Heavy Machinery: Record Producer Machine

Record producer Machine first cut his teeth in the early days of digital music, and as a result hasn’t had a moment’s rest since the 1990s. Known for his innovative fusions of heavy guitar riffs, electronic samples and beats, and splashes of hip-hop, the producer has consistently been behind some of the metal and rock world’s most groundbreaking albums over the last 15-plus years. Now settled into a sprawling new studio in New Jersey, Machine’s career begins a brilliant new chapter.

 

The record producer known simply as Machine (a.k.a. Gene Freeman) has been shaping the landscape of modern music since emerging on the scene in the mid-1990s, back when the digital music revolution was still in its infancy. Armed with a sampler and a love of sonic fusion, Machine quickly made a name through wildly inventive remixes and other various auditory concoctions that merged elements of metal, hip-hop, and industrial into one seamless listening experience. He’s been quite a busy guy ever since.

Over the ensuing years Machine has worked with a virtual who’s who of artists, especially in the worlds of heavy music and alternative rock, from metal and alt-rock icons like Lamb of God, Clutch, and Suicide Silence, to punk and post-hardcore heroes Four Year Strong, Chiodos, and Every Time I Die, to alt-pop darlings Cobra Starship and Gym Class Heroes. Machine is now in the midst of an even grander chapter, having recently moved into a larger studio space in New Jersey a little more than two years ago. Although the spackle is still drying, this latest incarnation of The Machine Shop looks to be ground zero for a multitude of important, groundbreaking releases still to come.

To find out more about just what makes this Machine tick, Get In Media convinced the producer to step away from his computer for a moment, and share both his personal story and some tricks of the trade. An energetic, tangential talker, once Machine’s gears got turning, it was some time before we stopped.

Get In Media: How did you get started in music?

Machine: I started as a drummer, but later played guitar in bands in high school, and we played parties and stuff. But as far as going for record deals, I wasn’t doing that in a band, because I was already in producer mode. Early Nine Inch Nails was my scene. I would go to these rock dance clubs that would play hard hip-hop and [Red Hot] Chili Peppers and industrial dance rock mixed with hip-hop. It was a mixture of guitars and beats and stuff, and that’s how I was kind of approaching music—some hip-hop elements in the beats, but I wasn’t a rapper. I was making music with a sampler on my computer with my 8-track, not in the garage with a band.

Then right after school, that scene was a bit more happening in England, so I moved there for a year and a half. I saved as much money as I could, and basically went out there with my computer.  I took a friend who was my sample player. That rock dance club scene was really happening there; Camden Palace was huge, and that’s what I was really into. I was sampling and putting crazy beats to guitar music, which at that time was really cutting-edge. There wasn’t Pro Tools yet; you were slave to a tape, to your sampler.

GIM: When did it shift toward production?

M: I was a producer before I knew what a producer was. That was the kind of artist I was: a producer/artist. Plus I had a friend who was a manager and he would let me use his studio all the time, so I was a record producer before I knew what it really was. That’s how I made music: I made it in the studio.

Labels would hear my stuff and go, “Hmm, this is really interesting. We’re not sure how to channel this or market this—it doesn’t slot into anything in particular—but will you remix our artists? It’s pretty cool what you’re doing.” I said, “Sure,” and started doing remixes for rock bands. One of the coolest things I did early on were two White Zombie remixes, and that was on a remix record that went platinum.

Machine in studio

GIM: What was your next big break?

M: The same guy who convinced me to come to England wound up working for a producer management firm, where he was managing big producers, while I was still just a kid doing my thing. A band called Pitchshifter came into the office and were looking for someone to make their record [1998’s www.pitchshifter.com], and there really wasn’t anyone appropriate. So Paul, my friend, says, “I know this kid, Machine. He would kill this. You should give him a chance.” So they flew them out, did a couple tracks, and that was it, I jumped right into being a major-label producer.

From that day on, it just never stopped. It was a hot, trendy moment. It was one of my favorite moments. The record came out and it was one of those moments where for 10 minutes people stopped and said, “What’s this record?”  That was my start.

GIM: What have been some key milestones since then?

M: Lamb of God’s two records that I worked on [2004’s Ashes Of The Wake and 2006’s Sacrament] are the ones I’m most known for, and I wasn’t a metal guy then. That’s what made the world think I’m a metal producer, but I got hired by the guys in the band because I wasn’t the metal producer. At the time they had just signed with Epic, and every metal producer wanted to work with them. When I met Lamb of God, talking about music with them was funny. I said some things that were pretty shocking and funny that made them think, “Wow, this guy has a really good perspective. He could make a good metal record, but he’s not a metal guy,” and that’s exactly why I got the job.

The new Clutch record I worked on [2013’s Earth Rocker] has done great. The last Clutch record we did together was nearly 10 years ago [2004’s Blast Tyrant], so it was a little intimidating this time because [Blast Tyrant] was a bit of a fan favorite, more of a good song record. Clutch asked me back, and I was like, “Yikes,” because the last one was the biggest-selling, most-loved Clutch record. So we did a really smart thing: We really took our time in pre-production, really worked on the songs and pre-thought the concept of the record while we were doing pre-pro, and it’s doing really well for them. It’s turning into a good success. Talk about a real band; they’re so the real deal.

