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Mixer engineer producer Ethan Mates talks to SSL

From a career mixing on SSL’s to choosing Matrix for his new personal room in LA.

Jul 24, 2014

SSL Matrix in Ethan Mates personal studioSSL Matrix in Ethan Mates personal studio

From an east-coast upbringing on classical instruments to a youth fueled by playing basement rock and later the sampler generation of 80s and 90s rap, the foundation, it would seem, had been laid for Ethan Mates’ extraordinarily diverse genre-bending career. One that has seen him go from meticulously slicing and dicing composite vocals for the biggest pop divas of our time to kicking up the dust on some of the grittiest hard rock bands of the past few decades.

Part of the last generation of engineers raised on 2” tape and big consoles, Mates has made hit records everywhere from AIR London to a garden shed in East LA, tracking, editing and mixing for artists including Tupac, Korn, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, The Doors and many more. And an SSL has been behind nearly every song in his impressive discography.

But it was a chance meeting with Linkin Park nearly a decade ago that saw Mates become an indispensable production member of the Los Angeles-based nu-metal/rapcore outfit. Since then, he’s worked on all of their live performance and bonus tracks for broadcast/DVD, plus many of their albums from songwriting through final mix. For the group’s sixth studio album, “The Hunting Party” (2014, Warner Bros/Machine Shop) released in June of this year, Mates recorded much of the material at Larrabee’s new Studio 4 on its classic 4000G, with Andy Wallace handling the mixing in their 9080K room.

Meanwhile, partly in an effort to satisfy clients with pockets perhaps not quite so deep in this new music economy, Mates chose an SSL Matrix as the centerpiece of his newly relocated home studio in LA. Mates sat down and told SSL how he’s getting along with it.

You caught the engineering bug at a pretty young age.

“Yeah, somewhere in my early teens. I grew up playing instruments. My parents started me playing violin when I was maybe three years old. It was this thing called the Suzuki method, a program designed to teach super little kids instruments. I started with that and played until I was almost twenty years old. But it was back when I started playing piano and guitar and being in bands that really led me to getting into recording. My parents bought me a cassette 4-track as a birthday present in I think maybe 10th grade. So a buddy and I went down into his basement and built a ‘studio’, including an isolation booth made out of wrestling mats that we picked up from the local gym, and some Radio Shack mics. That’s when it started for me.”

What were your musical influences at that time?

“Initially I was into rock, and then got more into hip-hop, so I became more interested in looping and textures, drum machines and stuff like that. But at some point – probably around the time I finished high school and had a few random jobs, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with music – I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to be a professional musician and have that life. Instead, I thought that recording or engineering might actually be an interesting avenue to pursue.”

And growing up in New York, you were certainly in terrific surroundings to learn the ropes.

“Yup, right on Long Island! As it happens, there was a pretty legendary studio in the town that we lived, so I just popped in one day. This place was called Cove City Sound Studios, which is still there by the way, and at the time it was a pretty big deal with a huge tracking room housing a 64-channel G+ console. In another room they had a Neve 8068, which also tied into the huge live room, so it was a really, really cool place to learn. I still remember the very first time walking in and seeing the gigantic G-series and thinking, “Okay, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!”

So did you start out by apprenticing there in some way?

“I was probably nineteen at the time, doing odd jobs at the studio and going to NYU studying sound design/electronic music, simultaneously. Then one of the assistants quit and I was the next guy in line.”

That’s quite the lucky break!

“Yeah, and the owner of Cove City at the time was a big producer by the name of Ric Wake (Taylor Dayne, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, etc.). He also owned a place in Manhattan (The Dream Factory) that had an Amek room and a Harrison room, so I was kinda “worked” between those four rooms, from the two complexes, for several years. And also remember that, at that time, Pro Tools wasn’t really a DAW and mixing platform; it was just coming out and surpassing Sound Designer and all that chop-shop stuff. So I found a niche in editing, as a lot of the engineers at the time just weren’t into learning all that stuff. Basically, it was lots of vocal comps I was tasked with…I mean, tons of vocal comps because it was all huge pop stuff we were doing.”

How did you eventually make your way out to LA?

“Ric had a band called Drill. They’d just finished a record but nobody was really happy with it. It was sort of half done and not fully realised. So Ric brought in engineer and producer James “Jimbo” Barton (Eric Clapton, Queensryche, Rush, Kiss, Metallica) from LA. He’s another huge SSL guy.”

