Interview with Ben Fowler

The art of cutting albums often sees individuals performing roles which are sometimes not well-defined. Could you elaborate on some of the roles you have performed in the past?

Ben Fowler: The bulk of my livelihood stems from being a mix engineer, although I tend to wear many hats. These days, for example, I’m happily able to produce more often. Nowadays, people need to be able to perform a variety of tasks. In the past there were clearer cut roles for an assistant engineer, engineer, producer, production coordinator, and others who did different things. Often the producer will now be the engineer. I’m working from my home studio today, and I’m the producer, the engineer, the assistant engineer, the budget coordinator, and the coffee maker. You can’t just do one thing anymore. There isn’t enough money to hire each of those jobs out.

Given that studio recording jobs are not entirely clear cut, one would assume that career paths are also complicated. How does one ‘break into’ the industry?

BF: In my case, I was lucky and caught a break. I started out as a musician. Once I graduated with a music degree from Ball State, I found an opportunity to work at Power Station, which is now called Avatar Studios, in New York City. Not everyone is lucky enough to catch a break that way, however. After graduating, a number of Belmont students are given the opportunity to intern at studios like Ocean Way, or Blackbird here in Nashville. If you are able to go to college and begin an internship like that, it’s

important to work as hard as you can. Once an individual secures an internship, being humble is a very important thing. One thing that we usually look for, as people looking to hire assistant engineers and entry-level individuals, are social skills. Entry-level engineers may have a number of technical skills and DAW skills, but it’s important to learn how to interact with people. I believe schools should afford more attention to equipping students with social skills. It’s not worth very much to be an engineering wiz if you can’t blend in and collaborate with the people around you. For those of us who have been a part of the industry for awhile, attitude is the most important quality we look for when hiring people. If you are going to spend 10-12 hours in a room with someone, you have to make sure that they represent you well and interact with the client appropriately. Sometimes your clients will be superstars, and one wrong word can change everything.  Apart from attitude, it’s important for people to have a drive to succeed. The lazy cats don’t make it in this industry. We’re graduating more people than there are jobs for, so only the positive, hardworking people might get a shot.

The role of the producer is often understood to be intensely creative. Would you say that mix engineering can be understood in the same way? Do the lines between production and mixing become blurry at any point?

BF: Good mixing is an art form. There is certainly a technical side as well, but once you start considering how a mix should represent a particular song it becomes totally creative. You can make or break a song with a good or bad mix. I think production and mixing are very separate tasks. Some people are great producers, but don’t have any interest or desire to learn the technical aspects of mixing. On the other hand there are engineers who also have great production chops. It really comes down to the individual, and how they choose to work. If you are a great producer-engineer, then you will get more work of that type. Some engineers just are not cut out to be producers, and some producers are just not cut out to be engineers. Some people may be more technical than musical, or the other way around. The task of the ‘producer’ can mean different things, though. Some producers have the ability to see the whole picture. For example, in a room with 7 musicians playing, a great producer will be able to process everything they are playing quite easily. It’s just natural.  Some producers are more like businessmen. Their skills lie more in getting money together, and work more along the lines of an ‘executive producer.’ Here in Nashville there are producers who are great in each category. There are producers here who can see the ‘big picture’ while being great with songs, musically excellent, technically skilled, and can communicate with the artist and the label effectively.

The key to all of this is communication and to be able to interpret what somebody is really looking for. If an artist is looking for a certain –anything- whether a vocal quality or something specific to the song, a producer needs to be able to interpret these needs and deliver. If a producer can communicate artistically, he will be much busier than someone who cannot. I was very fortunate to be trained behind some of the world’s greatest producers and engineers, which is why I am able to do this today. One of the most useful things I was taught is that different groups of people, like different casts, require a different management style. It’s important to be able to use whichever production or engineering style that is best suited to the group you are working with. Part of a producer’s role is to also cast players, much like a television show, who work together well and are just right for the record. A good producer needs to be able to assemble the right team for the right record, and manage them accordingly.

How important is it to be around the ‘very best’ personnel? And how does one go about meeting these people?

BF: It’s really a series of lucky events, in most cases. Certainly, the career path for anyone who is involved in recording is like a roller coaster. Even if you have some wild successes, there will be some low points too. No matter which ‘hat’ you wear, there are plenty of ups and downs. In my case, it was luck that led me to be able to work with Phil Ramone, Russ Titelman, and Tom Dowd. These guys were, to me, legendary producers and here in Nashville we have guys like Josh Leo, Dan Huff, and many others. As far as breaking-in goes, someone may finish school and start producing demos and the musicians may not be very good, or the music is not the greatest. You have to be able to bust your hump and make that recording as good as possible, so that others will begin to take note and realize that you can deliver. Whether you are a musician or a producer/engineer, you need to build a reputation as someone who is dependable and who has the ability to get projects done well and on time. Create your luck by taking opportunities and doing your best every time. Satisfaction comes with making things perfect, not the money or anything else. Any studio musician, producer, or engineer in town would agree. The “hit-and-run” types of producers and engineers don’t last very long in this town.

Could you describe your overall approach to engineering in greater detail?

BF: I was talking to someone recently, on behalf of a Canadian artist he was representing, who was essentially price-shopping for an engineer as well as other personnel. Instead of choosing people based on what work they’ve done, he was casting people based on money which is something I haven’t seen before. People will usually adjust their prices, if necessary, but this individual was looking for an engineer as if he was shopping at Walmart or Target. The sound of the record should always come first, which includes finding the right studio. I’m spoiled to be able to work at places like Ocean Way and Blackbird. If you find the right place initially and record really good tracks you will save money. Better equipment will be easier to use, and less time will need to be spent mixing and fixing things in post. The performance will often be better in a better facility because the band will be inspired because they will not be distracted by a bad headphone mix. Better facilities have the equipment to ensure good monitor mixes for tracking dates. It makes more sense to me to rent a high quality facility rather than having to fix everything in the overdub stage and toil over the mixing process.

What about technical details and equipment?

BF: As far as equipment goes, I like to track on Neve consoles, and I prefer equipment that is ‘meaty’ sounding. Other than that, I am not much of a gadget-focused engineer. I know the equipment and how to use it, but for me it’s all about just getting good sounds on tape.

So your approach is more organic, and about the sonic palette that is available to you?

BF: If it feels good, do it. I’m not the kind of guy that will craft sounds by looking through manuals. Early on when I was at Power Station we didn’t have rules or parameters, it was all about experimentation. Some tremendous sounding records were made at Power Station because there were no limits. You weren’t restricted to using one particular piece of gear for a particular application. I’ve seen some overly-technical engineers ruin a great performance. They were still messing with gadgets, asking for another take, or were holding up an inspired band. In some ways, you have to consider yourself as part of the band when sitting behind a console. It’s your job to take music from the floor and get it onto tape without slowing it down in any way. There is usually a point at which a band is inspired during a session, and it usually doesn’t occur after a multitude of performances. It usually occurs more towards the beginning of a tracking session, and I’ve seen people completely lose a great moment on tape while being overly technical with studio gadgets.

I think the key to making ground breaking records is to push the envelope somehow. For example, you might find a way of using a mic pre that is unorthodox, or discover something new in the mix – safe is never fun to listen to. The talent pool is so deep in Nashville that you can easily hire different people for different projects who will deliver something unique. Casting people for a project is truly an art, and involves creativity in deciding to pair different musicians together, for example. I like to try and make things interesting, in the very least, for my own listening pleasure. If I’m going to be listening to the same project consistently for 3 months, I want to be sure to be entertained by it. It helps me stay engaged with the project.