Ethan Mates (born Long Island, NY) is a Recording/Mixing Engineer currently working out of Los Angeles, CA. From Adult Contemporary to Hip Hop, Ethan Mates has done it all. Some of his credits include Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tupac, Black Eyed Peas, Carrie Underwood, Pussycat Dolls and many more
Starting out playing in bands with friends, Ethan eventually began learning how to record demos on a 4 track tape recorder. Not satisfied with University and eager to learn more about engineering, he walked into a studio one day on a whim, looking for an internship. That sudden decision ended up being the start to a very successful career.
Curious about Ethan’s work and the records he was a part of, I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview; he graciously accepted. Below is the conversation that took place in that 90 min interview.
If you would like to contact Ethan directly, please email him firstname.lastname@example.org
You started in New York and now you’re working in LA. Do you prefer working out of LA?
Well obviously the weather in LA is awesome; I have a yard now, and dogs and everything, so it’s great.
As far as work I think most places are a hustle; maybe it’s a little bit easier over here but I don’t know. I found when I was in New York I was doing a lot of Hip Hop sessions where I would work from 11 in the morning until 9 the next morning, then sleep for 3 hours and have to be back. I was constantly working 100 plus hour weeks, every week of the year. I was on track to be completely fried by age 24 [laughs].
The hours here in LA generally aren’t as crazy and I’ve been working with a more diverse group of musicians so it’s not quite the same scene.
How did you get into the engineering aspect of music creation?
I started playing violin at around 3 when my parents put me into The Suzuki METHOD, which is designed to start teaching music to very young kids. Before you get into learning to read music they do a lot of ear training, which was very useful because even though I’m out of practice and my sight reading skills are terrible, I can generally hear something once or twice and just play it back, more or less, without needing the sheet music.
Ultimately, I wasn’t excited about playing the violin because it was something that I was forced to do. So when I was maybe 10 I started playing guitar just so I could have an instrument that was fun and I wasn’t getting pressured to play. I could practice whether I wanted to or not.
In junior high school I started playing in bands and then from there, I think in 7th grade, I started making 4 track cassette recordings of what we were doing, building ISO booths out of wrestling mats and all of that.
Once I was in high school I got into DJing and making beats with an MPC and stuff like that, while still playing in bands. There were certain records that I would get and just not be able to understand what they were doing differently than we were that made it sound so special. That applied especially with Hip Hop records because at the time, in the early 90’s, Metal records, at least the kind I liked, sounded horrible so they weren’t that far off from what we were producing in our basement. I mean obviously it wasn’t the same quality but it wasn’t a world of a difference.
But when I would listen to those first three Tribe Called Quest records (that Bob Power did), the low end on the EPMD albums or the early Dilla productions etc. and I would just be stumped trying to recreate those sounds. I mean I had a drum machine and I could program the same pattern and even sample the same records but it didn’t sound anything like that. That also led me to get further into it – figuring out compression and EQ, etc.
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Okay so you were making records with your friends and trying to figure out how to make it sound better but at what point did you decide to ditch the home studio and get into a professional studio?
After high school I went to NYU for like a year and half and I was doing lighting and sound design, which is mostly for theatre. It just wasn’t working for me, I had hoped it would have been more recording but it was really a lot of stagecraft that I found I had zero interest in. I guess I felt like I could be spending my time doing something that I cared more about. I did take some Electronic music and Midi classes at NYU, which ended up being super useful down the road. Basically I left after a year and a half and I was still playing in bands and making beats and kind of jerking around.
Then one day when I was visiting my parents on Long Island, I went into this recording studio, on a whim, to see if I could get a job. It just so happened that they needed a runner so I started working there for free. Fortunately the assistant that was there had been there forever and clearly wasn’t going to make the jump to engineer. He would much rather just sit in the lounge and watch TV so I started doing everything for him and he was happy to have me do it. Eventually after about 3 months I ended up getting his job.
The guy who owned that studio was producer Ric Wake, who at the time was a big pop producer. Not only did he own that studio, he also owned one in Manhattan which I transferred to pretty quickly and I started assisting there. We worked on the first Jennifer Lopez record, Celine Dion, Mark Anthony, you know all that super pop kind of stuff.
