From aircraft to songcraft and from aerospace to star power
By Michael Gallant
For multiplatinum, Grammy-nominated producer Howard Benson, the crucial skill that led to success in the music business was … aerospace engineering? “Music has a math component to me,” Benson explains. “It’s complicated and fun, and I’m blessed to do it every day. Plus the same organizational skills apply. Just instead of making turbines and airplane wings, I’m making records.”
Mind you, his musical foundation came first. Growing up in Philadelphia, he learned the technical side of music from his music-teacher mother while digging deeply into his father’s wildly diverse record collection. Before long he was making music himself. “Disco or pop, I didn’t care what style I was playing,” he recalls. “As long as it was music, I was into it. But when I was in bands that were recording, I always wanted to be the producer. I wanted to be in charge.”
He earned a degree in materials engineering from Philly’s Drexel University and moved to California to take a job in the aerospace industry. He began moonlighting as a producer at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound studios, which eventually became his full-time gig. He built a production career throughout the late 1980s and ’90s, becoming one of Pro Tools’ earliest major adopters along the way.
Benson’s major commercial breakthrough came with P.O.D.’s triple-platinum 2001 album Satellite. Since then he has worked with Santana, Kelly Clarkson, Bon Jovi, My Chemical Romance, Gavin DeGraw and Daughtry, among many others. He’s recently been busy in the studio with acts including Flyleaf, Daniel Powter, Halestorm, BOY, We as Human, and Skillet. “My engineering background taught me how to keep things straight with mental and physical lists,” he says. “I also surround myself with very talented people. My job is to stay creative and ahead of the curve. Their job is to make sure I don’t screw anything up.” Benson discussed with us the secrets to finding the right sound in the studio—and making sure that sound reaches its audience once it’s released into the world.
How do you see your role?
Projects never end for me. I started off in this business trying to be a different type of producer than many of my predecessors. I wanted to stay involved, so when the recording process was over, I’d still do all sorts of remixes and edits. I work on both sides of the fence a lot. I’ll produce and help with songwriting and arranging, but then also be very involved in the business end—lobbying the record company, calling the A&R guys, complaining to people that the album isn’t doing well enough. (laughs) I’m very involved, and I think bands like that. It’s just the way I’m built. I want projects to succeed, and a lot of times my extra effort has really helped.
With Hoobastank, I was listening to the finished album [The Reason, 2003] in the Philadelphia airport and thought, “We don’t have the record.” We had a couple of big singles, but we didn’t have the taking-off point. I went back into the studio with them, recorded a couple of songs and we came up with “Out of Control.” Suddenly we had a single. It went up the charts and the rest is history. It was worth taking the extra time and going back to the well on that one. Daughtry’s current single “Outta My Head” is another good example. I wasn’t happy with how it turned out on the record. That version was rock, and we wanted it to be more pop, so I went in and re-produced it. I changed the guitars, added some keyboard elements, some loops and some dubstep, and put out a song that was a bit more pop. I also used a different mixing engineer. Even while we were working on that album [Break the Spell, 2011] the market had changed, so I drove the process to keep his sound current. I was prepared for nobody to like it, but I played it for [frontman] Chris Daughtry and he loved it. I don’t think many other producers would have gone that far on their own.
How did you find Pro Tools?
I went down to São Paulo, Brazil, to work with Sepultura [on 1998’s Against] and ran into a computer running this thing called Pro Tools. Nobody had used it much in the rock world. Given my background, I was familiar working with computers and had been using a two-track editing program called Turtle Beach—but Pro Tools was different. Seeing it was a moment of clarity. I knew that’s where the future was. I had sold some records, but was still pretty much starving at the time. I used the last penny I had in the bank to buy a Pro Tools rig.
What was the reaction?
A lot of people wouldn’t hire me because of Pro Tools. They insisted on tape—no computers. They thought it would make music sterile, and some people did mess up and edit things to death. But great artists have made tons of computer-generated records that still sound emotional. I’m certain if Mozart had had access to Pro Tools, he would have loved it and created amazing music with it.
Was there a learning curve?
I recorded Less Than Jake [Hello Rockview, 1998] with Pro Tools, but I had to convince them to let me use it. Also, Digidesign had sent me a floppy disc with some new program called Auto-Tune. I knew about Fourier transforms from physics classes, so I knew it had something to do with pitch. When I put the band’s vocals through it, and it changed the sound from a rough out-of-tune singer to a rough in-tune singer, it was like seeing the future. I overused Auto-Tune on that album, though—I tuned everything, including the horns. I got carried away with it, but it still sold well. I also had to convince P.O.D. to let me produce them using Pro Tools, but it worked. The computer leveled the playing field for bands like them, who were great live but hadn’t been able to pull off records.
What do you look for in an act?
Star power. If an artist has star power and is willing to co-write songs, then I’m pretty much in. When I don’t see that compelling element in an artist or an artist’s message, that spark you need to be an entertainment star, it can be hard. You can fix everything else, but you can’t fix that. My Chemical Romance had messy songs and messy writing, and they didn’t understand arrangements. But I knew that [singer] Gerard Way was going to be a star, and I knew that he could take instruction about how to put songs together. Chris Daughtry is another great example. When he walks in, he fills up the room. That’s the kind of thing you look for.
Did you always look for that?
In my early days as a producer, I produced a band called the Ernies. Their songs were about physics, molecules and stardust. As an engineer by training, I loved it—but it turned out to be the worst-selling record I ever did. I don’t even know if it sold a single copy. I thought the record [Meson Ray, 1999] was awesome, so how could I have been so wrong? My biggest problem when I was starting was that I was looking for bands that weren’t stars and trying to turn them into stars. I realized that the only way to do things right was to start with great songs and star power and then turn it into a great record.
When did you realize that?
Meeting P.O.D. They were the first huge band I produced. When they first walked into the studio, there was so much star power coming off of those guys that the women in the studio were falling over. I felt like an insignificant dot in the room. I thought, “Wow, this is where it’s at. People want to be around them.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. I remember being intimidated by those guys but I knew I had to produce them. The only thing they needed help with was their songs. They were rapping certain parts, and I got [vocalist]
Sonny Sandoval to start singing them instead. I’d sold maybe 100,000 records total before that point, but Satellite was selling 100,000 copies per week. That’s what it’s about—great songwriting, great vocals and star power. Who cares about the other stuff? You can worry about guitar and bass sounds, and that stuff is cool, but that’s not what people are buying. They buy songs and stars that turn them on. They want to be part of something powerful.
It’s tribal. Your reptilian brain kicks in: “I want to be part of that,” or “I want to sleep with that guy or girl.” It’s a basic, fundamental thing, and once you’re in touch with that, it’s big. We sell a lot of albums to women because there are so many male bands out there. You have to think to yourself, is the girl in the audience going to want this singer in her life? Does she want to meet him? Is he speaking to her? Does she want to take care of him? Rock music has always had a lineage of sexuality at its core. A lot of records I was doing before P.O.D. just didn’t have that. You also have female superstars like Adele, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, and there are a lot of similarities. They have great songs, sexual star power and the fundamentals of lyric writing that makes listeners say, “I want that.”
What’s your own favorite style?
It’s a blessing or a curse, but I love all types of music. I’ve done everything from Kelly Clarkson to Sepultura. Sometimes when I have a hit record, I don’t even really think about it. I’m on to the next thing. It’s the engineer in me, I guess.