The Grammy-winning songwriter, producer Matt Serletic
has stood out in both the creative and executive fields for over a decade. Matt Serletic's maverick instinct, inner compass and imposing musical chops have carried him successfully through music, at the highest level of worldwide hit-making, and at every part of the record business from his recruitment at the age of 13 to play keyboards in a band, to his repeated trips to the top of the international pop chart as a producer and songwriter, and continuing to his 2002 appointment at age 31 as Chairman/CEO of Virgin Records, the youngest person ever to attain that executive position. He been involved in the creation of such enduring classics of pop music as Carlos Santana
," Rob Thomas
' "Lonely No More
," Matchbox Twenty
" whom he discovered and signed to his own Atlanta-based independent production company - and Aerosmith
's "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing.
" He has also worked with bands such as Hole
, Collective Soul
, Joe Cocker
and Willie Nelson
. During sessions for the new upcoming Matchbox Twenty album, Serletic took some time out to speak to Joe Matera
for Ultimate-Guitar's popular "The Producers & Engineers
" series to discuss his career, the importance of the room in recording and what makes a great pop-rock song.
UG: You have a background in playing in bands from a young age, how important has your musician background been when it comes to your production career?
For me being a musician has been everything. It gives me a sense of being able to communicate musically and connect with the essence of a song. It also allows a relationship to be built with the artist I am working with. Each person needs his or her own version of musical fluency.
At one point you worked with Collective Soul and in the wake of the group's debut album which you were a major part of as co-engineer and co-producer, it led you to experiencing the bad side of the industry, with financial woes and interpersonal relationships frayed, but you managed to pick yourself up and reemerge successfully with Matchbox Twenty. What did you learn from that experience that has held you in good stead ever since?
Wow, you're going way back! Working with Collective Soul was a great place to start. It taught me that it wasn't just music, it was the music business. I had to deal with issues I had never experienced before. I learned that, though there are good and bad days in the music industry, ultimately it's the work that matters.
You signed and have produced all of Matchbox Twenty's albums to date, what has that experience been like for you and what has its success taught you about the industry in general and in regards to production values?
I feel very fortunate to work with such good friends for this long. It's a great chance to push each other to do things better, to be more creative. Production values may change, but connecting with a listener is still the most important thing.
You also worked on Santana's Supernatural album, what was it like to be working in the studio with a guitarist the caliber of Santana?
Carlos is incredible! It's amazing to hear someone with such an indelible tone and emotional power. Usually that level of expression is only within the grasp of vocalists. Carlos is among those, like Miles Davis, that reach right into your soul. He is a sort of guy where he'll stand and get a sound and you'll work on his sound and he's got a very specific sound that he wants to feel it in his gut, so you have to set the mood every time he is ready to perform. And it is an engineer's challenge to capture a combination of something that works on the track and also makes him feel the most free he can be. So sending that vibe and getting that right becomes an important part of the process and then from there, he just goes off. Each take is always better than the last one. Its not a conversation of good and bad it is just about almost perfect and perfect, it is really a lot of fun.
In your role as producer how do you approach a recording session?
"Carlos is incredible! It's amazing to hear someone with such an indelible tone and emotional power."
The number one focus is the song, then the arrangement needs to set it like a gem. I really think a producer's work does begin before you ever get into a studio. You've got to make sure you're recording the right material and its probably less said than it should be. How great is the song and how can you make great either by challenging the writer on lyrics or chord progressions or whatever it may be, and then working out a basic arrangement kind of in your head, before you hit the studio so that there is some kind of guiding principle to what the recording process is going to be that is steeped in a belief of how good the song is and how to best translate.
From a songwriting perspective, what elements are integral when it comes to crafting and recording a pop song?
First of all something should be unique, and in some way never before heard, and a uniqueness can come from a bunch of different places. But it starts by having either a sound that's identifiable or a riff or a hook that's identifiable or a lyric that's identifiable. A great song is kind of a succession of things you want to remember and ultimately can and that comes from you from all different angles, from a beat to a melody to a lyric. A record should also have a sense of motion, carrying you along in an exciting or meaningful way.
