Interview - Matt Forger
Art of the Recording Engineer:
MATT FORGER Speaks Out on Everything from Michael
Jackson to Mutant Radio
Interviewed by: Scott
G-Man: When people think of Matt Forger, they usually
think of your work with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones,
Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Glen Ballard, and
Bruce Swedien, yet when you hand out a CD with
examples of your producing, engineering or mixing, it
almost always has new and emerging artists, people
like Mutant Radio, Laughing With Lulu, The Dharma
Bomb, or Fjaere. What's your thinking behind the
choice of avoiding the big names?
Forger: While my association with those big names was
a wonderful experience, it's also in the past.
G-Man: But you work with artists at every level,
including "the biggies."
Forger: Oh sure, for example, I still maintain a
professional relationship with Michael Jackson and
contributed to the recent release of "Michael Jackson
- The Ultimate Collection," a boxed set, and I worked
on many of the previously unreleased recordings that
are included in it, as well as overseeing various
aspects of the project. This is, of course, very
enjoyable to be part of because I got to revisit those
eras when I worked very closely with Michael as he
created the great albums that established him as the
"King of Pop." For me, that was a learning experience
that had no equal. To be part of history-making
projects like "Thriller" and to work with Quincy Jones
taught me what it takes to make the best recordings
possible. Not just in a commercial sense, but as
artistic statements, and what it takes for a song to
engage the listener, the power of a collaborative team
effort, and what it means to "arrive at the studio and
leave your ego at the door." These and the many other
lessons learned are what I bring to the table when I
work with new and emerging artists.
G-Man: So you're combining the best aspects of past
and present. What are some of the contrasts?
Forger: The old model of the record business allowed
for the development of talent, coaching it along the
way, working with songwriters, arrangers, producers
and engineers and learning the craft of record making.
That system doesn't exist in today's business model.
Today, with few exceptions, major labels look for the
most promising bands and artists, sign them to a deal,
and if they don't sell the numbers that the companies
require, dump the act. Before an act has the chance to
develop a following and learn the ropes, it can be all
over. That's what it's about now, the bottom line.
Corporate business has no heart and no sense of
artistry. I want to look to the future, and it's out
there. The future of the music business is in the
undiscovered talent that flies below the radar. That's
who I want to work with. That's the hope of the music
industry: the unique, innovative artists who are
creating something new and exiting, not regurgitating
an old tired formula, or manufacturing synthetic crap
with no emotion or heart. I want to be part of the
G-Man: If nothing else is read in this interview, I
want to thank you for those comments! In addition to
the seven Michael Jackson albums, you've worked with
Van Halen, Lena Horne, James Ingram , Giorgio Moroder,
and many others. Care to comment on the difference
between sessions with superstars and sessions with
Forger: In a word: experience. The seasoned pros have
one important quality that sets them apart: they have
developed an instinctual feel for music. It's that
thing that accomplished musicians have. It's an
intuitive thing. You learn to trust your gut through
trial and error. There is no substitute for it. Some
people have it more than others. It's a sensitivity,
an ability to see inside the music and read the
different levels of what's occurring. Then, to have
the ability to recognize and manipulate the elements
in such a way as to make a more effective
communication of the songs' intent. For newer artists,
it's often a matter of helping them identify and tune
into those subtle qualities. And, to focus on what is
important and what is just background noise that's
G-Man: Let's talk about the diversity of your musical
interests for a moment. You recorded a modern-retro
band called The Teddy Boys, then you made some dance
remixes of a couple of my songs, and you've done live
recording for singer-songwriter Caroline Aiken. It
seems like you enjoy a wide variety of styles and
genres. Do you favor certain kinds of music, or are
there any forms of music you don't like?
Forger: I grew up with the pop radio formats starting
in the '60s, where you could hear the entire
assortment of what was out there. Jimi Hendrix, Frank
Sinatra, Roger Miller, The Beach Boys and The Beatles
would all be on the same station. When you heard
everything from Jan and Dean to James Brown in the
course of a few minutes, it gave an overview of what
the public in general was listening to. When radio in
the '70s became album-oriented, it started to narrow
the field of what would be heard on a given station.
In the course of my growing up, I always was exploring
what was new and different, what type of
instrumentation was new and exiting. As trends
continued, the influence of ethnic and world beat came
to be an interesting movement. There are too many
styles of music to name and say that they have all
influenced me, but quality has always been a factor.
