Producing, mixing, mastering, engineering, DJing, label management—we hear how a wealth of experience shapes Matthew Styles' studio sessions.
We skip over kiddy fences and squeaky toys on the way up to Styles and Dinky's home studio. The pair used to share a space in the giant terminal building at Tempelhof, which was packed with classic and modern synths, drum machines and all manner of outboard processors. They've since downsized to a more manageable setup, allowing Styles to fit production time and mixing and mastering duties between trips to the daycare centre. Being equally sensitive to the fickle nature of writing music, the technical rigours of engineering and the realities of navigating the industry makes Styles' perspective decidedly grounded. With so few illusions, he's able to focus on the dark art of making his tracks slam.
You've seen the dance music industry from quite a few angles.
My first label manager gig was with Derrick Carter's label. I was working on software systems for British Telecom at the time but I needed to earn some extra money so I was helping them with their accounts and stuff like royalties. When you have 150 artists and accounting twice a year, it's horrible. And that's how I got into working with Crosstown Rebels and Damian Lazarus. He knew that I knew how to do it and he needed someone to take care of business.
I think that most label heads are good at A&R and they're good at getting out there. It's alright for the first two years, when you've maybe got ten records or something, but then when you get to 50 records or 100 records and some albums and compilations, it becomes a nightmare.
Now I'm managing Running Back for Gerd [Janson]. I started just after my son was born because I knew I was going to have a lot of time at home but wasn't going to be able to get into the studio. So I started that a few months ago. I've worked at distributors, too.
The background issue in the industry is that everyone has different interests. Everyone is pulling in different directions. If you're in a shop, then you've got all these distributors calling you every week trying to sell you their 20 new records. You've only got enough money to buy X amount of vinyl that week and you know which ones your customers are going to want. There are bills to pay. You buy the records, maybe you don't sell everything and then you've got to pay the distributor. The distributor's trying to sell records to as many people as possible but they don't know how to sell some of their inventory because it's not really in their world. And then you've got the labels who expect everything to sell, who ask things like, "Well such-and-such sold this much, why aren't we selling the same?" I know that. I worked at Beatport as a label manager for three years. Hellish job. I had, like, 1000 labels underneath me. But what I did realise is that, a lot of this underground stuff, even if you put it on the front page of Beatport, even if it's the best Ricardo Villalobos remix or whatever, it still won't sell if people don't want to buy it. And people want to buy Steve Angello records. Those types know how to market their product. There's more people that like that stuff than Baby Ford, you know.
Has this experience made you less romantic about the creative process than, say, a producer who sees him or herself as a traditional artist?
It's hard to be naive when you've been working in the business for a long time. Sometimes I wish I still had that feeling of being 18 and dreaming about how Daft Punk or Masters At Work were making their music. But I think a more practical perspective has helped me focus. I have a pretty specific idea of what I want to do, and it's important because I don't have time to sit around and smoke half an ounce trying to get a track out. I used to never finish anything. Now I know what the beat should sound like in my head and roughly how the bassline will be.
What was stopping you finishing?
I think I had a lot of issues with confidence. When I met Dinky she was like, "Why aren't you finishing stuff that's good?" You may have a jam or an idea that seems promising but you can still get caught up wondering, "How's the arrangement going to work? How's the mix going to sit?" Now I know that if an arrangement is good, the tracks almost mix themselves.
My wife is a total inspiration for me. We were the same age and both working on MPCs but she was living in New York and I was in London. She was writing whole albums on it while I was just making beats and not really getting anywhere. She'd always finish good ideas and that's how she's been able to write however many albums she's done.
Can you elaborate on the importance of the arrangement to a good mix? We're talking about when parts enter a mix and how they relate to the other elements in the track, both structurally and sonically?
Yeah totally, and when stuff leaves the mix is just as important. Say you've got a melody, then you choose to support it with some chords and sometimes they're overlapping. Maybe you should subtract one of those elements. And also, using simple little tricks like leaving a small gap, a quarter of a bar of silence before making a structural change can be very effective. That's a very small thing, but that little gap can open the door for you to add or subtract an element in a really emphatic way. Many years ago a friend of mine said, "If you want to be good, you've got to learn all the stunts and tricks that make those bigger events happen." I like that mentality. It's common to procrastinate about arranging but it can be quite fun. You set up some auxiliary channels and record a bunch of effects. Then you cut all those sounds up and you've got your transitional elements for getting in and out of structural changes.
I think it's good to study arrangements. I think maybe it's the thing that producers don't really look at so much. Listening to a simple song, examining how the changes are made. People used to—well, maybe some still do—make arrangements for a living. Quincy Jones, for instance. In pop music, you've got the arranger, the mixer, the songwriter and so on. In the electronic music world, maybe you need to study those things.
You've got a theremin in here. Does that get any serious use?
Dinky's more of a theremin player than me. This one's quite cool though because you can set the scale and bang, there you go. Play away. If you put it through the Eventide H8000 you're in a whole new world of pads and atmospheric stuff. I started out with the H3000, then Dinky got the DSP4000 before moving on to the H8000. We have the remote, which makes it far easier to work with but I try to avoid programming in general. Having said that, I did get into the modular thing for a couple years. I had about 16U of stuff.
