Interview with HOWARD BENSON, producer for Hoobastank (USA Top 10) - Jan 30, 2006
“People often say to me, ‘your albums sound so live, they have all this energy’. They’re not live at all! They’re recorded with tons of overdubs, on Pro Tools, using every technology available."
… says Howard Benson, producer for an impressive range of successful rock bands: Hoobastank, P.O.D., Cold, My Chemical Romance, Motörhead, Crazy Town, Sepultura, Papa Roach and many more.
He could have had a career as an aerospace engineer, but opted for the music business, and the route to becoming one of the most sought after record producers in the world was a turbulent one.
Read his story on how a musician with a good upbringing has an easier time making it as a producer rather than as an artist; how his career halted after being labeled as a “hair-band producer”; why it is irrelevant that he knows what is cool or not, and what the most important parts of a production are.
How did you end up in the music business?
I’m originally from Philadelphia and I went to Drexel University for 5 years, which is a school for aerospace engineering. I got a degree in materials engineering in 1980 and after that I went to California, where I got a job as an aerospace engineer. But I quit because I wanted to make it in the music business.
Since the age of 13 I had been playing keyboards in rock bands and in a disco band where we did all the hits of the era, Bee Gees etc. I knew how to arrange intuitively, because as a keyboard player that ends up being your job.
Do you have any formal training in music?
My mother was a music teacher and I used to always hear her play downstairs on the piano. Music by Jerome Kern or jazz would come sounding through the walls up to my room. As a young kid I had piano lessons. Then, as a teenager, I started to play keyboards and I picked it up right away, I was really good at it. Later, during my time at Drexel, I went to the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts to get my theory background and I studied composition.
What kind of music did you play in your first band?
Keyboard-oriented music like The Doors - I loved the stuff Ray Manzarek was playing - or Emerson Lake and Palmer. I soon got into commercial bands though - because I was playing the Hammond organ and there weren’t a lot of guys in Philadelphia at the time who owned one, and who would carry it around. And that’s how I became really good at this whole thing.
Then you went out to California…
Yes, I got a job at an Air-research Corporation. But the guys from my band in Philadelphia followed and we were working on our music.
We were a really good band, but we weren’t great. I realized that because of our middle-class backgrounds - I had a really good up-bringing, my parents were great, and they’re still together - we didn’t have that much to say to the world! I was a pretty happy guy….Is that why you got into producing instead of performing?
We were going to do our first demos with the band in order to get a record deal - our guitar player got us the funding from someone he knew who wanted to get into the music business, and we got a producer. When we went into the studio, which was my first time ever in a studio, I realized that the guy who had the best job was him, the producer.
He runs the show, he can be musical, he gets paid! That experience changed my life. Plus the technology! Coming from aerospace engineering, recording technology in the early 80’s seemed like a joke! Nobody was going to die if you turned the fader the wrong way. I was totally into computers at the time because I was doing CAD/CAM at my job and I was one of the first guys who got into midi.
I was using an Atari 1040 ST with no memory. Or maybe 1 kilobyte of memory!
At the time I was doing anything, just because I knew the computer, I knew midi and how to compose and arrange. I was this new animal out there that was not only a producer and arranger but also a computer guy.
So you quit your day job without having anything really set up in the music world?
Absolutely. I knew two things: one: a band who needed production. They were called Jack, Mack and the Heartattack and I had met their manager. The band was signed to Full Moon Records, they had done one record which didn’t really sell, and now they were on their second and needed someone to do their demos.
Secondly, I had become friends with Bill Jackson who worked as an assistant at Sunset Sound Studios in L.A. Now he is a famous mixer himself, but at the time he was just a little guy like me, struggling. I asked him if he could get me some free time at Sunset Sound, so I could make some demos for Jack Mack.
The owners of Sunset Sound, who are still the same to this day, were nice enough to let me go into the studio from midnight til 6 in the morning. It took me one year to cut 4 songs! That was in 1985. Did that get your career going?
It got me noticed a little bit when I shopped it around. And I started to meet people, hanging out in clubs, and networking. I was always very good on the phone. At college they would joke about me because I had a dorm room the size of a shoe box with 6 phones in there. I wanted to make sure I could always be in arms reach of a phone. I was very motivated to make it. And that’s a good thing for the record business, as I found out later!
How did you make money at the time?
I had saved up some money from working. It took 2 years between the time I quit my job and my first paid record. For about 4 or 5 years I was able to survive by just doing demos. All styles of music – except country. “Howard can get you into Sunset Sound and cut a demo”, that’s what my ‘manager’ (who was just a kid like me doing phone calls for me) told people. At that time the access to a recording studio and the access to people to cut the demos were very, very important. You couldn’t do it yourself. Now it’s totally different, you can cut your demo at home!
