Dave Pensado: "Nobody does [Live Monitoring] better than Ultimate Ears"

What an amazing way to kick off 2015 here at UE University, and just in time for NAMM. There is so much to say about the amazing partnership of Dave Pensado and Herb Trawick.

From the genius of the Pensado’s Place YouTube Channel, to the Pensado Awards you will be hard pressed to find folks so successful that are so giving with their knowledge. The recently released Pensado Papers has been just about my favorite book about audio in memory. Not only will you get some serious insights into the mind of one of the most successful and gifted mixers in history (just check out his credits at Discogs) but also priceless insights about the other side of the business from his manager and (my new music business Yoda) Herb Trawick.

We were privileged to have some sit-down Skype time with the dynamic duo recently. Our conversation covered so many bases it was hard to hone it down for this blog post. Look for expanded version of the interview coming soon.

Kenn: How’d you guys meet? You guys are like the Statler and Waldorf of Audio.

Herb I’m gonna hold onto that. That’s the first time we’ve been called that, what a great reference. Dave you wanna take that one?

Dave: No, I don’t. You know my answer tends to be about 45 minutes long to some questions and that might be in that category. I tend to mythologize the process, which makes it more interesting, by the way. But take it Herb.

Herb: Well, Dave flew in on a winged horse… Dave and I actually met in the lobby of a studio, a legendary studio called Skip Saylor. We both were trying to advance our careers in LA, He was bouncing around looking at studios. He had made the transition to LA. We both were living hand to mouth, you know just short of the bread line, sometimes living in cars and other sorts of things, which is really the truth. Dave had come out from having a career in Atlanta, but wanted to go to a bigger league, and we both ended up in this spot. I was going to see my kind of Godfathers in the business which was an old R&B group called The Whispers. The the reason they are the Godfathers of my career is because long before anybody ever knew these guys were independent. [They] owned their masters, owned their publishing, retained their name, they were fascinating to me.

We started talking in the lobby and we just never stopped talking. I mean literally, we probably stayed in the lobby two and a half hours just connecting. Then about a month later, an A&R guy at Island records called and said “Hey man, this hot production team needs a mixer” and I said “Hmmm, I met a white guy who worked with James Brown and Cameo. Give him a shot.” And here’s what’s crazy about how providence or Jesus or whatever you believe in happens, Dave went over to this seminal hip-hop group called BELL BIV DEVOE, did a remix on “Thought it was Me,” absolutely slayed it, brought a different aural feel into it, and kind of a rock sensibility. But Dave’s urban pop sensibility is just as acute as it ever has been. It’s always been there. And he’s been hot for 30 years since then.

Kenn: I mean Dave, if you ‘ve got a better myth than that, then I’m glad to hear it. That’s a great story.

Dave: I’ll dial it backwards a little bit. I was there to get access to the fruit and the donuts because I had no food. The remixes I did were for the production team called Wolf and Epic. But, great job Herb, I’m gonna record that and print it out and use it.

Kenn: So Dave, you’re from Florida, is that correct?

Dave: Yes, born and raised.

Kenn: How did you get to Atlanta and how did you get that urban sensibility in you, I mean it’s pretty crazy.

Dave: Well the Atlanta part was traditional transportation methods.


Herb: I’m sorry Kenn, I’m not supposed to be laughing at my partner.

Dave: I didn’t mean to be funny [laughs]. Well dad decided to move to Atlanta, and so I finished high school there, there’s two trips to Atlanta. Then I went off to South Carolina to go to college for about 8 years, 7 years. And then after that I went to Europe [then] back to Atlanta. That’s when I started my engineering career.

Kenn: Did you study engineering in college?

Dave: No, no. Pretty much pick a science and I’ve always been fascinated at how science can answer some of the great philosophical questions a lot of the time. Always, even to this day, I keep up with physics and chemistry and geology, particularly geology but both. I’ve never studied anything. My approach to engineering was just being a musician and I still approach engineering as if I’m a musician. I know it sounds kind of cliché, but I was always fascinated by the process both technically and creatively of making records, and I use records in a metaphorical sense. I just like the process of creative people getting together and making music, and the process of capturing that music so it can be played and listened to later. It’s just consumed me from the first record I heard. I heard the music, but I also heard that someone actually put that in a fixed audio form and I wanted to know how. So it was more just curiosity that led me to whatever skill set I have now. And a lot of generous people, by the way, including Herb.

