This veteran producer’s goal is to unlock the best in every artist

 MARK HORNSBY LEARNED EARLY ON THAT VERSATILITY WAS the key to a successful career as a producer and recording engineer, recalling a mentor who cautioned against getting pigeonholed into a certain sound or style. “If you get locked into just one thing, one day you’re going to wake up and not have any work,” says Hornsby.

Hornsby’s never lacked for work. He spent more than 15 years as an independent producer and engineer before joining Sweetwater Studios in 2012 as director of music production and artist relations, running the recording studio side of the music retail giant’s operation in Fort Wayne, Ind. On projects by acts as varied as Alison Krauss, New Found Glory, King Crimson and Ricky Martin, Hornsby has learned that his primary responsibility is to make artists comfortable enough to deliver their best performances, and be ready to capture that performance.

Along the way, Hornsby has owned recording studios, designed music software, consulted for high-end audio companies, and lectured at universities. It’s been a steady climb for a producer whose early gigs were less glamorous. “I spent several years doing tracks for karaoke companies,” recalls Hornsby. “I actually enjoyed the education of having to listen to a recording and then dissecting them to figure out what the different parts were doing.”

His artist-centric approach to recording is a natural fit at Sweetwater, a company that emphasizes customer service. Plus, as a musician-turned-producer, Hornsby has much in common with Sweetwater founder Chuck Surack, who followed a similar path some 35 years ago. “Our history is similar,” says Hornsby, “and the company, the mentality—I love it. Everyone here is focused on excellence.”


What inspired you to get into recording?

I grew up around it. My first gig to do sound was running the broadcast mix at the church I grew up in. I was 12 or 13. I also grew up being a musician, and I had family in the business—my uncle, Ronnie Brookshire, is a producer and engineer. I grew up in Tennessee and would spend summers visiting family in Nashville, hanging out in recording studios. By the time I graduated from high school I was on staff at the local CBS affiliate doing production work in my hometown. The TV thing was cool, but I always gravitated toward being the sound guy. When I was playing in bands I was the guy who knew how the sound equipment worked, hooked up the PA, and recorded everything.


Who were your mentors?

I’ve had several. In the church I grew up in the technical director taught me how a real production was put together, everything from directing the show to sound, lighting and cameras. My uncle has always been a guy in my life who I’d call if I had a question about recording. But, my biggest mentor was someone who didn’t have anything to do with music—my dad. He was in management training at the Eastman Chemical Company, and after he retired he started his own company, wrote books, and toured the world doing quality management leadership consulting for Fortune 500 companies. So I was raised on a lot of that curriculum. He taught me a lot about principles in organization, self-discipline and teamwork. The whole people-skill angle that’s so crucial to the music business—I got all that from him.


What’s the first thing you do in
the studio?

Get out of the studio! For me, a conversation with an artist doesn’t start there. There can be too much of the-clock-is-ticking mentality. I like to have a cup of coffee and just talk, get to know the artist, find common ground. As a producer, one of your main jobs is to identify as quickly as you can where the act is coming from. What are their goals, where do they want to go, and how can I help them do that? Figuring that out is the biggest piece of the puzzle—and it has nothing to do with recording. It’s all about getting to know someone and their personality.


What’s your approach with an artist?

I adapt to the artist I’m producing. Some performers are used to being live onstage, unconstrained by headphones, boxes and isolation booths. Others are used to overdubbing in their Pro Tools rig on their laptop. They’re used to stacking and building something from scratch. Then there’s the in-between. My job is to capture a great performance, so I’m going to tailor my workflow around whatever makes them comfortable so they can deliver that performance. If that means everybody playing in a room together without headphones, and it feels good and we’re capturing a great take, great. If that means we’re going to scope every bar of a song and start with the bass and drums, and then layer the guitars, keyboards and vocals, that’s great, too. I’m flexible.


Do you prefer analog or digital?

I’ve probably forgotten more about Pro Tools and editing than a lot of people who are out there learning that stuff. But it’s just a tool. Whether we’re recording on tape or on the computer, that’s all secondary to the sound, the feel and whether everybody is comfortable. Get that right and we can put SM57s and a Mackie mixer in front of it, and it’s going to be fine.


How hands-on are you in the studio?

It depends. If a band wants somebody to take charge and help them find their voice, I can do that. I find that a lot with singer-songwriters who are searching for their sound, and I can be very hands-on. And then there are some singers who come in and I don’t have to do anything. I don’t want to do anything. You get a blues band in the studio that’s been together for a long time, and they’ve got their sound. My job is not to critique them and make them something they’re not. My job is to capture them at their best moment. It’s about getting in a room, and discovering that they have an idea, and I have an idea, and together we can come up with a better idea.


Is there a Mark Hornsby sound?

If I had my druthers, artificial reverb would not exist and everything would just be good room tones that are all-enclosing, kind of like when you put on the headphones and you feel like you’re sitting right in the middle of the room with the band. I probably picked up a lot of that from producer Bill Bottrell’s recordings. As far as having a sound, one of the things my uncle taught me early on was, don’t get locked into one thing—and I haven’t. Every project and every artist is different.


Favorite artists you’ve worked with?

Alison Krauss is gold. She steps behind a microphone and it’s not a matter of whether it’s a good take, the only question is whether it’s the right take. Another is New Found Glory. We were responsible for the record that got them picked up when I was at Ridenour Studios. They were one of the bands that pioneered that genre, and being able to work with them at that time was pretty cool.

—Eric R. Danton


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