Red Room Studio's Matt Bayles Talks Shop
Matt Bayles is a Seattle-based producer/engineer/mixer (and founding member of the band Minus the Bear) who owns and runs the beloved Red Room recording studio. Bayles's production renders songs raw, yet contained. His low-end heft is an accurate beast. Atmospherics shimmer and bend with a convex glint—when a song needs to punch, it hits with pronounced girth. Mastodon's Bayles-produced Remission album will straight up make you claw a tree and mark territory. Other Bayles clients include the Blood Brothers, ISIS, the Murder City Devils, Helms Alee, Absolute Monarchs, Eighteen Individual Eyes, Rocky Votolato, Botch, Pearl Jam, and more. Recently, he's been working with Sandrider and Dust Moth on new material. Seven years ago, Bayles left Minus the Bear to focus solely on making records, and people have been marking trees because of him since. Bayles spoke, pronouncing everything perfectly.
When you think of mixing and producing, what's the first thing that comes to mind?
At its most basic, mixing is the balancing of frequencies, levels, and panning to get things to even out. After you get the tech stuff out of the way, you have to concentrate on what's meant to be the musical hook at any given time—a guitar nuance, a vocal inflection, a drum fill—and make it pop. Production is the choices you make to create those moments during recording. Getting the vocal take, the vocal sound, arranging the song so that there are those little things to listen for on the second listen, or a year later, or five years later.
How do you train your ear to gauge a mix that's going to sound good on all speakers? When you listen back in the studio on the pro monitors, as opposed to normal speakers, there's such flux there.
This can be a struggle. The main thing is to bring reference mixes you trust to wherever you are working. Having records you've done on hand to gauge the acoustics of a control room is important. I have records that I reference not because I think they sound perfect, but because I know their flaws and what they will tell me about a room. For example, Mastodon's Remission is abrasive, but I know it backward and forward. ISIS's Oceanic is heavy but somewhat spongy and ambient, so I can learn things about a room by comparing those records. I have traveled to some seriously flawed spaces over the years and come out with decent results because of the time spent doing critical listening.
What have you learned since recording your first band? What's different about you now?
For starters, I have relaxed. I interned in Nashville, and that was intense because the engineers were all top-notch, and the session players were freaks, too. They were very uptight, and I took some of that on, since it was all I was exposed to at the time. That environment led me to know my stuff technically, but it also led me to be a bit high-strung. Once I got here, it took me a while to just chill out on the rock sessions. The other thing I've grown to realize is that "right and wrong" aren't always as clear as I thought when I started. Mistakes aren't inherently bad—the studio term is happy accidents, and I find myself enjoying them more and more [laughs].
What do you do when a band's vision of a song is completely different from yours?
Ultimately, I work for the band. I hope that by the time we have gotten to the studio it's because we have a shared vision, but if we differ too greatly, I will trust the artist and try and adapt my vision to theirs as best I can.
What do you do when the singer is so drunk they can't stand up?
One of my favorite vocal performances I've ever captured was by someone who was so drunk he couldn't stand. The drummer was coaching him through the melodies, holding him up as he sang. The fact is, the vocal take wouldn't have been as amazing if he weren't letting loose because he was hammered. I can't divulge who it is.
What is "the recording mind of Matt Bayles"? What's your production approach?
I view each record as a moment in time and place for the band and myself. Meaning a point in the band's development, their state of mind, their evolution, and then myself and a studio of some sort with its benefits and drawbacks. Each record gets its identity from these circumstances. My job is to make the most of whatever limitations there may be, whether that be quality of studio, the band's equipment, the amount of time we have, and so on. Those parameters may be viewed as limitations, but they can bring unexpected character to a recording, and character is a good thing, in my opinion.
As an extension of that, I try to not have too much of a "sound." I like to use the bands' gear because it is what makes them sound like them. Often, producers have a ton of great instruments and equipment and make the bands use that stuff rather than their own. In my eyes, that runs the risk of the producer leaving too large of an imprint on the band's sound, so I try and avoid that. Having my own studio has been amazing for a lot of reasons, but the one concern I have is that it's too identifiable, so I go out of my way to try new engineering ideas whenever I can, so that each record can somehow maintain its own identity. Even if it's the second time a band has worked with me at Red Room, as with Sandrider at the moment.
