Inside The Industry with Howard Benson

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You arrive at the address given to you by the management company who represents famed record producer Howard Benson.  Your first thought is “This can’t be right.” Expecting to see a sign marking the location of a recording studio in a commercial location, the GPS map on your smartphone has instead lead you to a nondescript housing tract in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.  You get out of the car and look around.  At the designated address is a house, barely visible with the high front wall and vegetation blocking the view from the street.  You notice a small sign that reads “Press button for admittance.”  You do so, and without so much as a word from the intercom the gate silently swings open.  Even more puzzled than ever, you walk up the long, narrow driveway.  Out of nowhere, a man appears, and you introduce yourself as the writer on assignment for Screamer.  You follow him into the house, and as soon as you walk through the door, it’s like entering the gates of Disneyland.

On the walls are so many gold records you lose count.  From another room someone is singing.  Your greeter explains that Benson is in a meeting, and he directs you to a room at the back of the house, near the door to the studio.  There is a rack of guitars, and for a moment you are tempted to pick one up and play, until you think better of it. In a cabinet are small metal containers, and you are transfixed by the labels: “3 Doors Down Master.” “Papa Roach Backup.” “Daughtry Master.” “Hoobastank Backup.” For a musician, it’s like being inches away from the Holy Grail, as you realize that few people ever get this close to the origin of such noted albums.

You sit and take it all in, and after about a half hour Benson enters the room and introduces himself.  He opens the door to the studio, and you walk in.  More guitars, a selection of amp heads that would make a guitar player drool (since you’re a guitarist you’re lusting after each and every one of them) and tons of classic effect pedals.  The room is dominated by a late 70’s vintage Neve mixing board, and beyond that, beyond the glass, is the actual recording room.  The voice you had heard singing earlier walks by. He’s a young kid, accompanied by his father.  Benson briefly shows him the studio, and on the way out the boy excitedly proclaims to his dad,” See that gold album? I have that record!”  You think to yourself “Yeah, the gold records are nice, but this is where I want to hang out.”

For someone who has reached the upper echelon of the music business, Benson got his start in an unusual way: The aerospace industry, which is not your typical career path for a record producer.  “I have a degree in materials engineering from Drexel University.  When I was in school, I was also playing keyboards in a band.  So I had these two different sides to me: the rigid engineering side, and the creative, music side.”  After graduating, Benson moved to Southern California and took a job with Garrett AiResearch, working on military aircraft programs.  “While I was working there,  I was also traveling to Hollywood, playing in a band.  We actually got a producer to work with us, and when we went into the studio with him, I realized that that’s what really interested me–that’s what I wanted to do.”

Benson started doing demos for local bands, and eventually created enough of a name for himself to work his way into producing two albums by TSOL, Revenge and Hit And Run.  His real breakout, however, was Psycho Cafe by Bang Tango.  “Bang Tango,” Benson chuckles.  “I was recently approached by a guy doing a documentary on that band.  I thought, ‘Who would want to do a documentary on a band that few people remember?’  The angle of the film, which makes sense when you really think about it, is a band that could have been really, really big.  When we did that album, we went to Texas to record it.  I didn’t know what I was doing, the band didn’t know what they were doing, but somehow we managed to make this album which was really was quite different and innovative compared to what was going on at that time.”

As computers and technology have revolutionized society in the last two decades, the recording industry has been similarly affected.  Benson, with his engineering background, embraced technology early.  “I went to Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1998, to work with Sepultura on the recording of Against, and I was introduced to a program called Pro Tools.  Now, Pro Tools wasn’t new at that time, but it had been mostly used in pop and dance music.  Nobody had used it much in the rock world–in fact, there was a lot of resistance against it.  Given my background, I was familiar working with computers, and I’d been using a two-track editing program called Turtle Beach.  Pro Tools was different.  It was a huge leap in technology, and I knew right then and there that’s where the future of recording was going to be.”

Fast-forward to the present.  Pro Tools has become the dominant computer-based recording program used by most professionals.  However, there has been backlash among some recording artists against the technology.  For example, Dave Grohl recorded the Foo Fighter’s latest album in his garage using analog equipment.  Jack White doesn’t like it–he says it’s too easy to make everything sound perfect.   “A lot of people wouldn’t hire me because of Pro Tools,” says Benson.”  They insisted on tape—no computers. I recorded Less Than Jake’s album Hello Rockview with Pro Tools, but I had to convince them to let me use it.  They thought it would make music too sterile.  And it is true that you have to be careful–some people did mess up and edit things to death.  But a lot of great artists have made computer-generated records that still sound honest and emotional.”

