A prodigious talent schools the music business in Hit-making 101        

By Michael Gallant

Benny Blanco has crafted pop magic in the studio for today’s biggest stars, including Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Rihanna and Bruno Mars. He’s scored more than a dozen No. 1 hits and was named Songwriter of the Year at this year’s BMI Pop Awards. Oh, and he’s 24.

That’s an impressive career at any age, but only more so considering its humble beginnings. Blanco’s first inspiration came in 1994 when he bought Nas’ “The World Is Yours” and All-4-One’s “I Swear,” two very different and distinct singles. Moved by Nas’ grooves, Blanco dived into beatbox and rap. The emergence of Eminem convinced the young producer to focus on beat-making and further hone his craft in the studio. While still in high school Blanco landed his first break apprenticing for producer Disco D, regularly commuting to New York from his native Virginia on weekends to work with his mentor. Grinding through entry-level studio grunt work, Blanco now credits that time with providing a solid understanding of production and the music business.

In short order, Blanco’s career blew up. He built a rapport with producer and songwriter Dr. Luke, which led to collaborations on two Britney Spears tracks for 2008’s Circus album. The same year he co-produced two of Katy Perry’s breakout hits—“I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold”—and the following year he co-produced and co-wrote Ke$ha’s smash “Tik Tok.” “Every record is different for me, especially since I write, produce and mix,” says Blanco. “I try to place the missing puzzle pieces in a song. Sometimes that means more writing, sometimes that means more producing. Sometimes that means being a ventriloquist. I just try to contribute wherever I fit in.”

Blanco’s latest puzzle-piece contributions have been among his biggest. This year alone he helped create Rihanna’s chart-topping “Diamonds” and multiple tracks from Ke$ha’s Warrior album, as well as radio monoliths “Payphone” and “Moves Like Jagger” with  Maroon 5. Blanco, who also serves as a guest lecturer at New York University, discusses the behind-the-glass stories of his smash records.

What are your go-to production tools?

As far as software, I’m all Pro Tools. For sounds, I don’t use MIDI or any virtual instruments. I love it when people ask, “Man, what do I need to buy to produce? These keyboards are so expensive!” Some of my biggest songs were made with keyboards that cost $25. I’m all about vintage or toy instruments, so I’ll find keyboards at garage sales and use them on my next project. I’m into anything that doesn’t sound like something else. I don’t want people to hear my tracks and say, “Oh, that’s from the Triton or Fantom [keyboard synthesizers].” I want to use what nobody wants.



I have a Yamaha PSS-100 that I used for Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” and a million other songs. I think it cost $20 and didn’t even have an audio output, just a speaker—so I modded it out to plug it in.

What’s next in your process?

I record everything in Pro Tools as audio. I’ll do one note or one chord at a time. Then I edit and use lots of effects, as many effects as possible. [laughs] When in doubt, I just pile on a bunch of reverb.


What was the process for “Diamonds”?

I was working with StarGate [production team of Mikkel S. Eriksen and Tor Erik Hermansen], trying to come up with material for Rihanna. We came up with something that was almost hip-hop—very musical, but it felt like Kanye West could rap over it. Then Sia Furler came in and wrote an amazing top line over it, and it turned into this huge thing. Rihanna was on the road the whole time, so we sent her the track and she put her own spin on it. You can do what you think is a good song, but once someone as great as Rihanna sings it, the song comes to life on a whole new level.


Describe your work on “Payphone.” 

It started with two of my writers, Ammar Malik and RoboPop, working on a writing retreat in Virginia. Just as they were leaving, they made one last one and sent it off to me. There was this janky little organ sound that blew me away. It became the start of the chorus for “Payphone.” I worked on it on my laptop as a demo and sent it to my friend Shellback, who’s in Sweden. We kept going back and forth with it until the chorus had most of the lyrics, even though the verse was only melody. Ammar flew to L.A. and started writing lyrics and perfecting the melodies with [Maroon 5 frontman] Adam Levine. Then we all came to L.A. and recorded most of the song there.


