Hearing in colour, with Matt Strong
“The overall goal is to make everyone sound great. Not just yourself.”Matt Strong
Our latest featured artist, Matt Strong, can be regarded as a bonafide veteran of the ever-popular online musicians community, Bandlab, having joined the platform in 2017 just two years after it was launched. Over the past five years, Matt has earned a very respectable following of over 6,000 listeners and has collaborated with a number of artists, resulting in an abundance of highly polished recordings. His attention to detail with regards to audio production is testament to his strong work ethic – countless hours spent researching and following a trial and error approach, along with diving in at the deep end during a stint working in a recording studio.
A seasoned guitarist, he attributes his work ethic and integrity to the time he spent ‘living a simple life’ with his father, a farmer, in rural suburban Sumner, Michigan. His early years were split between the slower pace of small-town Sumner, and the hustle and bustle of city life in Flint, an experience he describes as “helping to balance the scale”, strengthening his intuition and ability to understand people – “I always hoped for the best but prepared for the worst”, he tells us – principals that apply to how he approaches music today.
Life in Michigan ran its course around 2011, “I was drowning in MI and realized the only way out was to leave”, he recalls, talking about his move 800 miles south to Tennessee to be with his partner, while she finished her education. The move offered complete separation from everything he’d become accustomed to in Michigan and led to building a life with the woman who would become his wife. After two years in Tennessee, it was back on the road to Philly for three years where city life quickly lost its appeal… then back to Michigan, before finally settling in Arizona.
Reflecting on his movements over the years, Matt tells us “life has taken me many places”, which is also true of his adaptable and exploratory approach in music. Not one to stick to a particular genre, Matt draws inspiration from pretty much the whole spectrum, including Jazz, Electronic, Blues, Rock, Metal, Lo-fi Hip Hop and Classical.
We caught up with Matt to talk about his experiences of working with other artists on Bandlab, his fascination for audio and the highs and lows along the way… Let’s get into it!
Hey Matt, thanks for taking the time for this interview! Let’s start with a bit of background… tell us about yourself, and how you found your way into music.
As long as I can remember, music has always been deep in my soul. As a child, jamming in my room to cassettes and cd’s. Later jamming with a couple friends that had instruments. Then as a punk teenager playing shows and hanging out with other musicians and bands. Music has always been there for me.
In my adult years, playing gigs with a band with a little more sophistication, and recording/writing songs on my own, led me to a gig as an audio engineer. That’s when things started to change as to how I listen to music. It changed how I write and record music. It was like I was hearing music in black and white and then learning to hear things in full color. It was a pretty awesome experience in retrospect, even though it was very overwhelming at the time. Since leaving the studio about 2 years ago, I’ve had the time to focus on branching out to other musicians through BandLab, and really write some great songs.
I absolutely relate to the “hearing music in black and white and then learning to hear things in full color” comment – casting my mind back to hours of critical listening exams when I was studying audio engineering in the late ’90s, which kind of killed music for me for a while, examining it rather than enjoying it for what it is! How was it for you, working in the studio, and what did you take from it?
My time in the studio… it was hard. Like really the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because now I don’t have to be satisfied, they do. I’ve taken that approach into how I make my own music and I think it’s a good idea for musicians especially to get outside of themselves and view their music from a different perspective.
But back to my time working for other musicians… I learned so much from taking a back seat. I learned as a musician myself as to how to play better, listen to the rest of the band, and stop basically being a guitar player, but a musician. The overall goal is to make everyone sound great. Not just yourself.
Over time, my mixes got better and better. It was literally 50/50 on the job experience/reading and research, trial and error. The whole time I’m learning as well. A lot of the people we worked with, first time in a studio also. I can’t tell you the number of hours that I’ve spent reading forums and other engineers’ articles about recording this and that. You have to trust your ears. #1 hardest lesson: trust your ears! If it sounds good… it is good. Doesn’t matter how you got there.
Tell us about how you first got you into music, and who you count amongst your main musical influences?
Some of my earliest memories are of rocking out in the car with my mom to AC/DC, Reo Speedwagon, Chicago, and so many more. As I grew up, I just started picking up instruments every chance I got. Then one day my little brother got an acoustic guitar for Christmas. I basically stole it and that was that. I was a guitar player! I’ve been playing guitar/bass for about 25 years now… I dabble in piano but I’m not ready to brag about that.
Tough to say who’s been the biggest influence as I listen to just about everything. I can nail it down to Joe Satriani as probably the biggest influence for guitar tone. Radiohead has also had a huge impact on me. I think they’re the reason I dabble in electronic music and enjoy making weird abstract noises sometimes. I also enjoy classical music and lo-fi hip hop Haha!
I’m also a massive Radiohead fan, they’ve been huge influence over the years – constantly evolving and redefining their sound from grungy rock to experimental electronic soundscapes, so I understand the curiosity regards experimentation and ‘dabbling in electronic’. What lessons have you learned whilst experimenting with, and making, music – how has your approach developed over time?
I tend to write a lot of the music in my head before sitting down to record it. I usually just start with a riff, either on piano or guitar, and then just build the song from there. Sometimes the ideas just come, other times that 5-10 sec piece of music just sits there for a year or two until inspiration strikes and I figure out how to evolve it into an entire track.
There have been a few surprises over the years though where I had nothing other than a verse riff and a drum beat that really came out of nowhere and really surprised me. Probably the hardest lessons since I’ve been recording is using EQ and compression appropriately. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Over the years as I have slowly been learning how to mix, I’ve become more confident using multiple instruments. I’m always reading and learning new things. I try them on my mixes and use what works. If it sounds good, then it is good!
