Growing up in Saratoga Springs, Matt Rocker saw everything as an instrument.
When recording a demo tape as a kid, he’d play some chords on his acoustic guitar, loop drum fills off his Casio keyboard’s drum machine, record it all with a four-track recorder and mix it down with an old-school reel-to-reel tape deck. He did what he could to make music, and oftentimes that meant getting a little innovative.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, but I still wanted a distortion pedal for my guitar and couldn’t necessarily afford one,” Rocker said. “With an old cassette player, I figured out that I could run my guitar through it and overload the circuits, and then go out of that tape deck into an amp. I used our home stereo. So that was my first amplifier — using consumer electronics to get a fuzzed-out distorted tone out of my guitar without having any effects.”
The Saratogian’s lifelong ingenuity has certainly paid off, too, as the 47-year-old Rocker still pushes that DIY attitude in his current 20-year career; as a sound engineer and editor for films and television, a New York City studio operator and a soon-to-be film director. You’ve likely heard Rocker’s work in “The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers,” Netflix’s “In the Shadow of the Moon,” NBC’s “30 Rock” and even “Love and Hip-Hop,” but the now-New York City resident is using the same go-getter attitude he learned growing up to push mediums, with two directorial debuts soon on the way.
Before any major work in film, however, Rocker was completely surrounded by music locally. His mother, Susan O’Brien, was a singer, and his father was a sound engineer. Rocker still remembers sleeping on a fold-out bed in a local studio as his parents recorded cuts with their band.
But Rocker wasn’t heavily involved in music in the Saratoga Springs City School District — which he attended from grades K-11 — although he eventually found his way into bands with friends. He soon studied engineering at RPI for just one year, as his friends would go home and work on model rockets while he would be playing music. He could feel the disconnect, and that’s when he left to study music at Schenectady County Community College.
“I wanted to study music but had zero fundamentals,” Rocker said. “It allowed me to sort of catch up and by that, I mean I did know music theory, I just didn’t have the terminology for it. I then went to [The College of] St. Rose and decided I’m gonna figure out how to record on computers and things like that, because I wanted to produce my own music.”
He later enrolled at the University of Minnesota- Minneapolis, where he finished undergrad. After a few internships, he saw that he had a unique technical ability as an engineer — and one that felt a lot more promising than chasing rock-star status in his early 20s, so he enrolled at New York University for his master’s in music and was blown away by their film scoring program, where a professor tipped him to the role of a lifetime.
“He recommended me to Howard Shore, the composer for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films and various other blockbusters,” Rocker said. “He needed people to help with the production of the soundtrack. I dove right into working on one of the largest-scale film scores probably ever done.”
For the film, Rocker worked as a music editor in an “odd sense” — starting before the music was even recorded. Whenever there’d be a change of scene — like if a fight scene was shortened back by director Peter Jackson — Rocker would have to help adjust the music that goes along with it, so that it matches an axe falling or other intense moments.
Rocker also worked on sound engineering for artist Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” series at the time.
“I got spoiled early by these two massive projects,” Rocker said. “But that also set me up to see how things are done right at the highest level. And of course, it gave me street cred for the smaller jobs that I would take on later.”
Rocker has since taken on 60 film credits in sound engineering, with 40 in the music department. While he says many engineers and editors specialize in either the sound aspect of a film or the music aspect, he knows that doing both helps set him apart.
“And that gave me the flexibility to mix music, sound, record music and play all of these different roles. Career-wise, it’s important as a freelancer to be able to move and adapt and have a lot of skills.”
This film work has also launched Rocker, who now has two children of his own, 4-year-old Levi and 1-year-old Phoebe, to create a studio — Underground Audio in New York — where he took over the space entirely around 2008. Currently, he’s using it to help actors like Corey Stoll of “House of Cards” record voiceover, but it’s not all he’s up to right now.
Working on audio for so long has helped Rocker rub shoulders with those directing films, and now he’s working on his two directorial debuts. One, “Message Not Understood,” is a documentary following the creation of the personal computer, while the other follows a skateboarding crew that started in the late ’80s in Saratoga, the Silly Pink Bunnies.
“It’s just more of that lifetime-learner thing, where I’m digging in and taking apart camera equipment instead of audio equipment, and instead of the editing and mixing audio, I’m now editing video and working with still photos. So I’m in my mid-40s, but I feel like I’m still evolving and figuring things out and working on new things. … So no matter who you are, everyone has something to teach you. And also, no matter how far along you’ve gotten, there’s always so much more to learn.”