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The Grammys: How to Make a Hit

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RadioEd

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a full episode transcript.

The Grammy Awards crown the music industry’s top artists, songs and performances. We wanted to know: What makes a song good? What makes it Grammy-worthy? And are those the same thing? Recording engineer and music professor Matt Legge tells us what he’s learned from working with Taylor Swift, Peter Frampton and more.

Matt Legge
Matt Legge

Show Notes

Matt Legge is an adjunct professor in the Lamont School of Music at the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. He specializes in audio production and recording technology and works as a freelance recording engineer. Legge has worked on four top-charting singles, two Grammy-nominated records and one Grammy-winning record.

In this episode:

>We made a Spotify playlist of the music he’s worked on and the music that inspires him:



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Transcript

Alyssa Hurst:

You're listening to RadioEd.

Lorne Fultonberg:

A University of Denver podcast.

Nicole Militello:

We're your hosts, Nicole Militello.

Alyssa Hurst:

Alyssa Hurst,

Lorne Fultonberg:

And I'm Lorne Fultonberg. Is there anything more powerful and more powerfully divisive than music? We cling to our favorite songs and albums, dismiss others as trash, and argue about what's better. On this episode of RadioEd, we're settling the debate, kind of. With the Grammys right around the corner, we wanted to know, what makes a song good? We asked a man who knows what it's like to make a hit. Music professor Matt Legge has mixed Grammy winners, Grammy nominees, and top charting songs. He's been in the business for 13 years, so he knows some of it's skill and some of it's luck, because in the recording studio, you just never know who might walk in the door.

Matt Legge:

Yes, especially I'm from Nashville, so that happened a lot being in a music town. I worked with Peter Frampton for like four years, and one time we were sitting around recording and there was a ring at the doorbell, and it turns out it was Ricky Skaggs. And he had stopped by to just show off some new mandolin he had bought and just sit around and talk, because he was good friends with Peter and Peter's writing partner, Gordon. Yeah, stuff like that would happen. Very odd stuff. And my whole involvement with the Grammys sort of started that way.

Matt Legge:

Taylor Swift had booked our studio to record some stuff for an MTV program. What was it? It was some kids from high school that knew that they could potentially take some celebrity to prom. They didn't know it was her. The small MTV crews showed up to the studio. We played it on the TV and they filmed her reactions, and her friend was there, and it was one of those sort of pieces. And this never happens. I still can't believe it happened to this day, but it just sort of happened organically where she looked around at the studio and was like, "Oh, this is a really nice place. We have that song for "Grey's Anatomy" that we need to do. Why don't we just do it?" And then people started showing up, and before you know it, we had the song "White Horse." It was really great.

Matt Legge:

And at that time, I was an assistant at the studio, so I was showing up just for a regular day of work. I expected there to be a film crew and I could take it easy, but then we were called into action. It was really fun, man. It just doesn't happen that way normally. It's usually very structured, where it's like, "We're showing up at 10 a.m. with these players, and we're going to play to this time and then we're done." But this just was so organic, and that's what I really loved about it.

Lorne Fultonberg:

"White Horse," a Grammy-winning record. Did you know the first time that you heard it that that was going to be a big song?

Matt Legge:

I'm going to be completely honest on this. Honestly, to me it felt like a filler song that you put at like track six, but it did something to people and that's a testament to the power of music and why people can't necessarily make the call with every song what it's going to be. A lot of the times, the people's reaction is going to determine the success. And I was very surprised, A, that that made the record, and B, that it won the Grammys that it did, because it was several. I can't remember the ones, but it was, I think, country vocal of the year and country song of the year, and just all of this.

Matt Legge:

And I'm not trying to say it was a bad song by any means. I loved it. It was great. But yeah, it blindsided me completely. I didn't even know it was on the record until my mom called me, and she's like, "Hey, you have a credit on the Taylor Swift record." I was like, "No, Mom, that was for a TV show." She was like, "No, I will send you a copy." I didn't believe it until I saw the copy.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Everyone needs a proud mom to highlight their accomplishments, right?

Matt Legge:

Yeah, that's right. Thanks Mom.

Lorne Fultonberg:

This kind of leads me to a bigger question that I had, which is with any awards show, do the best songs win or get nominated for Grammys?

