Scott Michael Smith: Realizing Dreams Through Reverb

Scott Michael Smith

With a star-studded career working with artists from Katy Perry to Smokey Robinson, and recording and mixing scores for movies including World War Z, Transformers and The Revenant, you might expect Scott Michael Smith to walk in with an ego to match. But the talented music maestro is refreshingly modest and grounded, seeing music and movie production as a service industry, there to realize other peoples’ dreams – with just a little dash of his own inspiration. We chat about how he started out, his experiences on The Revenant, and his passion for Exponential Audio plug-ins.

Once a techie, always a techie

Smith has made a huge name for himself in the world of movie score mixing, but that wasn’t always where he was destined to work. His love of music always tended towards the technical side: “I grew up a musician, playing drums and guitar, but I never saw the musician lifestyle as something that I really wanted to do; touring and all that didn’t really look great, whereas production really really appealed to me. In high school I started listening to records that were very production-heavy, and really inspired me —things like Pink Floyd and Radiohead, and of course The Beatles—especially the later Beatles stuff. I started being drawn not just to song-writing and guitar-playing and performance, but to the actual production of it. That really intrigued me. And it grew from there.”

After college in California he graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, in ‘Professional Music’, which he calls “a bit of a ‘salad bar’ course - pick what you want and as long as you take enough classes they give you a degree! I was able to do a little bit of everything, from composition to what they called music synthesis (now electronic music technology).”

On graduating Smith moved back to Los Angeles and took a job as runner at the legendary Village Recording Studios -  about the best place a young engineer could hope to start out. He knows what a stroke of luck this was and recalls how he seized the opportunity: “Jeff Greenberg the owner really gave me a chance. A lot of the other kids there were Berklee grads as well but they had all been through the proper engineering program, whereas I had this mish-mash degree. But I was really willing to learn. So Jeff gave me a shot. I spent almost every night after clients left sitting in the studio teaching myself signal flow. I knew a bit of Pro Tools but I spent a good two years staying till sunrise just learning it. That was formative to say the least.”

The accidental movie guy

Smith became a resident engineer at The Village for four years, working with a host of well-known bands and artists. “At that point I was set on being a rock producer, that’s what I wanted to do. I was fortunate to work with the top of the top – artists like Katy Perry, John Mayer, U2, Scissor Sisters – and really see how it was done. I was dead set on that path”.

But events, as they can tend to, conspired to send him in an entirely new direction. “I produced a record for a local band whose lead singer was the assistant to Randy Spendlove, Head of Music at Paramount Pictures. He has a studio in his house and was letting us use the studio for the band. I built a relationship with him, and he started calling me for things. The first thing he called me for was to work on the Katy Perry documentary that came out a few years ago. There was quite a bit of work on that. I was coming from a pop and rock background, and they were used to film guys. But I was able to fit in quite nicely and apply everything I’d been doing all these years to a film for them. Through that Randy really started throwing me more and more film gigs. I was still like, ‘I’m not a film guy, but hey, it’s work.’ Then before I know it I’m in London recording orchestras! And now I’m very much a film guy, which is interesting. I still do a lot of rock and pop production but film has become my passion; recording and mixing film is what I absolutely love.”

Scott Michael Smith

Hollywood tales

This passion has certainly got Smith places, involving him on some big things in film, most recently the score for the Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster The Revenant. The Academy Award-winning picture went through quite a morphing process during its production, making it a fascinating project to work on. “It certainly was an evolving process, and that was true of the post-production schedule and the music schedule as well. When I came onto it I was with Bryce Dessner from The National. He was hired as the third composer to help finish the movie. I believe the story goes that Alejandro [Gonzalez Iñárritu, the film’s director] went to the Hollywood Bowl and saw some concert music of Bryce’s, and said ‘I have to have this for the movie. He told Bryce he would love him to score part of the film and Bryce said sure, when are we doing this – to be told he needed to deliver to the dub in a few weeks! There were three composers on the movie – Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carsten Nicolai (who goes by Alva Noto), then finally Bryce—brought in to do about 35-40 minutes of score – roughly the back third of the film. So Bryce wrote it incredibly quickly, went to Berlin to spend two or three days tracking it, then brought it back to L.A. where we spent about a week here mixing it. Martín Hernández, the brilliant sound supervisor, had this idea to let all three composers write music and kind of patchwork-quilt them together which was quite a feat, but ended up working out brilliantly.”

A seat-of-your-pants way of working: “Everyone was working in teams and delivering to the same dub. I don’t think any of us really saw how it worked out until we saw the film! Everyone was kind of working in their own vacuum. It was interesting! It was a way of working that I’d never experienced before, so I was very happy to get the first notes back from the dub which just said ‘sounds great’.”

Smith’s usual approach to mixing is a little more straightforward: “Things are usually full score by the time it hits me, I get all the recorded tracks. This is especially true on something like The Revenant which is almost a fully orchestral score. So it’s pretty straightforward. On other movies you might have a lot of pre-lays - electronics, drums going on – so you may get some stems as well, but usually I work with the raw recorded tracks.”