So I worked there for a couple years assisting, editing, and engineering the odd session. Then I ended up as the assistant for producer Jimbo Barton we came in from LA, to produce a band. So I was assisting for Jimbo and it took about 8-10 months to finish. In that time we became really close, and he suggested that I should come out to LA as he thought I could do really well out there.
So I went out to LA a couple times, hung around and checked out some studios. I did a few weeks of work then went back to New York, then came back to LA to do a few more weeks. I was going back and forth and it got to the point where I was in LA more then I was in New York. Plus I was staying with a friend right by the beach and it was beautiful and everything so I just decided to take the jump and move.
What part of engineering do you enjoy more, recording or mixing?
I really like to do both and I like to spend my time between the two. I think that when you’re new to this whole thing, and I was certainly the same way, all you want to do is be a mixer and just mix shit all the time. But what you don’t realize is that the more you record it has a direct impact on how good of a mixer you are. The more time you spend recording directly translates to your ability to mix and the other way around too. If you’ve been spending a lot of time mixing, you can go back to recording and it really just sharpens you up all around. Obviously there’s guys who just mix and they’re fantastic at it but I think for the average working guy, doing both and going back and forth between the 2 really keeps you sharp and in the game.
Going from an assistant engineer, do you remember the first gig you got that was solely your own engineering project?
Well, I had a couple different groups that I either played for or made tracks for so we started using the studio down time, which was what was cool about that studio. I would start using all of the down time, like every second of it [laughs] to produce, record and mix projects for friends and people I knew. I would end sessions at 2 or 3 am then my friends would come by and we would record until like 6 in the morning. I would fall asleep for a couple hours and then be back to work at 10 am. But when you’re in that stage and it’s all still new and exciting, all you want to do is be in the studio recording and patching and everything. I had bathroom sized apartment but it didn’t matter because I was never home and I think that’s the attitude you need to have to get over that initial hump of getting into the game.
Then when I came out to LA I did a couple gigs using Pro Tools for Jimbo and was introduced to other people. I started presenting myself as an engineer and sort of took assisting gigs off the table. Obviously I had to start with some small gigs but then I started to build a little bit. I was doing Pro Tools for people and I did some writing sessions for some bigger bands. Then I got hooked up with a manager who managed Jim Scott, who’s done a ton of great records. He mixed several Chili Pepper records; He did Californication and By The Way. He’s worked with Tom Petty, the Dixie Chicks and all kinds of great artists. Anyway, so I got hooked up with his manager and I ended up getting hired to do Pro Tools for the Chili Pepper’s record By The Way. That ended up turning into a huge project, we had a studio going, and a hotel room going. I ended up recording all of the vocals and a lot of the over dubs because Jim was so busy he couldn’t be there for the whole time. Then he came back around to hear the finished product and he mixed it. That was the first project I did with Rick Ruben and I’ve done a bunch of things with him since.
What was like being in the studio with the Chili Peppers?
It was pretty unbelievable to be honest because I was pretty young at the time, maybe 23. I had been such a huge Chili Peppers fan since junior high school when Blood Sugar Sex Magic came out. Unfortunately I didn’t get to be there for all of the basic tracking; I kind of came towards the end.
They record as a band, in the room, together. I mean they’ll do overdubs but the main guts of the song are actually recorded live to tape, Done! To just be sitting there in the room watching them do that was really mind blowing for me.
I was a huge John Frusciante fan so to get to sit in a room while he ripped solos all day or do crazy vocal harmonies was unbelievable. He’s still, I think, one of my favorite artists that I’ve gotten an opportunity to work with. When he touches the guitar, no matter what guitar it is or what it’s plugged into, it sounds exactly like him and it sounds amazing [laughs].
Getting to LA and in maybe less than 2 years, I’m thrown into a session with these guys who are like heroes of mine, it was really nuts.
I remember the first day I was there, they recorded an organ part on a B3 where it needed 4 hands so it was John and Flea sharing the piano bench just working on this crazy organ part for the song. That really makes you want to record, be in the studio and be involved with that kind of stuff.
Once you got the Chili Peppers on your resume, did that impact the amount of work you received afterwards?