“So Jimbo came out and I ended up assisting him, and we sort of re-tracked all the vocals, did tons of guitars, rearranged all the sessions, and then mixed it – and that turned into him being there a good 8 or 9 months. We became really close friends.”

“At the same time, I was in a band of my own, sort of a half hip-hop half live music thing. Jimbo thought it was kinda cool and said “hey, you guys should come out to LA, I’ll mix a couple songs for you, and we’ll take you to some meetings, introduce you to some managers and stuff…” and obviously we just jumped at that opportunity.”

“So me and a buddy from the band flew out to LA, and we ended up mixing at a now defunct facility called Soul 7 Studio, owned by Michael Boddicker – the guy who played on all the classic Michael Jackson stuff. Absolutely gorgeous gear, tons of Pultecs, Fairchild, Neve outboard…and there was also a G+ console there, so I was in heaven! Despite this, nothing was really set up properly or working together. So, I approached Boddicker and said hey, we’re thinking about coming out to LA…if we do come out here, will you hire us to get your studio up and running so that we at least have some work until we get our own act up and running? He was totally game, and so we did that.”

Wasn’t that around the time you started working with the Black Eyed Peas and Red Hot Chili Peppers?

“Almost! Boddicker had hired a studio manager, Ed Goodreau, and when Ed left to go build the gorgeous new studios at the Interscope Records label building in Santa Monica, he naturally called me in to engineer. So I immediately began working on stuff for The Black Eyed Peas and worked with all the big A&R guys there on their individual projects, including a Tupac record, obviously posthumously.”

“From there, Ed introduced me to this guy Bob Glaub, who’s a huge session bass player, famous for playing on all the ‘70s AM Gold kinda stuff, and he was good friends with engineer/producer Jim Scott. On one session, Jim’s Pro Tools guy was unavailable for whatever reason and I got put in the slot. That was for By The Way (2002, Warner Bros.), a huge project, just a ton of work. Jim did the basic tracks and mixed it, but I did all the vocals, tons of overdubs and every bit of Pro Tools editing. From there, I went on to do a ton of stuff for the Chili Peppers, live DVDs, etc. So, yeah, doing that Red Hot Chili Peppers record probably was the turning point in my career.”

And so when did the connection with Linkin Park happen?

“Around 2005 and, interestingly, it’s kind of full-circle. They hired Jimbo to do a DVD for them. And so I did the Pro Tools for him, which I don’t normally do for people because I’m not really an editor, it’s not really what I enjoy doing, but for him, because we really like working together, it’s always fun. So I just basically did it for the hang. And a couple of the guys from the band came in at that point, we met and they were really cool.”

“A few months later I got a call from their management saying the boys were starting a new record and would like to write it in a studio. Also that they weren’t working with the same producer anymore, so they’re looking for somebody who’s more their age and could be more ‘in-tune’ with. They wanted someone they could just hang out with and didn’t want this pressure of some big-name dude sitting there and staring at them while they’re trying to write music.”

“So that transitioned into making the whole record, which transitioned into mixing all the live stuff, the DVD and all these bonus tracks, which transitioned into making the next records and so on.2

It seems you have almost exclusively mixed on SSL’s?

“Yeah, the first professional studio that I worked at was a G+ and an 8068, so the combination of those two pretty much sets you up for everything. But the G’s are my favorite consoles, by far. I also really love the K’s, but they’re just very rare. I’ve actually been lucky enough to be working at Larrabee this past year, where rooms 1, 2 and 3 all have Ks. Room 4 has a G+. And Studio A has just received a Duality for Manny Marroquin to use, so I’m gonna sneak in to try it out too. But, ya, Soul 7 had a G; the Interscope room had another G; and I also used to work at a place called the Little Big Room for nearly a decade, which initially was owned by the Bass Brothers who produced the first Eminem record, and that was another 64 channel G. Gosh, how many thousands of days I spent in that room!”

“But yeah, aside from being extremely familiar with them, I just really like the way the headroom is and that you can really hit the channels, the E EQs, everything. I mean, you work on a console long enough and you develop this sort of muscle memory and intimate knowledge of it. Whenever I have to go and work on something else, I’m just so much slower. When I work on an SSL, it’s almost like Braille – you really barely even have to look at the board.”

How’d the decision to buy the Matrix for your own space come about?

