has worked with artists that run the gamut of various styles and genres. These include Motorhead
, Papa Roach
, My Chemical Romance
and Mark Ronson
Benson has carved a name as the go to producer in the past ten years, with many of his records achieving gold and platinum status. In Ultimate-Guitar
's continuing series of features on producers and engineers, Joe Matera
caught up with Howard Benson
to discuss his career thus far, how Pro Tools
shaped his recording approach and the benefits of having commercial success as a producer.
UG: I want to start the interview asking you about your background in aerospace engineering. How did you go from that to music production?
That's a long story, but I always was interested in engineering as a kid and while I was even playing in my first young bands, I was always tinkering with engineering. And my folks were like, it's great you like music, but you should always have something to fall back on'. So I went to one of the top engineering colleges but the whole time I was going to school, I was also playing in a band too. Eventually I graduated and also started producing demos for small little known bands and I toiled at this business for about ten years trying to garner a hit. I worked with bands like TSOL and Bang Tango and all those hair bands. And then gradually with time, I started doing some of the other modern rock stuff.
You have stated that discovering Pro Tools was a major turning point in your career?
Yeah the moment I discovered Pro Tools, that was it. I was probably the first guy in rock music to really use it on a daily basis. I produced Sepultura's 1998 Against record as in Sao Paulo, Brazil that was all they had at the time. They didn't have a tape machine they only had Pro Tools and at that time I had never heard of it before. But the minute I started using it, it was like wow this is what I want to do and this is how I want to make records'. And with my engineering background I picked it up immediately. The next record I did after Sepultura was Less Than Jake and then Zebrahead and all these records combined until I got the phone call to do the POD record. And when I did The Fundamental Elements of Southtown it was all in the computer. It was one of the very first rock records made in Pro Tools that became huge. And then my career was off and running. That was back in 1999 and from then on, I don't think I had a year that I haven't had a multi-platinum record or at least two, or three anyway. The engineering and the music all combined for me. And that is what a producer really is about really. You need to know all of it.
In an interview once you claimed that working with Motorhead was the most important learning experience you ever had?
"They didn't have a tape machine they only had Pro Tools and at that time I had never heard of it before."
That was a big moment for me because at that time, I had never worked with any big stars. And Lemmy, I guess you can say he is an anti-star and he's so influential in a lot of ways but when I started working with him, it was incredibly difficult, because he is very hard to work with, because he's got his way of doing things. Just to be able to survive and get those records finished and hand them in, that was in itself, a major accomplishment. I had read before I had taken on the project, that the band had fired producers or that the producers quit the projects because they couldn't get along with him. I actually ended up in hospital on the first record [Bastards, 1993] from exhaustion. We worked so hard and it was so brutal to get through it, but to be honest, it was one of best learning experiences I ever had. It was pretty crazy as I did four records with them. I could have kept going but it was my choice to stop as I had other things I wanted to do so couldn't do any more records with them.
You work very closely with your appointed engineer, how important is a producer's relationship with an engineer?
It is like a marriage, I am very lucky to have met my engineer and I have my own team of guys. My recording engineer is Mike Plotnikoff and his lineage is really good. He came from Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver and he was trained and tutored under Bob Rock and Bruce Fairbairn, and guys like that who really were the great record producers in the 80s. Those guys did albums by Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Metallica. Mike worked as second engineer and a runner and all that kind of stuff during that period. So when he left Little Mountain and came to LA, I met him and he knew how to do the real analog mic'ing techniques, the level stuff that you can only learn by watching other people do it. Stuff you can't learn in school, stuff you have to watch as other producers and engineers do their work. So I hired him and I've worked with him for almost 12 years now. I've been with my Pro Tools engineer Paul Decarli for about seven years now, and he's a huge part of my team. Mark Van Gool is my guitar tech. We do a lot of guitars so we need somebody dedicated to all the different tunings we encounter, different guitars, amps all kind of things that are part and parcel of doing the records that we do. And then I have my assistant Hatch' who does all the vocal recording and file management and string arrangement, so we have everything covered in the studio, so it's a team effort.
You don't mind jumping genres in your work?