Between us we had the [Roland] 606, the 707, the 727 the 808, 909—we had them all. Best thing about them was the trigger function. Despite the high prices, the 909 isn't the greatest machine. The kick is boxy, the hi-hat and clap are nice, the rest of it's kind of OK. But for that money I'd rather have an [E-mu] SP1200 or an [Akai] MPC3000, two totally banging machines that are much more flexible.
Were you using the modular to complement your productions or were you trying to make complete tracks with it?
Well, to explain, this studio is about a third of what we had before. I used to share a studio space with Tobias.
Yeah, and I had a great room with everything: the Roland stuff I mentioned, a Vermona, a Rhodes, an Elysia compressor and this modular system. But it was too much. Now we've moved into this place and we got rid of a lot of things and I'm the happiest I've ever been because I've just a few tools that I know inside out. It's not focused enough when you've got too much stuff. Anyway, I got obsessed with creating self-generating patches on the modular. I never wanted to manipulate the patch. I wanted to build it, let it evolve and record an hour of it. I got pretty good at it. But the clock really bothered me. You'd stop and start a patch and sometimes the whole thing would die. I was clocking with LFOs. I'd have a master clock and then have LFOs being retriggered by clock-dividers. Things start to get weird. I made some good recordings of this with Onur Özer but a lot of them were only 50 seconds long because the clock would fail and the whole patch would collapse.
This fits the modular cliché of spending loads of time building and recording patches but never finishing any music.
Yeah, I mean there's some good stuff that could be usable. Ricardo [Villalobos] always said if you're recording, it's never a waste of time. As long as you're recording it, that's fine. So we had Tobias and Max Loderbauer, Mathew Jonson and Steffi's studios around in Tempelhof. I started mixing for other people after being in the studio for two years, partly because I learned so much from them, particularly Tobias.
What sort of things?
Hearing sound in perspective and also some technical things, like how to really calibrate your room and your mixing setup. I'm using this Pro Tools system and I was getting decent results, but then I calibrated the levels between the desk, the hardware and everything else. A common mistake for people working with laptops is that they're not working at an analogue level. You have this full scale metering [dBFS] in digital systems.
Zero db in a DAW isn't the same as zero db on a mixer.
Exactly. With a lot of DAWs, you look at the meter and it's like, "What's going on there?" At least with the Pro Tools meters I can see what the full scale is plus the analogue level. I calibrated my whole system, so now when I'm taking audio out into the hardware and bringing it back into the digital domain, it's working at its optimum level rather than running too hot. I don't go near full scale unless I'm mastering something. I find the more headroom I leave, the better the sound. It's much more open. And then there's less of a difference mixing in and out of the box, I think.
But the thing with Pro Tools, especially the HD system—which is kind of defunct because they don't support it anymore—I don't see any reason to get into a new version just because it's the latest thing that's been released. This one works great. Millions of hit records have been mixed on these systems, and there's absolutely zero latency. If I send audio out through some outboard and back into the system, it comes back on the money. Maybe I miss out on the latest plug-in but, really, what's that giving me anyway? Maybe it's just the internet that propagates this mentality of, "Oh, you need this thing," or, "This plug-in will change your life." Sometimes I catch myself thinking, "Maybe the vintage Universal Audio unit is better than the reissue," but I try and sit on it. I'm lucky that I have this nice stuff but if all I had was a laptop I'd still keep the same mentality. And I'd make sure the room I was using sounded good. Having a nice environment to work in is more important than any synthesiser or plug-in.
The other big thing I learned was regarding the importance of acoustics. I'd say that awareness, in combination with the metering, has had a greater positive effect on my work than anything else. Once I had these bases covered, I started getting really good practice on the mix downs and Tobias asked if I would join him. He had too many clients and started passing me some work. Then I kind of went on my own after moving out. I've done a lot of mixing work in the last couple of years.
What are the recurring errors you see in the mixes you get sent?
Too hot. Always too hot. That's the biggest thing, mostly. The first thing I do is get the tracks, import them and turn everything down. You can also tell that producers are working in untreated rooms. I often hear that the high frequencies are out and there's either not enough or too much bass. Sometimes tracks are missing weight between 30 and 50hz. Those frequencies create the roundness. In the club, I often find having that moving, physical bass energy with upper harmonics works well if they aren't interfering too much with the other musical content. It's a balance but sometimes I find that super low stuff is missing.
I like to clean things up but I also add a bit of dirt. Saturation or distortion always works really well in a nightclub environment. All the DJs get drunk and mix in the red but part of it is because distortion is exciting. And people are like "Oh, it's distorted," but it's somehow... You know what it's like when you get drunk and the hi-hats sizzle in your ears.
The artists whose music you're mixing down aren't exactly inexperienced or new to making music. Why are producers like that coming to people like you still?
