Interview by Paul Vnuk Jr.
We first met producer and engineer Matt Wallace in the October 2019 issue when he remixed The Replacements’ classic album Don’t Tell a Soul as part of the Dead Man’s Pop box set. Throughout his career, Matt has also helmed the board for Maroon 5, Faith No More, O.A.R., 3 Doors Down and countless others. His latest adventure finds him moving into the world of spatial audio and mixing with Dolby Atmos. Joining him on his journey is his studio and mixing partner, Will Kennedy, whose resume includes One Republic, O.A.R, U2, Michael Franti & Spearhead and others.
So, how did you guys get into audio engineering?
Will Kennedy: My story starts in the mid-nineties. I was a trombone student at Berklee College of Music, and I knew I wasn’t good enough to make a living at it. [Laughs]. But while I was there I fell in love with the whole process of recording. I graduated in 1999 with a degree in production and engineering, and kicked off my recording career at Ocean Way Nashville. I moved to New York City where I worked at Right Track Recording, and eventually to Los Angeles. Through mutual friends I got hooked up with Matt in early 2007 when he was looking for a second engineer. After about our third project together he asked, “Hey, how confident are you tracking drums?” The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the big chair!
What was that session?
Will Kennedy: It was for a band called The 88 at NRG Recording’s Studio B. I worked with them again on the theme song to the show Community at Sound City, next to where Matt and I have our studio now.
So, you’re in the Sound City complex?
Matt Wallace: We’re right across the parking lot from Sound City. There’s an aggregate group of studios with producers, mastering people, some guys doing foley work and guitar repairs. It’s a really interesting community.
Matt, refresh us on your back story.
Matt Wallace: From 13 years old onward, I was in various bands. I was the nerdy guy who recorded our rehearsals, built speakers, and made a wireless guitar out of some G.I. Joe walkie-talkies. When I was around 20 years old, I built an 8-track studio in my parents’ garage. One of the earliest things I recorded was a band called Sharp Young Men that eventually became Faith No More. Fast-forward 33 years and here I am.
Tell me about working as a mixing team.
Matt Wallace: Will is very detail-oriented. He creates the foundation and follows the rules, while I tend to mix from my elbows. I’m sort of a vibe dude who just likes to mess with a bunch of things trying to bring a mix to life.
Will Kennedy: Because the beginning of the mixing process in Atmos tends to be more technical, I tend to do that end of it. I’ll mix a tune until I come to a good stopping point, then I’ll hand it over to Matt. He’ll often take it in a direction that I might not consider on my own. Then we’ll talk it over, and I might say, “That’s super-cool, but maybe we can smooth out some of the rough edges here and there.” [everyone laughs]
So you guys designed your own Atmos room from scratch?
Matt Wallace: We put this thing together on our own with Will’s calculations and my “sketchy” carpentry skills. We’ve had Dolby check the room a couple of times and I think our speakers are only off in terms of timing by like half a millisecond.
Wow! That’s impressive.
Matt Wallace: The speakers are actually pulled away from the walls, so the room itself doesn’t get in the way of the speakers, and we don’t have coupling issues. Because we were both very diligent, and we both wanted to get this right, and lucky, we put together a room that is super accurate, really nice to work in and not too expensive.
What speakers are you using?
Matt Wallace: Because I funded this, I didn’t want to spend a pile of money. So Will started researching and he discovered a company called Kali Audio. Our entire speaker system from Kali is less than $4,000.
What are your thoughts so far?
Matt Wallace: We have taken mixes done on our Kali speakers in this room, that was tuned by Dolby, to Capitol Studio C, which has well over $100,000 in PMC speakers and they sound very similar.
Back in the analog days, if I took a stereo mix from one studio to another, it could sound vastly different. This is the first time we’ve been able to take our mixes to other rooms that are also tuned by Dolby, and while it’s not exactly the same, they sound exceptionally close. I think Kali designed the right kind of speaker for the right price, and with Dolby tuning, it’s a total game-changer for us.
Will Kennedy: When we were looking at what could potentially be the very prohibitive cost of putting a Dolby Atmos system together, we found that the Kali Audio speakers punch well above their price points.
Matt Wallace: We picked the Kali system because they’re very pleasant to work on, really accurate, and they translate very well to other studios with far more expensive speaker systems.
What is your speaker setup?
Matt Wallace: We have a 7.2.4 setup — seven speakers at ear level, two different subs (one is for low-frequency effects and one for bass management). Then we have four speakers above us.
Are they all the same models?
Will Kennedy: We started with LP-6 monitors all the way around. Then in talking with Nate Baglyos and Charles Sprinkle at Kali, we upgraded our LCR (left-center-right) speakers to the IN-8 model to have a more dynamic range. The overheads are the IN-5 and the subs are the Kali WS-12.
What are you using to control the system?
Will Kennedy: Matt had an existing Pro Tools HDX rig. We upgraded the computer, but we kept Matt’s older Digidesign 192 interfaces. That is our DAW to output processor situation. Then from the 192 interfaces, we use the digital AES outputs to feed our Atmos monitor controller and B-Chain.
That is the speaker system “room tuning” EQ and delays. We use a JBL Intonato 24. It’s got a little remote with one volume knob that controls all the speakers. That’s where all of the room EQing and delay info done by Dolby lives.
