Get the Motherf**ker on the Phone: An Interview with Faith No More’s Longtime Engineer Matt Wallace

Legends in the game, Faith No More have seen a serious resurgence in recent times, culminating in this year’s highlight release Sol Invictus. Of course, many of you are already familiar with the band, and if you’ve dug through the liner notes of their albums, you may also have come across the name Matt Wallace, who has been the band’s longtime recording, mixing, and at times even mastering engineer.

As the owner and proprietor of Studio Deluxe, Wallace has had quite a career in rock music, having worked with a wide variety of major label and independent names. Along with Faith No More, his belt includes notches by Deftones, Mushroomhead, 3 Doors Down, Train, Maroon 5, Andy Grammer, and many more. 

We got a chance to check in with Wallace about the making of the new Faith No More album, and picked his brains about all things music technology, how to have a long career in recording, and more. Dig it, kids:

What drew you into this world as a kid? Did you start out as a musician, or were you always interested in the technical and production aspects of music?

First off, hello Gear Gods and thanks for the opportunity to be a part of Gear Gods!!!

I started playing guitar around 12 or 13 years old and, around that time, I was in a variety of bands, some only in name but others we actually played a handful of live shows and did some very rudimentary recordings. My technical interest only followed my musical interest as I became the ‘resident musical nerd’ and decided that it was important, for posterity, to capture our ‘genius.’ ha ha. By the way, I actually ‘invented’ a wireless guitar out of two, green G.I. Joe walkie talkies and even built a very, very simple ‘synthesizer.’ It only had five or six notes but it was cool.

Tell us about your UC Berkeley days. So you’re studying English with plans to be a teacher, but you’re also involved in the music scene and recording bands in your basement. It sounds like it must have been a crazy time in your life.

Yeah, I was attending U.C. Berkeley as an English Major and even going so far as to be student teaching 9th grade English at a Berkeley high school. I had the opportunity to teach the advanced students during one class and then, immediately afterwards, I taught the remedial students. It was a challenging time because I was going to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then recording bands in my parents’ garage the remainder of the week. It was a very inspiring time for me both because I was pursuing teaching which was my first formal employment interest until I realized that I could do music as a possible living. Initially I didn’t even know what a producer was or what he/she did so I started off as an engineer and then, slowly, by necessity, became a producer.

I understand that you don’t have much formal engineering training, and are mostly self-taught. Who were the engineers and what were the records that inspired you, that drove you to want to learn more about production in those years?

True. I did take one studio engineering class at DVC, a community college in Concord, California, and then one more at Los Medanos College in Martinez or Pittsburg, California.

I was very inspired by Hugh Padgham’s production as well as Steve Lillywhite’s as they produced some of my early favorite records which included U2’s Boy and XTC’s Black Sea. Their approach to sonics (and, unknowingly to me at the time, production) helped shape my initial ideas of sonic landscapes. After I moved my studio out of my parents’ suburban garage to a sketchy part of Oakland, California, I started designing my rooms in an attempt to capture some of the drum ambience that was present in those records acoustically as I couldn’t afford the (at the time) expensive digital reverbs.

What was your first engineering job? Your career path is fascinating to me, and I’m sure lots of people could learn a lot from your story.

My first engineering job was with my friend, Paul Schmidt, who managed to get a financial backer and he then hired me to record a few songs for him. So, I was, basically, learning on the job. Thankfully Paul and I were friends and we kind of held each other’s hands throughout the process. I will say that there were times when he’d bring in these exceptionally well recorded and expensive to make records, and ask me if I could, with my 8 track tape recorder and spring reverb, replicate those sounds. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t.

My first well known band was a group who were, at the time, known as Sharp Young Men and they then became Faith No Man. I recorded their first demos as well as the two songs for their 7” single in my parents’ garage. Eventually they changed their name and became Faith No More.

Were there ever moments where you thought, “fuck, I don’t know if I can keep doing this for a career?”

Yes. Pretty much every day since I started 33 years ago. ha ha. There was a notable moment during the mastering of Faith No More’s The Real Thing when I thought my production, engineering and mixing were subpar. I actually called my mother to see how I could get into real estate because I thought I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. The truth of the matter is that I am never satisfied with my work… ever. Recently, in January I was preparing to sell my equipment and give up my studio because it had become so very difficult to make a living as a producer/mixer/engineer. Thankfully, a number of excellent artists decided to hire me this year (Faith No More, R5, Los Angelics, Andy Grammer and 3 Doors Down) and, so, I’m back in business!

You’ve been active through decades of rapid change in the music industry, and I’m curious about your core ideas about recording, and how they have changed in response to things like declining budgets and technological shifts.

Good question.

Well, with the advent of Pro Tools and other similar digital recording systems and their ability to have, ostensibly, thousands of tracks (each track can have infinite playlists behind it) and the capability to tune and put in time every performance has made it possible for mediocre musicians to sound better than they actually are. In the ‘olden days’ people had to be able to perform better because the technology wasn’t able to clean up or repair subpar performances as much as current digital platforms can. I also happen to believe that limitations actually help to create better art.

