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Breakdown: Deconstructing Music Production with Matt Lange

As a musician, producer, sound designer, composer and DJ, Matt Lange has an insatiable appetite for musical creation and exploration. Known for his attention to detail, dry wit and inventiveness, he crafts dark, atmospheric electronic music steeped in primal energy and intensity. That complexity and intricacy caught the attention of Deadmau5, who quickly signed Lange and released his full-length debut, the richly textured Ephemera in 2015.

A native New Yorker and lifelong musician, Lange started on piano at age four. During grammar school, he joined a demanding boys’ choir, and then stomped off to play in dimly lit Lower East Side clubs with a punk/metal band. His influences are motley. He credits Dream Theater, Nine Inch Nails, and Aphex Twin for stoking the fire. It was his desire, though, to start recording his own demos that lead him on the path to Pro Tools.

Matt recently invited Avid to his home studio to talk about his career, recording and production.

I know you grew up in NY and started playing around age four. Is that right? Can you tell me about the evolution of starting out in music and how you ended up engineering and producing?

My parents had me at a piano when I was around four, maybe five. In childhood fashion, I did not want to practice—ever. I just wanted to go out and be a kid outside. That didn’t really stick with me as much as I wish it did now. Later in school, I ended up playing flute for a bit, but the big one was I sung in a boys’ choir for six years. That was intensive: six years of practices, three times a week and then, singing at a Sunday Mass every week. When my voice changed, I picked up the guitar which, to this day, is still my favorite instrument. Eventually, that led me to playing in a band, which was a hardcore, metal, punk rock kinda thing. I wanted to start finding a way to be able to record demos, and that got me into the initial stages of production. I was using a very early version of Sibelius at that time so I could transcribe song ideas for the band. Prior, I had been coming in with 13 pages of handwritten sheet music with time changes every bar—I was really into Dream Theater then.

What else were you listening to at that time?

Tool, of course. Opeth, Converge, NIN, but I was also into Aphex Twin, Squarepusher… guys in the Warp Records, IDM realm. Because I got into recording demos, I figured I’d figure out how to start programming beats and making my own little demos and that’s what led me to Berklee.

MP&E? (music production and engineering)

No, music synthesis. I thought I wanted MP&E, but upon my arrival, I learned that music synthesis was basically what I’d been doing in a rudimental form already. You’re writing all your own music and engineering it, but digitally. No one was sitting at an SSL in music synth. It was a lot more compositional. I learned quickly that in MP&E, you just spent the entire time recording other people and that wasn’t gonna work for me. Synthesis is what led me to the whole sound design obsession and fostered a creativity within me that I wasn’t aware of yet. On top of it, it exposed me to writing music to picture for the first time. That really came in handy in the many years since.

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Do you work on a console at all, or are you doing everything in the box or do you have a control surface?

On the mixing side, it’s all in the box. As far as recording goes, it’s all out of the box. I like the mindset that you get the best recording chain that you can have… record as many things as well as you can outside of the box, so you retain an organic and a human element. Once it’s recorded into the box, then it’s all getting sliced and diced and destroyed, basically. Having a console would make it quite challenging considering some of my tracks could have 150 channels without sweating. I would need a big console and a room that could fit a console that big.

And a massive air conditioning unit.

(laughing) Yeahhh, and I’d need a lot more money to pay the electric bill! I considered an S3 a few years ago, but I don’t have the space for it. Everything is taken up. It’s all instruments and keyboards everywhere.

We talked about recording techniques and you mentioned crunching leaves on a track. How did you come up with that?

Experimentation. The thought process is… magnolia leaves, which are really thick, have strong, sharp transient. It’s great to manipulate them. I have a whole army of distortion pedals at this point. Each one sounds a little bit different, so, if you have something with really distinct transients, as opposed to a softer leaf (if you will), it’s not going to be as poignant. The minute you throw things through distortion or fuzz pedals, it’s going to fill in the gaps with crackle and hum and fizz.

