With a list of clients featuring some of popular music’s biggest names, ranging from Michael Jackson to Beyoncé, Chicago’s Slang Music Group recording studio is well deserving of its revered status and sizable influence in the music industry. But talking to studio founder and House Music pioneer Vince Lawrence gives you the sense that Slang is more concerned with the future of music production than its own storied past. 

The studio recently upgraded its monitoring system to a state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos rig in a strategic move with dramatic results that Lawrence likened to television’s transition from black and white to color. Vintage King talked with Lawrence about why he selected Focal studio monitors for the upgrade, Slang’s approach to music production, and how immersive formats like Dolby Atmos are transforming music. 

Tell me a bit about Slang Music Group and your role there.

I’m the CEO and founder of Slang Music Group—we’re a full-service music production company and studio, and we've been creating a variety of musical products for various types of customers for decades. Past clients have included Beyoncé, John Legend, Jennifer Lopez, R. Kelly, Marshall Jefferson,  Twista, Lupe Fiasco, and Puffy. We also work with burgeoning new talent all over the world.

Are you also working as an audio engineer? What does a regular day in the studio look like for you? 

I’m a producer first, but I’m also an engineer. They say that I'm much more lazy than I am greedy so I have been hiring local people wherever possible. I trained three engineers for Atmos mixing this year already and hope to introduce more to the format. That aside, I am also a true House Music pioneer. I co-authored the first officially recognized house music record. There's a team of us working here; Tom Carlisle, Anthony Kilhoffer, and myself. Anthony's a four-time GRAMMY winner, having written and produced songs for Kanye West, Travis Scott, and Kid Cudi. 

What are some projects you’ve been working on lately in the studio?

We just finished a bunch of music for Nissan commercials. We composed for four TV spots while we also working on remixes for Charles Jenkins’ “Never Knew Love,” which was the number one most-played gospel song of 2022 on Billboard. Wow. The team is currently completing album mixwork and Atmos conversions for CASH COBAIN and I'm composing songs to be used as part of a movie being created via Hillary Clinton’s Hidden Light productions and One Story UP.

What was the inspiration behind the Dolby Atmos upgrade?

I believe that immersive audio is the future and that right now we are in a moment that appears to be similar to the transition from DVD to Blu-ray. That's what it looks like to most engineers and producers now, but I think it's more significant. I think it's more like black and white television to color, and we haven't really realized the creative potential. But now there are Atmos synthesizers on the market, along with other creative tools that utilize this expanded canvas. Always believing that the future is coming no matter what, I just wanted to dive in as quickly and early as possible.

When you say it's kind of like going from black and white to color, what sonically is happening with this shift? Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Well, the one thing I discovered is that if two instruments would normally require EQing around to avoid “masking”, I can now just use a different speaker (or part of the room, actually) so that they can both exist in full range. I’m noticing it now because I'm not trying to get so much information out of two speakers, individual parts can play louder because they've got a whole speaker to themselves per se—or two or three speakers, depending on what you're doing with the objects and everything.

I think that we're just really beginning to grasp the potential. I respect that there are nearly 100 million Airpod users, many think of this as the primary way they listen to music. There are 12 or 13 speakers in any recent car, and people are now complaining if their car doesn't have Apple CarPlay, so the idea of Dolby Atmos in every car very soon seems pretty realistic to me. It almost feels like it's going to be a software switch because the speakers and streaming devices are already there. A few adjustments and we're in existing cars. All the new cars are thinking about it and I see AirPod Max on the heads of teenage kids.

My 9-year-old son is playing upstairs right now. He's on the Oculus in a virtual playground playing tag with friends all over the world. That's just where we're going, he takes it for granted. Art is going to be immersive. Media formats are colliding left, right, backward, and forward. Music and visual elements are mirrored, and AI is making things easier for everyone. I felt like I had to get a grip on that so that I could participate in the next wave. Not just dance music, but entertainment period.  We started a film unit to allow for that sort of creativity.

That sounds like a seismic change.