I don’t think that it was an overnight thing where I was getting like a million calls. Also at the time, before and after that job, I was doing a lot of gigs for Interscope. They just built a new studio in Santa Monica and I was doing a bunch of work there. So I think immediately after the Chili Peppers records, I kind of just went back into that world for a while and just stayed busy. I did get called from Rick [Ruben] to help with some other gigs and when Flea was building a studio, I helped him with that so I started working over there.
I think more than anything it helped with my confidence in putting myself out there as a professional and not being afraid to say “This is what I charge, I can do a good job”. I definitely think by being in that environment with those big players it gave me a little boost for sure.
Okay Great! I kind of want to get more into some of the mixing stuff now.
Yeah for sure.
Maybe you could explain your set up and the gear that you are working with.
Right now I’m mixing out of my house and this place called Little Big Room which is out in Burbank and has an SSL 4000g. I’ve been working there since I’ve been out in LA. Even over there I definitely do a hybrid of digital and analog because there’s certain plugin that I’ll want before it goes into the board. There’s just certain things you can do with plugins that you just can’t do with analog.
At the house I have an SSL Matrix 16 channel which is sort of like a mini SSL but it doesn’t have EQ’s or dynamics, you just use your own outboard stuff. I’m sub mixing out of the box so that I can use my outboard gear, so it’s a bit of a hybrid. With the SSL you can do rides on the analog side which I would do for vocals, for example, because I have analog inserts on them. If I were to do the rides from pro tools, I’d be messing with the signal that’s going into the compressor; you want it post analog processing. I can just flip the button on the matrix and do rides in the analog domain and I can go back and forth. With stuff that I want really super crazy detailed rides or popping out breaths, I can just flip over and go into Pro Tools and do that. I’m still getting used to it and its definitely different way of working by flipping between surfaces but I think it ill work for me in the long term.
I have 2 of the Avid HDX boxes which gives me 24 outs, 16 which are going to the Matrix and some of the other I use for the Aux returns. I’m monitoring through an AYRE amp with a pair ProAc’s. I’m also using the auratones and sometimes the NS-10m’s depending on what I’m doing.
The room is acoustically treated and was built by Jacques Lacroix. He works with Vincent Van Haaff who has designed a million famous studios -Jacques is his contractor. Since he’s been working with him for like 20 years he knows a lot about it himself. So for people like me who don’t have 2 million dollars to spend on a set of plans for their studio, we will just go with Jacques directly and he takes the smaller clients. Then a friend of mine helped me build a custom desk. Also there’s some shelves with records, guitar pedals, guitars, keyboards, drum machines and all that kind of stuff.
Well it was in a part of my house that we built from scratch so this room was pretty much designed within the constraints of the room we had. The wiring is custom, each outlet is individually grounded, there’s a 60 amp panel in the closet which feeds the whole studio, there’s rubber in the floor, the glass sliding doors are double paned, there’s quiet rock sheet rock and soundboard behind it. I mean doesn’t have completely stud isolated floating walls just because we had budegtary concerns [laughs] but it’s done so that I can play it at a volume that’s not going to bother my neighbours and my wife.
I don’t know. I guess it would be stupid to make any rash statements about going completely in the box because look at all those guys who refused to learn Pro Tools. You do what you have to do. I have a few issues with mixing completely in the box but my main one is summing. When your summing everything internally, to me, the Pro Tools Bus sounds weird. It never sounds quite right, it always sounds a little compressed, even when there’s nothing on the bus. I’ve never been fully happy with that. If there’s a way of fixing that, I feel like I could eventually start to lose some of the analog out board gear. I mean I already have, the Soundtoys stuff has that great analog stage in it and that’s really cool. Analog pieces like Germainium and Neve I’m using more for colouration then actual Compression or EQ. I try and get some analog gain on the signal to beef it up.
While your mixing! When you have a lot of tracks summing through that Master Fader, I feel like it starts to sound folded in, almost like its not as big or full sounding. Maybe limiting isn’t the right word but to me it just starts to sound a bit flat.
I mean that’s just me, everyone’s different. I’ve just always been happier when I have at least an analog master fader.
If it’s just a one off and I’m not in the mode of it then it will take me a solid day and a half unless it’s like a 3 track mix you know. But if I’m in the middle of a record where all the tracks are somewhat similar, like the vocals are all going to be the same and maybe they used the same drum set, then I can pretty much do one in a long day. Although if the budgets is there, it’s always nice to do it in a day and be able to come back to it the next day with fresh ears because my ears are always the freshest in the morning. Sometimes I don’t have that option but if it’s there I’ll take it. But other times with mixes that have 90 tracks, it takes 2 or 3 days.