“My wife and I bought a house a year and a half ago. I’ve always had some kind of studio at home, but I’ve never really mixed stuff there – just tons of editing, production, programming, and writing stuff for film and things like that. But, since we were moving, I took that opportunity to expand a little and have a room properly built where I could actually mix and do finished work!

So I hired Jacques Lacroix, who works with Vincent Van Haff (Conway, A&M, etc.) a lot. He designed diffusers, bass-traps, clouds and all that kind of stuff, which he custom built for the room. I also knew I didn’t want to be completely in the box anymore. In searching for my console, I knew I wanted to have an SSL stereo bus, so that I would be summing through an SSL. That was imperative to me. Matrix just seemed like the obvious choice.”

Describe your basic Matrix setup currently.

“I’m in my hybrid mode right now. I just have the Matrix faders pretty much static, all at zero, so I’m just using it for summing. But from some of those faders I’ll do parallel compression using stuff in Pro Tools, and I’ll also use the Matrix Cue Send as a stereo send to a pair of compressors as one of my parallel feeds – that happens on the analog side of the Matrix. And then I also use the analog stereo bus inserts with an NTI EQ3 on that and either an Alan Smart C1 (original black-face) or a Rupert Neve MBP (Portico II Master Buss Processor) depending on what the material is. Occasionally, I’ll put inserts on the SSL channels themselves, or sometimes I’ll just use hardware inserts. Usually it’s some kind of hybrid of both.”

How’s your Matrix connected to your DAW?

“Well, because I have so much more gear and outboard than what even the Matrix can accept, I’m going out from my Pro Tools HDX interfaces to several analog patchbays, prior to the Matrix. Therefore, and quite unfortunately, I haven’t got around to using the software inserts.”

So you’re not using the software controlled patch bay?

“No, I don’t use the insert matrix at all. Not for presets and not for software-driven routing. If I use a piece of gear as an insert on the analog side, I just drop it in between Pro Tools line out and Matrix line in, using my hardware patchbay.”

“Now, Joe, the DJ for Linkin Park (who also owns a Matrix, along with several X-Patch units) uses it every single time. He and his engineer spent weeks designing and installing all that stuff to make sure it was intuitive and that all his X-Patches worked with this and that. Interestingly, he’s really not even using Matrix as a mixer but literally just as a signal matrix. It’s pretty crazy, actually. So he and I use it in entirely different manners.” [see below for that story]

Version 1 of the Matrix that you bought came out just prior to the Sigma. Would the Sigma have sufficed for its summing alone, or is there still a bigger draw towards the Matrix for you?

“No, I really like having the routing capabilities of Matrix, even though I’m not fully utilizing them just yet. I also really love having the dedicated, tactile monitor section. And, again, even though I’m tending to leave the analog side of the faders fairly static at the moment, having the big green button and flipping it over to working with those faders as Pro Tools control is awesome! It makes a huge difference in being able to mix in the box, having those faders and feeling like I can touch stuff. Plus I totally love having 40 inputs on mix down should I need them. I have those extra effects returns all filled up with Pro Tools outputs. So it’s just a really nice package for what I need.”

What was your reaction when you heard Matrix for the first time.

“You know, how SSLs have that familiar kind of mid-range area. Well, I just put up some stuff through the 2-mix, that I knew what it sounds like at the studio and was like, yeah, this sounds like SSL, this sounds totally familiar to me. Nothing exaggerated and nothing new, just familiar. I totally feel like I’m working on an SSL console with Matrix. The summing just lends this beautiful, collective, cohesive distortion. You know, one of my main problems – and that of all engineers, I think – inside the box has always been not with the sound of individual channels but rather when you start summing stuff through master faders. That’s when things start to fold and not be as big and cool anymore. The more you can spread stuff out and have it in the analogue domain, just so that it has that extra headroom to breathe, the better. So I’ll usually have a kick mono channel, a snare mono channel, the rest of the drums on a stereo pair, one or two pairs of guitars, probably a mono lead vocal, then a pair of other vocals, bass on its own channel, stuff like that. It makes a huge difference. With Matrix that classic clean wide-open SSL sweet spot is clearly there. That’s the key to the whole thing, for me.”

And with so many potentially conflicting mic sources in rock music – guitar cabinets, drum kits, etc. – phase is a huge issue, particularly when working in-the-box and using external hardware on software inserts, because of the extra round of conversion that’s required.

