Ask Abbey Road: Recordist Matt Jones explains his role, checklists and how to get into the industry
We talk to Abbey Road’s Matt Jones about the recordist’s role and how to land a job as one.
Matt Jones began working at Abbey Road in 2012 straight out of university, rising through the ranks from runner to assistant and now to recordist. However, his journey to the iconic studio arguably started when he first picked up the trombone, aged seven.
He learnt guitar through his teens and played in brass ensembles and metal bands; his interest in recording led him to the highly regarded Tonmeister degree course at Surrey University, which turns out so many top-flight recording engineers.
In his time at Abbey Road, Matt has worked with such composers as Danny Elfman, Stephen Price, James Newton Howard and on projects including How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Amazon’s The Aeronauts and the David Attenborough Netflix documentary Our Planet.
We sit down with Matt to talk about drum recording, sidechaining, session stoppers and about what a recordist actually is.
Phoebe: What is the recordist’s role? How does it differ from an assistant or an engineer?
Matt Jones: At Abbey Road, the recordist title is a halfway house between assistant engineer and engineer roles. It’s kind of an extension of the assistant job here, in that you find some bits of engineering here and there, but also, you’ll be the guys that they get in to do the more high-profile film scoring projects and run Pro Tools on them. A big part of it is just being that trusted point of contact for an engineer in those situations.
MusicTech: Does everyone have a clear idea of what their position is and what they are responsible for, or is there ever overlap?
MJ: Yes and no. I think everyone has a solid idea of what their primary responsibilities are. At Abbey Road in particular, if you come and do a session there, you’ll find the runners are runners by name – and they’re doing that job – but they’re more than capable of doing the job of assistants. And you’ll find that all the assistants are more than capable of doing the job of a recordist. Everyone understands everyone else’s role, but focuses in on what it is they are supposed to be doing. And they have the knowledge and experience to do everything else, which is good, because it means they know how they can support the people in those roles.
As a recordist, I know what the engineer probably will need, and I can provide it, as well as doing what I have to do within my job description. The second assistant on a session will be there to troubleshoot with me and look after the musicians on the floor, but they’ll also be making the take notes which will support me. Everyone can kind of do everything – to a point – which is really good.
Preparation is critical – I’ve always got my template ahead of time that I know is solid
MT: What would your role be on a recording session for a film, for instance?
MJ: Depending on how involved the engineer is in the setup, it involves being responsible for everything going smoothly by setting up and, during the recordings, overcoming any problems that do arise quickly. Then at the end of a session, having sat in front of Pro Tools for the duration of it, being able to hand over a box of hard drives and say, without a doubt, that everything has been recorded cleanly. It’s in the right place, and it’s named the right thing. It sounds silly, but if you’re recording 100 tracks of audio per pass in Pro Tools and you’ve got seven or eight passes and you’re doing overdubs, you get up to thousands of takes, including different versions of cues. There’s actually quite a lot of data to keep hold of. You can’t get to a position where you’re saying: “I’m not sure that this audio has gone to the right place,” or, “I’m not sure that we captured that take.”
MT: How do you avoid finding yourself in that position?
MJ: Preparation is critical – I’ve always got my template ahead of time that I know is solid. And keeping an eye on everything when it’s being recorded, so that there’s never a track with nothing on it. Then it’s about making sure you play back the right thing before overdubs.
If you record strings in the morning, then brass in the afternoon, it’s making sure you’re playing back the right takes if you’ve got different versions of the cues. Or ensuring you’ve got a working comp of everything as you go that you can play back, at any given moment, from start to finish.
MT: How do you keep track of all those different takes?
MJ: I always use playlists in Pro Tools. I tend to do new playlists each time there’s a new take, so you know that the only thing on that playlist is that take. So if anyone asks to hear take seven, I’ve got it.
We also keep a document going the whole time throughout our session. Documenting each take, what was different about it, what the instruments were that we recorded, which pass number it was recorded on…
MT: What do the actual take sheets look like?
MJ: Often this job falls to the second assistant on the session, just because I’ve usually got my hands full and it’s useful to get them involved in what’s going on. So they’ll keep a note every time you do a new take. They’ll note what pass number it was on, what instruments were recorded. They’ll note which bar numbers we covered and each cue. And then they’ll keep a note of anything different, any new directions from the composer, or orchestrator.
Frances: Do you keep a mental checklist of things to set up for a session? And how does it run?
MJ: For a setup like that, for a big orchestral film session, we have a big spreadsheet that everyone’s working from right from the start of the setup. There’ll usually be three or four guys out on the floor and one or two in the control room setting up different bits and pieces, so everyone needs to be on the same page.
So we’ll print out a bunch of copies of the setup sheet and that ensures the desk and Pro Tools have been set up to be consistent. Also, the headphones and microphones that are plugged in out in the live room correspond to that. So, that’s all planned before the setup so we can just get in and know what we’re doing.
The first step – as soon as we enter the room – is to get all the chairs laid out. People are shocked sometimes when we finish a session and pack it all down and then set it all up again for the next day. That’s because we don’t have a standard orchestral setup. Different engineers and composers like it orientated differently in the rooms. The line-up of musicians will change, the engineer may want something particular; so naturally, even though the setup may end up being quite similar in the end, often part of the recordist and assistants’ job is taking it all apart and then setting it back up again.
