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Art of the Recording Engineer: From Michael Jackson to Mutant Radio, Matt Forger Speaks Out
Interviewed by Scott G (The G-Man)
G-Man: When people think of Matt Forger, they usually think of your work with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Glen Ballard, and Bruce Swedien, yet when you hand out a CD with examples of your producing, engineering or mixing, it almost always has new and emerging artists, people like Mutant Radio, Laughing With Lulu, The Dharma Bomb, or Fjaere. What’s your thinking behind the choice of avoiding the big names?
Forger: While my association with those big names was a wonderful experience, it’s also in the past.
G-Man: But you work with artists at every level, including “the biggies.”
Forger: Oh sure, for example, I still maintain a professional relationship with Michael Jackson and contributed to the recent release of “Michael Jackson – The Ultimate Collection,” a boxed set, and I worked on many of the previously unreleased recordings that are included in it, as well as overseeing various aspects of the project. This is, of course, very enjoyable to be part of because I got to revisit those eras when I worked very closely with Michael as he created the great albums that established him as the “King of Pop.” For me, that was a learning experience that had no equal. To be part of history-making projects like “Thriller” and to work with Quincy Jones taught me what it takes to make the best recordings possible. Not just in a commercial sense, but as artistic statements, and what it takes for a song to engage the listener, the power of a collaborative team effort, and what it means to “arrive at the studio and leave your ego at the door.” These and the many other lessons learned are what I bring to the table when I work with new and emerging artists.
G-Man: So you’re combining the best aspects of past and present. What are some of the contrasts?
Forger: The old model of the record business allowed for the development of talent, coaching it along the way, working with songwriters, arrangers, producers and engineers and learning the craft of record making. That system doesn’t exist in today’s business model. Today, with few exceptions, major labels look for the most promising bands and artists, sign them to a deal, and if they don’t sell the numbers that the companies require, dump the act. Before an act has the chance to develop a following and learn the ropes, it can be all over. That’s what it’s about now, the bottom line. Corporate business has no heart and no sense of artistry. I want to look to the future, and it’s out there. The future of the music business is in the undiscovered talent that flies below the radar. That’s who I want to work with. That’s the hope of the music industry: the unique, innovative artists who are creating something new and exiting, not regurgitating an old tired formula, or manufacturing synthetic crap with no emotion or heart. I want to be part of the future!
G-Man: If nothing else is read in this interview, I want to thank you for those comments! In addition to the seven Michael Jackson albums, you’ve worked with Van Halen, Lena Horne, James Ingram , Giorgio Moroder, and many others. Care to comment on the difference between sessions with superstars and sessions with stars-in-the-making?
Forger: In a word: experience. The seasoned pros have one important quality that sets them apart: they have developed an instinctual feel for music. It’s that thing that accomplished musicians have. It’s an intuitive thing. You learn to trust your gut through trial and error. There is no substitute for it. Some people have it more than others. It’s a sensitivity, an ability to see inside the music and read the different levels of what’s occurring. Then, to have the ability to recognize and manipulate the elements in such a way as to make a more effective communication of the songs’ intent. For newer artists, it’s often a matter of helping them identify and tune into those subtle qualities. And, to focus on what is important and what is just background noise that’s creating confusion.
G-Man: Let’s talk about the diversity of your musical interests for a moment. You recorded a modern-retro band called The Teddy Boys, then you made some dance remixes of a couple of my songs, and you’ve done live recording for singer-songwriter Caroline Aiken. It seems like you enjoy a wide variety of styles and genres. Do you favor certain kinds of music, or are there any forms of music you don’t like?
Forger: I grew up with the pop radio formats starting in the ’60s, where you could hear the entire assortment of what was out there. Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra, Roger Miller, The Beach Boys and The Beatles would all be on the same station. When you heard everything from Jan and Dean to James Brown in the course of a few minutes, it gave an overview of what the public in general was listening to. When radio in the ’70s became album-oriented, it started to narrow the field of what would be heard on a given station. In the course of my growing up, I always was exploring what was new and different, what type of instrumentation was new and exiting. As trends continued, the influence of ethnic and world beat came to be an interesting movement. There are too many styles of music to name and say that they have all influenced me, but quality has always been a factor. I’ve worked on sessions from Classical to Country, New Wave to New Age, Pop to Punk, music from all parts of the globe, and it’s still exciting and a challenge to work on something new. If there’s a form of music I don’t care for, it’s the manufactured mediocre crap that gets sold as having something to say when it’s just pretentious drivel.
G-Man: Again, thanks for making those statements. That’s great. When you record live, I know you have a preference for a certain recording technique. Can you tell us about it?
Forger: When the situation allows, there is a technique that I love to use because of its elegant simplicity. It uses a single high quality stereo microphone strategically placed to capture the performance, the event and the environment all at the same time. There is a sonic signature that this technique creates that is unlike any other. It is the capturing of that moment in time, and when it occurs, you capture a great performance. When done properly, it transports the listener to that place and the feeling of being there. This technique seems to work best in acoustic and ensemble situations where the volume is not terribly overpowering. It has the ability to capture subtlety and nuance in the perspective of the dynamics of the moment. This is of course what direct to stereo recording is all about. I didn’t originate the technique, but have come to appreciate its power and purity. When an artist is at home with an audience, record the event and have a document of that energy and honesty of the expression of the music. It can be so simple and effective. There are also ways to incorporate this into a larger recording plan and have extra microphones to highlight various sections or instruments. I’ve done this as well and had very pleasing results.