We're just beginning to scratch the surface. Of that 95 million AirPod users, I think that the spatial audio adoption rate is nearly 40%. We didn't transition from vinyl to CD this fast or VHS To DVD. We're picking up this tech at a rate faster than anything I've ever seen in my entire life. If you're only existing in stereo, you might just be a dinosaur, not realizing that extinction is imminent. 

What are some of the standout features of the Focal monitors for you?

I was able to put together a system pretty quickly, and they're reasonably affordable. The Alpha Twins are much more economical than the Twin6 speakers that I also have but they sound really good. The speakers sounded very familiar right away. Also, the fact that the system is integrated. We added the subs as prescribed by the Dolby DARDT, and everything just worked. 

We replaced our AVID 16 channel interface with the Matrix Studio, and pretty much out of the box, things were just working. It was a very comfortable transition and it didn't take very long. We're actually putting the cherry on top of that right now with the addition of the Mac Pro M2 Ultra.

What are your thoughts on the Avid MTRX Studio interface? 

Fucking love that shit. It's just made everything so easy. The MTRX, working with DADman, and with the Avid Dock, we switch from stereo to Atmos and back again, sometimes three or four times a day, and it's just easy. The MTRX knows where the speakers are, and we get to decide which ones we want to use at any given point. 

Currently, the Atmos system is 7.3.4, so there are seven surrounds, which are Alpha Twins, and four in the ceiling, which are EVO 8s. Then there are three Focal Sub One units for LFE. Aside from that, I still have a pair of twin 6Be, Avantone Mixcubes, and a pair of Genelec 1034Bs. They're all connected all the time, and I can just switch back and forth between them at my leisure. 

There aren't a lot of interfaces that have Atmos in mind. So I guess that's what drove our purchase decision. I wanted to be able to live in Atmos and go back to stereo. Plus, it's all in one rack space. It's just been great, honestly. Brian was so good. He's made everything easy. 

How’s working with Brian been? 

It's just been great. He checks in every month or so. If I have a question, I call him up and bounce ideas around until  I get my questions answered. It kind of helps me work out how new additions fit into our environment and our creative process.  He might say you don't need this or that device or a specific keyboard controller because he understands your creative process, workflow, and what existing equipment you have.

Talk about your relationship with plugins. 

We have everything. It's not 100% true, but when you pull up an insert, you might think it was. The plugin install on the new computer was over 26 hours. I started (by manufacturer) at A and went all the way to Z. The Native Instruments Komplete 14 Collector's Edition is over 200 GB alone and took 8 hours (even with the M2Ultra with everything maxed) for that to run. Now we're thinking about the creative use of tools for immersive sound, so we're adopting those as fast as we can learn them.

We love our plugins, and a lot of it has to do with our customers coming from New York, L.A., London, and all over the place. They send us their sessions and expect us to just open them. Sometimes a plug-in is just doing a specific portion of things that you can already do, that you were already doing in practice, and other times you're doing new things entirely, you know? 

For example, we sold 20 rack spaces of Roland rack gear and replaced it all with Roland Cloud. The software sounds just like the original gear, even the TB-303 “acid house machine”. I have always loved McDSP and the stuff from the beginning remains a “go-to” for filters, automated or otherwise. I have all the FabFilter stuff too though, Anthony and Tom use those more than me. I think Split EQ by Eventide is so cool and I wish Lexicon would update their “stillcool” sounding product.   

I also enjoy POLYVERSE and INFECTED MUSHROOM, I am so glad that Waves worked that ish out with all of us longtime users and I'm impressed with what Antares has been doing with the semblance of harmonies and stuff like that. XferRecords still makes cool stuff too and there is so much free stuff like OTT out there that if you are imaginative—you don’t have to be rich to make cool music. I think that you just have to be interested in plug-ins if you want your recordings to sound modern, so I try new stuff all the time. 

Don SpachtIf you’re interested in purchasing Focal studio monitors for your studio, or any of the gear mentioned in this blog, contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.