, the tweed, and a Telecaster. I miced that with a '50's Shure Elvis-looking mic, can't remember the model number. So I miced it from about 5 feet away and it was the most exciting, most immediate guitar sound I had ever heard! Unfortunately, a band that was sleeping over knocked the mic down and broke it, so I never got that sound again.
BC: There's a couple lessons in there...
MVR: Honestly though, an SM57 a little off center from the speaker usually sounds pretty damn good. It usually sounds exactly like the amp sounds. It's a good dynamic, good for high-pressure sounds. A 421 is good too but I'm not saying anything everybody doesn't already know. Another thing that's appealing is that you can also use a nice large diaphragm condenser mic like a U87, that you would ordinarily use for super detailed vocals. Put that about 2 feet away from the amp but you've gotta do the pad switch thing. That's great if there's only one guitar in the band, especially. I try not to compress guitar to tape, unless it's a utility track. One of the things about guitar is that it's very volatile dynamically, that's its personality, so if you slam it, you just get a straight line. One cool trick I use, you can do it on any amp that has 2 channels that can be jumped inside the amp, like a Fender Bassman or a Vox AC30 where you would plug into the "bright" channel, then out of the bright channel (second hole) into a delay of some type and then back into the "normal" channel. You can just blend the straight signal and the delay signal by adjusting the relative volumes of the channels.
BC: The delay is really short though...
MVR: Yeah, like a slapback delay.
BC: What are your thoughts on mixing?
MVR: My personal take on mixing is that it's also an organic process, just like the playing in the song and if you mix something too carefully, it ends up sounding a little "careful". Some producers take a whole day per song, sometimes two days per song - that seems crazy to me! I don't mean to sound like a frustrated musician/ engineer who's trying to elevate engineering to the level of musicianship, but it [the mixing desk]'s kind of like an instrument. The way you "play" a mix makes it different every time. Automated mixing can kind of detract from that sort of spontaneity. Mistakes are crucial to any kind of art and you can lose that with automation. That being said, flying faders are pretty awesome and they look cool too!
BC: Analog versus Digital? Blah, blah, blah...
MVR: If one has too many choices, none of them seems any more valuable than any other. A lot of times your limitations define your art as much as your conscious decisions. I think that's the real difference between the current states of analog and digital recording: the digi set are trying very hard to push back the (admittedly ugly) limitations of what digital can do. But the most interesting thing (to me) about any new technology is not how it works, but how it breaks down. It starts doing its most characteristic stuff when its limits are tested. If you record something on a piece of analog tape where the meter reading is nicely placed, flat EQ, whatever, and then record the same sound into Pro Tools the same way, no distortion etc, etc, it's gonna be pretty much the same for general auditory purposes. But take that sound to tape and slam the needle, listen to how the electronics of that tape machine are getting strained and how the tape is compressing, that's when you'll notice a big difference.
BC: Tell me about the Subsonics' recordings. [Everything Is Falling Apart, and Follow Me Down] Those are really cool.
MVR: They [the Subsonics] are kind of technology-phobic, so we kept it simple. We used mostly room mics on the drums, except for kick and snare. A U87, chest high, in front of the drums about 6 or so feet away. Also the Legend 1950's dynamic mic behind the drums although I'm not sure how much of that we ended up using in the mix. Guitar went straight into the board and the sound was mixed with a feed to a Fender Concert. The rest of the band won't let [Clay Reed] turn his guitar up past 2. The second album was basically the same concept except with a bigger live room (recorded at Casino Studio in Atlanta GA). We used a Bell Studios tube mic up by the ceiling, 20 feet away from the drum kit. Vocals for the entire album took a little more than an hour, mostly first or second takes. We made heavy use of the Urei LA 3 compressors both on drums and on vocals while mixing. Used a dedicated 1/2-inch tape machine for delay.
BC: Tell me about the Andre Williams project.
MVR: He had a bunch of R&B novelty hits in the '50's, worked as a producer at Motown wrote Bacon Fat, Jail Bait. He co-wrote Mustang Sally with Mack Rice but sold his share of it for $45 to buy cocaine.
BC: You could probably get a lot of cocaine for $45 back then...
MVR: Yup. He also wrote Shake A Tailfeather for Ike and Tina, which was most recently covered by Hanson. He's an extremely talented guy and charismatic and scary in all the great ways. He was kind of unruly to work with but he made some incredible weird mixing suggestions in the studio, often spot on. He knows how to make a hit record, all the songs sound like 1950's or '60's hits, really spare, with some instrument ridiculously loud in the mix, and for some reason it would crystallize the song. We also had Dolemite (aka Rudy Ray Moore) come down to the studio to do a thing on the record. He was a super cool guy. He's old now and a little introverted. When he was coming up the stairs to the studio, he was like, "Donšt they have and elevator in this building?" and his friend said "Yeah, first you elevate one foot, then you elevate the other." Funny old guys. He played a judge on one of the songs on the record. No offense to anyone else but he is the most fabulous star to ever grace NY Hed Studio, in my humble opinion. It's gonna be a cool record I think.
BC: Excellent. Any cool projects coming up?
MVR: Next week Jon Spencer and I are co-recording a Japanese band called The King Brothers for the In The Red label. I hear they're pretty wild, and the usual recording techniques won't apply. It'll be more like documentary filmmaking.
BC: Wow, that sounds cool. Thank you.
MVR: No, thank you.