Next, the headphones start to go down. Different sections of the orchestra will require different things in their headphones, even if it’s just different overall levels, so different people will get plugged into different places. Then the microphones go out. We put all the right microphones on the right stands in the right place and then we eventually plug in those microphones. Then it’s patching them through to the desk and then checking everything – assuming the control room has been set up and the Pro Tools has been set up simultaneously by myself with the engineer.
We always go through and scratch every mic individually. We’ll run a nail across the grille of the microphone so we can identify everything is going to the right place on the desk and on Pro Tools.
Then often, we’ll listen to music. We’ll pump out some music into the studio floor via the SLS (the studio loudspeaker) and just have a listen to all the microphones and make sure they all sound as we’d expect them to. We make sure, through the main monitors, that the left and the right seem balanced and nothing is sounding thin, or crackly or anything.
After that, it’s onto session prep for me. If we checked through my template and everything is in order, then often most people will go home and we’ll work through the cues that make up the film. For a big film soundtrack, you could have 70 or 80 individual Pro Tools sessions that will be pieces of music that are between a few seconds long or a few minutes long. Each cue will just have a click in it, it will have any pre-records, any synth elements that accompany the orchestral live tracks for that section of music. And then it will have, either in the same session or in an accompanying session on a different rig, a picture that goes to it that we can watch while we’re scoring.
The job is to keep on top of all that and to keep everything flexible. The number of times that a picture will get edited during the scoring process – it’s always easier for a music editor to have all the music separately and they can fly different cues to different places as necessary if the picture changes. Or chop bits within a cue to shorten them or lengthen them. There’s quite a lot of that typically, on a big film.
I’m a believer in scribbling everything down
MT: What happens on the day of recording?
MJ: Then you just come in on the morning and have one last check that everything is still looking and sounding about right. Make sure no microphones have fallen down overnight. Usually, by 10am, the musicians will be sat there ready to go waiting for their first instructions and first clicks.
Once the session starts, I’ll be operating Pro Tools and also working with the engineers if anything does seem not right. Some stuff is impossible to check ahead of the start of recording. You’d be amazed at the number of times that everything will be up and running and working perfectly well, then 100 musicians walk into a room and someone will kick their headphones out or knock a microphone, so it’s pointing the wrong way. The first 10-15 minutes of a session will be looking out for things like that. After that, you’re up and running.
MT: What about with smaller setups?
MJ: Sometimes with the smaller setups, you think you can get away with keeping a mental checklist or mental idea of where things go. I remember, I learned very quickly on a session – one of the first sessions that I worked on at a different studio. We were working on a band setup and the patch bay that I wasn’t overly familiar with got progressively busier. We got to day five, and the engineer asked me to swap a chain of guitar EQs and compressors from one channel to another. It was something relatively simple, but you stare at this mass of patch cables trying to follow things through and you realise that maybe your mental notes weren’t entirely as watertight as you first thought.
Situations where you’ve got people waiting for you and you don’t have a solid idea of what’s going on – that’s what you want to avoid. These days, I always try to scribble everything down in situations like that. Even if it’s just for my own peace of mind, just to know where everything’s going.
I’d say any experience, even remotely related, is good experience
MT: What form do these notes take? They seem to vary wildly…
MJ: It tends to be whatever bit of paper is handy. That will go in my pocket or sit on the Pro Tools desk next to me. Maybe other people are better at remembering, but perhaps my memory is not what it was. I’m a believer in scribbling everything down in situations like that.
Ali: How does a recordist find a job in the already crowded music industry?
MJ: The main thing to remember here is that very, very few recordists would have walked into the studio and started their time there as a recordist. It’s tough, too, because no matter how fast you might be at Pro Tools or how well you know your way around a Neve 88 or whatever console, you still need to understand how the rooms work and how everything is routed. You need to know all the unique twists and turns of that space, where things turn up on what patchbays, how the video distribution works and everything.
I started at Abbey Road the same way pretty much everyone who works at Abbey Road started out. That’s as a runner. I came in and I spent that time making people teas and getting stuck in on setups to learn from the guys here about how they do things. As far as getting that job, or getting any job in any studio, I think I got very lucky. I did my degree at Surrey University. They have a lot of useful links with studios and industry professionals, including Abbey Road.
We take one or two students from there every year as a placement to be a runner, so things like that can be a good foot in the door and I know other universities and courses do similar. I was very fortunate, but when I finished my degree, I immediately sent off loads of emails with a CV attached to all the studios that I could find.
Timing-wise, I must have been very lucky, because I was offered an interview at Abbey Road pretty soon after. Basically, none of the other Studios even replied to say: “Sorry, there aren’t any jobs going,” so I know I’m not the rule. But I think being persistent is good, to a point. Just trying to get experience and trying to get into the right circles of people. Being a recordist is quite a specific skill set, but it can also apply to being a producer or a composer or a producer’s assistant or a music editor. Just to start moving in the right circles and knowing the right people, I suppose.
MT: How do you get into those circles?
MJ: It’s hard. I’d say any experience, even remotely related, is good experience. That could be work experience with a record label, for example. There are ways out there. If you just contact enough people, you will find something, I think. Then, as soon as you’ve got a bit of experience on your CV, you just need the right person to look at it and a bit of luck.
Read all the instalments of Ask Abbey Road here.