Kenn: I was reading that you came from a band background. You made a name for yourself in urban music Was it a hard leap to go from live instruments to mixing things that were coming out of boxes?

Dave: Well, no. In terms of the way you phrased the question, no. At some point in time every musician wants to record themselves. I think that’s just a natural extension of the process and my engineering career was an outgrowth of that desire. I started out with the obligatory cheap ass cassette, one little microphone, and ended up with a hundred channel SSL and three Pro Tools rigs, and I don’t remember the transition between, it was just so much fun and it was a process. It wasn’t ever like I was trying to be something other than a guy just making music and trying to record it. At some point that expanded into deriving a lot of satisfaction out of helping other people do the same thing.

Kenn: I guess I meant genre wise, I was wondering if there was any difficulty in the transition between going from rock to R&B.

Dave: No, absolutely not. If you recall the seventies, labels and genres were ….to cut myself off… Is Sly and the Family Stone a rock band or an R&B band? Was James Brown a rocker or an R&B guy? The period of time when my musical taste solidified wasn’t so much about genre as it was just about the music. Like a seminal song in my past was “Time” by the Chambers Brothers. Is that a rock song or is that an R&B song? Is Rod Stewart an R&B singer? He did a lot of Temptations songs, or is he a rock singer? So, I never looked at music as being R&B or anything else, the same energy and power that you get from a great AC/DC song you also find in a great Jay-Z song or any great rapper. The creativity and the artistic music ability that you find in say a great folk singer you find in Kendrick Lamar. One of the reasons I can work on all genres is because I don’t work in genres, I work in emotion, creativity, taste, and energy and what I feel from that song. I know that sounds kind of voodoo, “new-agey” but I don t know—

Kenn: Actually it doesn’t, for me that’s the dream answer. I hoped you had. I feel the same way about genre, because I don’t really see it as [really] existing. I grew up in a native New York Caribbean family with a grandmother that was obsessed with both Country *and* Gospel as well as Calypso. So the first day I bought a record, I bought the Star Wars Soundtrack [on the same day] I got given Love Gun by Kiss for my birthday and I bought the Shaft Soundtrack with some of my birthday money. so for me all of that music is exactly the same.

Herb: Which in a way is the cultural experience of a lot more people have than people care to think. It became much more segregated later. So as a Canadian, who then, when my parents divorced, as a son of a pro football player, I ended up in Kentucky in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. I listened to Black Oak Arkansas, Buddy Miles, and Carlos Santana, and all kinds of stuff. I had scholarships for singing and being in the choir and most of the experiences of the people I grew up with, and you, and Dave were very similar. And so this commoditization and kind of a segregation of music is much more a recent thing. Now recent is in the last twenty years, not in the last five. The argument can be made that it has been bad musically on some levels. It has been an assist for people who utilize music to make money, like radio who have these segregated formats, programmed nationally without local feel anymore, internet companies who have used music…

The long and short of what I was gonna say was my personal experience, when I came up with the idea for Pensado’s Place and went to Dave as a result of a medical thing, I was very disgruntled about the music business. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my career, which is half the reason I focused on this. I was really at a loss, I had had this big illustrious career, anyways, this ride and this experience and nobody really knows the details, the work that we have put into this. Look you took two NAMM broadcasters and turned it into a show that’s now in 150 countries. 120 schools use it as curriculum, Forbes Magazine has covered us three times, Huffington Post, Carson Daly is doing a piece. We have seven off show verticals, we have a live convention business, we have merchandising business, we’re announcing a global distribution deal at NAMM, final curriculum series, we have merch, we have a speakers bureau, we have a television studio, we also have our own television studio in DC, and I’m about to close one at NAMM in Nashville, this is a very serious endeavor. I’m the endeavor guy so we’re building a very serious media company that people are looking at. I’ve had the CEO of Netflix call me. The point I’m making, rather than to blow smoke up our behinds, is to say as seriously as you take it, whatever application that you do, if your care about this you are now in a world of uncapped possibilities. I call it “digital emancipation” and what you have to do, is be serious about it.

