Cover Story 6.2004
Matt Still: From OutKast to Elton John
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.
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 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
"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
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
"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
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.
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
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."