Matt Legge:

I think best songs is pretty subjective. That's kind of the beauty and the curse of music, so yes and no. I think there are times when the best quote unquote songs get it, but I also don't think that any one person can be an authority on what the best song is. If it moves you and it moves a lot of people, then it deserves to be there. I don't care if it's "Old Town Road" or if it's "Hallelujah." It deserves to be there.

Lorne Fultonberg:

You're a recording engineer.

Matt Legge:

Correct.

Lorne Fultonberg:

What does that mean?

Matt Legge:

Okay, recording engineer, in my opinion, you're first and foremost there to facilitate creativity. And what I mean by that is an artist has come in and booked a studio, and has entrusted you to lay the groundwork in the room to make them bring their vision to light in the easiest way possible. First and foremost, you have to be really great with people. That's a huge part of it. And then beyond that, there's technical things. When a band comes in, you have an individual microphone for individual pieces of gear. Say it's a drum kit. You'll have probably up to 12, 14 microphones on it to capture each individual drum, as well as the room that they're recording in.

Lorne Fultonberg:

You have a dozen microphones that are set up on one drum kit?

Matt Legge:

It is overkill. We're known for living in excess most of the time. But when you have all those microphones, you can have a bit more of a vivid picture. Whereas in the early days of recording, they were far away from the source. If you listen to some older jazz stuff especially, you can hear that. But beyond all the nerdy stuff, what you really need to do is to be able to make someone comfortable in a space that is very intimidating. Being a people person, I think, is very important for a recording engineer. And then you also have the producer in the artist's vision, so you have to listen through their ears as well. You facilitate all of this creativity that's going on in the room. You make sure it gets onto tape or in the computer properly, and you make sure it sounds the best it can possibly be. And hopefully if all of those elements fall together, even if you do it by accident, and your client walks out of the room that day happy, you've done your job.

Lorne Fultonberg:

I was in high school theater back in those days that nobody should go look up on social media.

Matt Legge:

Google it now.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Yeah. And there was this expression that the techies used to use. "The actors are great, but without us, you'd be naked and in the dark." Is that applicable to the job you do?

Matt Legge:

Yeah, and I don't think that's necessarily a negative thing. I think what we're doing as techies, as technical people, are giving you a stage to where you don't have to think about any of that stuff. You're not worried about, "Oh, is my microphone going to work? Are the lights going to be on?" All you do is show up and you perform. That's one less thing off your plate that you have to worry about. And that's what I try to provide for artists that come in the studio, is I don't want them to think about a single computer problem or anything. If it were up to me, all of that with vanish into the background. Yes, technical people, that quote is true and I don't think it's negative.

Lorne Fultonberg:

It's Grammy time, and everybody is studying these records and what makes these records great. And I'm curious how much you think a recording engineer contributes to the greatness of the Grammy-winning song.

Matt Legge:

I think heavily, especially nowadays. And I don't think a lot of the times engineers get the credit maybe that they deserve, because there's so many more aspects than just showing up and turning knobs. Because for instance, if you're working with a singer, you have to keep them motivated and keep them positive. It's a little bit of psychology thrown in there, and you're not just fulfilling your own desires and visions. It's also the producer's. You're listening through their ears and trying to steer things gently without being pushy. I think that we play a really big role in the overall sound especially, but also just the way you get there.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Yeah. Do you remember when you were working on White Horse any specific choices that were made in the studio, anything that you did to enhance the arrangement?

Matt Legge:

I'm trying to think. No, that one was pretty well-hammered out. Her producer had it in his head, and he sat down and layered up guitars and stuff like that, and we sort of built the track like that. We didn't have the whole band in at one time, but that one had a clear direction as far as where they were going. What I did find interesting about that is at the time, people were giving her a hard time about her live vocal performances. And it's like, "Come on, man." Anyone who sings, they're going to want to redo something. What I will say about her is she is such a hard worker. Never complained once. Anything the producer wanted, she was on it. There were some vocal things that the producer enhanced arrangement-wise and some stuff they did outside of our studio before the song was completed that they enhanced, but for the most part, it was pretty well-thought out and well-executed.

Lorne Fultonberg:

With good and bad in music being so subjective, in your opinion, what do you think makes a song Grammy-worthy?

