It's election night 2016. The Royal American is at capacity and late-arriving music lovers form a line that snakes down the sidewalk. Inside, local rockers SUSTO light up the stage on a raised platform across the room, and resident sound engineer Matt Zutell does what he loves most. "It doesn't even really feel like a job to me," he says. "I'm getting paid to see a show and make the show sound like I want it to sound."
Zutell has been Royal American's main sound engineer for a year and a half now, but he's been ensconced in music most of his life. "I've been playing in bands since middle school," he says. "And from the garage to the rehearsal rooms I would always kinda set up the PA systems and mess with the mixer until it sounded halfway decent."
Somebody's gotta twist those knobs. And Zutell had a knack for it.
He still plays music as the drummer of local new-wave, dance-rock band Human Resources, but these days he spends most of his time behind the scenes. He runs his own record company, Coast Records, by day, and raises the faders at Royal by night. "I think the studio side of mixing kind of complements the live side," says Zutell.
And sometimes they overlap. For that election night SUSTO performance, Zutell ran cables from the venue's analog board through his own interfaces and into his laptop, producing a pristine live recording — which is not a new concept for Zutell. He's produced and recorded countless live performances. It was however only the second time he'd done it at Royal, and working with a band he's extremely familiar with certainly helped. "I know how to mix them and what kind of effects to put on the vocals for certain songs."
That familiarity counts double considering Zutell is not only the sound guy, he's also the lighting guy. "When I know a band's songs and I can do really specific cues to the lights, [the show] just really all comes together."
That isn't to say a performance is any less cohesive just because Zutell isn't completely versed in a band's catalogue. He always does his research and prepares for upcoming performances. "To me, certain bands and sounds appeal to certain colors," says Zutell. "I usually try to set moods for them and just try to do what would be the most appropriate for their aesthetic."
Recently, Andrew Smith from the Pour House installed new lighting equipment at Royal, giving a little upgrade to an already thriving venue. "I've got a touchscreen computer back there now where I program and do the lights simultaneously with the sound," says Zutell. "We've got movers and a smoke machine. It's a super legit light show."
By Zutell's own admission, Royal is a venue that could bear the slogan Don't Judge a Book By its Cover. "This is a place that if you look at it, it doesn't seem like it would sound good, but this room actually sounds awesome," he says.
And he bases that on more than just his own venerated opinion. It's the praise he's received from touring bands that happen to make a stop in Charleston. "We have a super small stage, and when bands come in they're like, 'Aw crap, we gotta play on this?' But after the show, they're super pumped. I've heard just countless times people say, 'The sound in here is the best we've had on stage our entire tour.'"
Feedback like that only affirms Zutell's belief that Royal is a truly special venue. "I think this place is over time gonna become one of those legendary spots like CBGBs," says Zutell. "It's a small rock club. You know when you come here for the most part you're gonna hear rock or indie rock, and it's gonna be good. Royal doesn't book just anybody."
Nor do they hire just anybody to be their sound engineer.