Benny Faccone '78: The Perfect Mix
By Mark Small
October 1, 2012
Veteran recording engineer and mixer Benny Faccone has been a mainstay in the American and Latin music industry for decades. Born in Italy and raised in Canada, Faccone arrived in Los Angeles in 1980 and has since engineered or mixed countless projects that have netted him six American Grammys and eight Latin Grammys. He’s also garnered countless certificates for his work on winning recordings during the years before the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences began issuing statues to recording engineers.
A keyboard player, Faccone earned a composition degree at Berklee while simultaneously working and studying with Joe Hostetter, a pioneer in Berklee’s recording studios and audio engineering education efforts. In addition to gaining experience behind the board at student and faculty recording sessions, Faccone also worked in the Berklee Performance Center doing live sound for pro shows by Weather Report, Chick Corea, Lou Rawls, and others.
After relocating to Los Angeles, he took an entry-level job at the famed A&M Studios, where he gained priceless insight working elbow to elbow with fabled engineers Bruce Swedien, Don Hahn, and others. His six-year tenure at A&M secured him work with such top producers as Quincy Jones, David Foster, Phil Ramone, and more on celebrated recordings by Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, the Manhattan Transfer, and Whitney Houston, to name just a few.
Before leaving A&M to become a freelancer, Faccone began tracking and mixing for Latin-music stars José José, Roberto Carlos, María Conchita Alonso, among others. He worked with then-budding Mexican rock band Maná and has since worked on all but two of the supergroup’s platinum-selling records. These days Faccone is in high demand with top Latin artists and has worked on chart-busting records by Ricky Martin, Marco Antonio Solis, and Santana.
Faccone is known for his masterful mixes. He prides himself on having developed by learning at the feet of old-school master engineers. He recalls working with one expert engineer who spliced “window edits” in two-inch multi-track tapes in the days before Pro Tools software offered “nondestructive” editing options and ease in creating backup files. While he is adept with Pro Tools, Faccone still prefers to mix with analog consoles and have his hands on the faders. In 2006 he opened his own facility, the Cavern (named after the Liverpool club where the Beatles played). Faccone’s studio is part of I-58 Studios, tucked away in Westlake Village, a suburb north of Los Angeles. It’s a studio complex built and managed by younger-generation Berklee alumni Daniel Aguilar ’05 and wife, Cammy Aguilar ’04.
During a rare day of downtime, I caught up with Faccone at the Cavern preceding a horn session for a Marco Antonio Solis record and shortly before he would return for the first time to Italy, the country of his birth, to record a string session for the same project.
After you graduated from Berklee, what was your first move?
I went back to Montreal and got a job in a great studio. They were doing music for industrial films, and I was taking records from their music library and editing music cues to the film. I’d record the cue from an LP to tape and then cut the tape and match it to the voice-over. I did that for two years.
What motivated your relocatation to Los Angeles?
I met my wife when we were both students in Boston. We got married in Montreal and lived there for a while, but there wasn’t much of a music scene up there then. I kind of wanted to move to L.A. but needed a little push. My wife wanted to come here to become a writer for magazines. We took a vacation in California in 1979 and drove from San Francisco down to L.A. On our last night, we went to Disneyland and I ran into someone I knew, Curt Sobel [’78]. He told me he was living in L.A. working as a film editor. I told him I was thinking of moving, and he encouraged me to do it. So we moved here in May of 1980, and I took a job as a salesman at a stereo store.
What led to your first break in the recording studios?
Through a connection of Joe Hostetter’s, I got an interview with Don Hahn at A&M Studios. He liked the Berklee grads he’d met and offered me a job for $75 per week. I had been making $250 at the stereo store, and my wife and I just had our first child. I asked Don if he could pay me more. He said, “Take it or leave it.” So I went out on a limb and took the job. I was driving 53 miles each way to work and back, and after taxes, I was only taking home $40 a week. Most of that went to pay for gas. It was hard at first, but it was worth it to have a job working in a real studio. Later, I got paid more and the job offered benefits as well as overtime pay. I stayed at A&M for six years.
Did you start as an assistant engineer?
For the first few months, I was making coffee. Later I did some assisting, and I would get there early to set up the room for a tracking date at 9:00 or 10:00 A.M. I’d work all day and then it was my job to make sure the room was cleaned up and ready for the next day’s session.
You got to work with some iconic people while you were at A&M.
Yeah. I remember working on a couple of Barbra Streisand albums—Yentl with Phil Ramone producing and The Broadway Album with Peter Matz producing. I was assisting Don Hahn in recording the orchestra and vocals. When Barbra sang, her breaths were part of her phrases. I’d have to punch in between lines and keep the breaths in. This was long before Pro Tools. The people sitting in the studio were Stephen Sondheim, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and others. Back then, an assistant engineer didn’t say anything and had to be five steps ahead of everyone to anticipate what was going to happen next. Those sessions were high pressure.
I learned a lot working with great producers, including Quincy Jones. I got to see what a good producer does. Those guys really weren’t telling everyone what to do; they did more guiding to get the artist’s vision to come out. They would direct and be objective observers for the artist. Some producers would arrange and choose the right musicians for each song.
What was your motivation to leave A&M to become a freelance engineer in 1986?