Matt Legge:

I think first and foremost, it's the arrangement and the performance. What I tell artists when we're working together, especially to establish a comfort level with them is, "Play this and pretend like none of the microphones or any of the gear exists around you, and what I'm looking for is a performance." And I think that's ultimately what moves people. Like "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion. Huge song, huge song. But you can hear the emotion in her voice. She doesn't sing every chorus the same way. It builds on itself and you can hear the emotion. Yeah, things like that move people. We've kind of gotten away from full performances in recent years. A lot of it's moved to software production, and I'm not against that. It sounds great, but you can lose some emotion of an electric guitar player. I can hear in the fingers when they're into it and when they're bored, and I think we've lost some of that with some of the in-the-box production.

Matt Legge:

But yeah, to get back to your question, the arrangement and the performance are key, I think. And that's what sells records and moves people and gets people on the dance floor and all of that. How does it move people? And it will be successful if it moves them, if it moves a big group of people.

Lorne Fultonberg:

What is the music that moves you?

Matt Legge:

Oh wow. Good question. It's sort of all over the map. I started as a DJ. That's how I got into recording and realized I could record those performances. I always had kind of a big catalog, because you want to not play the exact same record the set before you had just played, so you want a deep catalog. For me, any sort of Latin rhythm always moves me, Daft Punk moves me, Franz Ferdinand, newer rock that infuses some of the dance music, I think gets me moving. Any four-on-the-floor, I'm out there. I'm on the dance floor.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Is there somebody on the list of Grammy nominations that particularly resonates with you that you really enjoy listening to?

Matt Legge:

Yes, Cage the Elephant. That's by far my favorite band. My friend Jeremy in Nashville recorded their record, and Jeremy and I had done a record together in the past and I've just always loved him. He's a great guy, and so I'm super pumped for that. I really hope they take it home, and I don't know why they wouldn't take it home because it's a great record.

Lorne Fultonberg:

"Old Town Road" is not your choice. That's not the resonant one.

Matt Legge:

No, no. But I will say Billy Ray is a great dude. To get back to this, this will happen if you're in the music world, people will randomly show up. We had a session one day, and it was just a random songwriter, and he kept saying that his cousin Billy Ray was going to show up and sing background vocals at lunch. And I only know of one Billy Ray. I think everyone kind of collectively in the session was like, "OK." But sure enough, after lunch, in rolls sunglasses-wearing, full trench coat, hat-wearing Billy Ray Cyrus. There he was. No, Billy Ray is a great dude, and I could be caught jamming to "Old Town Road."

Lorne Fultonberg:

If you had to, right?

Matt Legge:

Yeah, exactly.

Lorne Fultonberg:

When Billy Ray Cyrus or Taylor Swift or Peter Frampton stop by the studio, how well do you get to know them? How close are you working with them?

Matt Legge:

Well, the Taylor Swift thing, I wasn't super... I mean, we were hanging during the day and stuff like that, but it was a one-and-done thing. I got paid for that day and that was it. Someone like Frampton, he bought the studio that all this stuff happened in, and we became pretty close because I worked with him for four years. I initially was going to help him get all of his gear loaded into the studio, just help him get settled and that would be that. But he started calling me for sessions, and we mutually liked the way that we worked together, and he kept calling me for it. With someone like that, we were really close. Really anyone that you do an entire record with, you become close to. There's sort of no way around it. You're in the room with them for 10-plus hours a day. You are taking care of their song baby.

Matt Legge:

I'm a believer that with a songwriter, every song means the world to them and you should respect that. And if you do, you become very close to the writer, because you're giving it your all to their song baby. Yeah, with Peter, I became really close. Yeah, we worked a lot together over the four years. Taylor was a one-and-done thing. Who else did you... Oh, Billy Ray. Same thing, but it was hilarious. At the end of the session, Billy Ray was like, "Well, Miley's in town if any of y'all want to meet her. Here's my phone number." And I was having dinner with my wife's family later that day and I told my nieces what he said, and they were like, "You didn't get his number?" I was like, "Oh my gosh. I'm sorry, guys. No."

Lorne Fultonberg:

With Peter Frampton, I feel like he's this mysterious figure, the gigantic live double album, and I think most people only know that about him. What is something that you learned about Peter Frampton from working with him that maybe other people wouldn't know?