What's something that can suck the life out of a mix?
Technical stuff. I pride myself on not getting the session bogged down in the tech stuff. Meaning it shouldn't take a day to get a snare sound, or a bass sound. Enthusiasm for the studio can be lost if things take too long to get going. A studio can suck the vibe out of a song in the best of circumstances, so the goal is to prevent that if at all possible. Musical ideas are always flowing, and often the studio brings things to light that don't come through in the practice space—less time on tech stuff means more time to focus on the song.
What are some characteristics of a Matt Bayles mix?
It's hard to be objective about what I do, but I would say there is a certain transient aggression and energy to my mixes while still maintaining dynamics. During the course of a mix, there are many ways to create dynamics—turning effects on and off, boosting ambience then drying it up, fader rides. Those changes don't always have to be blatant to accomplish what I want, either. I'm often experimenting with making something sound bad in order to emphasize when the mix sounds good, rather than trying to make a tweezed, Steely Dan−type record.
Whatever tendencies I may have, each record needs its own vibe based on who's playing. For example an Eighteen Individual Eyes mix has to have muscle but still keep the dreaminess of the groove and Irene's vocals, which is a tricky balance. Whereas with a Mastodon mix, it's mostly muscle, and the vocals accentuate that intensity. Or a Caspian mix, where there are 90 tracks, I have to find what needs to be highlighted and when to capture the emotion the artist intended. Lately, I've been lucky to do a lot of mixing of records I haven't produced, which has been great for hearing other people's work and getting new inspiration.
Do you have a nickname? Can I call you Matt "the Bison" Bayles? Or "the Brain"? Or "Bulldog"? Something more abstract? "Baba Ghanoush"?
I have a few, depending on the band. Eighteen Individual Eyes nicknamed me Coach. Erin from Minus the Bear calls me "Cowell" sometimes. I guess I critiqued someone's karaoke to earn the "Cowell."
How is working with working with Helms Alee different than, say, Absolute Monarchs?
Well, Shawn from Absolute Monarchs has a very particular guitar style. Jagged, angular, aggressive without being overtly distorted—it propels the band in a lurching way, while the bass is bathed in reverb. Pretty uncommon for a heavy band—that combo is what makes them unique. For them, I'm trying to balance the spiky nature of Shawn's sound with the 'verbed-out bass, so that they don't sound too disjointed.
Whereas Ben, from Helms Alee, has a "rolling" guitar style, for lack of a better word—it feels like a boulder rolling downhill. Once the momentum starts, it's hard to stop. The same goes for Alee's drummer, Hozoji Matheson-Margullis. She matches his kinetic energy and has a very tom-heavy, rolling style. Dana is a great bass player and plays with no reverb, but holds down the low end with a dry growl. With them, I am trying to capture their huge low end but still keep the clarity of the drums and Ben's guitar.
We had to re-amp some of Shawn's guitars and do a remix or two on the Monarchs record, but sometimes that's just how it goes. It was mostly because I was too worried about the aggression in Shawn's guitar and had mellowed it out too much. Once they pointed out their issues, we fixed it easily. You work a bunch of long days, and sometimes you overthink what the perceived engineering flaws are [laughs].
Your drum sounds are so huge and monstrous. How do you do that?
[Pauses] I think I just know when I have a sound I can work with. When I was getting started, it was just intuition, but at this point in my career, I know far more about what gear to choose based on the coloration I am looking for. From mic choice, to preamps, to compressors—I just know what I will like based on what the vibe of the band is. Of course, if I'm not getting what I want, I can sit down and tune them myself as needed. I definitely do enjoy drum ambience, so I imagine that's something I lean on quite a bit. I have a hard time loving a bone-dry drum sound, but when it works, it's phenomenal.