G-Man: How did you get your start in the business? Was there formal training, or did you just begin recording around the house and hanging out at studios?
Forger: Well, my start in the business was actually when I began mixing live shows. I had done other things before that: classical guitar lessons, playing with electronic stuff and listening to a ton of records and music. But, it was live mixing that gave me the first money I ever earned in music, and the sense that I was on to something that I knew I had a natural ability for. It was being asked to keep an eye on the mixer for friends who had a band. They were impressed that they sounded so much better and that the audience enjoyed the sound. That was my first gig. That led to my learning of all matters related to sound. I read, I experimented, I built my own gear, I asked questions of people I could find who had more experience than I did. There was a guy in my town who was a wiz with electronics, and he had built a recording studio in an old chicken coup. It was a funky place to work but the sound that came from there was amazing. I used to hang out there and just watch and try to learn what was occurring. I would work with my friends and try techniques, mic placement, and experimented with everything we could think of. It was an education by trial and error. It was gratifying when musicians would come by our makeshift studio in the drummers’ basement or bass players’ bedroom and comment that they were spending good money to record with experienced people at professional studios and didn’t have anything that sounded like our recordings. It was all instinct. What was it supposed to sound like? Like all those great records that I grew up listening to – that was the benchmark. I just followed my heart to tell me what the music needed.
G-Man: What are some of the reasons you interact with and support NARIP (National Association of Record Industry Professionals)?
Forger: NARIP is a great organization. It’s one of those places that you can go and network with others who are looking towards the future. There are professionals from all facets of the industry, from the creative side to the business specialists. If you are looking for someone with a specific skill or are looking to offer your talents to others, there is always an assortment of people to network with. In the entertainment industry, success is based on who you know more than what you know. When you have both, you have the potential for great things. As an organization, NARIP holds many panel events, seminars, workshops, and just networking get-togethers. The quality of people who attend is always top notch.
G-Man: You’re also a participant in organizations like L*A*M*P and Venus Music.
Forger: Yes, these are also great organizations because they play an important roll in backing the independent artist community in the LA area. I try to offer my support to organizations that have, as a goal, the advancement of the independent music community. It’s my belief that the music of tomorrow will come from these songwriters and bands. With the major labels no longer developing talent, it has created a void of where one can go to understand how things work on the inside. The artist of today has to learn as he goes, and to help avoid costly mistakes and wasting time and money, there are excellent programs offered by these organizations to help the artist move forward and understand the complex nature of the business. There is also the advantage of being able to build a team of support specialists to help with the areas that you don’t desire to undertake yourself. Remember, a collaborative effort can be the most effective way of achieving a goal, especially when the scope of the undertaking is overwhelming.
G-Man: What can you tell us about your current studio gear?
Forger: Simple, straightforward, always an eye to quality. It’s not the newest whiz-bang device that sets a studio apart. It’s the workhorse, tried and true technology that proves to be the greatest value. Right now I’m using Pro Tools because it’s the standard for audio production in the industry. Other systems work well too, but some type of compatibility is always desirable. I compliment my computer system with a selection of outboard gear
that works for my application. I specialize in mixing so I have some good reverbs and effects from Lexicon, Yamaha and Roland. And a mastering chain that creates a good final quality product, Neve compressors, DB technologies converters and TC mastering software in a M-5000 processor. For speakers, I use Tanoys and Custom Altec Monitors. They work for me. Very often, clients will say they don’t get an understanding of the sound in the studio. But when they take the mixes out into the real world, they love the sound. That’s where it really counts. If it sounds great in the studio but nowhere else, you’re on the wrong path.
G-Man: From your studio set-up, I can see that you’ve embraced the digital world. Is there anything you miss about the analog days?
Forger: There are a lot of things that you get used to when recording on analog tape. The time it takes to rewind, the fat sound, the accidents that occur that turn out to be inspiring, having a track sheet to doodle on. It’s great if you can afford to incorporate an analog stage at some point of the recording process. Some styles of music benefit more than others, but it still adds a charming sonic personality when you can. It has come to the point where recording analog is a luxury. For the cost of a reel of two inch tape, you can buy a hard drive large enough to hold several CDs of recordings. Whatever the choice, use the recording medium to its maximum potential.
G-Man: What are your thoughts about tape manufacturing problems?
Forger: It’s a sad state of affairs that analog tape manufacturing has ceased. To deprive those who love the sound characteristics that it imparts on recordings is unfortunate. It forces artists, engineers and producers to make choices not based on creative style, but instead on the corporate influence on the business of creativity. I have heard that there will be tape available in the future. It will of course become a specialty item and the cost will certainly become much higher that what everyone is accustomed to paying now. But for those who appreciate it and have the financial means to afford it, it will become a premium option in the recording world.
