Interview with Benny Grotto of Mad Oak Studios

We had a chance to sit down (virtually sit down) with head engineer of Mad Oak Studios in Allston Mass, Benny Grotto. During our interview we talked about Mad Oak Studios, The Beatles, his approach to recording, The Beatles, local music, and gear (like the Mellotron; made famous by that band the.. ummm.. Beatles...). If you are looking for a studio to record your next album, put Mad Oak Studios at the top of that list. Their world class gear combined with their world class talent behind the board will get your crappy band sounding really good, or at least less crappy. If you are not looking for a studio, keep reading, Benny Grotto has some insight into just about everything related to music and we hope we captured a small part of it in this interview.


YB: First off, Thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk to us regarding Mad Oak Studios. What's the origin of the studio's name?

Grotto: The building the studio is located in used to be a wood-working shop called Mad Oak. When Craig (the owner) put the studio together, he just figured it'd be easiest to stick with that name. I think he buckled under the pressure of having to name his own business; it's like trying to name your first born. Plus, there was already a sign on the door that said "Mad Oak", which, after the considerable cost of the studio buildout, saved us a few much-needed bucks.

YB: HA, saving money is always a good reason. Could you tell me the names of owners/ engineers/ important people/ less important people who work at the Studio?

Grotto:
Craig Riggs - Master Proprietor, Studio Manager, Handsome-and-Groovy-Dude-Guy
PK Pandey - Gear Overlord, Studio Manager, Executive of Wicked Awesome
Benny Grotto - Head Engineer, Studio Manager
Joe Saliba - Second Engineer, Studio Manager, Super-Awesome Right Hand Man
Dusten Pettengill - Assistant
Liam Gallagher - Assistant

YB: How long has the studio been operating?

Grotto: The studio was built in 2000 A.D.

YB: Do you work with all types of genres or are their certain styles you
are better suited?

Grotto: We tend to do a bit of everything. For me personally, I like to keep at work with as broad a range of musicians as possible. It keeps my perspective fresh, it keeps me motivated and enthusiastic, and it's also a helluva lot more fun.

YB: What can you tell me about your instruments and gear?

Grotto: While we have one of the biggest collections of outboard gear in town (if not the biggest), the greatest strength the studio has in terms of gear is our collection of instruments.
We have a bunch of great amps, from vintage classics like the AC30 to the Fender Twin through modern boutique amps like the Diezel Herbert. We've also got a really cool selection of custom-made and modified amps from the Allston Amplification company, which is operated by our good friend Rob Lohr.

To complement this fine array of amplification goodies, we have a wide range of kick-ass guitars, pedals, and additional noise-making gadgets.

Some of our coolest instruments are part of our keyboard collection. We've got a great-sounding piano, a 1960 Hammond B3, a Rhodes, and (perhaps coolest of all) a Mellotron.

(Side note: for those who are unfamiliar, the Mellotron is a keyboard instrument built around a series of analog tapes which contain samples of instruments. When the musician strikes a key on the Mellotron, it engages the tape machine and plays back one of the samples. If you've ever heard the flutes on the Beatles song "Strawberry Fields", you've heard the Mellotron. Super groovy stuff.)

To round all this out, we've got a collection of drum sets, from vintage Slingerlands and Ludwig Vistalites to more modern DW and Starclassic kits. We've also got a selection of great snare drums and cymbals from a wide variety of manufacturers and boutique builders.

In terms of recording equipment, we have the usual Pro Tools HD rig and hot-rod computer with a zillion plug-ins, but the real goodies are the tubes, transformers, and transistors that make up the analog gadgets. Nearly every style of every type of gear is represented, from vintage tube to 70s-era solid state transformer goodness all the way up to modern recreations of vintage classics from all eras. There's really just way to much stuff to list here.

And anyway, the gear is all secondary to the most important feature of ANY studio (other than the staff, of course): the room.

Oh, and did I mention: we have a Mellotron?!?

YB: A Mellotron! that's awesome on so many levels! Since you are so excited about the Mellotron, I would assume it is safe to say you are a fan of Geoff Emerick(of Beatles recording fame)?

Grotto: It's sort of tough not to be a fan of Geoff Emerick; the guy helped redefine modern recording. Whether people realize it or not, nine outta ten times, when you make a record, you're using some technique that Mr. Emerick pioneered (or at least popularized).