I had worked as an assistant to Don Hahn—who was a great engineer and the studio manager at A&M—and I’d engineered for Phil Ramone before that. I went solo after Shelly Yakus and Jimmy Iovine took over A&M for Herb Alpert. I became an assistant to Shelly, and it became a 24-hour-a-day job every day. Shelly and Jimmy were bringing in rock acts like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Stevie Nicks, and other artists I wanted to work with. But it involved lots of hours. After a while, I really wanted to be able to spend more time with my family, so I decided I’d go out on my own.
After going freelance, how did you become the go-to engineer for Latin artists?
Back in 1981, Herb [Alpert] recorded his Fandango record where he returned to the Latin style of music he did with his band the Tijuana Brass in the sixties. In 1984, Herb decided to start a Latin subdivision, A&M Discos. There wasn’t another American label putting out Latin music then, so artists from Mexico started coming to A&M to record for the new label.
So I got to meet José José and Juan Gabriel, who were huge back then. I had already met [composer and producer] Juan Carlos Calderón when Herb brought him in to work on Fandango. After I went solo, I started getting calls from Latin artists, and some of those people went on to become very successful.
What do you think these artists heard in your work that made them want you for their projects?
You don’t get calls because you are friends with an artist. An engineer develops a sound, and you get calls because of what you can contribute. I’m always thinking about the details and what will be involved with the mix. A part might sound great by itself, but may sound funny with the rest of the music. I still think of the project as a whole.
I learned from my mentors that you have to be a good engineer and mixer but with an artist who feels insecure, you really need to make them feel that you know what you are doing so that they will be more confident. This is a business, but you always want to go into the studio and have fun too.
Once you went freelance, was it all smooth sailing?
Well, back in 1988, I got tired of working on the Latin projects where we would do 10 songs in a day. So I decided to take a job with a studio in Cincinnati that was going to do all the jingles for Proctor & Gamble. I moved my family out there, we built a nice house, and I had a good salary. But there weren’t enough great musicians there. Next thing I knew, we were sending things out to L.A. to get them done right. I saw that the situation wasn’t going to last and figured that if I got out quickly, I could still salvage my career.
I started thinking that when I was in L.A. working on Latin music, I was still tracking with the best studio musicians in the great studios. The only difference between that work and American projects was that the vocals were in Spanish. When I went back, I treated everything as I would an American record. The quality of what I was putting out was different.
As a mixer, if you work on American music, you get pigeonholed as someone who does rock or pop or r&b. You have a niche. But in Latin music, there’s rock, pop, salsa, and more, and you don’t get put in a style niche. I’m lucky to get to do a little of everything. I do a rock artist like Maná or Santana and pop artists like Ricky Martin. There is a nice variety.
I’m currently working with Marco Antonio Solis. He is an incredible pop singer and gets everything in one take. We went to East West [Recording] Studios, and he wanted to record bass, drums, percussion, keyboard, and two guitars all at once. We tracked everybody playing together and did 10 songs in four days. Now we’re doing overdubs and are really close to finishing the musical stuff. Working with Maná is totally different. They spent four months recording.
Throughout your career, have you done more tracking or mixing?
I do more mixing than recording. It’s probably 20 percent recording, and the rest of the time I’m mixing files that people send me. When I got into this, you started recording a project and then mixed. The producers generally didn’t know much about the consoles. These days, a producer will have a home studio and know the equipment. But in the old days a producer needed an engineer and an assistant to run things.
Do you want to do more producing in the future?
I’ve done some producing and have won Latin Grammys for some of the projects I produced. I tell people that I am not a producer per se; I’m more of a collaborator with the artist. Producers today arrange, play keyboards, create drum parts, and then replace parts with real instruments. I’m not someone who is going to make all the tracks and then have a singer come in.
Do you like mixing best?
I don’t know if I’d say that. I like the whole process. It’s fun to record and then after doing that for a while, I can’t wait to start mixing by myself in a quieter environment. Then after a few months of just mixing, I get bored being by myself. Working with Latin artists, I get more latitude. I’m not pigeonholed as just an engineer or a mixer.
What shaped your approach to mixing?
One thing I learned from Bruce Swedien was to work on a mix from beginning to end rather than just mixing the chorus, then going to another place in the song. When you start at the beginning of a song, the level sounds different by the time you get to the chorus. Things can be different every time you touch a fader. I think of mixing as an art form.
What I like to do is start by getting a basic blend. Everyone is going to have an opinion on how things should go because music is so subjective, but I get pretty close 99 percent of the time. These days, producers generally don’t come in to work on the mix. So I make a mix, send it out, and wait to hear back. I give people a time frame to approve it or request changes. I still like to mix in analog, so I stay with one mix until it’s done before going to the next song. Other people mixing in Pro Tools will decide to come back to a mix a week later and change the panning of a guitar part or something. I don’t work that way. I like to keep moving with the project rather than keep tweaking a mix. That can be endless.
Can you point to any one session as your most amazing session?
You never know until after it’s over. The sessions for “We Are the World” and Santana’s Supernatural album were like that. After something sells 30 million records, you say, “Yeah, that was great.”
Have you ever worked on sessions that you felt were a complete disaster?
There have been some disasters because of technical issues that were beyond my control, but the perfectionist in me doesn’t allow me to leave anything to chance. When I was at A&M, I would go to the studio six hours before the session just to be sure everything was ready to go. At the end of the day, an engineer has to get the job done. People don’t care how you do it, just as long as you give them a great record.