Local recording engineers Toby Vest and Pete Matthews have long been known around town for having a hand in creating some of this city's best new music. As a musician, Vest was a driving force (alongside his brother Jake) behind popular Memphis bands such as Augustine, the Bulletproof Vests, and, more recently, Tiger High. On the studio side of things, he's worked on excellent records by artists like Clay Otis, Dead Soldiers, Jack Oblivian, and James and the Ultrasounds. As for Matthews, his resume reads like an aspiring producer's dream, featuring household names like Paul Simon, Barbra Streisand, and Wu-Tang Clan, alongside Memphis icons like Alex Chilton and Big Star, Isaac Hayes, and Jim Dickinson.
Recently, Vest and Matthews decided to merge their separate business interests and become partners. Matthews moved his impressive collection of recording gear into Vest's already well-equipped space at 431 N. Cleveland, which he'd been running under the name High/Low Recording since early 2009. Since the merger, the studio's profile has risen dramatically, and the duo has emerged as the go-to guys for countless local bands and recording projects. Vest and Matthews spoke to the Flyer this week about the studio's history, working together, and more.
Flyer: How did you guys meet? Pete Matthews: We first met in 2006 at a meeting that Augustine's manager set up to talk about doing a project together. Nothing came of it at the time, but it did make me aware of Toby's developing talents as an engineer. After that, I just kept hearing cool-sounding records coming out of this building. I would hear something and say, "Wow, who engineered this?" and the answer kept coming back, "That's Toby Vest over at High/Low."
Toby Vest: That 2006 meeting was definitely the first time, but I'd certainly heard of Pete before then. I really got to know Pete a little better when he was working on the Jump Back Jake records at Ardent. It was the first time I was able to see him work and immediately respected how in command of the studio he was. Whose idea was it for you two to formally team up? Matthews: The idea first came up sometime last summer during a conversation we were having where I was complaining about my studio situation at the time. My studio, P.M. Music, was located in the basement of an office building, which was great for keeping sound out and not so good for keeping sound in. That was okay for the first couple of years, because the storefront above me was vacant with no tenant. Then, a massage parlor moved in above me, and every noise I made seemed to bother them and their clients. Drums and electric guitars are not good for a relaxing massage, I suppose, so I kept getting noise complaints. As I was detailing all of these woes to Toby, he said "Man, we are doing so much work together, why don't we team up and pay one rent instead of two?" I thought about it for about an hour and then called him back to see if he was being serious.
What was the process of merging the studios like? Matthews: It was a lot of work, for sure. All of my gear was at P.M. Music, which was in a basement with no elevator access. So, every amp, microphone, and speaker had to be carried up a flight and a half of stairs. Also, we had to have the baby grand piano professionally moved up the stairs and into its new home. It was definitely a mass combination of gear, and we find stuff every day that one or both of us didn't even realize was in the building. We did the move at the beginning of October 2014 and were relatively up and running by November.
Beyond the influx of new recording gear and instruments, how else have things improved at High/Low? Matthews: I think the most important upgrade to the studio is the way we work as a team. There is almost always the two of us on any given session, which makes any sort of set-up go lightning fast.
Vest: Our sensibilities and approaches complement each other in the best ways, and on long sessions when we're exhausted, we both have someone we trust to take over so the other person can take a break. It lets us work faster and makes sessions smoother and more productive. Better for us, better for the clients, and better for the music. How have your regular clients responded to the changes? Matthews: We have only gotten overwhelmingly positive reactions from existing High/Low clients, and I think in large part that's because we didn't change the vibe of the place. We made several improvements, like adding some heavier doors to the isolation booth and the control room, and we had our good friend Dave Shouse [The Grifters] come vibe-up the lounge with some really cool artwork. But the only changes we made involved things that Toby had wanted to do for a while anyway, and together we were able to make them happen.
Vest: I think initially some people may have been scared that Pete moving in was going to change High/Low in some way, or suddenly it was going to be too expensive or something, but as we've done more work I think everyone sees it's all positive vibes here. I think people we work with see the value in our partnership and see how we make each other better, which makes their experience better as well.