Cover Story 6.2004

 

Matt Still: From OutKast to Elton John

By Stephanie Jorgl

     
 

Matt Still and Sir Elton John

Despite the fact that Sir Elton John doesn't embrace modern technologies like email or cell phones, he recognizes the importance of Pro Tools. "Elton loves working in Pro Tools," says engineer Matt Still. "He's looking to build a studio/writing room for himself in Venice, Italy, and the one thing he's said he wants for sure is a Pro Tools system. He respects the value of Pro Tools: the speed at which you can do things you could never do in the analog world, and the way you can work with arranging a song."

Still is a versatile engineer who has worked on everything from rap and R&B records to musicals. His credits include playing on OutKast's Stankonia and Big Boi and Dre Present...OutKast, plus engineering tracks for OutKast's award-winning Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and such rock records as Third Day's debut release. And for the first half of this year, Still worked with Elton John on his new record, scheduled for release in November 2004.

Classical Beginnings
Still's musical foundation started when he was four, and continued with classical piano training until the age of 18. His interest in the recording side of music emerged when his band recorded a demo, but was dissatisfied with the recording. "I figured, 'Well, I'll just learn how to do this myself, so I can do my own music and make it sound the way I want it to sound,'" recalls Still. "So I started hanging around studios."

Matt enrolled at Georgia State's commercial music and recording school, and began interning at a studio called Soundscape. After a year he started assisting, and eventually became a full-fledged engineer. Then Bobby Brown bought the studio and turned it into Bosstown.

Still soon found himself working on the first Arrested Development album, the first TLC album, and projects with Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston. Eventually he moved into the chief engineer position at Bosstown. He first met and worked with Elton John on Duets, which proved to be a pivotal career project for him.

Fast-Track with Duets
"I'd only been engineering for a few years when the Duets sessions rolled through Bosstown," says Still. "On that album, each track was with a different artist, and there were different producers for each track. I got to work on tracks with Little Richard, RuPaul, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Tammy Wynette, among others." With all the different producers and musicians for each song, Matt became the single common thread throughout the album.

"I was thrown into the fire on Duets," says Still. "On the very first session, which was the Little Richard session, I was the assistant engineer, and got to learn a lot from the engineer that Greg Penny brought in." A few of the other sessions were done at the last minute, including the RuPaul and Stevie Wonder sessions.

"I was assisting at the time, and they were looking for an engineer for those sessions, so they said, 'Well, can you do it?' I was sort of shaking in my boots, but I said, 'Yes I can!'" remembers Still. "But on the inside, I was going, 'I hope I can.' But it went well, and it was the first big session I did where there was a rather large setup, since it was all live music."

Engineering a full spectrum of live instruments was a different kind of challenge for Still, who had worked primarily on rap and R&B tracks prior to Duets. "With R&B and rap, it's a lot of sequencers, drum loops, MIDI, and keyboards, and one of the only live elements is the vocal," he explains. "So you didn't have to learn a lot of mic techniques for setting up the drums. It's usually just recorded direct."

Aida and Onward
    
"When you're recording someone like Elton, with piano and voice and real instruments, you immediately hear the advantages of working at 96 kHz."
   
In 1995, Still got a call from Elton John's management: Elton was going to write the score to the musical Aida, based on Verdi's opera, and he wanted Still to engineer the scoring sessions.

"I learned a lot at Bosstown, and I'm really grateful that I was able to work there with so many great artists," Still says. "But at that point, I went freelance."

Matt has been working with Elton John fairly regularly ever since. He engineered during the writing stages of Aida, and subsequently worked with Elton on a Dreamworks film called The Road to El Dorado, a musical version of Billy Elliott, and the musical production of The Vampire Lestat. According to Still, "Billy Elliott is scheduled to open in London in late 2004, and the Lestat musical will probably open in about two years on Broadway."

OutKast Plus Pro Tools
In contrast with the Elton John sessions, Still's work with OutKast has offered a different set of challenges and rewards. "With each OutKast album, I think they're trying to take more risks and expand their sound," he reflects. "And Dre — I think he's the new godfather of funk. I mean, everything that comes out of that guy is funky. It's amazing watching him work in the studio, because he's not scared to go in any direction. He doesn't like to go down the same path twice, which is great."

Still recorded some live drums and bass and played keyboards on "Bombs Over Baghdad" and "The Whole World," which is on their Greatest Hits album.