G-Man: I know you’re one of nearly 100 top producers affiliated with StudioExpresso.com. How does that organization work?
Forger: That’s a good question because Studio Expresso is different things to different people, depending on your needs. It’s a clearing house for engineers and producers, a portal so to speak, for the outside world as well as the industry. If you would like to research an engineer or producer for an upcoming project, the background and contact information is there for many of the industry’s top people. If you need to co-ordinate a studio project, then Studio Expresso can help you find a top notch facility, or whatever personnel you may require. If you’re traveling to LA to make use of the creative assets the area has to offer, then arrangements and support for your project and stay are also available. Studio Expresso has also been exploring ways to support the independent music movement by helping new and developing talent ways to network and establish contacts within the industry. Claris, who heads up the organization, also manages producers, engineers and other talented people on the production side of the business and offers her expertise and experience in the business to help build their careers
G-Man: If an artist is interested in working with you, what should they do? Send you some material first? Contact you via StudioExpresso.com? Contact you directly?
Forger: While I don’t mind talking with a potential client, it’s good to establish a dialog with SE first. If there is any question about how to approach a producer, then these types of questions can be cleared up ahead of time. Many times I’ve taken calls for someone in need of a “producer,” only to find out in the course of a conversation that they are looking for someone who will co-write songs, act as a musician, program beats and synths, as well as engineer, mix and produce. Some artists feel that a producer should shop the material and secure a deal for them. In this business, everyone operates differently. I work to facilitate the successful completion of a recording project, regardless of its complexity. It’s always good going in to know the specific qualification you’re looking for and that you’re talking to a person who has the right set of skills.
G-Man: Do you have any thoughts on 5.1?
Forger: Yes, It’s a beautiful thing. While Michael Jackson’s “Captain EO” was one of the first digital 5.1 theatrical releases, and working on that project was groundbreaking, my area of interest is currently the song, and its emotional content. While 5.1 home theater is growing immensely in popularity, most music today is “consumed” in the traditional stereo format, and to a large extent MP3 is the format of choice when delivered on computer, iPod, blasters and small systems. Almost the opposite of the esoteric environment that a true 5.1 audio system would dictate. And while a listening experience in 5.1 can be very gratifying, most independent artists just don’t go there because getting the music out in an effective manner is the priority.
G-Man: Care to comment on the latest format wars?
Forger: My only observation is that it will work itself out in the commercial marketplace. Remember VHS/Beta, Quad sound, Laserdisks, 8 Tracks vs. Cassettes. When viewed from a historical perspective, everyone’s hindsight will be 20/20 and the question won’t be an issue.
G-Man: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done in the studio? In terms of sonics, I mean.
Forger: Before the advent of digital technology, you needed to be creative acoustically and electronically. In the song “Billie Jean,” when Michael sings the line “Do think twice” at end of the third verse, he’s singing through a cardboard mailing tube. We often would record elements in the bathroom (tiled) because it would give it a short early reflection quality. The main percussion sound on the song “Beat It” was Michael beating on fiberboard drum cases with 1×3 inch pieces of wood in the mirrored room of Westlake Studio A. This was all normal. Now if you want to talk weird, on one song (not MJ) we ran a tape loop around the room supported by microphone stands on a two track machine. It was a loop of burps and was keyed by the kick and snare to give the effect of drums that were alive and breathing.
G-Man: What is “The Matt Forger Show”?
Forger: The “Matt Forger Show” is the name credited to the sound design elements that I have created. It was started by Michael when we would work together and often he was in a location that didn’t permit visual contact. We only had our voices as a reference. The detachment made it feel as if it was a radio program. It became the name I choose to use for my style of work that combines spoken word, sound effects and music.
G-Man: How would you describe the magic or the fascination of music?
Forger: Music is a form of emotional communication. The combination of rhythmic patterns, melodic progressions and lyric content, communicate and express feelings that we share though common experience. A pop song is a three minute fix of an emotional drug. We are connected through our humanity, and most successful songs speak to this. It is our shared human failings and aspirations that connect us. Whether it’s telling a story, expressing a feeling or idea, it’s the honesty with which we communicate our inner most self, that allows others to share in the moment.
G-Man: Are there any common qualities you’ve observed in successful artists?
Forger: There is one quality that I have observed in all the successful artists I have worked with. That is the ability or talent to understand music at an intuitive level. Not just technically or in theory, but at a gut level to feel what is required to make a piece of music work. This is evident in the creative process. When asked for an idea, melody line, counter line, harmony part, arrangement progression or instrument texture, I have noticed that certain very successful individuals are never at a loss. And, while not at a loss, always have ideas that are appropriate for the particular situation and are of the highest quality. They are on the money instinctively, without reservation and with complete confidence. They are, in fact, “one with the music.” This quality I can say is what separates the most successful artists with those that aspire for greatness. While it is true this is something that comes with experience, it is also that quality that allows for success to continue. To have your finger on the pulse of what the public feels is one thing, to be able to lead the public with your own sense of what is a true expression of honest emotion is yet another talent.
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