Yeah, when mixes show up and they’re not edited properly. When there’s stuff that’s cuts off from bad editing and you get the pops and clicks and shit like that. Then you have to spend half your day just getting the tracks ready to mix and your kind of already over it and your ears are toasted before you even get to start to mix – That’s a Bummer. But everything else I’m cool with.
When I’m on major projects I’ll have a Pro Tools editor who preps, adds samples if needed, fixes things that need to be tuned, chopped, etc.
That’s definitely challenging and since I’ve built my own place at my house, to do smaller records, that’s become more of an issue.
Normally I have my own sort of go-to mix layout where I have all of my routing already configured. So one of the things that I’ll try to do, in that case, is to change all that shit, listen to the song and just totally redo my set up based on the music. Sometimes I’ll go from mixing crazy house/hip hop to 2 acoustic guitars and a shaker, so being able to reset yourself is important and it just takes practice. I’ve definitely had a few times where I’ll yank all the faders down and start over because it’s not sitting right. I mean if you get used to hearing a pounding kick drum and the current mix doesn’t support that than it’s just about getting into a different head space.
Well it’s hard and I mess up too.
This one time I had just come off mixing a hip hop record and I was about to do a mix for Serj Tankian, who was working on a solo record. I did the mix and I sent it to him and he was like “Yeah everything sounds great but the sub information on this record is bananas, I feel like I’m blasting it in my truck”. I was kinda just like “Yeah sorry” [laughs]. We were able to fix it but that kind of thing happens you know.
But If I was asked to mix some genre that I had no attachment to I could see how it would go terribly wrong. I definitely don’t think I’m the guy who should be mixing a Mumford & Sons record, you know what I mean? And I would say that too. If I’ve received a project where I can’t do it justice, I’ll be honest about it. People pay a lot of money to get a record mixed and I’m not going to jerk somebody around. I mean it doesn’t happen very often and I do like a challenge but once in a while there’s just stuff that you know it’s not going to work.
I mean obviously its more about the song and I think you can have boring or exciting songs in any genre. But I think overall I would say more rock based stuff is more fun because you can kind of create the dynamics – there’s a lot of rides. There might be one guitar part that plays through the whole song but you change it to morph into something else in the chorus and doing little tiny rides to bring out different elements throughout out the song. To me that’s fun and throughout the chorus of a mix I always try to have it build so that it always starts at one level and by the end it’s at a much bigger level. Not every song lends itself to that but as a general template that’s sort of my goal with every song, to start at one place and have the energy and excitement build so that it peaks in the final chorus.
It’s funny that you say that because that’s exactly what I do. I’ll start almost every song with the end, where the most instruments are playing. I’ll get that as big and as loud as I can and then back down from there. Since you asked that question I’m sure you’re aware that if you’re starting with the beginning of the song and you build that out so it’s nice, by the time you get to the big chorus there’s no room left and you’re smashing the bus compressor. So it works much better to work backwards.
Interesting you said that because that’s one of the challenges that can either be a huge pain in the ass or it can make it kind of fun. In Hip Hop, generally most of the hooks are flown, there are parts that don’t change and it’s sort of a very static thing, over and over again. So it’s really put on you as a mixer to create this build. A lot of times I’ll use very slight filters in the verses and do tiny rides on the drums. I’ll try not have too much wide stereo information in the verses so that when the chorus comes it will pop just a little bit more. Little tricks like that.
Yeah I would say that there are several people. Probably the first person who really made me notice the mixes was definitely Bob Power, who I continue to be a huge fan of his work. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet him unfortunately.
Andy Wallace was a big influence and I remember when the first Linkin Park record came out they released a Making of DVD with them in the studio. There was like a 3 second clip where Andy Wallace is mixing the record and I noticed on the board that he had the overheads panned only at about 10 and 2 o’clock. You’ll see that almost everyone has the overheads panned fully wide. But I started panning them similar to Andy and as soon as I did that my mixes instantly became a lot better, a lot wider, much more open and all from that tiny little video of me watching him do that. It really opened up a lot of shit for me [laughs].