“Sure! But, on that note, I don’t subscribe to the theory that if you have two mics on a cabinet, to record them separately. No! I always sum that stuff together. So I never record individual mics into the box and then sum them, like absolutely never! Even when I’m doing stuff at home, I’ll usually go through a couple outboard mic pres, then into line inputs on the Matrix and then I’ll use the ‘mult’ on my patchbay and sum those through a compressor back into Pro Tools. So short story, phase is less of an issue for me because I just don’t handle that stuff separately. Otherwise, yeah, you can get crazy phase issues if you’re not careful, and those extra rounds of conversion only make it worse. I always do all of my summing in the analog domain.”

How would you say that Matrix has changed your studio life?

“I’d say maybe one out of every six clients that I have has the budget for me to sit in a huge room for $1200 a day mixing. It’s just reality. So, if I’m not going to be in a huge studio, or not wanting to pay for $2000 a month in air conditioning and electrical bills to have a G in my room, this to me is the best possible solution. Even if I’m just doing rough mixes or programming and I need to send somebody something, it’s great just being able to have the kind of quality all the time that translates to other SSL studios – it’s very important. So much of having skills as a mixer, producer or whatever is about having a foundation that you can work off, where there are just certain things that you know are right and sound right! When you’re doing stuff in the box, you’re constantly second-guessing your decisions. Having something like Matrix, where it sounds immediately familiar and I know how hard I can hit the bus and I know what the gain staging is going to be like, it just really makes you feel at ease and not have to worry about it at all.”

More about Ethan Mates: www.ethanmates.com


LINKIN PARK’S DJ RELIES ON MATRIX AND X-PATCH TO TAME HIS MYRIAD BEAT PRODUCTION RIG

We should all consider ourselves blessed to make a living in music. But Renson Mateo has the completely enviable task of overseeing perhaps one of the coolest, most eccentric and leading edge assemblages of project studio kit on the planet – for he is the personal engineer to DJ Joe Hahn, Linkin Park’s turntablist and beat producer extraordinaire. Having worked from a creative snug at Hahn’s house over the past decade, Mateo recently orchestrated a move of all equipment into a proper studio space located in Los Angeles designed around an SSL Matrix.

“At the time, we were looking for a better way to marry all of Joe's DJ sources, outboard gear, fx/glitch boxes and synths with Pro Tools,” explains Mateo. “In addition to a Korg 88-note weighted keyboard acting as a main MIDI controller, an Access Virus TI2 Polar, and Analogue Systems French Connection, Joe has a lot of super rare and customized tweak boxes, circuit bent modules and toys.”

These range from weird eBay finds (i.e. Vtech Steering Wheel with pitch-bend); a Knas Ekdahl Moisturizer, Oto Machine Biscuit, TM-7 Scrotum Smasher, Electro-Harmonix Hog2, and Frostwave Sonic Alienator; to the legendary Swarmatron synth, Elektron Machine Drum, Teenage Engineering Op-1, and a Diabolic Devices modified Juno-106. And that’s only a partial tally of their sonic arsenal! “Basically anything that can make an interesting sound, we’ll try it. The weirder the better,” Mateo laughs.

For the Herculean task of tying it all together in a way that fits with Joe’s artistic workflow, they enlisted the additional power of two SSL X-Patch units, delivering the flexibility of plug-in style routing to all their boutique analog gems.

“On the Matrix, sources come up as follows: Channels 1-4 for Pro Tools stems; channels 5-6 for the 2 X-Patch units; and the rest of channels 7-16 for keyboards, drum machines and sound modules. We route everything we want to hear through the mix bus. And if we want to run anything through the boutique FX collection, we bus it out to the record bus, which in turn is sent to the X-Patch inputs, and the X-Patch outputs back into Matrix line inputs 5-6. That gets recorded back into Pro Tools. We do this process a few times and just playlist the different FX that we put on the sound.”

Throughout the course of making an album, the duo typically work back and forth with the rest of the band on different songs in an organic idea-layering process. “This is where the Matrix and X-Patch combo is very useful for us,” says Mateo, adding that Joe will often switch quickly from experimental sound design and beat creation modes to pre-production, production and even mixing in one sitting.

“I love the fact we can easily run sounds out to different effects with just click of a button. And being able to save presets – whether we’re trying to come up with a scratch part, drums or guitar ideas – it allows us to be creative and focus on making great music.”

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