Make Your Mark With Matt Hennessy of VSOP Studios

So much of what is done in recording studios all over the world is a balancing act of technical skill and creative instinct. For Matt Hennessy, a Berklee-trained jazz musician and recording engineer, deftly handling both sides of the record making process will always be what excites him the most.

"Unlocking what makes it all work is one of the things that is really exciting about what we do," says Hennessy. "When the arrangement is finally there, you got that killer vocal, everything is recorded in a way that it makes sense for the song. You turn it up on the speakers, everyone in the room falls silent and lives in the moment of that record. Those are the moments you can't duplicate."

Since his days at Berklee, Matt has become a much-beloved producer and engineer, working with a wide range of artists including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kanye West and DMX. In 2014, he expanded his Chicago-based space with some help from Vintage King's Jeff Leibovich, as the duo brought in gear from the Boston studio Matt spent his formative years at as an intern.

In our latest Make Your Mark, we visit Matt Hennessy at VSOP Studios to learn more about his musical upbringing, love of gear and time in the Windy City's hip-hop scene. Watch our new video below and continue on for an extended interview with Matt.

When did you first pick up an instrument?
I can remember as a little kid having ukuleles and putting on little performance shows for my mom and dad. By the time I got to junior high, it was time to pick an instrument up and join the band. I gravitated towards the saxophone at that point.

It think it was when I was in eighth grade, we ended up getting tickets to see Dizzy Gillespie at the Rialto Theater. I remember sitting there, it was Dizzy and Sonny Rollins and they put on an amazing show. Due to some lucky connections, I got to go backstage and meet Dizzy and that's when the jazz thing really kinda clicked with me. I realized just what an amazing an art form it was and I started really paying more attention to that.

So you're playing a lot of music, develop this love for jazz and when it's time to get a job, you go to work at a hip-hop studio?
I managed to secure an internship at a studio called Metropolis in Villa Park. There was an engineer named Matt Mercado that worked there and I learned just a ton about the studio business, how the console worked and how to put mics on drums. 

I remember one time Matt came in with an MPC 3000 and we were doing a late night rap session. The client came in with a copy of an NWA cassette and he had found a single loop that he was just really in love with. I watched Matt sample that with the MPC, chop it up and put new drums over the top and that was a mind-shattering moment.

I was like “Wait! You took something that already existed and turned it into some incredibly dope song.” That whole process of just taking something thirty years old and turning it into something new still makes me think, “Wow, that was insane.”

I still didn't even know that this was a job at that point and I still saw myself as going on to be a jazz performer. I was going to be a saxophone player and make jazz records. So I left and went to Berklee College of Music with the absolute intent of being a jazz player.

What was your experience at Berklee like and how did it set you on the path to where you are now?
Early on in one of your classes, they sit you down and they do a really good job explaining the landscape of the record business. And you know, what the labels are doing and what your chances of success as a recording artist would be. I saw that there was maybe only one slot every six years to be an alto sax player and get an album out. I looked around the room and was like “Damn, there are eight dope players from around the world just in this room.”

So I spent the evening walking around Berklee, the sad Charlie Brown music is playing in my head and I'm like “Oh no, what have I done.” I ended up in the basement and I noticed that there was just amazing music coming out of one of the doors and I looked in. There's an SSL console and a two-inch tape machine. I walked down the hall further and there was another SSL console, another tape machine and more dope music.

I got to the end of the hall and there was a woman standing behind a galley door and I said, “There's just a bunch of studios down here?” and she’s like “Yeah.” I said, “Well I go to this college. Can I use these studios?” She said, “No, this is the engineering college, you need to be in this college to even get to use these”

So I applied to the engineering college, got into that and began pursuing both angles. I really felt the jazz and performing arts aspects of what I do were important to complete the whole picture, as opposed to just being an engineer. So I definitely chose to do both sides, performance and production, and it has been really important in my career.

You've gone on to do so much work in the world of hip-hop. Talk about how your background in jazz has helped with that and the similarities between the two genres.
Oh man, they're the same. There are so many similarities between jazz and hip-hop. If you think about jazz, you got a group of amazing individuals who come together and they're all on the chorus at the same time and then they each take a verse or a solo.  They get to do their own thing and paint their own picture. The same thing with hip-hop, 
you're all coming together on a hook and then everybody gets to make their sixteen bar statement. 

What has it been like working in Chicago's hip-hop scene?
When I was at Chicago Tracks, it was like being at the epicenter of what was R&B and hip-hop at the time. I really dug in there and got into that scene, worked with all of the great artists that were in Chicago at the time and there were a lot of them. That art form in the early 2000s was exploding. Dr. Dre kind of opened the door to put rap and R&B into the mainstream pop culture and after the Chronic 2001 drops, that's all that anyone wants to do.

To be right there in that moment and to have my musical training, I could say like, “Ok cool, it can still be musical, we can still make it sonically sound good. We can still make sure that the hooks sound right and are sung right and to be able to have the background." To be able to say, "No that's flat, that's sharp," as opposed to some engineers that didn't have any musical background, it really gave me an advantage.

You now spend your time working out of your own space, VSOP Studios. What kind of place did you want to create for yourself? 
We opened the original VSOP Studios, which was kind of a small mix room with a couple of booths focused on vocals and mixing. That's really when the major gear collecting begin. I remember one of the first things I bought was the Tube-Tech CL 1B that is still in use today and I had a Neve 9098 preamp EQ. That's when we started trying to have a great vocal chain, good mics and things like that because that's what we were doing. A lot of it was cutting vocals and mixing, so we started to build the collection out there.

As any gear obsession goes, it extrapolated very quickly into a lot of gear. By 2009, 2010, we started to outgrow the space and we begin the process of trying to find a large building to build a large format studio. It took a long time to find the exact right space and know how it would need to be built out. By 2014, we found it and we began the long process of gutting that building and building what we have here at VSOP.

At that same time, Blue Jay [a studio Matt previously worked at in Massachusetts] had all this immaculately maintained, vintage gear, that was bought in the 1970s and 80s, and it all went up on the sale block. Vintage King brokered that deal and I remember when I saw that it was happening, I called my guy over there and was like, “Yeah, I kind of want all of it.” 

I thought that it should all stay together. It was such a part of my emotional upbringing as an engineer that, you know I felt that if it were to get picked apart and sent to a zillion different studios that it would be something I couldn't bear. So a lot of the gear that we have in the island is all the stuff that I cut my teeth on at Blue Jay and it's really self-fulfilling to be able to have that still in my life.

Continue on below to see more photos from inside Matt Hennessy's recording space, VSOP Studios. For more from this video series, head over to our Make Your Mark page to watch mini-docs on some of the world's greatest audio creators.

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