What kind of computer does one need for Atmos?
Matt Wallace: It’s a Mac mini from 2018, 3.2 GHz Intel Core I7 with 32 GB of memory.
Will Kennedy: We thought about going with an M1 Chip Mac, but when we were making the purchase decision there was still too much software that hadn’t been ported through yet.
How long does a typical Atmos render take?
Will Kennedy: We’re either printing the mixes in real-time, or in some cases, we’re able to do offline bounces out of Pro Tools. That’s maybe two to four times as fast as the length of the songs.
So, this isn’t that processor intensive?
Will Kennedy: The mixing certainly is, but in terms of creating the deliverable files? No. When we’re creating ADM .BWAV, 5.1, 7.1 and stereo binaural renders, that’s all done in seconds.
You have a choice when you put an Atmos system together. You can run what Dolby calls their Atmos Production Suite, which can operate on the same computer as your DAW. Or, the heavy-duty version is running a separate computer called an RMU with the Dolby Atmos Mastering Suite for just handling the Dolby Atmos processing. That’s usually connected to your DAW machine over a Dante (Digital Audio Network Through Ethernet) network.
What was the learning curve like?
Will Kennedy: When I first attempted an Atmos mix, I felt I hadn’t been that confused in a recording studio since before I knew how a recording studio worked! It was like standing in front of an SSL console for the first time thinking, “How will I ever figure out what all these buttons and knobs do?” It was relearning how to mix in a lot of ways.
Matt Wallace: Our first mix was Maroon 5 “This Love.” Will and I decided to do some mixes on our own to have some sort of calling card to try to get Atmos mixing jobs. We were trying a “build it and they will come” approach.
When I did the Maroon 5 record Songs About Jane (2001), 750 MB of storage cost $750. Unfortunately, I didn’t t make a copy of the files for that album, but I did have 75% of the song “This Love” stored on CDRs. Will and I tried to cobble it together and reconstruct it.
We also downloaded some stems from the internet and did the same thing with Faith No More’s “Epic,” because we didn’t have any of that stuff either, and initially did a really crappy version of it. [both laugh].
Then, when I was working on The Replacements box set, we did an Atmos mix of “Achin’ to Be.” Rhino thought that sounded great, and the Maroon 5 sounded good. But, when Suzanne Savage, from Rhino Records, heard the mix of Faith No More’s “Epic”, she actually stopped it in the middle of the playback and said, “This is not happening.” I’m grateful to her because she was absolutely honest and, fortunately, once they knew we wanted to do it, they gave us the master files and the resulting mix was much better.
With bands like Faith No More, going from stereo to Atmos feels natural because their music fills the room and wraps around you. There’s so much music that it’s great to have more space in which to put it.
Will Kennedy: We have gotten used to just piling track after track of more and more stuff into two speakers. There’s only so much space to be had, so you’ve got to EQ and compress the hell out of things to make them audible in the mix. There ends up being a lot of “felt but not heard” information. With Atmos, now we can take all the stuff that was just felt, and let you hear it!
Matt Wallace: There are two ways you can mix in Atmos: from stems and from multi-tracks. When we did The B-52s “Love Shack” for Rhino, they didn’t have any stems, because stems weren’t invented back in 1989.
So first, we had to recreate the stereo mix, which took a lot of time and when we spread it out in Atmos, the whole thing kind of collapsed. It didn’t feel right and didn’t have the right vibe, so Will and I had to move everything back toward left-center-right. After that, we could put some ancillary sounds in like their little party tracks, some horns and things like that behind us. And, then, it worked.
When Rhino first asked us our approach to Atmos mixing, we said, “We can make every song a roller coaster ride and have stuff swirling around and all kinds of stuff. But, our feeling is that we want the technology to serve the song, and not the other way around.”
When Will and I mix, we’re very diligent and try and put ourselves into the minds of the people who wrote, recorded and produced the song. What would they want to hear if those people were in the room with us during the mixing?
Will Kennedy: Whether you’re listening to the stereo mix of a song you love, or listening to the new immersive mix, the emotional feeling you get should be the same. For us it’s not about what we can do with this amazing technology. It’s about what the technology can do to make sure that a new generation of listeners can enjoy this music while hearing, and feeling what the artist put into it.
Matt Wallace: An interesting example for me was The Replacements’ “Achin’ to Be.” When Chris Lord-Alge mixed the original album, Don’t Tell A Soul, he jammed everything together and made the album punchy and radio-friendly. When I had the chance to do the remix, I opened things up a bit and allowed certain elements to breathe. The re-mix allows the listener to hear more background vocals and incidental guitar parts, and get the personality and the charm of the band more.
Now with the Atmos mix, “Achin’ to Be” it is unexpectedly more emotional because I’m still hearing the band play but, I can hear Slim’s and Chris’ background vocals, and they’re really tentative and not very self-assured. Now the listener can hear that and think, “Oh wow, this is a different feeling to this song.”
Now you can clearly hear Tommy, who’s a little more brash and boisterous, and Paul’s little intricate guitar parts. In Atmos, I feel like I’m transported back in time, sitting in the room with the band performing the song at that moment. You can hear their charm, their quirks and their idiosyncrasies. Atmos offers a bigger, wider, more dynamic window into the emotional intent of the band.