Matthew Sweet: Happy at Home

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Craig Dalton

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Tucked away in the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by the sites of countless hit movie location shoots, is the home and personal studio of Matthew Sweet. Prolific crafter of acclaimed and successful albums such as Girlfriend and Altered Beast, along with being one-third of The Thorns, Sweet's warm, distortion-drenched guitars, lyrical voice and rock-pop songwriting talents have been a part of radio, film and concert tours since the mid-'80s. Having worked with top-level production vets such as Richard Dashut (Fleetwood Mac), Brendan O'Brien (Aerosmith, Train and Bruce Springsteen) and Fred Maher (Lou Reed, Korn), Sweet now has all of the knowledge needed to create new songs in his own Pro Tools|HD3 — centered personal studio.

“I was always doing a lot of home recording,” says Sweet. “For me, it was kind of how I got into writing songs.” Surrounded by a growing collection of '60s art (he and wife Lisa are in the middle of writing a book on the subject), Sweet has created an inspiring environment that perfectly fits his musical history. With a great selection of vintage amps, original Electro-Harmonix processors, classic keyboards and an eclectic selection of guitars, there is no lack of unusual equipment. Taking a look into the small room that houses his drum setup, Sweet says that the lack of acoustic treatment and angles of the room help him track some “crazy, trashy drum sounds.” All other tracking is done directly in the main room, which also houses his amps, keyboards and recording gear.

Sweet uses an Apple G4 OS X for his HD system and a Yamaha 02R for stereo playback through Event powered monitors. “We used Pro Tools for a few mixing things on Girlfriend [1991], my first breakthrough record, even though it's thought of as a real analog record. We used it to sequence the record and do little backward things; just the stereo [version] was available then. HD made me think I could make a record at home, and — even though it's funky because I engineered it and everything — it would be viable.” Although Sweet often uses plug-ins such as the McDSP Filter Bank (“I can't say enough good things about it”), Chrome Tone and some of the Bomb Factory Pultec and Fairchilds, his basic technique also involves Tube-Tech, Neve 1066 and Ampex tube mixers in the input signal chain for instruments. He adds, however, “The beauty of Pro Tools is that you aren't stuck with one sound going in; you can change the plug-ins anytime.”

Sweet doesn't see the need for bringing in outside engineers, but confides that most engineers would be aghast at his setup, although it works best for him. He credits Maher with helping him learn Pro Tools. Playing most of the instruments himself, and using some longtime accomplices such as guitarist Greg Leisz and drummer Ric Menck, Sweet doesn't need to track using a lot of different inputs. “Mike Clark from Southern Tracks [O'Brien's Atlanta facility] has been incredibly helpful to me,” he adds. Clark advised Sweet on what serious gear to obtain and helped him choose some of his classic mics, including a Neumann U49 that he uses for both drums and vocals. Other microphones include a Lawson M51 for “all kinds of things” and a selection of various Shure and Sennheisers. He records his guitars by miking amps and going direct to get “that nice Lindsay Buckingham sound.”

Like Buckingham, Sweet prides himself on his self-reliance; in fact, he views it as essential in the current musical climate. “The fact that you can do [production, marketing and distribution] yourself makes for more chance of success. There is so much more out there that is not being covered well by the majors. It feels like there is kind of a critical mass of stuff waiting to happen.”

Although he's still able to go to the majors for new projects, Sweet is exploring different release routes for his two completed personal studio projects. Kimi Ga Suki, which he describes as a “love letter to Japan,” has been in limited release there through a Japanese distributor and in the U.S. on Amazon.com. Also coming soon is Living Things, which includes keyboard contributions from the legendary Van Dyke Parks. Both of these new collections should be available in wider distribution this summer and perhaps supported by a tour.

“In a way, for me, the art of doing music is really a lot about the home demo studio,” Sweet offers. “Early on in my career, and even in the middle of my career, friends who I know really well have always kind of liked my demos better [than the finished albums]. Even with the successful records, there's something about the demos; they're just more personal, they're a little more artistic. They just have that ‘painter on his own’ kind of thing about them.”


Craig Dalton is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Contact him at crdalton@sbcglobal.net.






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