A trip down reverb memory lane

Smith has had a close relationship with reverb over the years and gets fired up with enthusiasm remembering his go-to gear. Starting out, the 480L was his reverb of choice, along with the AMS reverb “for a good gated snare”. “It’s cool how these things have come around so much again”, he muses - ”those machines do something right – it’s scary to look at the insides of them!”

But alongside the faithful hardware he made good use of plug-ins right from the get-go. “When I came up people were already mixing in the box. We’d still be using hardware reverbs, especially if I got a session that was wanting an analog mix (and we did get plenty of those in the early days), but I started mixing more and more in the box, not just for reverbs and effects but everything. That kind of instant recall was a game-changer. I soon realized I needed to head to the plug-in side of things.”

Blown away by the Bricasti

Thinking back to his discovery of Exponential, Smith remembers being generally unimpressed by all the other plug-in reverbs he’d tried: “Altiverb was the closest thing to something that I liked, and the UAD stuff, but then when I heard the PhoenixVerb I thought ‘there’s something here’…”

Having confided to a colleague that he’d been in the box for so long he was afraid to go out, this colleague “mentioned a company called Exponential Audio that makes a control - you just open up your session and then instantly it’s there as a plug-in. I thought that sounded interesting, so I demo-ed a Bricasti and the M7 control - at that moment I was sold. I purchased the Bricasti but there were a few days before it turned up so I had a poke around and see what other Exponential stuff there was. I downloaded the demos of R2 and Phoenix and the Excalibur and I was just blown away. Then when the Bricasti finally arrived I was working on some drums, and going back and forth using similar settings on the Bricasti and the R2, and I couldn’t believe how close it was for a plug-in, I really was blown away.”

Scott Michael Smith

A movie-mixer’s best friend

Reverb plug-ins, Smith extols, are a vital tool for the movie score mixer, both for placing the content in a space, and conjuring up effects. “It depends what element of the score we are doing. When you’re recording an orchestra ideally you are in a room which has a great natural reverb in it. Then sometimes it just needs a little bit of a push or you need a little bit of extension; ideally then the reverb is just there to fill in the gaps and help a little bit, and kind of place it in the space. However, on that same score you might have a solo piano, and depending what’s going on on-screen, if that piano is corresponding to a character, it becomes much more than just placement, it becomes the sound of the piano and therefore the sound of the character, which is what we’re always trying to do, maintain natural sound even when it’s really effected. There is nothing more useful than reverb for that.”

He relies on Exponential reverbs to create a beautiful back-net for everything to sit against. “One of the issues I had with other plug-in reverbs is trying to get that nice kind of width and ‘pillowy-ness’ for things to sit against; I’ve always struggled to get that which is why I was really really excited about Exponential. In any film mixing session I’ll have a minimum of ten reverbs going, and the Exponential gear sits in surrounds really nicely and pulls out really nicely into the room.”

“The CPU is amazing too, that’s the thing that really sold me - when I dragged it across, it was flawless. If I did that with some of the other plug-ins it would slow my computer down to a stall, but [Exponential] handled it no problem.”

Back towards the music world

As Smith’s career has recently taken another twist back towards the world of pop and rock production he’s enjoying experimenting with further Exponential gear. “I’ve been throwing Excalibur across tracks - if I’m trying to come up with some sort of synth patch or a lead line I’ll just pop it on there and go through the presets and there’s some really interesting things that come out, some really great colors. The multi-vox stuff I’ve been using on vocals as well - the way people used to use H3000 to get those micro-shifts above and below, I’ve been using it that way which has been great. That in conjunction with an imager and widener has been really awesome on vocals and really allowed me to put things right in the centre where they feel massive.”

His passionate loyalty to plug-ins seems inspired not just by their recall ability but also their flexibility and ease of automation: “Being able to roll off the reverb time at the end of a cue or the end of a song and have the reverb; not having to automate it on the fader but in the actual program is great. At the same time, it’s not only recall ability but its portability; because I’m in the box (with the exception of the Bricasti) I bring my rig everywhere. Wherever I’m mixing I bring my whole Pro Tools rig so I have my own studio any place I go. Doing that with hardware, as we all know, is costly and arduous, so just being able to open up a session at any studio and have all my tools right there is invaluable to me.”

Knowing when to have and when not to have an ego

Alongside his true love of gear, for someone working at the heart of Hollywood Smith is incredibly down-to-earth and self-deprecating. He’s in huge demand and has worked with the biggest names and on some huge movies; and yet the advice he would you give to his 16 year-old self is this: “A large part of success is instinctively knowing when to have and when not to have an ego.”

His philosophy is based on understanding “that this is someone else’s piece of music that they have entrusted to you to get to their vision, to bring to life what they have in their heads. That’s your goal. Then along the way you want to impart a little of yourself into it too.” 

“I would tell my teenage self to stay mellow and laid-back, because that’s really I think what’s gotten me where I am. I have an approach that if I’m working for a client I understand that I’m in a service industry and I want to give the client what they want, while doing it in a way that employs my taste. It’s that kind of thing in giving service. If the client is someone you know and who trusts you, they trust you to tell them if you think it’s a bad direction to go and why. It’s important in those moments to trust your own instincts and professional ability, because you do come at a piece of music from a different place to an artist or a composer.”

Prioritizing other peoples dreams and trusting your instincts: an approach we could all aspire to.

More on Smith's film work at IMDB