I've worked on sessions from Classical to Country, New
Wave to New Age, Pop to Punk, music from all parts of
the globe, and it's still exciting and a challenge to
work on something new. If there's a form of music I
don't care for, it's the manufactured mediocre crap
that gets sold as having something to say when it's
just pretentious drivel.
G-Man: Again, thanks for making those statements.
That's great. When you record live, I know you have a
preference for a certain recording technique. Can you
tell us about it?
Forger: When the situation allows, there is a
technique that I love to use because of its elegant
simplicity. It uses a single high quality stereo
microphone strategically placed to capture the
performance, the event and the environment all at the
same time. There is a sonic signature that this
technique creates that is unlike any other. It is the
capturing of that moment in time, and when it occurs,
you capture a great performance. When done properly,
it transports the listener to that place and the
feeling of being there. This technique seems to work
best in acoustic and ensemble situations where the
volume is not terribly overpowering. It has the
ability to capture subtlety and nuance in the
perspective of the dynamics of the moment. This is of
course what direct to stereo recording is all about. I
didn't originate the technique, but have come to
appreciate its power and purity. When an artist is at
home with an audience, record the event and have a
document of that energy and honesty of the expression
of the music. It can be so simple and effective. There
are also ways to incorporate this into a larger
recording plan and have extra microphones to highlight
various sections or instruments. I've done this as
well and had very pleasing results.
G-Man: How did you get your start in the business? Was
there formal training, or did you just begin recording
around the house and hanging out at studios?
Forger: Well, my start in the business was actually
when I began mixing live shows. I had done other
things before that: classical guitar lessons, playing
with electronic stuff and listening to a ton of
records and music. But, it was live mixing that gave
me the first money I ever earned in music, and the
sense that I was on to something that I knew I had a
natural ability for. It was being asked to keep an eye
on the mixer for friends who had a band. They were
impressed that they sounded so much better and that
the audience enjoyed the sound. That was my first gig.
That led to my learning of all matters related to
sound. I read, I experimented, I built my own gear, I
asked questions of people I could find who had more
experience than I did. There was a guy in my town who
was a wiz with electronics, and he had built a
recording studio in an old chicken coup. It was a
funky place to work but the sound that came from there
was amazing. I used to hang out there and just watch
and try to learn what was occurring. I would work with
my friends and try techniques, mic placement, and
experimented with everything we could think of. It was
an education by trial and error. It was gratifying
when musicians would come by our makeshift studio in
the drummers' basement or bass players' bedroom and
comment that they were spending good money to record
with experienced people at professional studios and
didn't have anything that sounded like our recordings.
It was all instinct. What was it supposed to sound
like? Like all those great records that I grew up
listening to - that was the benchmark. I just followed
my heart to tell me what the music needed.
G-Man: What are some of the reasons you interact with
and support NARIP (National Association of Record
Forger: NARIP is a great organization. It's one of
those places that you can go and network with others
who are looking towards the future. There are
professionals from all facets of the industry, from
the creative side to the business specialists. If you
are looking for someone with a specific skill or are
looking to offer your talents to others, there is
always an assortment of people to network with. In the
entertainment industry, success is based on who you
know more than what you know. When you have both, you
have the potential for great things. As an
organization, NARIP holds many panel events, seminars,
workshops, and just networking get-togethers. The
quality of people who attend is always top notch.
G-Man: You're also a participant in organizations like
L*A*M*P and Venus Music.
Forger: Yes, these are also great organizations
because they play an important roll in backing the
independent artist community in the LA area. I try to
offer my support to organizations that have, as a
goal, the advancement of the independent music
community. It's my belief that the music of tomorrow
will come from these songwriters and bands. With the
major labels no longer developing talent, it has
created a void of where one can go to understand how
things work on the inside. The artist of today has to
learn as he goes, and to help avoid costly mistakes
and wasting time and money, there are excellent
programs offered by these organizations to help the
artist move forward and understand the complex nature
of the business. There is also the advantage of being
able to build a team of support specialists to help
with the areas that you don't desire to undertake
yourself. Remember, a collaborative effort can be the
most effective way of achieving a goal, especially
when the scope of the undertaking is overwhelming.
G-Man: What can you tell us about your current studio
Forger: Simple, straightforward, always an eye to
quality. It's not the newest whiz-bang device that
sets a studio apart. It's the workhorse, tried and
true technology that proves to be the greatest value.