Kenn: Dave, I didn’t realize how many amazing urban records you’ve made until I sat down and did some research. I said holy [cow], this guy is the King of Modern R&B, the King of Dope tunes

Herb Let me go farther as a man who hired Dave, as his manager, well as his first manager, but hired him consistently over a twenty year period.

Dave: Let’s be clear, I still work for you Herb.

Herb: That’s not exactly how it looks. I came up with an idea and put your name on it.

It could have been Trawick’s place and you could have been the clown. But I recognize brands and I build them. Here’s the beauty about Dave that I, as the first guy to refer him in LA, then to manage him for the first two or three years of his career, and to be a lifelong friend, Dave’s sensibility and what I like about Dave, which was very rare back then.

Dave has always been unabashed about having big commercial records. He never saw that as evil. And I’ve always found it sort of silly that people feel the need to denigrate one versus the other; they all can exist. So the thing that’s been great about Dave… like our current strategy is for Dave (I still manage him now) to remix very broad based things, a high percentage of them are from the internet, because I believe it keeps you sharper as a mixer. So the major label game has, in some ways, been an interesting sort of channel for your career, but can also be very limiting. So yes you get some big records and you get some other stuff, but your also going to participate in shoot outs and when they try to tamp down your stuff. You can get put into a box.

Dave mixes rock records and Celtic records and he just got done with Peacheswho is an incredible independent artist. And he’ll do Trap stuff and Hip Hop shit and he’s always had that sensibility, people just didn’t know it. And here’s another thing about him; when I brought in records, I used to clear the decks of the label and the artist and say “do what you do” so Dave would often times, and he’s always done this, halfway because of his intellect and people respect him and also just because of his sensibility, Dave sort of quietly co-produces records. He finishes off things and his sensibility of allowing a record to maintain what it is but also get a sensibility for radio is about .. there’s only a couple other guys I know who do that really well – Eddie Merritt and a few others. Let me give you one real live expereince from a record executive. So, last year Dave did the Michael Jackson single for LA Reid. LA and I started out together at Soul Live Records so I knew LA [from back in the day] so LA sat in the studio with me and while Dave was mixing Michael Jackson, LA just kept talking to me about Dave. “Oh my God, he’s such a star! How the [heck] did you know him!” And so watching a guy who is a real true music lover with incredible taste, he was just blown away at Dave’s capacity. And so the beauty of what you have picked up in your research, and the beauty of what a lot of record makers have seen, and frankly from my chair, since I’ve had something to do with it, now is probably more acute than it was thirty years ago. He’s probably the best mixer he’s ever been today.

Kenn: Well, Wow, how do you feel about that, Dave?

Dave: Well, I can’t do anything I don’t think I’m the best at. And so I have to agree. I think I’m the best mixer out there. When I was playing basketball I thought I was the best basketball player, when I was racing dirt bikes I thought I was the best dirt bike [racer], and when I played guitar I thought I was the best player. I don’t think you can do anything in life without thinking you’re at least at the top of the heap. It’s really hard to look a major artist in the face and tell them what they’ve done well and what they can improve. So I think, to change the subject, I have a reputation for having amazingly successful assistants and part of that is I chose people who have that in them. Much like, say, an athletic team’s director or general manager can find that personality of a person like a Kobe Bryant or a Lebron James and then the talent is a secondary indicator or success. So I think if I can just share some philosophy with the person who is absorbing this, it’s have confidence in yourself. And how do you get confidence? You get confidence through practice, experience, just time and training.

Kenn: Dave I wanted to talk to you about mixing with in-ears.

Dave: A lot of people have the misconception that when they’re engineering or mixing that they have to have speakers that sound good. The way your speakers sound is pretty much irrelevant. What you want, is your speakers to tell you what your song needs. What the production needs.

For example, you want your speakers to yell at you, “Hey legend boy, these snares sound like a Karen Carpenter record, give me some power. Give me something to really make this snare cut through.“ Or; "Dave, that vocal really needs to come up. Its not loud enough, come on, man." 

