Five years ago, after graduating from the renowned recording program at Middle Tennessee State University, Mat Leffler-Schulman moved back to Maryland, and with the help of his wife Emily, began reconstructing a quiet Baltimore rowhouse, turning half their new home into an advanced recording studio. Their goal: offer affordable, professional recording services to the burgeoning Baltimore music scene. Since then they've worked with everyone from Small Sur to Soul Cannon, and their celebrated Microshows won them a City Paper Best of Baltimore Award. I talked to Leffler-Schulman via email.
SPLICE TODAY: Can you tell me how you got your start in studio recording? I think a lot of the recording guys I know are longtime musicians who’ve always had a keen interest in what can be done effects-wise with their music, you know, they're pretty experimental and they like to play around with the sounds they're making.
MAT LEFFLER-SCHULMAN: My fascination with audio goes back to middle school when I was dubbing tapes from friends. I was interested in the difference between what the high end of a normal bias cassette could reproduce and what a type II bias tape could reproduce. I wanted to understand why they were fundamentally different. In retrospect, I never really figured out why, but it got my brain thinking about audio.
I started recording music in high school with the band I played drums in; I used a cassette Tascam Portastudio 424. Again, I wanted to explore why some of the audio phenomena I witnessed in practice were happening and that drove me into cassette recording, which then led me to try getting more interesting sounds. I used to love moving the SM58 around the drum kit or guitar cabinet to get different sounds, or move old mattresses around the room to change reflections. I had no clue what I was doing, but I learned quickly that moving mics and their surroundings changed the sound of what we played. It became an almost obsessive goal to obtain different sounds using the very few rudimentary tools I had. I remember when the guitarist in my band brought over a compressor for a guitar pedal while I was mixing on my father's stereo. I had no clue what all the dials did, but there was something about compression that turned me on. It was perhaps that day that the spark went off and I recognized that I really enjoyed manipulating sound. Even more so than dubbing a Fishbone cassette to a Maxell XLII in middle school. And that ultimately led me to study recording and music business in college.
ST: Is there any sort of division of labor between you and Emily at Mobtown—she handles this, you handle that—or do you just trade off on everything depending on the project?
MLS: Yes, we have pretty defined roles at Mobtown. I am the main producer and engineer at the studio. I work with musicians to produce and plan their projects and I track, mix and master audio. We work with a diverse range of clients so my days tend to pretty varied. One day I might be tracking vocals for a hip-hop mixtape and the next I might be working with a songwriter to compose a music bed for the Baltimore Grand Prix. The following week, I could be producing an indie record or recording a live bluegrass event. I personally listen to a wide variety of music so I've tried to avoid pigeonholing myself professionally as well.
Emily manages the studio, which entails bookkeeping, marketing and some scheduling. She also designed the studio and planned the construction. Emily's a little more big picture with how the business is run, though we consult each other about how to approach each project or idea. She's also a web designer, which is the other half of our business. She designs and develops websites and handles web marketing for a roster of local and national clients. Occasionally, she does a little audio editing when the project calls for it, but her background is focused more on visual media. She's the eyes and I'm the ears. And that works well since it eliminates any professional competition between us. We just have mutual respect for what we each do.
ST: There probably is no "typical" recording process, but can you walk us through a couple of your recently recorded projects? Is it mostly Baltimore stuff? You no doubt work with a lot of bands who are recording their first album, so I'm wondering to what extent you're also acting as producer on those albums?
MLS: You’re right, there is no typical process for me. Which is probably why I like what I do so much. I rarely record something the same way twice. However, I do use one consistent principle, which is to capture great music by whatever means possible. That applies whether someone's coming to me just to track one piece of a song or to produce a full-length record. So while that means knowing my tools, working with mic placement and exploring different technical options in the studio, it also means working with the artist to get the best performance they can give. That may mean helping out with songwriting or arranging or it may mean simply helping them feel comfortable enough in the studio to do their thing.
So yes, I tend to work more as a producer than an engineer, but I also try to avoid putting my own stamp on the bands I produce. I like to pull the best out of what a band does. Of course, that involves a certain amount of trust between us when we start working on a record. If the band isn't cutting it or if they're slacking and not rehearsing, I'll send them home until they're ready. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy in the moment to get a result that everyone's happy with in the end.
Celebration Microshow (Todd Henn)
The majority of my work is with Baltimore bands, though it's not limited to this area. I just finished up projects with bands from Madrid and Barcelona. It's rare that bands come from out of state to track since travel has gotten more expensive, but I do work with bands in Philly, NY and LA for mixing.
I think Baltimore is a tremendous town. I've never before lived in a city that enables so many of its artists and musicians to actually do their art and music as a full-time job. There is something to be said about the scene and community in Baltimore. One thing that initially turned me on about Baltimore was that there is no "sound"—there's no presumption that if you don't sound a specific way or play in a specific genre then you won't be heard. I think that's one reason Baltimore has been getting more national attention. No one is getting signed by just glomming on to a "Baltimore sound." It's really eclectic here. And that certainly makes my life recording and producing bands and artists so much fun.
ST: Can you tell us a bit about the recording curriculum in college, what the program was like? Were you mostly just learning how to use a whole lot of different equipment so that you'd be prepared for whatever job would come after? Was it geared toward studio recording specifically? Was there a certain program-specific philosophy about recording, or an emphasis on recording a certain way that you wouldn't have gotten if you'd gone to a different college?