Do you favor digital over analog or do you utilize both mediums?
I like whatever sounds good and that seems to change over time. Both mediums work. The bigness of analog is great but, as someone who is very focused on arrangement, digital is very useful.
What comprises the main elements of your recording and mixing console?
We've lucked into having a Trident A Range, one of the few left standing. It's a great old console to track with, but I prefer the precision of a desk like an SSL for mixing. Lately it's become easier and easier to finalize mixes in Pro Tools.
What advice you can you offer those who have home recording set ups in regards to producing better recordings?
The room you're in matters! Whether you're listening, mixing or mic'ing something be aware of the room's acoustics; use them to your advantage or neutralize them. That often makes a difference between a pro-sounding recording and a demo.
Do you think the proliferation of home studios and the easy access to recording technology has impacted on the standard of recordings, in a detrimental way?
It's great that more people are getting involved in music making. Technology is a powerful way to level the playing field. We've started a company called Music Mastermind that to enables everyone to become musically fluent. We're at a time where the traditional models are challenged of the traditional ways of doing things, and even though I'm talking to you from a recording studio where we are right now, and where Kyle from Matchbox 20 is playing guitar with his amps all over the floor, we are doing things like we are doing them back in the 1990s, so there is still complete validity in my mind to a traditional recording session but at the same time everybody are doing things so much differently using computers and digital processing and I think that is a great thing. Ultimately all these different techniques become our new instruments, our new way of communicating so you need to take them into account. It's an exciting time to be creative!
How do you go about capturing guitar tones in the studio? What mikes and mic'ing techniques do you use?
"Though there are good and bad days in the music industry, ultimately it's the work that matters."
It all starts at the amp (or amp modeler). We focus a lot on getting it to sound right in the room before capturing the tone with great mics such as Royers, Josephsons, U-87s, and the old standby SM-57s. Having different amps, pedals and effects help create something unique. We close mic a lot, we're right up on the cone a lot maybe off axis and maybe on but even then the room plays a role. To give you an example of what we're doing at the moment with the new Matchbox Twenty album, we've got the big amps out in the big room where a lot of the drums come from. But right now we're cutting a Vibra Champ, a little amp and we had it out in the big room and we moved it to the small room where we cut tighter drums. And in just that movement of room, and even with close mic and the same mics and everything, and same guitar, changed the character of the sound and got more what we wanted, this in your face sitting on the speaker bod. So it is important to pay attention to what environment you're recording in.
How important is getting the right drum sound to the overall final recording?
Drum sounds are very important. By having the vibe right coming off the drums, the whole song starts going in a good direction. You need to pay attention to that stiff from the beginning because it affects everything that comes after. If people are really feeling a great drum sound and a great drum performance, the whole record is better for it.
In what ways do you think the recording process has evolved for you over the years?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I'm still listening for the emotion and am attentive to getting it across to the listener.
You also became CEO of Virgin Records, directing the label's successes with Gorillaz, The Rolling Stones, Ben Harper, Janet Jackson, Lenny Kravitz and others. In the record industry climate that it is today, with the impact of downloading on record sales, what is your philosophy in tackling these issues in order for a record industry' to survive and sustain itself in future?
We have to find new ways to connect. The listening audience needs to be more involved than ever. The industry must find ways to make that connection meaningful and lasting.
What are your current projects we can expect to hear from you in future?
We're currently in the studio making Matchbox Twenty's next album. I'm excited to be working with them again. This really only the fourth album from the band and its really killing because everybody is bringing their best game, everybody is stepping out on the songs and they're such great players now as they've been around the world so many times now, that they've just gotten better. There is a combination of energy and a little bit more better at earning their stripes somewhat so they're in this sweet spot. I think they have graduated to being the band they have always wanted to be. Also, Music Mastermind is launching a new music creation platform called Zya early next year. I can't wait to hear what people create!
Interview by Joe Matera