And so that process, if you believe that, is actually an accurate way to work. That process is enhanced by checking your work and getting information from various sources so I like to use a set, two or three sets of speakers, including my car of course. Recently I started using headphones to help me with panning and placing things in the stereo spectrum. I like to do things a little outside the stereo spectrum and create wider mixes, so headphones obviously do that really well.

Recently I started using the Ultimate Ears and that process was greatly enhanced and the Ultimate Ears seduced me into giving them a larger job in the process than just the stereo spectrum. Then I started making EQ decisions and felt confident about that and then I started listening to them in terms of what I should do and so they’ve become a significant part of my process. The benefit is that they do sound great and so you get the best of both worlds. There’s a popular set of speakers {NS10s} and if someone is a neophyte and hasn’t heard about them well they’re tiny and they sound horrible but these really do a good job of telling you what to do and therefore they are ubiquitous in every studio in the world. Not because they sound good, but because they’re good at telling you what to do.

And the Ultimate Ears, I was surprised because I loved the ones that were worked on at Capitol and kinda tweaked and enhanced by the engineers there, Steve and Alan and the gang, I would caution the reader or the listener, for me there was a little tiny learning curve for about maybe ten hours.

It took me a second to forget they were there and once I got that down my work was significantly enhanced by using them, and a little bit to my surprise. I had heard of friends using them in a live application for in ear monitoring, which nobody does better than UE. I also knew that some of those artists, because it happened to me, were bringing those in the studio and using those as their headphones in the studio because they already had a relationship with them. Some artists that were also recording engineers themselves were using them to record with, so I knew there was groundwork laid for that process and maybe a little easier for me to adapt. Then Herb and I went and toured their facility and I’ve got to tell you, maybe Herb can chime in here, that was probably one of the more impressive, fun days that I’ve ever had in terms with my relationship with manufacturers.

Herb And here’s one of the advantages we had, we get to look at so many manufacturers so we get to compare and it felt like, I can compare it to Apple in this context: the same care about the science is put into the packaging and the aesthetic and the customer service and all the kinds of things that you want in a brand. And we don’t give that Bon Mot out very easily. You have to earn that from us. And I don’t mean that arrogantly, I just mean discerning as professionals.

Kenn: I would say you guys are incredibly trustworthy in that respect. And I find that kind of trust is rare, especially in audio.

Herb: One of the things that you so acutely hit on but one of the most amazing things about this amazing journey for us is how we got involved with Ultimate Ears. First of all, as you can tell, Dave and I are on air being Dave and I. What you see is what you get and that transfer of trust has been transferred both ways. It seems like people have both taken us into their home and many respect us. We work really hard to be respected, and we respect each other so much that it translates. In order to have people sign up and pay dollars, we have to deliver. The fact that trust is at the underpinning of that, for the audience, it makes the connection better, and what happens is we end up winning on engagement as opposed to just views.

When people are astute enough to understand that, and you get the kind technical information that you’re getting from Dave and the kind of advice and stuff that you get from me. Or you get the combination of what Dave and I understand, we also work very hard on story arcs and narrative stuff.

Dave and I approach this like athletes and I respect competition, but I’m gonna meet you at the rim and I’m gonna try and flush you straight up and Dave is too, and then we’re gonna help you up and if you flush us then I’m gonna get up and try and work on my leap. So I don’t mind the competition and frankly, here’s what’s crazy about the trust, a lot of our competition has met with me to try and figure out how to beat us.

I’ve had probably ten lunches with guys who have said, “You know we’re gonna try and do a show that takes us beyond Pensado’s Place” and I say, “Well, describe that for me” and they can’t and I’m OK with it. I think it’s good to think that way. I understand brand building, I understand our industry, I understand how to build that stuff. If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna need to find a Herb and Dave and it’s not that easy.

Kenn: Wow, Wow. Well because I can’t keep you for 6 and a half hours even though I’d love too let me just jump to a real quick question for Dave. Dave, this burger which started Dave 3.0 clearly is the greatest burger ever {the burger story is a serisouly great part of the Pensado Papers, want to know what we are talking about? Pick up the Pensado Papers at Amazon or Hal Leonard. I just finished reading that part of the book. I mean this burger, it’s changed your life, it’s now changed my life, what was on this burger Dave?

