Musical Neighborhood blog series: producer-engineer Ben Moore

James Brown had the title of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” I think it’s only appropriate, then, that The Hardest Working Man in San Diego Music is one of the founders of the best soul and funk band I’ve ever seen play live. The band is called The Styletones, and the man is producer/engineer/musician Ben Moore. Now I have to watch myself on this write-up, lest it turn into some sort of thousand-word butt kissing session because I am amazed by everything Ben does.

Around the time I was raising money for my record and searching for a producer and recording engineer, Ben was suggested to me by my drum teacher, Toby Ahrens, who had worked with him previously. Then I saw Ben’s name on the back of a couple of local records, so I decided to look him up. I saw that he had worked with some big-name bands and I was afraid he wouldn’t want to record with a greenhorn like me. But it turns out he enjoys working with greenhorns, as well as studio pros. I told him that I wanted to make a professional sounding recording that I would be proud to send to any radio station in the country. And, by the end of my time working with Ben, that’s what we had done.

Ben grew up surrounded by music. His dad, Matthew Moore, and his uncle, Daniel Moore, are both professional singer-songwriters and have written songs recorded by well-known artists (Joe Cocker, Herbie Hancock, Barbra Streisand, Brooks & Dunn, etc…). Ben started playing piano at a young age. By fifteen he was playing in bands with adults that were of the same age as his parents and making recordings with 4-track tape. In high school he would hitch rides with friends to MiraCosta College in order to take classes in recording. He remembers how just being around all the latest equipment was exciting to him.

With experienced gained from working part-time in studios in his teens and early twenties, Ben eventually got a job at Golden Track Recording Studio as a recording engineer. He mastered not only the soundboards and software, but learned to tune the musicians’ instruments to achieve the best possible sound for guitars, horns, drums and so on. He says the thing he is really known for is his ability to get great drum sound by properly tuning and mic-ing them to come out clear in the mixes. After his days at Golden Track, Ben transitioned to freelance work, partnering with a few local studios where he is intimately familiar with the rooms and available equipment (which, as I have seen, is sometimes hidden 4 cases deep).

Ben’s day starts out handling “business stuff.” This means coordinating logistics with the studios and bands, sending out mixes for evaluation, working out financial arrangements, and doing management work for The Styletones. Then he packs all the gear he will need for the day and starts in the recording studio with a client. Rather than explain everything a recording engineer does, it may be best to direct you to the videos I shot last year while recording my album with Ben:

1. Recording the rhythm section
2. I get pushed to the limit on guitar
3. Ben lays down the Hammond organ
4. Tracking the vocals

Before all of the takes and re-takes and re-re-takes in tracking, we spent a lot of time getting those drums and amps and mics set up right, and the result can definitely be heard on the record. I also spent a lot of time re-tuning my guitar because Ben can hear when something is the slightest bit off pitch. He says, “It’s a great asset in the studio but my sensitivity can ruin my enjoyment of live music. I get sea sick when exposed to a long show with out-of-tune guitars.”

Ben has esoteric knowledge of all kinds of gear, from a 40-year-old tape-delay box all the way to the latest plug-ins for Pro Tools. He has a mobile studio that allowed all of my vocals to be done at my house (after putting up a few blankets to make a reverb-free sound booth). He either owns or can get any piece of equipment you can dream up. But he also knows what makes for good songs.

As my producer, Ben helped to give the Activity record a consistent sound. I remember how we initially sat down and cleaned up and condensed my demo versions. In the studio he gave me a lot of pointers on what kind of guitar leads worked for each track, and came up with some great harmony ideas on the fly. Ben has a network of session players and knew which ones would be right for the project. He connected me with a stellar session bass player in Jason Littlefield of The Heavy Guilt. With Toby (who also drums for SD icon Robin Henkel) on the kit, the two of them took only a handful of hours to crank out 11 tracks of rock-solid rhythm.

While Ben was working on my project, he also had several others underway. He says, “It’s never the same day twice. When I have five projects going at once, it can feel like chaos. I might go from playing organ at Jeff Berkley’s to recording opera/German poetry to mixing Pinback tracks, all in one day.”

But that diversity is what Ben enjoys most. He says he gets bored easily and needs projects in different genres to sustain a high level of enthusiasm for recording. Conversely, what frustrates him the most is that, because there is so much going on, sometimes the logistics can get you. Forgetting one small thing, like a software key or a cable, may mean having to run back to get it from across town (if you ever played in a band you probably know this mad dash well). Another frustration is that there may be third parties providing payment, and when the money doesn’t come through a project must be shelved.

In dealing with the egos (mine included) of those really hearing themselves under a “sound microscope” for the first time, I have found Ben to be incredibly patient and understanding. He says it’s because he is also a long-time musician. He understands that, in general, indie musicians are already working extremely hard for a shot at success. He knows that people who have not recorded before may need to be taught a lot. He knows that crap sometimes happens and he can be flexible. As a musician, however, Ben keeps his work in the Styletones as separate as possible from his recording projects so as not to create the impression that he will push the music to be similar to what his band does. His only real preference is for well-written songs, in any genre.

At one point I asked Ben the golden question: What would you say to me if I were thinking of starting a career in recording? “My advice? Don’t,” he said. He wasn’t joking. “Music schools are turning out far too many students and there just isn’t that much work. This business is saturated with interns trying to get their foot in the door.” Ben says that although he is sometimes inundated with projects, there are dry spells and the only way he is able to make up for it is through incidental work. He has arcane knowledge of vintage gear and does small consulting jobs, sometimes in trade, setting up and fixing equipment for others. And he is the go-to guy in town if you need Hammond B3 organ on your record. Like I told you, Ben is one hard-working man.

I asked Ben about some of the people he has worked with. He says he recently recorded folk artist Joel Rafael, utilizing Jackson Browne’s rhythm section and backing vocals by David Crosby and Graham Nash. He has also worked with Switchfoot, Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka, Burt Bacharach, Berkley Hart, Pinback, and a long list of high profile San Diego-based artists. He’s also done albums for Hot Snakes front man and radio host “Swami” John Reis, for whom he has a lot of praise. Ben says, “I count his record collection as one of my biggest musical influences.”

So, allow me to tie this whole butt-kissing deal back to my job search. I have to say I am completely unsurprised to hear that making it as a professional recording engineer is as rough as making it as a songwriter. As interesting as the recording process is to me, I’m not sure I want to combine two completely unstable careers at this point (hats off to you, Ben!) Although I do think that teaching myself to run a pro mixing console couldn’t hurt. I’m getting pretty good with Garageband in my home studio, but anything with more than 20 knobs and faders intimidates the hell out of me.

What I do know is that when I am ready for another studio record, I will know who to go to. And when I need a groove fix, I go see Ben, Steve Harris and the dapper crew of The Styletones. Congratulations on getting your song on Showtime’s Weeds and keep the successes rolling! And now, I’m ready to get up and do MY thing. What’s my thing? Avoiding homelessness.

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