Musician and multiplatinum producer Howard Benson had an unlikely start in the business: as a materials engineer in the aerospace industry. But he’d always remained active, musically. After recording with several bands, he realized that production was his forte and his true love. It took 12 years of hard work before he had his first real taste of success with P.O.D.’s 1999 platinum record The Fundamental Elements of Southtown. His latest score was with Three Days Grace and 2017’s Outsider, which includes the No. 1 hit “The Mountain.
To coax the best from an artist or band, Benson varies his approach from project to project. “With a band like Three Days Grace, they don’t need me to say ‘I don’t believe in what you’re doing; I don’t get a feeling from it,’” he explains. “They come to the studio with songs. They need me as a bigger-picture guy. The band is motivated enough. Other younger bands, you have to get in there and push them, because their preconceptions about working in the studio are so different from reality.”
Three Days Grace earned a co-production credit on Outsider. Does it present any unique obstacles or conflicts when a band collaborates on production? ”Not with this group,” Benson asserts. “This is my third album with them and they’ve already made several. Why would it be embarrassing for me to list them? It would seem almost like I was trying to be heavy-handed about the process. Those guys can make a record without me. I’m the one who makes the final call and I like that. But there’s a lot that Neil [Sanderson, drummer] brings in. He trusts my decision-making.”
One of the challenges associated with recording hit single “The Mountain” was that, despite the time spent on it, something still seemed to be lacking. That’s when Benson realized the demo had been recorded a half-step higher. “Apparently the previous producer talked them into lowering it,” he explains. “When we made the decision to re-record it a half-step higher, it was the right choice. All of it was in the vocals. Brad [Walst’s] voice gets this great desperate sound when he hits that high note. When it was recorded a half-step lower, it sounded desperate but it felt like he kept getting pushed back. Re-recording it was a big call, but it made all the difference.”
One of Benson’s keys to success is his emphasis on substance over style; of quality over quantity. “When you look at movies like Get Out and A Quiet Place, they had small budgets but great scripts,” he observes. “That’s how I look at the record-making process: you don’t have to spend a ton of money doing it. You just have to make sure the songs are great.”
Recent experiences have taught him that it is crucial for artists to be invested in the process. “They have to be willing to work harder than you are,” he insists. “If they aren’t, you’re in a tough situation. A lot of this applies to L.A. bands because everyone’s in like three; they’re all working on their other projects. I’m a little more wary now of the bands I bring in. I have to be sure of them.”
Benson’s current and upcoming projects include Palisades and Issues, bands both signed to Rise Records. Benson records exclusively at West Valley Recording, his own studio.