MLS: The program at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) was great. They had excellent professors and engineers and beautiful rooms. We had access to renowned producers like Eddie Kramer (Zeppelin, Stones, Kiss, Bowie, Curtis Mayfield). The Recording and Music Business programs (I took classes in both) cover a wide range of topics, like concert promotion, music law and licensing, artist management, and music theory. It's a great program and I do recommend it.
It's not like a trade school. At the time, there were a lot of programs that offered a recording certificate, but most of the graduates from those programs ended up in live sound and that wasn't my main area of interest. There were also other programs that were either strictly engineering where you learned the science behind sound or were music programs that offered a minor in recording but mainly taught theory and performance. MTSU was one of the few schools that offered a four-year degree in studio recording that focused on the range of issues in the industry like concert promotion, music law and licensing, artist management as well as music theory, engineering and, of course, recording. I'm not sure if they're still unique in this way or not. I imagine there are more programs now that are modeled off MTSU's because they were one of the first and it was successful. Some of my friends from that program have gone on to engineer in major studios in London, LA and New York, as well as work in film and open their own studios.
I went there because I didn't want to just be setting up mics for the rest of my life. Mic placement can be interesting and important, but I wanted to learn how to make great records; not just mic them. It's like an art school that teaches the history of great artists and the foundations of great art movements and all the rules that have come before you so you can go out and break them. Most trade schools stop at mic placement. MTSU went further then that. It's like the difference between a cook and a chef. Do you want to learn how to follow other people's recipes or do you want to create your own? Maybe I'm just not good at following directions.
That said, school isn't everything and at times I felt like I learned as much recording with my friends outside of school as I did in school. Being close to Nashville and immersed in a music scene had its advantages. And certainly, I've learned even more so since then. Obviously, you can make great records without ever going to school for it. You just have to do it. Get a mic and a four-track and spend your time tuning your ears and honing your skills. The bottom line is that you learn how to record music by recording music. In school or elsewhere.
ST: I know you said you "try to avoid putting [your] own stamp" on the bands you work with but with bands who are recording their first album or even just bands who don't particularly know much about recording, isn't that all but unavoidable? You even said you sometimes send bands home if you don't think they're taking things seriously enough, so at that point you're almost like their manager. Do you think about that a lot when recording bands, how your input on this or that decision will affect the overall finished product?
MLS: My opinion is that whether you're a musician or engineer or producer or whatever, it's about learning your craft. If musicians aren't cutting it that day, they go home. If they're nervous or unsure, I try to help them work through it. But sometimes they're simply off their game; sometimes they're sick; sometimes they're unrehearsed. I don't judge, but why waste time and efforts? The goal is to make the best possible record and spinning wheels doesn't get us there any sooner.
To a degree, putting my stamp on a record is unavoidable. Some producers exercise their "stamp" more than others. Some work more subtly. There are definitely things that I do that have a "sound." Certain preamps or compressors I use or the way I use them do have a sound. And even more obviously with my rooms. They have a sound that we developed in engineering the space. That's unavoidable. I'm a drummer, so Emily and I really focused on the drum sound while designing the main room. You can get away with a lot of hiccups in a studio, but sub-par drum sounds can kill a record (not that I'm biased or anything).
There are things that I do to sculpt or shape the sound. My fingerprint often has a specific texture to it. But there are some bands that that meshes with and some that it doesn't and I certainly don't force "my sound" onto a record where it doesn't work. And then there are some bands that work with me precisely because we have a synchronicity in our styles.
Each band has its own palette and producing one band one way doesn't always work with another band. For example, a lot of artists initially go for the most expensive mics we have. And that can be great a lot of the time. But sometimes going for another mic that happens to be less expensive can work just as good, if not better. The expression "to each their own" goes a long way in how I record. There are no presets.
A Cat Called Cricket Microshow (Todd Henn)
ST: What do you think are the most important parts of any recording studio? Is there stuff you do or that you focus on that sets you apart from other studios? How about from other Baltimore studios in particular?
MLS: The feedback we've received is that we're a very comfortable studio to create music in. It's very much like a living room—in fact, the couch in the control room was Emily's parents' couch when she was growing up. And personally, I listen to a pretty wide range of music so as a producer I enjoy working with bands in all different genres whereas many producers tend to work within a specific niche, intentionally or not. As far as the most important aspects, I think skills come first then gear. Well-built equipment is important, but it can't make up for a lack of knowledge of how to use it. The sound of the room is important as well as knowing how to overcome obstacles with the acoustics. And I think it's helpful to have a studio that musicians feel comfortable working in which may translate into a number of decisions you make in running your business such as: how you structure your rates; how confident the musicians are in the producer and engineer and how well they're communicating; how tidy you keep the space; what kind of lighting is used, and so forth.
ST: Can you talk about a couple of your favorite Baltimore bands? What are some of the challenges you've faced in working with a scene as eclectic as the one we have here? What's surprised you the most? Have your ideas about recording changed since you opened up Mobtown?
MLS: There are so many incredible emcees, artists and musicians in Baltimore that it's hard to pinpoint my favorites. It's like your favorite food. But that said, Future Islands (they have an intensity you can touch and see), Secret Mountains (any band you can't pigeonhole is a great band, and having insane musicianship and songwriting skills can't hurt) and the BSO rocks pretty hard too. The following artists have also been in heavy rotation in my iTunes this week: Mullyman, Wye Oak, Among Wolves & Dope Body. We've occasionally pitched projects involving two bands from different genres collaborating and it can be a challenge to find artists that are willing to work outside their comfort zone. Which is understandable. But other than that, I think working in a music scene this eclectic doesn't pose any special challenges; their mere existence simply enriches one another. What surprises me is the Smalltimore phenomenon; I come across it every day.