For all the technology, it’s still about the songs and the artists with Benson.  He has two recording engineers, a Pro Tools engineer and a guitar tech he regularly works with, leaving him free to concentrate on the music.  The way he usually meets bands is through the record company, and his philosophy is definitely hands-on.

“We have a meeting, talk about the songs and my production style, and afterwards we decide whether we want to work together.  If it’s a go, I’ll go into the rehearsal studio with the band, listen to their songs and decide on many factors.  Do we have the songs or do we need to write more material?  Are the songs arranged correctly?  Guitar parts, vocal harmonies…everything is open to discussion.  Sometimes I’ll get into  arguments with the band–big arguments.  But they hired me as a producer to make those kinds of tough judgement calls.  If all they wanted to do is record their songs exactly as they wrote them, they could have just hired an engineer.”

When asked of he still plays music himself, Benson says “I usually find a way to put keyboard parts on the albums I’m recording, whether or not the band wants it,” he laughs. “I have a Hammond B3 at home with a Leslie speaker, and it has this big John Lord [keyboard player with Deep Purple] sound. There’s always room for that on a record!”

The house that has been converted into a recording studio is a brand-new experience for Benson.  He worked at Bay 7, a more traditional recording facility in Southern California, for 11 years.  “I bought the house in April, and it took us two and a half months to build the studio.  The 70’s vintage Neve 8058 console was flown over from Glasgow, Scotland, and it came in pieces.  We had to rebuild the walls, thicken everything up, and install the wiring.  We did it right, because we knew exactly what we wanted.  Starting from scratch meant we could fit our needs without compromise.  We do mostly guitars and bass here.  The vocals we do at my home studio, and for the drums we go to a big studio for that.  This is where most of the time is spent, recording guitars and bass.”

“We mix everything in Pro Tools, we still have the vintage console for the mixing, because where Pro Tools tends to be weak is you’re summing a lot of math together.  The more math you do, the worse it sounds.  If you don’t have to do a lot of math, you’re going to have a better sounding record.  So we make the analog console do the work, as opposed to Pro Tools do the work.  I can give you all the technical reasons in the world, but it just comes down to this is what we want to do.”

With Benson’s engineering background, he’s fully capable of going into great technical detail about the recording process–subgroups and stems and faders and busses–so much so, that to the layperson he might as well be speaking Mandarin. But he would rather concentrate on the artists and the songs. “Yeah, that’s kind of what people know me for is my vocal production, and my arrangements, song structures and fixing things.  I think that’s where the pedal meets the metal.  Not how the record sounds, but the vocals.  I think that the tech’s been proven out over the last 15 years, where people listen to mp3’s recorded poorly, with no good mics and just done almost lo-fi, and some of the records are bigger hits than what we do here.  So, I have to keep my eye on the ball, which is the songs and the vocals.  The recording is great and all that, and I’m glad people still make great recordings, but that’s not what sells the records.  Nobody’s buying my guitar sound.  Maybe the bands are, but the public’s not.  I listen to the mix in mono, through my computer speakers. If it doesn’t sound good in mono, it doesn’t sound good, period.”

To an outsider, the popular image of a recording session is one that starts late in the afternoon and continues until the wee hours of the morning, fueled by drugs and alcohol.  And in fact, that stereotype was based in reality more often than not.  For Benson, however, those days are long gone.  “We work from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm.  I’ve found it’s much more productive than working through the night.  You work through the night, you put in 12-hour days, and everyone gets tired.  When you get tired, you start making mistakes, mistakes that cost money, and there are diminishing returns.  The way I work now everyone gets a good night’s sleep, we come in fresh and have a good, productive session.”

Even the most creative person needs a break from their craft, and when asked if he has any hobbies outside of music, Benson names two.  “I have a road bicycle, and I’ll go on rides anywhere from 25 to 50 miles. It really clears your head when you get out there on the bicycle…you forget about everything that may be stressing you out.  I also have a model railroad collection, HO scale trains.”

And suddenly, just like that, your allotted time is up.  You really wish you could stay longer, but there’s work to be done.  There’s a recording artist waiting, and Benson needs to get back to the recording session he’s working on.  You say your goodbyes and walk down the hallways, this time stopping to admire all those gold records.  You walk down the long driveway, and the gate closes behind you.  Looking in the rear-view mirror as you drive away, you wonder if the neighbors in that tranquil residential neighborhood have any idea of the magic that happens behind the ivy-covered walls of that house.

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