YB: Our readers should go check out Emericks book, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, it covers his entire recording process with the Beatles. Could you briefly describe your recording process? What can a band expect when they show up to record with you.

Grotto: My object is simple: capture the band's music on a recorded medium in a way that most accurately relates their energy and intent to a listening audience. I like to find the best and most straight-forward means of recreating a band's vibe. Sometimes that means setting the band up in the room and cutting everything live. Other times, it means creating a more dense arrangement through overdubs and ear candy.

Music is meant to be experienced live, and thus the studio is a completely unnatural environment for an artist to present his or her work. Different styles call for different requirements in adapting that music to a recorded medium, and I try to find the best means to do so.

YB: How do you balance what you know needs to get done and what a band wants to get done sonically? I.E. telling them they only have 3 hours and can't do 100 over dubs like Bohemian Rhapsody.

Grotto: The best route to take with any client -- whether they've got a $500 or $5000 budget -- is honesty. I've come across musicians who have been told they can record a full length album of "Bohemian Rhapsodies" for $1,000; on the one hand, for most working musicians, that's a LOT of money. On the other, that budget is rarely going to realize the scope and quality the musician is after, and in the grand scheme of all things budgetary, it's very little dough.

I strive to ensure that the expectations of the musicians I work with are in line with what I'm capable of delivering, and that their expectations are in line with what they can afford. It's a dodgy game, but in taking a no-bullshit, all-cards-on-the-table approach from the earliest stages of making the record, there are very few budgetary questions that are left unanswered going into things. That's the way I like it, as all parties' expectations are best met that way.

YB: Budget is always a big concern. Over the past few years home recording studios have started becoming better and better. Good gear is getting cheaper and the average Joe now has a $400 mic in their protools basement studio. How do you distinguish yourself?

Grotto: The gear can get as cheap as the market allows, however it's not the gear that makes the record. First and foremost, it's the musicians, and after that, it's the experience of the production team (recordists, producers, mixers, etc).

Given a great band, most experienced professional recordists could make a great record with a 57 and a cheap mixer. But put an amateur in the best Neve room in the country and they'll still likely walk out with a record that sounds like it was done in a basement.

It ain't the tools, it's the carpenter.

YB: What are a few things you wish new bands coming into your studio knew
before they came in (I.E. Don't tap on the Neumann)

Grotto: The A-Number One Rule of Recording at any level: learn to play your songs tightly -- at the level you'd like them to be presented on your record -- before you hit the studio.

All too many bands come in with the expectation that I can manufacture a great performance in Pro Tools. Time allowing, I can manufacture a very, very good performance on the computer, but only human beings -- playing together live in a room, with and against each other -- can create a GREAT performance.

Beyond that, I'd like to see more bands take the time to prepare their instruments. New drum heads and strings, guitars and basses intonated and properly set up, etc. A great recording starts with the source. If the source is flawed, a great capture of that source, using the best gear and the best recording techniques, will only mean a great, high-fidelity and highly-detailed reproduction of those flaws.

YB: First Album you ever bought was.....

Grotto: On cassette tape as a kid, the first tape I sought out was the self-titled Rage Against the Machine album. I couldn't buy it (I was all of nine or ten years old, and didn't have much in the way of personal income), so I bugged my older brother to make me a copy. Luckily for me, he dubbed Black Flag's "Damaged" on the B-side of that tape. Rock!!

The first one I bought myself (as in, actually paid for) was 7 Second's "The Crew".

My first CD (which I didn't buy till I was like 15 years old...even back then, I was all, like, totally into analog 4-eva!! Yeah!) was Minor Threat's discography.

YB: BLACK FLAG!!!!! My first cassette tape was a mix of Black Flag on one side, Fugazi on the other. (Made for me by Michael Fournier; all around great guy and author of "The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime (33 1/3)" ). Does the Black Flag DIY attitude find its way into how you approach band recording now?

Grotto: I think Black Flag (and hardcore in general) instilled in me a certain understanding that great music doesn't have to be performed to a high technical level to get its message across. There's a certain beauty in the rawness (both in terms of the performances and the sound quality) of a Black Flag record; an energy that's far more meaningful than a hi-fi snare sound, a steady tempo, or an in-tune vocal.