"The guys in OutKast really embrace the technology of Pro Tools, software synths, and plug-ins," says Still. "I know Andre is really into Propellerheads Reason these days, too. They use a lot of the Native Instruments stuff. Dre likes to do a lot of programming — he experiments a lot by himself, because he has his own Pro Tools rig."

In The Studio With Sir Elton
Matt's most recent mega-project, the upcoming Elton John record, was recorded at The Record Plant in West Hollywood and Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta. The sessions were recorded at 96 kHz with a Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel rig. The system also included three Digidesign 192 I/Os, one 96i I/O, a SYNC I/O, and a dual 1.25 GHz Power Mac running OS X.

"When you're recording someone like Elton, with piano and voice and real instruments, you immediately hear the advantages of working at 96 kHz," Still notes. In addition to the CD, the Elton John project will be mixed in surround and released as a SACD and DVD-A — another compelling reason to record at a high sample rate.

For each piece on Elton's new release, the Pro Tools sessions total between 36 and 110 tracks. "I don't know if we could pull it off with any fewer tracks," says Matt. "We double or quadruple some tracks, like acoustic and electric guitars, and some of the percussion. But we never double the piano."

Playing with Plug-ins and ReWire
When it comes to plug-ins, Still is all about Waves. "I love the Waves stuff," he says. "I use the Renaissance EQ, the Renaissance Compressor, and the Q10 EQ is a great EQ. I also use the Renaissance Reverb — I really like them all. For me, if you have a Pro Tools system, you have to have the Waves plug-ins. Otherwise, you don't have plug-ins, as far as I'm concerned."

He's also a fan of the Bomb Factory plug-ins. "I like the Fairchild Compressor, the Moogerfooger stuff, Line 6 Echo Farm — I like its delay," says Still. "I use Echo Farm a lot, on anything and everything. I also love the Eventide H910 and instant flanger — those are great plug-ins. The Reverb One is also a great reverb." For noise reduction, Still tends to use Digidesign's DINR or Sonic's No Noise plug-in for Pro Tools.

    

Elton John's studio

 

Still loves working with Ableton's Live as well. "Live 3 is great," he says. "And it was just phenomenal how easy it was to use with Pro Tools. I did some things on Elton's new album in Live — the fact that it can shape the sound to the tempo is amazing. In a live situation, the tempo has an ebb and flow to it — it kind of goes up and down. So we can go in and create a tempo map of where every bar and beat is in the song, open up Live, program a few loops and live performances, place the marker where the beat needs to go, and set the tempo."

And then, of course, there's Auto-Tune. "Auto-Tune is a thing that every engineer uses, and no artist admits to," he jokes. "Auto-Tune is great when you get a phenomenal performance and there's just that one little flaw. You can salvage things that you couldn't otherwise salvage. That's really what I use it for."

But with Elton, Still says, you usually get the right performance and you get it in tune. "He's phenomenal at doubling his vocals as well," he adds. "It's scary sometimes, how good he is. I find that I really have to do very little tuning — the main goal with him is just getting that phenomenal performance."

One of the unusual things about working with Elton John is that he writes the songs in the studio — his song arrangements are not written beforehand. "He sits down with the words that [longtime Elton John lyricist] Bernie Taupin gives him and he writes the music, then he goes, 'Okay, I'm ready,'" explains Still. "We'll record some of the songs live with the band, or on some tracks he'll play to a drum pattern and we'll overdub everyone else. We'll do a couple different vocal takes, but once he's finished the song we have the vocal within an hour and a half of him writing it."

Variety is the Spice of Engineering
After finishing the Elton John record, Matt plans to take some personal time to record a third record for his prog rock band, "Timothy Pure." "I use a Digi 001 at home to do my own music," he says. "I use the RTAS versions of all the plug-ins, and as long as I have a compatible version of the software, my sessions will open right up on a big Pro Tools|HD system."

If there's one thing Matt Still doesn't need to worry about, it's getting typecast as an audio specialist who can only work in one genre. Unlike many engineers, for him, each studio experience really is different.

"One day you're recording guitar, the next day you're recording an orchestra, and the next day you're recording a rap album," he says. "As an engineer, the projects you work on aren't really your choice, because you take the work that comes your way. But I've been really lucky in that I've done rock albums, I've done rap albums, I've done jazz albums, I've done pop albums and classical stuff. And because I've worked in such a wide variety of musical styles, I haven't gotten burnt out on any one type of music."


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