Q&A: Ray Benson

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Barbara Schultz

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Ray Benson

What does the Les Paul Award mean for you?

I play guitar, produce records, built a studio, run a studio. So Les Paul, to a guitar player who's also a studio nerd, is one of our heroes. I've won nine Grammy Awards, which is very nice, but this is the core of what I do. I'm honored.

Tell us about your early recording experiences and influences.

I started Asleep at the Wheel in 1969 and I was a technophobe. I remember walking into my first studio, and it was a 2-track and I was overwhelmed by it. I'd been a performer since I was 9 years old, so I'd always been onstage but recording was a mystery to me. But I was in love with the 78 rpm records that I had collected and I realized that if I was to be successful in translating my ideas to tape, I'd better learn about the technology. So I went as retro as I could get. I started out wanting to know, “How did they do this back in the '20s and '30s?” We made many cool experiments in the middle '70s of recording 2-track live and trying to emulate the recordings of the '20s and '30s because of their immediacy.

We made our first recordings in Nashville and worked with our first producer, Tommy Alsup. Tommy had started out as a guitar player in Western swing bands and later joined Buddy Holly as his guitar player, but then went on to produce records for Liberty. Tommy really taught me the basics: what you do, who you need, how you need a great engineer and a great studio that fits the music you're doing.

Later, I worked with a great producer, Joel Dorn. Joel did Roberta Flack and all that Atlantic jazz, and we recorded in Bob Liftin's studio, Regent Sound. I learned a lot from him and an engineer named Vince McGarry about multitracking. I also must mention Norro Wilson. He was a slick Nashville producer who they put us with because they said we were so funky we needed somebody slick. Well, Norro was slick but he understood us and let us be involved in the creative process.

The first project I ever produced myself was for Capitol. I worked with John Paladino and Hugh Davies. That was a live Asleep at the Wheel album in 1979. That's when they turned me loose.

As a producer, do you approach projects as a custodian of retro technology or music?

The music we play is retro. It's a technique and a feel — a way of playing. When I produce other people, rarely do I produce other Western swing artists. I mean, there aren't really other Western swing artists! But whether I produce country, jazz, folk, blues, what I take to them all is that you can beat the life out of it if you don't watch it. I'm about capturing feeling without sacrificing technique and sound quality.

Is it important for modern producers and engineers to understand vintage methods?

Absolutely. The most important part is knowing how you get great sound, and everybody knows the mic technology of the '40s and '50s is the best there was. When I built Bismeaux Studio [Austin], my goal was to make records sound like Patsy Cline records because they had sparkling top end and a smooth, big bottom, and I don't care how I get there. I use any tools I can. Some tools are retro, some of the tools are computers.

When is it most important to go retro?

It's important to go retro in the preamps and Dis — in tube and transistor technologies, and analog processing. And the microphones. All of those help digital sound better.

When I started getting into this stuff, I would go to radio stations to do interviews about my next record, and I would say, “You got a back room where you keep junk?” I would go back and grab a compressor or transformers or mic pre's — anything vintage that it looked like I could use. I would also get radio boards because they always had preamps in them. We got these RCA radio boards, and me and Bill Brooks took them apart and eventually we found what to us is the Holy Grail, and it's certain circuits and certain transformers out of these old radio boards. We started building mic pre's, and they are the best-sounding mic pre's I've ever heard. My studio has over 30 channels of outboard mic pre's: Neve 1076s, Trident A Range, Brent Averill, an API board with original 512s. We put them up against ours, and ours have more top end and more low end.

How do you keep your studio afloat when so many are struggling?

I'm fortunate in that I had bought a building when prices were down, and I have tens of thousands of dollars' worth of gear that I got for nothing! The transformers that I used to pick up off the floor of radio stations now cost $200 each on eBay. My LA-2A was free; the LA-4, free; three 1176s, free. And I work with a lot of manufacturers. For example, Alesis — we were one of the beta-testers for ADATs.

Which means you haven't incurred debt where a lot of studio owners have.

Exactly. I've spent plenty of money on gear, but there's a saying: If you pay retail, you're dead. And this is true, because the market is so soft and so competitive. I also work with AMD [Advanced Micro Devices] and they built us special computers to test out their new chips. That's what enables me to have a state-of-the-art computer, and when we marry it with transistors and tubes, we have a balance — the best of all worlds.


Barbara Schultz is Mix's copy chief.






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