Right now I'm using Pro Tools because it's the
standard for audio production in the industry. Other
systems work well too, but some type of compatibility
is always desirable. I compliment my computer system
with a selection of outboard gear
that works for my application. I specialize in mixing
so I have some good reverbs and effects from Lexicon,
Yamaha and Roland. And a mastering chain that creates
a good final quality product, Neve compressors, DB
technologies converters and TC mastering software in a
M-5000 processor. For speakers, I use Tanoys and
Custom Altec Monitors. They work for me. Very often,
clients will say they don't get an understanding of
the sound in the studio. But when they take the mixes
out into the real world, they love the sound. That's
where it really counts. If it sounds great in the
studio but nowhere else, you're on the wrong path.
G-Man: From your studio set-up, I can see that you've
embraced the digital world. Is there anything you miss
about the analog days?
Forger: There are a lot of things that you get used to
when recording on analog tape. The time it takes to
rewind, the fat sound, the accidents that occur that
turn out to be inspiring, having a track sheet to
doodle on. It's great if you can afford to incorporate
an analog stage at some point of the recording
process. Some styles of music benefit more than
others, but it still adds a charming sonic personality
when you can. It has come to the point where recording
analog is a luxury. For the cost of a reel of two inch
tape, you can buy a hard drive large enough to hold
several CDs of recordings. Whatever the choice, use
the recording medium to its maximum potential.
G-Man: What are your thoughts about tape manufacturing
Forger: It's a sad state of affairs that analog tape
manufacturing has ceased. To deprive those who love
the sound characteristics that it imparts on
recordings is unfortunate. It forces artists,
engineers and producers to make choices not based on
creative style, but instead on the corporate influence
on the business of creativity. I have heard that there
will be tape available in the future. It will of
course become a specialty item and the cost will
certainly become much higher that what everyone is
accustomed to paying now. But for those who appreciate
it and have the financial means to afford it, it will
become a premium option in the recording world.
G-Man: I know you're one of nearly 100 top producers
affiliated with StudioExpresso.com. How does that
Forger: That's a good question because Studio Expresso
is different things to different people, depending on
your needs. It's a clearing house for engineers and
producers, a portal so to speak, for the outside world
as well as the industry. If you would like to research
an engineer or producer for an upcoming project, the
background and contact information is there for many
of the industry's top people. If you need to
co-ordinate a studio project, then Studio Expresso can
help you find a top notch facility, or whatever
personnel you may require. If you're traveling to LA
to make use of the creative assets the area has to
offer, then arrangements and support for your project
and stay are also available. Studio Expresso has also
been exploring ways to support the independent music
movement by helping new and developing talent ways to
network and establish contacts within the industry.
Claris, who heads up the organization, also manages
producers, engineers and other talented people on the
production side of the business and offers her
expertise and experience in the business to help build
G-Man: If an artist is interested in working with you,
what should they do? Send you some material first?
Contact you via StudioExpresso.com? Contact you
Forger: While I don't mind talking with a potential
client, it's good to establish a dialog with SE first.
If there is any question about how to approach a
producer, then these types of questions can be cleared
up ahead of time. Many times I've taken calls for
someone in need of a "producer," only to find out in
the course of a conversation that they are looking for
someone who will co-write songs, act as a musician,
program beats and synths, as well as engineer, mix and
produce. Some artists feel that a producer should shop
the material and secure a deal for them. In this
business, everyone operates differently. I work to
facilitate the successful completion of a recording
project, regardless of its complexity. It's always
good going in to know the specific qualification
you're looking for and that you're talking to a person
who has the right set of skills.
G-Man: Do you have any thoughts on 5.1?
Forger: Yes, It's a beautiful thing. While Michael
Jackson's "Captain EO" was one of the first digital
5.1 theatrical releases, and working on that project
was groundbreaking, my area of interest is currently
the song, and its emotional content. While 5.1 home
theater is growing immensely in popularity, most music
today is "consumed" in the traditional stereo format,
and to a large extent MP3 is the format of choice when
delivered on computer, iPod, blasters and small
systems. Almost the opposite of the esoteric
environment that a true 5.1 audio system would
dictate. And while a listening experience in 5.1 can
be very gratifying, most independent artists just
don't go there because getting the music out in an
effective manner is the priority.
G-Man: Care to comment on the latest format wars?
Forger: My only observation is that it will work
itself out in the commercial marketplace. Remember
VHS/Beta, Quad sound, Laserdisks, 8 Tracks vs.