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For Faith No More’s The Real Thing we had 24 analog tracks with which to accomplish the recording of each individual song. That meant that everyone had to have an end result in mind because there was limited recording ‘space’ or ‘storage’ on analog tape. So, if your medium was full to capacity and you had another idea you had to decide which idea(s) could be erased to make room for the new (hopefully, better) idea. Having had the opportunity to listen to master recordings of bands like Led Zepplin, Queen, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, etc, you can hear how strong the talent had to be in terms of writing and performing because so many of those songs are, for all intents and purposes, recorded live. I am able to hear when and where they punched in/dropped into the recording in terms of the lead vocal because you can hear the bleed/spill go away. It’s pretty impressive to know that Freddy Mercury sang “Tie Your Mother Down” pretty much live during that take.

As to budgets, ugh. It has become very difficult to earn a living in the music production business because the budgets are so low… which is because fewer and fewer people are actually purchasing music so, obviously, there’s less money flowing into the record labels. Last year was primarily independent budgets wherein the artists or their fans funded the recordings. This year I’ve gotten a few more record label projects and that’s a welcome relief.

What do you even think about the title “producer” nowadays? Obviously the role has never been statically defined, but we’re certainly in an interesting time when the learning barriers around engineering are coming down, while simultaneously it’s harder and harder for smaller bands to be able to hire both a producer and an engineer.

The term ‘producer’ can mean pretty much anything you want it to. Some producers are ‘engineer/producers’ in that they started off recording and then became producers that, in my mind, were more technical or audio based producers. Then there are the ‘writer/producers’ who tend to be the people involved in the creation of the song and, by virtue of home based (or project based) studio recording become producers who focus on the song’s content and arrangement. There are ‘vibe producers’ who don’t know a lot about either the technical side nor the songwriting side but almost act more as an executive producer. There are also ‘musician producers’ who help artists/bands create their work by guiding them from an instrumental (and, at times, song writing) perspective.

Yes, it is costly for young bands to hire an engineer and a producer or a mixer and a producer so it appears that they seek out people who can wear both or all ‘hats’.

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How is it working with such a variety of bands at different levels? I’d imagine that the years spent working on records while also going to school taught you how to work efficiently and on tighter budgets, but how much does your process differ when you’re working on a project with a bigger budget, like for television?

My process doesn’t seem to change too much between smaller or larger budgets other than the fact that I can, on larger budgets, sometimes hire some helpers such as assistant engineers or even an engineer during tracking sessions.

I haven’t done any projects specifically for television but have worked on music that ends up in movies.

As to the variety of bands/artists, I have worked with everything from brutal to beautiful music and everything in between. I’ve worked with heavy rock bands (Deftones, Mushroomhead, and some Faith No More songs) but also have worked with very melodic bands (Train, Maroon 5, Andy Grammer, etc). I have very eclectic musical tastes and am really thrilled that I can go between genres and, hopefully, join or bend genres together.

Can you tell us about how you came to own Studio Delux, and what it was like striking out on your own? Did you design and build the studio yourself?

My manager, Frank McDonough, about 10 years ago suggested that I open up a studio again (I’ve had a few over the years) due to the fact that budgets were shrinking and, honestly, after paying for studio time (and sometimes engineers) there were projects that had very little money for the producer. So, in order to find a more efficient way to utilize the budget I decided to rent a space and do the build out so that I had a place to call ‘home’. Thankfully, after the initial investment in construction and equipment, it has allowed me to still be able to make a decent (sometimes less-than-decent) living. Because I don’t have to pay upwards of $500 a day for studio time it allows me to spend more time getting the music, performances and mix right so, all in all, it’s doable. The truth of the matter is that I started by building my own studio in my parents’ garage, then built a larger one in downtown Oakland and, about 20 years ago, I had a studio in the Ocean Way building in Los Angeles. So, if necessary, I am open to building and maintaining a studio.

Yes, I have done my own designs with every studio except for the one in the Ocean Way building (called Studio 7). I’m not particularly trained to be a studio builder but necessity is the mother of invention. Also, over the years, after having learned some limited knowledge about acoustics and physics, and after studying how other studios were built, I was able to build some workable studios. I’ve learned about standing waves, nodes, parallel surfaces, bass traps, reflective and absorptive materials, etc.

What was the inspiration for the ongoing Live at Studio Delux series?

My engineering/mixing friend, Will Kennedy, and my manager, Frank McDonough, were inspired to create a series wherein musicians sing and play live while being filmed. We were attempting to highlight artists who could perform (and record) like the old school musicians. We wanted people who had the capability of performing a song at a very professional and exciting level. While financially it has been, to this point in time, a labor of love. However, for all three of us, especially Will Kennedy and myself, it has been the catalyst for some of the most inspiring performances that we’ve ever witnessed in a studio setting. To see artists singing and playing live (including background vocals, keyboards, etc) is an absolute thrill.

It also seemed like a perfect platform for us to try and bring some very talented musicians and bands out into the spotlight and, to that end, I think we’ve had a good amount of success.