Then my manager had picked up T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Libertry) as a client - they were about to be dropped from Enigma. So he said: “you go in and fix the record they just did, called ‘Revenge’”. For that I got my first producer credit. They were one of the initial Orange County punk bands. After that they let me produce their next record, which actually started to sell.
Then I got my first real major label project, a band called Bang Tango. It was mainstraim and I knew I was going to have a shot with this. So I took the band to Austin, to a little studio and we did the album there. It had a hit song on it called “Someone Like You” which got on MTV, sold a lot of records and got me my first royalty check. Wow! Then, believe it or not, I hit the hardest part of my career. Just when I thought I was going to be super successful I completely hit the wall.
How come your career came to a halt?
I started to get into the business when “hair-bands” (from around 1985 -91, your typical long-haired rock band) started to get out of it and modern rock bands like Nirvana became popular. I was considered one of the hair-band producers and we were no longer getting hired.
At that point a really big truth hit me: I can’t be doing records that are of the moment, I need at least some of my albums to be ahead of the curve. And I survived for the rest of my career because I kept doing bands that were ahead of the curve.
What turned it around?
I stopped producing hair-bands and around 1995 I got hired as an A&R for Giant Records. Which meant me finding bands for the record company rather than just producing. And that’s actually how I got the job: I had found a band, got them signed, and they offered me the A&R job. If you have a good ear for talent, you will always get work, because that’s what everybody wants - good talent.
Working for Irving Azoff - who was running Giant records at the time, and who now has one of the biggest management companies in the world - was probably the biggest turning point in my career. He was… the best. I learned the music business from him!
Were you still producing?
Yes, but I got fired off a project producing a band named South Gang and they brought in Keith Olson to finish the album. Keith had a room full of million-selling records; he had produced Fleetwood Mac, Sammy Hagar, the Scorpions, Whitesnake, so many famous bands. I was nothing compared to him. So I turned to Keith Olsen and said: “I’m fired but I want to stay in the studio. Even if you don’t pay me!”
I knew I was good. But I’d realized that when I was producing records I didn’t have a certain technique, I wasn’t sticking to any kind of formula, just approaching every record differently. And I’d noticed that that wasn’t what Keith did. He had a process, he approached every record with the same method. And I needed to learn, I needed a mentor. Keith was great – he believed I could be a huge producer one day and kept me on. Two days into the project the band says, “Howard, we wish you were producing us again because Keith doesn’t listen to what we say”. And I just went, “Yep!! I totally get it”.
I saw his process, his confidence, the way he handled the band. I was like a sponge and I soaked it all up. So after 2 years I was a record company executive and I’d had tremendous training from one of the best producers in the world!
After those jobs I was able to start producing better bands, I got to produce P.O.D. and that record went double platinum. And more multi-platinum albums followed, all based on that groundwork I had done. And it all happened because I didn’t give up. I had a lot of hard times, a lot of struggle. Also a lot of support from my family and the people around me. I’ve had some sweaty days, man. And it’s only in the last 6 years that I haven’t had to worry so much.
What’s the success fomula now?
I’m as good as the people I work with. I have the best engineer in town working for me, the best manager, the best attorney. It’s so hard to sell records anyway! And for every guy like me, there’s hundreds trying to get in, so you gotta have the best.
To make it you need an amazing amount of drive. I’m lucky, I always had that. I loved this business, from day one.
Even when I was a kid, I knew I was going to be in the record business. I studied engineering as a back-up. You may think the record business is about art and music, and that has to be chaotic. You as a producer need to keep it together – the more organized you are the better. And my biggest advice is: just don’t give up. Because eventually everybody else will!
What about that sound you create on your records?
People often say to me, ‘oh, your albums sound so live, they have all this energy’. And I reply, ‘they’re not live at all! They’re recorded with tons of overdubs, on Pro Tools, using every technology available’. And the records sound great. Don’t buy into that whole thing: ‘we have to set up live and play all at once’. That way it won’t sound live for the listener.
How do you know that a band is “ahead of the curve”?
I’m now in my 40’s – I don’t know what`s cool and what’s not cool for the kids. I need my artist to tell me that. You then have to know: has the artist got ‘it’? That’s why you need a good ear for talent. The record business is about pulling a needle out of a haystack. When I picked My Chemical Romance to produce, I knew that kid had something to say, that he was a star – and now they are huge! And I knew what he needed was what I gave him: organisation, putting the music and the songs together, B-sections, choruses, bridges, everything in a good form.
What is the process like when you start working with a band?
Nowadays I’m usually introduced to the band by the record company. We have a meeting, after which it is decided whether we want to work together. I go into rehearsal with the band, listen to their songs and decide: do we have the songs or do we need to write more material; are the songs arranged correctly? Without the work in the rehearsal room you won’t make a good record. If every song needs rearranging, I’ll do them all!
What if the band is afraid to have major surgery, and says “Oh no, that song’s our baby, don’t touch it…”?