Even I'm surprised at the people who come to me for a mix down. But also, when I was doing my last two EPs, there were certain points of crisis where I wanted someone else to mix it. Sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees. And if you're a busy touring artist, it's hard to get the time to sit down and work on the minor details. It's pretty common. A lot of people need their records mixed.
The pressure to do it all yourself only exists within the dance world. But I think collaboration is a beautiful thing. If you look at the credits on a B-52s record, there's a lot of people involved every step of the way: the artwork, the design, the studio, the mix, the arrangement and so on. And I think that there's a better chance of something great coming from that. I think people need to reassess the hangup that you need to do it all on your own. What's been good about having two kids is I don't have time to sit on the internet, getting involved in this sort of thing. I just have to get on with my life and do those things.
Being a mastering engineer yourself, do you ever give directions to people mastering your own productions?
I pretty much don't tell them anything and let them do what they need to do. If it's wrong, then I tell them. But I leave it open to interpretation. Normally, I think engineers can tell when a track is in the ball park. From there, it's just enhancement. Maybe some frequencies need to be cut here and there, but you get lost when you think too much about that stuff when you're making the track. On the 12-inch I did for Ostgut, there was a low-mid frequency thing that I wasn't sure about. I wasn't confident of whether there was too much of it and what frequency was causing the issue. Sometimes it's just better to have someone else come and do it for you. Also, some mastering engineers tend to limit too heavily, but that's because people want stuff to be quite aggressive these days.
The demand for volume is shaping how people produce, too. You're often told to layer and compress percussion, but do you prefer using a single good sound?
I like to have one kick drum that sounds good, then I won't mess around with it because you get this phase thing. The phase problem, especially in the relationship between the kick and the bass, is what kills layering for me. I've got to the point now where I choose the kick drum that's right, whether that's a sample from another record or whether I'm making it myself from a machine or whatever. Maybe I'll layer it with a Goldbaby sample. Claps are different. You want thickness but if you have too much layered percussion, you get this build-up of frequencies that are difficult to work with. I do like to crush things in parallel with something like the 1176, then mixing that flattened signal in subtly with the original.
Dance tracks are inherently designed to be played in a sequence of music, so a production that isn't up to scratch can stick out or is passed over altogether. Do you think this is a factor in the tendency for layering and aggressive mastering?
Yeah. But I think people are beginning to realise that there are subtler ways to do this. I'm always listening and thinking, "Can I make this bigger without crunching it up?" But your ears can get boxed in by exclusively listening to and referencing mixes with dance stuff. It's good to listen to stuff that's not hard-limited. I like to listen to older music that's been really well made as a reference. You could listen to something like Minnie Riperton and realise your tune sounds really closed in and airless.
For me listening to a record like that helps me when mixing dance music because you really see how far you can go. When you take the kick drum out and compare what you've got to nice '70s or '80s production, you often realise there's more to be done. Maybe it's because the kick drum is so dominant that it shrinks everything else behind it. Of course, dance music is made to sound big on a big system. I can't imagine what Minnie Riperton records sound like on a Funktion-One.
You mentioned phasing when you were talking about layering. How does one identify a phase issue?
With bass content, you're looking for an emptiness. When you reverse the phase, it either feels very coherent, or a bit like, "Where's the muscle gone?" For something like a snare, it feels like it's suddenly really wide on the edges, strange and hollow, you know? I mix most drums in mono anyway. At least the kick and the snare.
Your productions generally have quite a tight, dry sound. Do you find amateur producers tend to make their tracks too wet? It sounds nice in headphones, then you play it on speakers and it's muddy.
Yeah for sure. I have a lot of friends asking for advice about mix downs, and I find there's a tendency with people working on laptops to over-process things. Not just spatial effects but everything else, too. I'm lucky that I have nice outboard gear, but there's no reason to compress something like a kick drum from an 808. Maybe you'd compress it if you wanted to change the envelope. People tend to get caught up trying to fix imaginary problems rather than finding a balance.
That Ostgut record, there's barely anything on it. There's some EQing but I wasn't compressing much. I've brought up the project for "Metro" to see if I layered anything [checks the project]. No, I didn't. It's straight up. It's basically just a [Dave Smith] Prophet and a [Roland] TR-8. But there's parallel processing. I find crunching drums in parallel works as well as layering something, but without the phase issues.
That balance can be elusive. Do you think identifying it is more a matter of experience or a mode of listening?
You just have to deal with it. Sometimes I'm really questioning myself, but you have to avoid agonising over it. You can't get into a mental state where you're wondering, "Am I hearing this right? Am I good enough?" You have to keep going. Even if you're roughly on the right track, if you stop and think about it too much and try to calibrate your ears and listen to other songs, you can always think of ways that your track could be better. But often, it's just a mental illusion. It's only when you've gotten the tunes back from mastering that you realise, "Oh, I was actually pretty close."
With mastering other peoples' work, I'm quite confident at it but I also get anxious with it. I'm not the guy who's got all the technical answers. My room doesn't have a flat frequency response but it's manageable. I go with my gut. And unlike some other engineers, I still DJ quite a few times a month. So I get to play the records out that I've just mixed or mastered. And sometimes those tracks are some of the best sounding of the night.