You mentioned your strong work ethic, which is evident from all the time you’ve invested in educating yourself on recording technique and the quality of work you produce… Where does that motivation and desire to create music come from?
It’s almost instinctive… like how a dog knows to chase a cat. I don’t know what it is exactly, I guess it’s the process of taking these few notes and turning it into something amazing sounding. That’s what satisfies my soul. I tend to draw inspiration from other’s music mainly. Hearing how they used an instrument or a sound and trying it on my own to use things in different ways. I’m also pretty awestruck by the vastness of space and how tiny we are but we are still capable of such greatness. That’s pretty inspiring to me, especially when I find I’m going through a drought.
Now, you’ve already mentioned Satriani and Radiohead as influences, which kind of gives us an idea of the type of music you might associate with most strongly… but, I’m wondering if there’s any surprises?
Well, I’m kind of all over the place. I tend to write in the moment, whether it be Jazz, Electronic, Blues, Rock, Metal. If I had to lean towards a specific genre, I’d have to say I’m a rocker! It just gets my feet tapping the hardest.
If you could record and/ or perform with any musician or band… who would you choose?
Steely Dan or Foo Fighters!
Steely Dan because they’ve always had crystal clear recordings, but they still get jazzy/bluesy and a little bit rock and roll. Foo fighters because as a kid they just got me moving man! The energy and the vocals made them. And they’ve been consistently putting out awesome tracks for the last 30+ years.
Fine choices Matt!! Playing with the Foo’s would be an incredible experience, and really sad news recently with Taylor passing. Have you had any ‘claims to fame’ over the years?
Well, years ago, I was hanging out with a friend of mine in Chicago at Buddy Guy’s Legends. We had tied on a few and the band that was playing, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, offered for someone to come up and play with them. My friend, being as intoxicated as he was, yelled louder than anyone else that I should get up and play with them. I reluctantly did, and… wow! That was the best 10 mins of my life!
Afterwards, little known to any of us, Buddy Guy was there! He approached me a short time afterwards and introduced himself. I was at a loss for words. He shook my hand and told me I could really play! Seriously the best night of my life as a musician to have someone that great give me a compliment!
We’ve talked a lot about your love for guitar and interest in production. So, I wanted to dig into your set up. Do you want to tell us about what equipment you’re using, and what would you say has been the most critical for you, something you couldn’t live without in your set-up?
I can’t talk about my current setup without talking about my previous. They all led me to where I am now, and I don’t think it’s fair to anyone who reads this to not follow my logic/choices.
Previous setup… I ran a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and a Vox AC30 I chose the Mesa for its absolutely brutal tones with any amount of gain. I chose the AC30 because of its clarity and the way it takes pedals both in front and through the fx loop, mic’d them both with a condenser and a SM57 mic. Positions vary depending on what I wanted as far as tone.
I sold the AC30 to pursue a pedalboard rig. I wanted something that could achieve the same results with 1/5 of the weight. Hence my dive into preamp pedals and power amp sims/speaker sims. Game changer! Hands down. You still get the analog path (depending on what pedals you’re using) mind blowing! Tech is crazy these days!
I also purchased a LIne 6 Helix LT about six months ago and so far, it’s been very reliable. Easy to use and dial in.
Focusrite 4i4 for an interface and loads of plugins…too many to name specifically.
Best investment… Hands down interface and reaper license. There have been some other good snags along the way. I’m always looking for new gear/ plugins. Splice and Serum are probably going to be amongst my future purchases. Just to broaden my reach as a producer.
That’s a really solid set-up you’ve got there… a while back I invested in Line 6 Helix Native, which then led to replacing my Mac as it seemed to struggle (would’ve been way cheaper to get the LX in the end… awesome bit of software though!). So, my next question would be… how are you putting all that gear to use at the moment? What’s cooking?
I’m currently in the works with Anjelica Estrella to produce a full length album. We’ve released 2 tracks on BandLab, and one of which was mentioned above. She’s a fantastic vocalist/writer and has been a joy to work with because she hears my tracks in a way I never could. So anyone that reads this, you’ll get nothing from me until it’s out!
I’ve also redone a bunch of tracks for Zackery Perkins – some of the tracks have yet to be released.
Looking forward to the album with Anjelica, I’ve heard a couple of tracks you’ve recorded with her – ‘Change’ is just incredible, she really is a talented vocalist. And… I have to mention, you’d surprised me with additions you’ve laid down on one of my own tracks, ‘Lessons’, this week, that made my day!! I’d left it open for collaborations and stoked with what you did with it. What made you decide to work on it?
It’s a great piece of music. It moves through many emotions and moods. When I heard it, I knew I would be able to give it a push into another direction. I sat down and was immediately inspired. The greatest songs are the ones that come naturally and flow together organically. Great track from you Mistachesta! Looking forward to more!
Count me in!! On that note, when it comes to collaboration with other artists, how do you identify who you’d like to work with?
Tough to say. Instinct, potential, or just overall consistency. I’ve worked with all levels of artists and not a single one has disappointed me. I enjoy the challenge that each project brings, and I do my best to make everyone sound the best they can
I have a couple of tracks that I’m really proud of because, I never thought they would go anywhere. Then a couple of really great vocalists come along and take them to out of this world great! They are;
Summer Walker feat. D A L T E N I O U S
My Secret Garden feat. Jordi Fons
Change feat. Anjelica Estrella
Probably 3 of my best although I’m working with several artists to make more! There are several other people I would love to work with, we just haven’t made that connection yet. If you jump in headfirst, there’s your first mistake. You have to build a reputation and then reach out to people.
Well, you’ve certainly got the reputation for those who are already familiar with your work Matt. Best of luck with the forthcoming album, we’ll keep an eye out for that! Thanks again for taking the time to share your story with us!