Machine in studio

GIM: You moved your studio, The Machine Shop, into a new building two-and-a-half years ago, after more than 12 years in the prior location. How are the new digs?

M: I’ve got about 3,000 square feet of space now in my studio, in Belleville, New Jersey. I needed my own drum room, and I had a good idea of what I was looking for. We were looking at all these commercial spaces, and the idea was to find a space that has an open room that’s good for drums. That’s what we found, and we just built around it. I’m really lucky: It turns out it is a very good sounding drum room. I thought it was good before we signed the lease and moved in, and it turns out it is very, very good.

It’s a commercial place, very industrial looking; there’s the big open room, and you’ll see parts where there’s still a room being framed. All of the bands that come here think it’s the coolest thing. It bothers me because I’d love it to get done faster, but I can only do what I can do. I’m getting crews and guys affordably to help me when I can. I also have other guys in here—I’ve got one other producer here—plus interns that have now grown up and are now engineers, some new interns and there’s space for other people. There’s always stuff going on, and I like that.

GIM: What’s your philosophy on gear?

M: To be different I feel like I have to go back to older stuff. I’m growing up and I’m learning. I never worked in the big studios that had this stuff; I started DIY. I had a lot of cheap gear in the beginning, and it was good discipline, because I really learned how to make things sound good with whatever gear I had. That’s a good way to start, but I’ve learned slowly as I’ve grown up why it’s really important to invest in good equipment. I’ve tried guitar sounds so many ways, experimented so many times, and it comes down to these small, minute edges. The musicality of all this nerdy stuff is very, very real, especially over the whole multi-track environment.

GIM: What kinds of artists do you enjoy producing the most?

M: I really want to work with bands that are fresh and have identity. That’s the hardest thing to get these days: identity. It’s another thing the industry is working against. I’m always looking for a band that fits in but has an identity, whether it’s a particular guitar player that really shows you a given style, or a singer that really has something rock star going on. Sometimes bands work on it, and sometimes it’s just what it is—a default. A band has four guys who come together and it happens to have an identity. That’s the magic of bands sometimes.

GIM: Do you ever have to coach it out of them?

M: I think it’s more the case that they don’t know it’s going on. They’re often young, they’re inside a fishbowl, and they don’t see themselves from the outside. That’s my job.

GIM: How do you do that job?

M: By making them believe in themselves. There’s a certain energy around me, working with me in the room; I really show my inspiration when I feel it. I’m a loud person, and it’s really about making the artist believe in these things, cutting through the fear, and being able to capitalize on things that are great and make them believe in it. “Hey, this is unique to you. Let’s make this a thing about this record.” It’s not being a salesman, but a coach or a leader you believe in. It’s like a coach who says, “These are the plays we’re going to make. This is what’s going to make us win this game.” The players believe in the coach and follow it through.

Mark and Machine in studio

GIM: Are they always willing, or do you butt heads sometimes?

M: Both. There’s plenty of butting heads, and there has to be sometimes. There are bands who are a lot easier to work with than others, but it’s part of what I do. Bands who are more resistant to trying things, I’m still going to push to some degree. That’s kind of the job of the record producer. I always tell bands, “Recording a record and doing a great job engineering is super important, but in a way it kind of has a price tag. You can buy it from me, or the other guy.” All these things about the emotion, and how we change songs, those are things you can’t put a price tag on. They have to do with a potential greater success. That’s what makes the great movie director, or record producer. It’s the guy who knows how to tell the story and make it connect with people. There are a lot of great engineers.

GIM: What new projects are you currently most excited about?

M: The newest and definitely most fun is Basic Vacation. They’re really young, and part of this indie-pop scene, like Imagine Dragons, The 1975, even The Killers. They just got signed to Capitol Records and I’m really glad they reached out to me. It’s a very new signing, and no one really knows about them. They wrote really good songs, and it’s been really great working with them and really experimenting with their sound and defining who they are.

I love the indie-pop scene because there are so few rules. In hard rock and metal, I call it the “Big Dick Contest,” because it’s like how big, how loud, and there are all these rules about guitar and drum sounds. I find the differences of the sound of the records is becoming less and less. But in indie-pop, on the same record you can have a song with distorted drums and another song that has guitar and another that leans on the keyboard. It’s commercial music, so the songs and the lyrics are everything, and they’re open to getting new songs. I’m way into it right now.

Before that I worked with [Japanese metalcore outfit] Crossfaith. I was attracted to them because they’re a scene metal band—one of the Warped Tour bands—but they have a pretty legitimate DJ, with heavy synth sounds that are great. They do a really legitimate job of marrying the breakdowns with dubstep moments, and it reminds me of when there was rap-rock and Linkin Park came around; they really did it right. That’s what Crossfaith does, but it doesn’t feel forced or weird. It really works.

GIM: What’s your advice to a student learning the ropes?

M: It’s really about just doing it. You’re going to have to get in there and get your hands wet. It doesn’t matter when you’re starting how you’re doing it. It doesn’t matter if it’s GarageBand or you’ve got a friend who’s got a studio. But if you don’t take a lot of pleasure from just working with it—doing music, toying around with it—that’s a problem. For me, as a kid, there was nothing that could take me away from the studio; I really wanted to be there. Start making stuff, and don’t think for a second whatever gear you have is holding you back. Start figuring out what you can do with that gear.

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