These records prove that it's far more important to capture a feeling than it is to capture a subjectively-great sound or subjectively-perfect performance. There's often a certain beauty in the flaws, and polishing those flaws out (an all-too-easy thing to do these days on modern DAWs) can erase some of the immediacy and charm that makes a particular band unique and exciting.

YB: Has your Analog 4-eva mantra you had as a kid changed? Analog or Digital- pick one?

Grotto: Can't pick one; I work on a combination every day. Sometimes it's digital mixing in the Pro Tools using analog hardware. Other times it's digital recording mixed on the analog console with analog outboard gear. Other times, it's tracks cut to tape and mixed entirely on the computer with plugins.

Every gig calls for a different approach. In a perfect world, I'd cut most everything to tape, bounce it to Pro Tools, and mix from the computer on a nice desk to half-inch tape. But even then, there are records and songs that call for a different approach. There are no absolutes; this is art, not science.

YB: What project have you worked on in the past few months that you were really excited about the results?

Grotto: Yow. That's a tough one; there's so much good stuff going on in this town, it's pretty tough to pick favorites. That said...lemme see...

I've been working off-and-on with Ganggreen for the past several months to piece together a new album; that's been pretty amazing. I've been a huge fan since I was a teenager, so it's sort of a trip to be making a record with them.

I also lucked out into working with Mellow Bravo on a few songs for their new album; if you ask me, those guys are one of the best things going in Boston right now. Great live show, awesome tunes, and quite possibly the best front-man in town.

As for current projects, I'm just now finishing up an EP for Viva Viva, who -- for my money -- are the best combination of great performers, amazing (and insanely versatile!) songwriters, and just flat out fucking talent that I've ever worked with. These guys should be famous.

And as for sheer breadth of ambition, the record I'm making with Cropduster is just awesome. Huge arrangements, clever and memorable lyrics, and an overall concept that's at once funny (in a bitter, wry sorta way) and provocative. There are songs on this thing that I wake up every morning craving to hear. It's kinda weirdly addictive.

YB: You are going to a desert island to record a band and can only bring three mics... what do you pick?

Grotto: Ah, a nerd question! Finally!! Shure SM57, Neumann U47, and Neumann TLM170.

That'll give me lo-fi rock fury, classy vintage goodness, and high-fidelity clean. Everything I need!

YB: With that SM57 you can record and then use it as a hammer to build a getaway boat. Can you describe your recording rooms? Live room ? Control room?

Grotto: The acoustics of the live room, the way the room sounds and more importantly, FEELS, is the absolute greatest asset of Mad Oak. We pride ourselves on the great vibe (coupled with superior acoustics), and that is the single most applauded element of the studio that we hear about from clients of every kind.

We've also got a dead-accurate control room, so that critical decisions can be made without second-guessing.

But the greatest asset is the vibe. Everyone comments on how comfortable the studio is; we strive to avoid the all-too-often clinical/hospital vibe of similarly-high end studios, but maintain a level of quality and amenities that we would want if the roles were reversed and we found ourselves on the other side of the glass.

YB: Where can bands find you; website address, street address, YouTube ETC

Grotto: Our primary "web presence" is Facebook; that address is http://www.facebook.com/pages/Allston-MA/Mad-Oak-Studios/219422046780.

The really cool thing we have going right now is our Live at Mad Oak concert series. Every month, we find a band or artist that we want to share with the world, set them up in the studio in front of a live audience, and document it all with a full-on multitracked recording and multi-camera shoot (care of Mike Gill of Circumvision).

The show is mixed live-to-2 that night, and we provide that recording for free the following day (via our Facebook page), and then go back and pick our favorite tune to remix and cut a video for. That song is then mastered at Peerless Mastering by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice, and released to our YouTube channel -- which can be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/LiveatMadOakStudio -- as well as our Facebook page.

YB: Any last words?

Grotto: Support local music! Boston is a seriously amazing city for music fans; take advantage of that, and let your local club know you care by going to see all the great bands playing here in town.

Oh, and Bagel Rising rules. Many thanks to them for feeding me each morning

YB: You heard the man, bagels make your music better. Go get those carbs!

Facebook Comments Box