I enjoy it. I am doing a pop record right now, and in the last two records, I have done a really hard rock record by a band called Black Stone Cherry and also I did Theory Of A Deadman which is sort of in the middle. At the moment, I am doing SafetySuit which is very pop. I never worry about that kind of stuff really. I worry about the songs only. If you worry too much about genres, it'll cause trouble as they change so much and so quickly. People have said to me that they're amazed that I can remain so current on the music I do and am never out of style and am one step ahead. I say to them that it is really about the songwriting. When I hear a good song, I want to do the project.
Have you got any particular methods you prefer to use when capturing guitar tones in the studio?
I approach it more from an arrangement point of view. My mic'ing techniques are very simple. I guess in the words of Mutt Lange - I remember an interview he did once where he talked about the AC/.DC record he did and how he did those amazing guitars and he said, I put up a 57 and I get out of the way!' And that's how we approach our guitars. We put up really fundamental mics, and we find the sweet spot on the speaker. We put it through barely any electronics at all, as we go for the sound of the amp and the guitar, and we try to keep as many pedals and many things out of the signal path as we can. We find that it all degradates the sound to a certain extent. It adds stuff to it that makes it sound less of the real sound and especially when you stack it up over track after track. Our records have a lot of layers of guitars that create the sound that we have. The sound really does come from the layering and how we edit them. But there is a lot more to them than just the mic'ing technique really.
For those who have home studio set up, what is the best advice you can pass on in regards to making better recordings?
As a young producer with your own home studio, the most important thing is to keep it simple. Don't use too many effects, don't use too much EQ, and don't use too much compression. Keep it as natural as you can so when you end up mixing it, you have a lot more things you can do with it. If you start printing all kinds of effects, and start using all kinds of EQ it'll never sound big. Keep the arrangements very simple, and make sure you have a lot of space. Space is a really big deal when you come to song arrangements. Let me compare it to this; you go out to look for a new house and there is no furniture in it, so it looks really big. But then when you put furniture in it, and as soon as you put too much furniture in it, you go, that's not a really big house I actually bought. It is a tiny house.' And that's how music is too. The more parts you put in it, the smaller the record. The big records are the ones that don't have a lot going on it. Look at the Green Day records, or the AC/DC records. At the heart of them, there is not a lot going on. Another example is Def Leppard's Photograph. I just re-produced Photograph for the new Santana record with Chris Daughtry singing on it, and it was amazing how little was actually going on in that song. Even though it sounds huge on the radio, there is a lot of space in that record. So save the effects for later and use the compression only when you mix. Don't use it when you're trying to record.
What have been some of the best bands you have worked with?
"Working with Motorhead was a big moment for me because at that time, I had never worked with any big stars."
In my early days working on Body Count with Ice-T I learned a lot about lyric writing and certain rap records and things like that. It was one of the first records I made and it was great for me to work with a guy like that. But also with the different genres and bands I was very lucky to work with such as Less Than Jake because they were a total different band for me than a star band. Every artist presents its own thing and I am never bored by that.
What album do you think influenced you in your production work, and one that you use as the benchmark in comparing your musical output?
Band wise, my favorite was The Doors. I loved the fact that the music was very pop but at the same time, it was very dark. And I like the darkness of the lyrics and the strange metaphors and all the poetic license that Jim Morrison would take on record. And even doing that, they were still successful. And I loved the sound of the organ. I love keyboards. I mean, I am a guitar producer but I love the sound of keyboards and was very much influenced by Ray Manzarek.
And which producer influenced you the most?
As far my production work goes, the producer who influenced me the most was Keith Olsen, who did so many huge records like The Scorpions, Sammy Hagar, Whitesnake and Fleetwood Mac. I first met Keith about five or six records into my career. I was actually in trouble on a record so he was brought in to help out, and instead of kicking me out of the studio, he let me stay and watch. I was very young at the time and had no clout whatsoever and watching him work, I came to a realization. Keith would take these bands and singers into this room where he had all these gold and platinum records on the wall. It was wall to wall records everywhere and Keith would sit the band or singer down and whenever they had an argument in the studio, he would point to the walls and say to them, what do I know?' And I remember thinking to myself, I just want that kind of clout where the band totally trusts you. Because at the end of the day, you as a producer are really messing with their art, they're giving you the license to play with their babies so to speak. And the only way to do that, to have that sort of clout, is to have stuff up on the wall where they go, well I guess Howard does know what he's talking about, just look at all those platinum records on the wall'. And you know what? I now finally have a room like that and realize the value of that room now which is to get the artists to totally trust you.
Interview by Joe Matera