Can you take us through your process and workflow for a mixing project?

Generally it’s pretty much intuitive and I don’t have any set way to work because every artist requires a unique approach. But, if there is a process it generally starts with cleaning up and focusing the drum tracks. I tend to like getting rid of ambient noise on the kick drum, snare drum and tom tom tracks. Ideally there will be as little bleed/spill as possible. Then I check phase between all the drums to make sure that everything is as focused and powerful as it can be. After that I build the mix by adding bass (making sure that the kick drum and bass guitar operate in different frequencies), add guitars, keyboards and, finally, vocals.

A lot of the time my mixing consists of gentle (or sometimes radical) arrangement ideas. I like to see how much information I can take out without the song falling apart. Ideally there will be only the elements that are necessary to make the song work and nothing more. In the words of Einstein, “Everything should be as simple as it can possibly be and not one bit simpler.” I think that that pretty much sums it up.

Is the majority of your work in-the-box, analog, or a mixture of both?

Up until around February of 2015 I was summing all of my mixing through 16 analog channels (Sound Workshop recording console) but, around the time of mixing Faith No More’s Sol Invictus I switched back to a Sumo summing amplifier (that I’d used about 4 or 5 years earlier). Generally I have used analog purely as summing and all actual ‘mixing’ is done within Pro Tools.

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For Sol Invictus, what was Bill Gould’s role in the mixing process? Was he in the room with you the entire time?

Bill Gould was in the room with me for pretty much every second during the mixing of Sol Invictus and the deeper truth is that my mixes build upon the rough/preliminary/original mixes that he did. My job was to, hopefully, improve on what he’d already started and established. And, to go even further… Bill and I would establish a mix and then send it off to the rest of the band wherein they would respond with their comments/suggestions.

From there Mike Patton had a very focused and specific hand during the mixing, especially during the final touches. Because he had recorded his own vocals and had done a sub-mix/pre-mix of them including panning, distortion, compression and even spring reverb, how he wanted them superimposed upon the existing mix was an important part of the process. Bill is the engine that has pushed forward to create the impetus and the ‘space’ for the rest of FNM to find their own, natural and organic connection and contribution in the process. After that Mike Patton became more of the driving force/director of the process to ensure that his vision as to how his voice fit within the musical soundfield created by the band. All in all, it was an intense but very well thought-out process.

What I love about Sol Invictus’ mix is that despite the complexity in the arrangements and number of individual tracks per song, the elements all work together in service of the voice of the song. Did you go through many mix drafts, and how much was the rest of the band involved during the actual process?

The band was always invited to participate in contributing comments/thoughts/suggestions to the process. Generally it started with Bill Gould and I constructing the mix in a way that we thought appropriate for the band’s overall aesthetic. Then, each musician was invited to comment on what needed to be changed and Bill and I would do our best to bring forth Faith No More’s collaborative vision. Towards the end, during the final touches, Mike Patton (who had been giving input throughout the process) really came to the forefront to further hone the sound. During this record and during every FNM record that I’ve ever been involved with the band members have been eager, supportive, imaginative and smart in their perception of their band and how they wanted it presented to the rest of the world.

The album has an operatic quality to it – obviously in the vocals and scope of songwriting, but I think it goes further than that – that I think has a lot to do with the way it was mixed and the stylized choices made during the actual recording. Things like the reverb drenched claps in “Black Friday,” Patton’s variety of vocal styles, and the mixture of close and room-mic piano tones on “Motherfucker” and throughout the album. How much of that sonic vision already there when you received the album in its raw form?

Sol Invictus, more so than any other FNM album that I’ve worked on, was very well formed and envisioned prior to my participating in it’s completion. Because the band recorded everything on their own with Bill recording all instruments and Mike Patton recording all vocals, much of the vision was already in place. Mike Patton created and recorded the reverb drenched claps as well as the vocal sonics. Generally he would have the primary/clean vocal as well as a distorted vocal track as well as a spring reverb track…. and the vocal panning and compression. While Bill and I would have input during the mixing process in an attempt to bring everything together in a cohesive package, Mike Patton was the person in charge of the genesis of each vocal idea as well as how and where it would fit in the overall mix.

The operatic quality would have to be credited to Patton’s choice of melody as well as his individual vocal performances. Anything that I brought to the table would be in terms of either magnifying what they’d already done, suggesting options, improving on sonics, etc. The blend of various instruments (close and room mic piano) would be something that Bill established and I might have contributed to in some fashion.

Again, for Sol Invictus, the band already had their vision and had recorded all instruments and vocals without my input. It was only during the mixing that I became a 6th member in the process in hopes that our collective desire to present an accurate and well balanced sonic ‘vision’ of their individual and group musical expressions. Fortunately we have a lot of musical history together and we were able to speak in a sort of short hand to get the job finished to the highest possible standard.

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Sol Invictus is out now – if for some reason you haven’t heard it yet, nab it here.

Written by

Max is a senior editor and producer of Gear Gods and member of the collective Party Smasher Inc. He studies jazz composition and improvisation in New York City.