Cassettes. When viewed from a historical perspective,
everyone's hindsight will be 20/20 and the question
won't be an issue.
G-Man: Were you in bands in high school?
Forger: Well, I was in a garage band, that I can't
remember the name of. I played bass. I found out that
the electric guitar wasn't my instrument, so I went
acoustic, and folk rock became my pursuit. I continued
with acoustic music through college, doing the coffee
house thing. The 12-string guitar became my
G-Man: Do you still own a record player?
Forger: Yes, I have two turntables. I use them for
transferring albums or checking out old recordings on
vinyl that haven't been released on CD. It's
interesting to go back and see what the actual
recordings sound like. Not that vinyl has a special
quality, it sounds good of course, it's just that
sometimes one's mind will enhance the memory of how a
record sounds. Also, when material is re-released,
sometimes the new mastering is different from the
original. The current trend is to make recordings
brighter. When an older recording is re-mastered, the
high end is often boosted, changing the perspective of
the mix balance. That's why some older recordings seem
to have a very loud high hat.
G-Man: What can you tell us about your front-of-house
Foger: I started by mixing live, FOH. The bands I
mixed sound for were regional groups from the
Northeast and upstate NY. No one of national
prominence, I decided to work in studios before I
advanced far enough to mix sound for groups that
G-Man: Do you go to clubs?
G-Man: Do you take earplugs?
Forger: Most definitely, and if I don't have earplugs
with me then I use moistened tissue. The SPL can be
more than I am comfortable exposing my ears to.
Sometimes it's the location in the club or venue.
Horn-loaded high frequency drivers can be very
directional, and because they're my ears that I use to
make judgments with, I want to be sure not to
G-Man: What's the weirdest thing you've done in the
studio? In terms of sonics, I mean.
Forger: Before the advent of digital technology, you
needed to be creative acoustically and electronically.
In the song "Billie Jean," when Michael sings the line
"Do think twice" at end of the third verse, he's
singing through a cardboard mailing tube. We often
would record elements in the bathroom (tiled) because
it would give it a short early reflection quality. The
main percussion sound on the song "Beat It" was
Michael beating on fiberboard drum cases with 1x3 inch
pieces of wood in the mirrored room of Westlake Studio
A. This was all normal. Now if you want to talk weird,
on one song (not MJ) we ran a tape loop around the
room supported by microphone stands on a two track
machine. It was a loop of burps and was keyed by the
kick and snare to give the effect of drums that were
alive and breathing.
G-Man: What is "The Matt Forger Show"?
Forger: The "Matt Forger Show" is the name credited
to the sound design elements that I have created. It
was started by Michael when we would work together and
often he was in a location that didn't permit visual
contact. We only had our voices as a reference. The
detachment made it feel as if it was a radio program.
It became the name I choose to use for my style of
work that combines spoken word, sound effects and
G-Man: How would you describe the magic or the
fascination of music?
Forger: Music is a form of emotional communication.
The combination of rhythmic patterns, melodic
progressions and lyric content, communicate and
express feelings that we share though common
experience. A pop song is a three minute fix of an
emotional drug. We are connected through our humanity,
and most successful songs speak to this. It is our
shared human failings and aspirations that connect us.
Whether it's telling a story, expressing a feeling or
idea, it's the honesty with which we communicate our
inner most self, that allows others to share in the
G-Man: Are there any common qualities you've observed
in successful artists?
Forger: There is one quality that I have observed in
all the successful artists I have worked with. That is
the ability or talent to understand music at an
intuitive level. Not just technically or in theory,
but at a gut level to feel what is required to make a
piece of music work. This is evident in the creative
process. When asked for an idea, melody line, counter
line, harmony part, arrangement progression or
instrument texture, I have noticed that certain very
successful individuals are never at a loss. And, while
not at a loss, always have ideas that are appropriate
for the particular situation and are of the highest
quality. They are on the money instinctively, without
reservation and with complete confidence. They are, in
fact, "one with the music." This quality I can say is
what separates the most successful artists with those
that aspire for greatness. While it is true this is
something that comes with experience, it is also that
quality that allows for success to continue. To have
your finger on the pulse of what the public feels is
one thing, to be able to lead the public with your own
sense of what is a true expression of honest emotion
is yet another talent.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
Scott G makes commercials at G-Man Music & Radical
Radio and releases albums under the name The G-Man for
Scott G (The G-Man) proudly plays a Minarik Inferno.
He creates radio commercials and composes music for
songs and spots at G-Man Music