Interview with Phil Magnotti - (April 6, 2010)

Phil Magnotti is an audio engineer with over 200 major label credits to his name and the winner of multiple Grammy Awards.  He is also the chief recording engineer at Carriage House Studios and the owner of Silvermine Studios, both in Connecticut, and has done studio work on three Fates Warning and OSI albums.  In 2008, he mixed OSI's Blood.


Q: How and when did you first get involved in the music business?  Where did you go to school and what was your first music job?
PM: A band I was in went into the studio to cut a demo back in 1986 and I fell in love with the process and became an apprentice at the studio for a year, then an assistant engineer for two more years.
Q: For those who don't know you, what type of work do you specialize in?  What are the most well-known albums that you have worked on?
PM: Over the last 10 years, my focus has really been specializing in drum recording and mixing and the mastering of CDs in Pro Tools.
It's hard to say what are my most well-known albums.  There are so many different styles and over 200 major label releases.  It would depend upon what type of music you listen to.
Q: How did you first get introduced to OSI and invited to work with them?
PM: I had done work with Jim Matheos from Fates Warning for 10 years and he contacted me to work on the first OSI CD.
Q: Were you already familiar with Kevin Moore's work with Dream Theater and Chroma Key?  What was your opinion of his music?
PM: I had worked with Kevin on an earlier Fates Warning CD that he collaborated on, but had really no knowledge of his music.
Q: OSI fans will find your name in the credits for all three of the band's studio albums.  Let's start with the first OSI album, Office of Strategic Influence.  Where did the recording take place and how long did it last?  What was your role?
PM: The recording of Mike Portnoy took place at Carriage House Studios in Stamford, Connecticut.  All other recording was done at Jim Matheos' home and Kevin's home.  The drum recording took about four days to record.  I recorded the drums and mixed the CD.
Q: With OSI being a new band at the time, what was it like to see Kevin, Jim and Mike working together for the first time?  What kinks must be worked out when recording first-time supergroups that have not played together previously?
PM: Jim and Kevin where already friends and had worked together and a Fates Warning CD.
Q: In various interviews, Jim has said that he and Mike Portnoy were working on songs for that first album when Kevin came in and totally changed the makeup of the tunes.  How much of an impact did Kevin's arrival have?  Did it seem to cause any friction?
PM: Yes, there was a lot of friction between Mike and Kevin.  I think that they did not have a very working relationship even when they where in Dream Theater together.  There was many disagreements and at times it got very stressful while recording the drums tracks.  But any time you get very artistic people working together there can always be problems.  I believe Mike decided not to work on Blood if Kevin was involved.
Q: The first album got great reviews right off the bat.  Did you know you were working on something special at the time or were you unsure how it would be received?
PM: I knew by the time we started to mix that this was one of the most creative albums I have ever had the pleasure to work on and to this day it still is.
Q: It's been said that OSI originally planned to have another vocalist, but Kevin's voice sounded good on demos.  What's your opinion of Kevin's voice?  Why does it work with OSI's sound?
PM: I never knew that there was a plan to have another vocalist.  I am not involved in the pre-production process.  But I do know that Kevin's voice does tend to work well in this the style of music.  I personally like the freshness of having guest singers on a few songs.
Q: What kind of effects, if any, are used on Kevin's vocals?
PM: Kevin records all of his vocals himself and records the vocal FX on separate tracks while recording the vocals.  He likes to have the feel of what it will possibly sound like when mixed.  We have tried many times to reproduce he vocal sound when mixing and just ended up using the sound that he used while recording.  The FX are a combination of stereo slap delays with feedback, very harsh notching of the eq, and sometimes little bit of modulation FX.
Q: What is your take on mixing spoken-word samples into music like in "The New Math (What He Said)"?  Are there any do’s and dont's?  What makes Kevin so good at it?
PM: I like to make spoken words have a different quality than the lead vocal.  It can range from anywhere from lo-fi FX to running the vocal through a amp simulator.
Q: Tell me about the recording and mixing process for OSI's second album, Free.  How did it differ from the first album?  Was it a much simpler?
PM: Yes, much simpler.  I did not mix it.
Q: Following Free, Mike Portnoy said in an interview that working with Kevin is "not much fun" and that's a key reason why he chose not to continue working with the band.  What is your opinion of Kevin's studio persona?
PM: Kevin is not the most easiest person to work with in the studio.  I have had my own issues with him.  Kevin is a very intelligent brilliant musician and likes things his way.  But with any very artistic person it can be difficult.  I highly respect his ideas and after the mixing of Blood I think we have a new respect for each other.
Q: Tell me about the mixing for the band's most recent album, Blood.  Where did it take place and how long was the process?  Did it differ from the first two albums at all?
PM: The mixing of Blood took place at my home studio in Norwalk, Connecticut, near where Office of Strategic Influence was mixed at Carriage House Studios in Stamford, Connecticut.  It took about ten days of working 10-12 hours a day.
We like to give it one song per day.  I would get all the drums, sounds, equalization, processing, and relative levels and move to the instrumentation levels and sounds then Jim and Kevin will come in and we will all tweak the sounds and get the final balances.  Then, after the ten days, I would give Jim and Kevin a copy of mixes to take home to listen to.  They will then take notes and send me any mix tweaks that need to be done.
The only difference from this album would be that we mixed at my home studio.
Q: Listening to Blood, I can hear subtle sounds, whispers and other effects – perhaps even more so than in the first two albums.  How challenging was that to mix and not make it sound cluttered?
PM: Like any complicated record that involves many tracks and different sounds, it does create a challenge.  But it is all in the equalization, panning of sounds, and use of  compression and FX.
I think the first album was the most difficult since we where dealing with a brand new kind of sound and trying to find the vision in the sound that Kevin and Jim had in mind.  It's always more difficult to mix a debut CD since you are trying to find the sound of the band.
Q: Were there ever any disagreements in the studio among you, Kevin and Jim about the mix of a song?  Which song and how was that resolved?
PM: There are always disagreements when mixing.  Everyone has a different vision or what they think it should sound like.  I think me and Jim are more on the same path and he trusts me much more than Kevin does after I had been working with Fates Warning for so many years and on so many projects together.
Q: Do you ever listen to a particular OSI song after some time has passed and wished you had mixed it differently in retrospect?  Which song?
PM: Yeah. I wish I had mixed the second CD.
Q: What is your most favorite OSI song and why?
PM: I would say the first CD for me is the best.  I like the title cut, "OSI."  It just incorporates totally the sound of the band and what they are about.
Q: Reflecting on your work with OSI, are there any funny studio moments, inside jokes or silliness that you can share?  You see a side of the band that fans don't get to see.
PM: Have to think about this one.
Q: What are you working on right now?
PM: I am working on a CD for the bassist Mark Egan featuring Vinnie Colaiuta and Bill Evan.