Matt Legge:

He is an amazing engineer. If he weren't one of the world's greatest guitar players, he would be one of the world's greatest engineers. He taught me how to splice tape. He taught me how to align a tape machine. I mean, these are very complicated things that people don't really know nowadays. And what people don't realize about Peter is he was in the studio from a teenager. He was actually recording reel-to-reel at his house. His dad bought him two reel-to-reel machines, and he would bounce tracks back and forth on those. Even as a kid he was into it.

Lorne Fultonberg:

It's ironic then that his smash "Frampton Comes Alive" is a non-studio album.

Matt Legge:

I know, right? I know. I know. That's hilarious. Yeah. No, but he is really great and I learned a lot from him. Yeah, that's what a lot of people don't realize, because a lot of artists are very hands-off in that aspect. But not Peter, man. He would be the world's best engineer if he wasn't the world's best guitar player.

Lorne Fultonberg:

That's rare, huh?

Matt Legge:

Yeah, very.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Did you also work with Ringo Starr? I think I saw on your resume?

Matt Legge:

I did, yeah. That was through Peter. He went out to Ringo's place and they wrote two songs for Ringo's record at Ringo's house. One of them they recorded on Peter's iPhone.

Lorne Fultonberg:

High-tech.

Matt Legge:

Yeah, very high-tech. And then the other one, they had built a track and then sent it to us. Ringo unfortunately was not with us when we were recording this stuff, but we were sending files back and forth over the two songs. I recorded Peter's vocals, guitar, and talk box on one of the songs.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Got to have it.

Matt Legge:

Got to have it, yeah. I would get giddy every time that that thing would come out, just because it's like that's the thing, that's the Peter Frampton thing. There was never a moment I didn't get giddy when he was like, "Maybe we should try the talk box." "Yes, we should."

Lorne Fultonberg:

100 percent. No doubt. Do you get starstruck?

Matt Legge:

I was just talking to an intern at a studio about this the other day. Normally, no. And here's one thing that might be kind of weird about me is I don't stay super current on music, to be totally honest with you. A lot of the times when people would come into the studio, and especially because country wasn't really my thing starting out in Nashville, I didn't know who these people were. And I think that's helped me not be starstruck and not make myself look bad because of that. Because a lot of the times, I don't know. Even Peter, when he poked his head in to look at the studio, I had no idea who it was I was mixing. And the producer said, "You know who that was?" I was like, "No." I think that's helped me a lot and helped me treat people as people, as opposed to, "You're a superstar. Let me act weird or overextend myself just because you are this person."

Matt Legge:

And I think that helps with the comfort level when you're working with someone on a record to look past all of the fame and all that stuff, and to see them as the person. But all that being said, I was talking to this intern the other day, and we were talking about who you could possibly be most starstruck around, and I think Beck would probably do it. I would just be like-

Lorne Fultonberg:

That's yours?

Matt Legge:

Yeah, I'd probably freeze up or just sit at the computer and just be like, "Oh my God, this is Beck," and try to do my best. That would be my starstruck moment probably.

Lorne Fultonberg:

We were talking earlier about contemporary music that you do like, and you had mentioned Billie Eilish was somebody that you really thought was great, and you're not the only one apparently. Youngest nominee in the big four categories at the Grammys this year. What do you think makes her so good?

Matt Legge:

I think it goes back to the arrangement. Some of her arrangements are unlike anything I've ever heard and it's so interesting, and she can be so simple about some things, but you're hanging on for every word. I think that goes back to the arrangement thing that I mentioned earlier about what makes a good Grammy-nominated record. That's part of it, and her performances. She has one song where she's practically whispering. You can't hardly hear anything, but you're hanging on for every word, and oh, it's so great. Yeah, her arrangements I think especially. It's not like she's hitting Mariah Carey licks on her vocals or anything, because she doesn't have to, because it's interesting enough without it. That's what I love about her.

Lorne Fultonberg:

I want to drill down on just one detail to make sure that I fully understand it, because you've referenced a great mix or a great arrangement. What does that mean? How can I tell if an arrangement is great?

Matt Legge:

I don't think that you can tell consciously. I think it happens in your subconscious. The song could be on in the background and you notice it, and it's one of those inexplicably human things, that we gravitate to rhythms and chord structures naturally as people. I think that's a large part of it is that we can't explain it, and that's why it's so frustrating sometimes with audio, because there's rarely a right answer or rarely one answer, and I think it comes down to the human aspect.

