A Day in the Life of Akon & Dizzee Rascal's Engineer, Matthew Weiss | Engineering Hip-Hop

With a diverse resume of credits that range from Mega Ran to Akon and Dizzee Rascal to Ronnie Spector and beyond, Matthew Weiss is a highly sought-after recording, mixing and mastering engineer.

We spoke with Weiss to get a run down of his career, starting with his early days as an intern studying under Grammy-winning engineer Denise Barbarita, serving as an assistant to the producer Mark Marshall, and living and working in Los Angeles today. We also discuss the gear and the educational initiative that he has launched in an effort to build better engineers.

Matthew Weiss, courtesy of the artist

Could you tell me how you first got into engineering? I don't think I know that part of your story.

I think it depends on where you draw the line, but I would say my first little spark of it was in middle school when we were putting on a play. They asked what I wanted to do—I looked at the soundboard and I was like, “I wanna do that.”

Nice. Do you remember what kind of board it was?

I remember that the plug around the outlet was chipped and I remember getting shocked.

A lot of kids do the four track recorder thing or the two deck karaoke thing—did you record stuff at home when you were young?

I didn't start recording at home until I was in high school. I had Sony Acid Pro, I think I had an early version of Audacity, and then eventually I had Pro Tools.

Was recording an extension of you making music?

Yeah, when I got into high school, I was really into hip hop and I just wanted to make beats so bad. So I had a little Roland MC-303 groove machine that my stepfather bought me and I would make the beats on that. I would track them into Sony Acid and I would move them around and arrange them in Acid Pro.

Eventually, it's just a couple short steps to recording myself and recording other people. So I got the little Samson microphone, the Sam Ash brand condenser and the Mbox, and that's how I got Pro Tools. And I think it came with Reason also.

Yeah. I love Reason and to this day I still use it.

Reason was a badass program. It was a little above my head when I first got it, but looking at it retrospectively, I don't think I really knew what I had.

When did you really start engineering? How did you make that leap into the work that you do now as a professional?

It was sort of a gradient, but I would say because the people that I was making music with started to kind of move forward as I was getting into college. Once I got into college, the best paying job on campus was the sound tech, who was responsible for recording as well. If you could drive a commercial vehicle, then you could drive the van around with all the equipment, and then you got paid even more. I had all those qualifications and by the end of freshman year I was the sound tech.

I was picking up all of the gigs, recording all of the concerts and everything like that. But when I left school, I thought maybe I should just be taking this seriously—I thought I had wanted to be a writer at first, and then I kind of switched into music composition. I then realized what I really wanna be doing is recording the other people who are composing the music and playing it, so I picked up an internship when I got out of school.

Where'd you intern?

My first internship was at Shooters, which was a post and transfer facility in downtown Philadelphia. After that, I started interning and assisting with an engineer named Denise Barbarita and a producer named Mark Marshall who were both in New York.

During this time, were you learning just how to run the board or were you learning about compression and that sort of thing too?

I kind of learned all of the signal processing stuff on my own, but I also picked up learning about running the board and mic techniques and things like that from Denise and Mark.

Do you remember some of the gear that you were working on early on?

Oh, yeah, there was an SSL G+ with an automation brain in it, as well as an API desk at a studio called Pyramid. There were all sorts of arrays of outboard gear, but most of the work that I was doing at that point was editing work—so I spent most of my time really with the grid and, you know, figuring out how to move things around.

How did you learn to mix and how did you transition into working more as a mixing engineer?

I'd sort of been mixing my own stuff all along. I was still assisting in New York at the time that I started at Bobby Eli's studio and Studio E in Philadelphia, which gave me a lot more access to being in the studio. I didn't have to go back and forth because I was living in Philly at the time so I was able to be there 7 days a week. Because I was the in-house engineer, I was doing almost all of the recording, but a good portion of the mixing as well. From 2007 to 2010 was when I was doing most of my mixing.

What’s a typical day like for you as an engineer?

Well, I'll give you today as an example: yesterday during the afternoon, until last night, I was in the studio tracking and then I came home. I decided that I didn't want to do any additional work because I was already getting home late enough—I just wanted to hang with my fiance. I woke up this morning at about 7, took care of my little doggies here, and I got to work on the final edits for a video tutorial that I'm putting together.

Matthew Weiss, courtesy of the artist

Then, I switched over to one of the records we worked on yesterday. I started doing Melodyne passes to get the vocalist's takes to really fit. Now that I've done the Melodyne pass, I'm already in the process of getting an actual mix going, but probably won't finish it before I have to go to the studio. From there I'll probably be at the studio recording until about seven or eight.

Could you walk me through a mix? What are some of your usual best practices that you apply?

It kind of depends on whether or not I'm the tracking engineer as well—if I am, it's a really easy flow and segue into the mix, which kind of starts during the tracking process. I just take my tracking template and I make a couple little changes and it becomes my mix setup, then I take effects that I've already done, and continue the process because I'm picking up the ideas that we already left the studio with. It's a very easy flow.