You better not even bring that up! Why else would they have me, they could just hire an engineer. I am very tough on those bands. The rest of their life is at stake! Everything goes. The only thing we don’t do is have our egos involved - we check them at the door.
When you change the song around a lot, do you get a writing credit for that?
It’s all in the production, unless I am putting in a serious part, like a major hook. I get paid for doing my job as a producer and I get a percentage of record sales.
My percentages are flexible but the standard for any producer is at 3%.When you are happy with the songs, you go into the studio.
Yes, first we track the drum tracks, we go through an editing process where we tighten them up a little bit. We usually do it live but we might add some samples and do sound enhancement. It’s simple on the surface but the devil is in the detail – there is a lot of fine-tuning. Then we do guitars and bass and overdub that.
Then I do the vocals myself, with nobody else in the room. I also do a lot of arranging for the backing vocals, because often these bands don’t know how to do harmonies that well. For instance My Chemical Romance - they had never really thought about backing vocals. So he would ask me like, ‘do we need a harmony for this part?’ And I’d say, ‘We’re in the key of C, you are singing an E, we’ll do the minor third above it, and that’s a G’. Or, ‘you wanna sing the seventh – that’s a B flat’, or, ‘you wanna sing the 9th, it’s a D’.
I don’t do anything too crazy, I don’t want to take away from the lead vocal. Take Hoobastank’s “The Reason” - the harmonies in that are really extensive, but they are back in the mix so they add a dimension. There is a lot going on that you don’t notice as a listener but you would if you took it out.
Is it just you and the singer for vocal recording?
Yes. The vocal performance is the most important part of the record. I would say it’s a 100 times more important than anything else you do. That’s what the listeners relate to. The record is not going to connect with an audience unless the vocals are good. Look at all the great records: the vocals are unbelievable!
So I get into the studio with the singer who has to be free to do whatever they want. I do the whole vocal in 2 to 3 hours. I do it in pieces. I don’t go for pitch and timing too much, I go for performance, I can fix everything else! We are looking for feeling, happiness, sadness, jealousy… that’s what we are selling.
When all these tracks are recorded, how do you mix?
I usually have someone to mix it for me. My files are organised and put together perfectly so all they have to do is mix the songs.
Where do you work and do you work with the same people?
For the last 6 years I’ve worked at the same studio, Bay 7 in North Hollywood. I hire it. I have a team of people around me, like Mike Plotnikoff - he’s a great engineer and I always work with him nowadays. There’s my Pro Tools guys, my drum tech, the second engineer who is responsible for the disk drives, back-ups etc. Seven people in total. Doing music production nowadays is like making a movie - it’s a real team effort!
How long does a production take?
4 to 8 weeks in the studio. I also have a home studio that has a pretty expensive Pro Tools system and I do a lot at home – I rearrange, I overdub, I add key boards, I program, I remix it. And I play the hammond organ when needed.
When you were a producer and an A&R at the same time, did the record company allow you to sign the bands that you were producing?
Actually, they want you to! Just as long as you bring them good bands. In 2001/2002 I worked for Elektra Records, and I was brought on as an A&R consultant just for that reason. So I would bring them a band, they’d sign them and I would produce them. Also, this situation gave me a lot of credibility when I wanted to sign a band, just. because they knew it was me. Blindside was one of the bands I signed during that time.
How did you get to work with all these huge bands?
First the bands and the record company agree together that they want to work with me, then we all have a meeting and we decide if we all want to work together. Papa Roach for instance had already had some success when I produced them, P.O.D. were not known very much. And My Chemical Romance came out of nowhere and were not known at all. I love to produce a band that has great qualities, vibe and star power but that needs the fundamental stuff that a producer does.
Are you friends with the bands you produce or is your relationship purely professional?
They are all great guys, I like them all but we don’t need to be friends. What these bands really want from me is a hit record. That’s what it is about. If I stopped producing hit records, they’d fire me in 2 seconds.
How do unsigned bands approach you?
The send their demo to Nettwerk Producer Management, my management company, but I don’t accept anything unsolicited. If it’s something worth hearing it will get to me. If somebody pesters me, I just leave them. I have so much work to do! If my assistant Maria gives me something then it’s usually good.
What about your lifestyle… sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll?
I am married with 2 kids, who are 11 and 12. My daughter actually uses me as political capital at her school since I produce all these bands they are listening to. I lead a normal life. People have no idea what I do. I don’t look the part, I don’t act the part. I wear sweats to go to the studio everyday.
I don’t take any of it too seriously. You have to be really committed but I don’t think the rock ’n’ roll business is worth killing yourself over. You have to have a light-hearted, fun quality about the way you look at life. And that’ll show in your work. My albums have gotten way better the more I have lightened up on them.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I’m just going to keep doing this til I drop dead.
Interviewed by Monica Rydell
Next week: Interview with Peter Spellman at Music Business Solutions Inc. and author of Do-It-Yourself books.
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