Lorne Fultonberg:

I feel like we've been circling this, but I've read recently some headlines about formulas for music, and making a song appealing to people is really just a matter of these chord changes or this structure. Do you buy into that?

Matt Legge:

I don't disagree with you. I don't disagree with you at all. If you look at the 1-4-5 chord structure, you can pretty much mash up any hit song from the '80s until now. And matter of fact, if you look online, there's a... Are they Irish or something like that? There's a couple of guys that do that. They play through that chord change, and it's like 20 songs that they string together. Yeah, I think it would be short-sighted to say that those chord changes don't move people. I think it's absolutely a thing, that and the rhythm.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Although, being a Beatles fan, I know a lot of my fellow Beatles fans were a bit upset when whatever this algorithm that was analyzing structure came back with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" as the best Beatles song of all time as a result. I don't think that makes many people's short lists.

Matt Legge:

Right, right.

Lorne Fultonberg:

And we have our producer shaking her head no in the studio here too. Paul McCartney played in Denver in 2010, and I was there with my family, and he claimed that it was the first time that he had played "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" on tour with his band.

Matt Legge:

It's not one we get requested that often.

Lorne Fultonberg:

And perhaps there's a reason for that. In terms of the product that you put out, to circle back to the Grammys one more time, little chorus of Grammys here, how has the product changed? What's on the nomination list now compared to what's on the nomination list 13 years ago?

Matt Legge:

Well, I think it's the lines are blurred a lot more. You have much more crossover. It was a big deal in the early '90s to have a crossover R&B and rap thing, and now know, and now it's like rappers are singing. That was unheard of. I think there's a lot of genre-bending now, which I love. Just to harp on rap a little bit longer, it's made it much more musical and I enjoy it a lot more, especially the mainstream stuff, a lot more than I did in the early 2000s and things like that. I think it's helped out a lot. Bands like Franz Ferdinand that's been dance with rock, that sort of thing, I think, has changed the most. You don't just have, "Here's an Aerosmith record. It's rock, and you know exactly what it's going to be, and it's going to be nominated for the rock Grammy." You have much more crossover now.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Do you watch the Grammys? Do you pay attention to who wins?

Matt Legge:

I've never watched the Grammys, even when a record I worked on was on it. What they've retroactively done with the Grammys is if you've been affiliated with any Grammy-winning record, you can pay 50 bucks and they will send you a participation certificate.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Like a consolation prize.

Matt Legge:

Yeah. I got paid $250 on that record, on the Taylor Swift record. To spend any money on any sort of thing like that seems silly to me.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Are you the anomaly here? Do Grammys matter to people in the industry?

Matt Legge:

I think so. I think so. I think Grammys matter a lot. Trust and believe if I was nominated, I would be watching or be there, one of the two. I know it costs some change to show up there. But yeah, if I was affiliated more, maybe I would watch it. But yeah, I think I'm an anomaly, because I think people put a lot of stock in that, as they should. It's the ultimate prize. It's not what we're working for, but it's really nice to be recognized. Here's a weird thing with being an engineer. All of these songs come through your world, and what you're concentrating on is, "I need to line up this many days to make my day rates, so that I can pay my mortgage." It takes many months after you get done, especially if you're involved in the production, in the recording of the band, it takes many months until these things come out.

Matt Legge:

Some stuff I'd forget about, and there's a credits list online that when something's submitted, it has your name on it. It adds it to your page. Sometimes I wouldn't know until I checked that, and I'm like, "Oh, I remember now." Yeah, I think when you're working on a level like Nashville, you're more worried about what's next as opposed to looking back. And maybe that's why I feel the way I do about watching the Grammys is I'm wanting to know, "Okay, that's fine, but what's the next thing?"

Lorne Fultonberg:

If you want to hear the music that Matt's worked on and the music that inspires him, we made you a mix tape. Check out our website, du.edu/radioed for the link, plus show notes and all of the DU Newsroom's greatest hits. Don't forget to subscribe, rate, review, and then check back every other Tuesday for a new episode. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. Alyssa Hurst is our Executive Producer, Tamara Chapman, our Managing Editor, Aaron Pendergast mixed our sound, James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Lorne Fultonberg, and this is RadioEd.