If somebody is sending me a record, they're either going to be sending me a session—in which case I have to go through and hope that the session layout makes sense. If it doesn't make sense, then I start committing sounds that I like and get rid of bizarre routing.

A lot of times, I'll get multi-tracks in which case I pull it in, throw the fades up and get a basic level balance. I just sort of say to myself, "Okay, how far along are we? Does this feel like something that is halfway done, done 0% done? Do we need to go back to the production phase?" And then each one of those options kind of spawns a completely different workflow.

I am curious, do you have some go-to pieces of gear that you're using right now—stuff that you really enjoy working with?

Yeah—I sold a fair amount of my outboard and pared it down to the stuff that I just really can't live without. I've got a Lucas Pultech-style equalizer—I love that thing, it's like a three band Pultech. It's amazing.

I'm sort of a reverb junkie—digital or analog—and I only have three, but once I have more disposable income, I'm just gonna be stacking up reverbs. Certain outboard reverbs just have a certain character—I've got my Micmix Master Room XL-305. I've got my Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer and I've got my Bricasti M7 reverb and I don't think I could part with any of those.

I'm pretty sure if I had to, I could part with every other piece of gear besides my mics and my converters and monitors obviously. I think signal processing-wise, I would be really miserable if for whatever reason I was without them.

I have a DBX 160SL—ironically, they stay cheap on eBay and Reverb but I love that thing. I sold a bunch of compressors, but this is one of the ones I hung onto. It was probably one of the ones I paid the least for. I've also got my Universal Audio 1176 limiting amplifier. I don't think I'll ever part with that thing. It's just a go-to sound. There's a million 1176’s in the box and they sound great, but they don't sound like this one.

What are some of the go-to mics that you like using?

It depends on the voice—I like the Peluso 22 251. That's really good for people who have very strong forward, nasal type voices. It smooths them out and gives them a high end and everything that's nice and glossy.

The JZB V67 is a great microphone—it's pretty much a really good all-purpose microphone. The other JZ (BH-2 cardioid) that I have is really nice too, it's a black hole and it's very different sounding than the V 67. It's kind of more like a poor man’s Sony C-800G with a little exaggerated top end.

I do have a Neumann U87—ironically, it's probably the one I use the least, but I do like it for when I want something that's gonna be really mid-range forward. I’ve got my Neumann M147, which is sort of like a poor man's U47 with a really nice low end—it's great on bass cab, kick drum or voices that are naturally bright and need a little bit of extra body.

I kind of love all my microphones though—my Electro-Voice RE20. It’s not a particularly expensive mic, but it's great… my Neumann KM 184s… it just depends on what I'm recording.

I appreciate hearing you talk about that—how the sound of the person's voice that you’re recording will affect your choice of a microphone.

I usually advise people to use the opposite rule: if you have somebody, assess the person's voice first. Start by listening to the human. if they're particularly bright with a lot of sibilance, you're gonna wanna use a darker microphone. So an RE20 or an M147, avoiding the brighter microphones. If you have somebody who has a darker voice, then it's the opposite, you know? The JZ Black Hole, the Neumann U87, maybe something that will pull the voice forward a little bit.

Tell me about Weiss Advice?

Weiss Advice is a continuation of the educational series that I've been doing on YouTube for a long time. I decided to start my own channel and the basic idea is to make it more subscription-oriented than download-oriented. Although I am selling download products at this point, it's so that people can log into a Discord and get to interact with me and with other people and share what they're working on and get advice in real time, as well as tune into webinars and get as much interaction as possible. I think that interactivity is really the future of online education.

Are you walking people through how to record or how to mix a record? Explain the nuts and bolts of it.

There's a number of different things. There's archived tutorials that you get access to—demonstrations of things like how to record vocals—that's the one that I just finished editing this morning actually—the basics for recording acoustic guitar, here's how to use compression, how to use reverb, et cetera. Those are always there as resources and references.

Then there are biweekly webinars that are topical, based highly on what people in the Discord are asking for—then there are coachings, which I do charge an additional fee for: a one-on-one hourly session where we exchange the multi-tracks for whatever someone is working on, and we fire up Zoom and I let them hear my end. I record the session and show them whatever it is that they specifically are looking for, or just do a general coaching where I kind of figure out where they're at and see how I can make them better at being themselves.

I want people to recognize that the subjectivity and the gray areas of music production are the areas that we actually want to have fun in and live in and experiment with because there isn't really right or wrong.

Last question. If you could give a piece of advice or a way to go about things for a younger person who's trying to get to where you are or do what you do. What would you say?

Typically, my advice for most stages of people's careers is to say yes to everything that you can. If you absolutely can't say yes to something, then you say no—but find every reason to say yes to every project, to every person, as much as you possibly can. Eventually, what happens is you start saying no to things, because you've said yes to other things which have presented themselves as a higher priority.

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