[ Herb off Mic calls Aretha: “Hey Aretha, come here”]

Dave: Well, it’s not a soy burger.

[Aretha joins the skype call and Herb intros her]

Herb The burger maker.

Kenn: The legendary Aretha. Maker of the life changing burger… tell me about this burger….

Aretha: I either changed his life or I almost killed him, I’m not sure.

Dave: And not only that, she also named the book.

Kenn: I’m glad you’re all here because this book, I just started reading this book after I finished reading the Glyn Johns book, which I loved. But I’ve learned so much and gotten my passion back for production *and* for management. I am just so inspired from reading the book before this conversation, and even more now after this conversation. Both in terms of audio [production] and in terms of the excitement of the business.

Herb: Let me say this so you can close up with Dave, first of all I have the greatest [darned] partner ever. Period. Dave Pensado is a magical partner for me. We have an unabashed bromance that goes to 150 countries in the world. He is a spectacular human being and I would literally kill for him. That’s number one.

Number two, we recognize this as a gift and we treat it as a gift and we honor it as a gift. And what the audience should know is that we are nowhere near done. Oh not even close. Just hold on, we’re comin.

Third, we’re here at the behest of people like Ultimate Ears and folks who believe and then write a check and then we try to service guys like yourself who are astute and smart about it and care about it. The fact that we can have a book that inspires people and serves a lot of different masters and have a publisher who will let us sort of run amuck. Look people are letting us run, they’re saying “Hey, how do we get involved?” And so what Dave and I do is we look at each other and we say how do we honor that, instead of how do we take advantage of that. And so that’s what it is. Close up with Dave.

Kenn: Take it away Dave!

Dave : Well let me throw something out there, if you like 60’s and 70’s records, there’s a strong chance you're copying the wrong thing. In the 60’s and the 70’s when I started my engineering career, the sound of the records we made wasn’t the sound we wanted. It was all we could do. There was great discussion and consternation about the fact that our gear was making sonic decisions for us and we didn’t like that. I don’t want my gear to make sonic decisions for me. I want to make the decision. So I don’t think of analog gear as anything special, I think of it as if I need that particular sound, go for it.

Now when you copy the 70’s what you’re forgetting to copy is that you’re copying the wrong thing. In the 70’s every band was unique, and that uniqueness is what drew us to that band. And so when you copy something, you’re not unique. Going back to the 60’s and the 70’s is just admitting that you don’t have any creativity and imagination to create something new, [that] you have to go back and rely on what other people have created. The sad part about that is the creation that you are copying wasn’t true creation, it was victimized by the limitations of the process. I don’t mean to be arrogant, nor do I mean to be condescending. I just mean to toss that out and let people understand the process is not just copying the sound of those records, it’s creating something new. Nobody wants to own a ten year old car. (That’s) “decade surfing” [meaning] just chose a decade and that’s your career. Decade surfing in audio is a cheap way to get success. The guys that worship analog are some of the most gifted engineers in the world, way more gifted than some of their ideas lead you to believe and it hurts me that I don’t hear that creativity come through and they find themselves entrenched in the comfort of what they already know. Get out of your comfort zone man, you’re way too talented you know.

Kenn: Wow, that’s a really refreshing take on that stuff!

Dave: Thank you for giving me a chance to bloviate. It’s just something I enjoy. I always tell my friends that the greatest thing on earth is mixing records. The second greatest thing and its pretty close, is talking about it. There’s just nothing more fun than talking about the process and creativity is such a fleeting, ephemeral thing, I’m fascinated by creativity and at the end of the day I think we sell our creativity and our taste and not our engineering skills.

Thanks Dave and Herb. That was a terrific interview! Be sure to catch Pensado’s Place on YouTube every week. And put down what you’re reading and go get the Pensado Papers right now. It’s one of the best insights you will ever get into this business of ours. Herb and Dave’s friendship and personality shine through like a Mother Trucker. Their knowledge is second to none, at least to none that are going to share such amazing insights with you.

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