How’d rapper Wiz Khalifa get involved?

At the time, I was already working with Wiz, and I remember asking myself, “What could make this song really special?” I always want to do something unexpected, so I called Wiz and got him to come in. But just as he was heading over to the studio I realized we didn’t actually have a beat for him to record over. So as he was on his way, I frantically created a beat for the bridge. I finished in time, he recorded his part over what I’d put together with Adam and everyone in the studio—and it was great. We fiddled with the song for a few more weeks and then it came out.

Did Wiz write his parts?

Wiz gets in the booth and starts going off the top of his head. He’ll scribble on a piece of paper for a few minutes beforehand, but when you look at the paper afterward, it will be something like a single word or a drawing. He’s so talented—the guy does it all on the spot.


What’s your approach to vocals?

You have to make the artist feel comfortable. Maybe the first few days we’ll go walk in the park, play basketball or watch some comedy show. You have to massage the artist like Play-Doh for a bit. When you’re finally in the studio, you need to make sure you’re getting takes that sound natural. Rather than pasting together a million tracks—which I wind up doing sometimes—I’d rather get as much of a natural take as I can. Even if you’re putting tuning, compression, reverbs and delays on the vocals, for me, it’s all about making the sound as intimate and natural as possible.


Sounds like there’s lots of tuning on “Moves Like Jagger.”

It’s crazy, but Adam’s voice just sounds like that. There’s barely any tuning on that record at all—I swear. In fact Adam hates Auto-Tune and won’t record with it. Sometimes when I had it turned off, I’d ask myself, “Wait, it’s really off?” He has the perfect voice with a great high range.


How do you approach backing vocals?

When you have a really good singer like Adam, they nail the lead. But when you’re adding in harmonies and doubles, the way you get them to sound that tight is due to timing, not tuning. I use VocALign to make the harmonies sync to the lead. With Maroon 5, everything was very close already. We wanted the vocals to sound human but we still VocaALign-ed the backgrounds so it sounded perfect. Especially if you want your backing vocal tracks panning left and right, you need them to line up so the song doesn’t sound lopsided.


Is it challenging switching genres from pop to rock to hip-hop?

I was in the studio with OneRepublic the other day and had to take into consideration that these guys play their material live every night. It’s OK to have a lot going on in the production, but it has to be simple enough for them to play it believably with the amount of people that they have onstage. I can’t have 20 drum parts going at once, for example. I often rely on bells, whistles and tricks that I like to add, but when I produce rock, it makes more sense to keep it bare, raw and edgy. Same with hip-hop. I hear all these things I want to add—say, to smooth transitions—but sometimes to preserve the essence of what you’re producing, you have to tone yourself down.


You also worked with Bruno Mars.

I’ve known him for five or six years—the guy’s a legend in the making. He can play every instrument flawlessly. He can sing every note. Melodies come to his head. You just have to keep up with him in the studio. The guy is hilarious, too. You’re getting a comedy sketch and a hit song whenever you work with him.


Why teach at this stage of your career?

I try to say the things that I wish someone had told me when I was first starting out. We go over everything from writing songs to how to act in meetings, how to send your music out, how to propose business plans—the ins and outs of the business.


Any advice for aspiring producers?

The first thing to do to get bigger is to move to New York, L.A., Nashville, Miami, Atlanta—one of the big places. It’s not going to happen if you’re just sitting there. And right now, we’re probably in the best, most accessible time for trying to get in. You can do so much completely in the box on your laptop with a MIDI controller. You can upload your music to tons of places, and every person in the music business is basically a click away. You can Tweet, Facebook, Skype or MySpace anyone. It’s about getting in and working with a bunch of people, that’s exactly what I did. It’s not the easiest of times overall—but it’s the easiest time to get yourself heard.

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