So, I figured… why not? Let’s take a sound I like and run it though… any of it. There’s a magic to it that you don’t get in the box. There’s magic in sending audio through transistors, and circuits and iron. I have a lot of friends who are way down the digital wormhole and they’ll say scientifically or technically, there’s no difference. Everything can be modeled. They’re smarter than me, but my ears tell me differently. Maybe I’m lying to myself, but I think there’s that X-factor. Maybe it’s just the physical interaction. It’s so much more personal if it’s your fingers that moved the tone knob on the fuzz pedal.

So, let’s talk about Deadmau5…

The stuff with Joel. The A&R of Mau5trap had reached out to my manager at the time after hearing some of my stuff and wanted to know if I would be interested in releasing some of my work on the label. I said sure. We sent them a big bundle of tracks and then it was radio silence for about eight months. Out of the blue one day, Deadmau5 hit me up on Twitter and said he’d been listening to my track, Scorched Earth Policy, which he abbreviated to its initials. He said loved it and was going to blow it up. Two hours later, there was a record contract. It was really fast.

Scorched” was a single that was part of a compilation, and they contracted me for an EP. I pulled a bait and switch and gave them an album instead. So, that was Ephemera. They pushed it to vinyl, which was a dream come true. And after that, came Patchwork.

There are so many ways to be creative; you could be writing children’s books. What drives you? Why music?

Well, you wouldn’t want me writing children’s books, first of all.

To get back to your question, it’s a compulsion. There’s no logical explanation for why I do what I do, except that I need to do it. Music is the only thing I’ve pursued actively my entire life. I wouldn’t even know what else to do. I suppose it would be something in the creative field. My parents are artists. Music has always been my language. I navigate my experience in the world, and my emotional responses to everything is through creating. I don’t look at it like work. It’s my life. I’ve found a way to make my life my career. Quite honestly, it’s the only thing that matters to me.

When I was in high school, that’s when it became obsessive. Even though I’d grown up singing in the choir, I’d never had the visceral and cathartic experience of playing guitar live in a band in front of a crowd.

When did you start DJing?

Gosh, in my 20s. I had friends in the dance industry and I figured… I have some doors opening for me, I should look behind door number three. So, that’s what I did, but the problem with door three is that some of the people behind door three are pretty terrible. But I had this concept in my head, that if I have this avenue within the dance music sphere, how about I go in there, do some dance music stuff and idealistically, build up a fan base, and then go back to doing my weird electronic music. That was the idea when I was 23. As I got older, some of the records I put out pulled in DJ offers. So, I started traveling and then I moved to LA when it made sense career-wise. Then, I started traveling a lot. In that process, I discovered a love of DJing I hadn’t experienced before. It split me in two ways. I love having global friends and travel, but by that same token, I like staying true to my roots. The challenge is finding balance and not letting one take over the other. I can be obsessive and work on one song for a month, while the rest of my life falls into disarray. Then, I’m like… woah I need to DJ and be on the road, but I also need to put out this avant-garde rock stuff that doesn’t make any money. Clearly, I have plenty of internal existential discussions.

How do you break through creative blocks?

Sometimes, it’s as simple as going outside. I don’t mean camping either. Sometimes, getting away from work is the best remedy. You need a life outside of it or you have nothing to write about. I need to get outside, see people, be around friends. I also find changing instruments is an effective way to break through. I’m personally uninspired by a computer, so picking up an instrument is key. For me, I’ll pick up a guitar, but if it’s not working, I might sit at a piano. Whether that’s a Rhodes or the upright, those will influence me to play different things. Just by the sheer physicality of the instrument, how they’re built, the tuning… that’s all gonna change me. I just bought a cello, which is a whole new ball game. It’s an instrument I know nothing about, other than I like how it sounds. I’m not completely helpless with it thanks to my history of playing the guitar. For my purposes, I can do it. And it helps me recontextualize what I’m trying to do. There’s a magic in playing a different instrument, especially when it’s a new one. It’s like being a kid again. You don’t understand the capability of the instrument, or even of yourself on that instrument.

What’s next for you?

I’m on the road a lot and trying to finish up two albums this year. One is a club record called Dichotomy and the other is more alternative. I can’t get back to that until I complete the club album. For the first time in years, I’m trying to work with outside vocalists again. There are more moving parts in the machine, so it’s taking longer. By the time everything is done, it will be in the end of the year and then who knows? I’ve stopped making plans because life just happens.

 

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