Ben Mink is a songwriter and producer, as well as a gifted session musician (violin/mandolin/guitar/programmer). But most people know Ben for co-writing and co-producing with k.d. lang. Rush fans will also know Ben for his violin work on "Losing It" from the Signals album, and his work with the seminal electronic trio FM.
As a session musician, Ben has worked with Anne Murray, Jane Siberry, Barenaked Ladies, Raffi, Prairie Oyster, Bruce Cockburn, and on and on. He produced the "Maybe You Should Drive" album for BNL, and is no stranger to the Juno and Grammy awards.
His list of credits continues to grow, but he recently took time out to talk to us about recording, songwriting, and of course his Roland gear.
I think when most people think of Ben Mink, the next thing they think of is k.d. lang, that association.
That's fine. [laughs]
What's your role there? You were a member of the Reclines, right?
Yes, but I joined her first as a writer, really. We had met in Japan at the 1985 Expo and six months later I sent her a song called "Turn Me Around" that I'd written in part when I was 17, and then finished at that time, (when I was 33). She and her record company, SIRE, quite liked it and suggested we get together to try writing, which we did. So initially I met k.d. as a writing partner and was then asked to join the Reclines for the recording of her first CD in England.
Which album was that?
That was "Angel with a Lariat." It was her first release for Sire Records, with Dave Edmunds producing.
So from there you kept writing together, and good things happened.
Yeah, we kept writing and over a period of time, each album somewhat escalated in popularity until we shifted from the country field into popular music, which is where we were probably headed anyway. We still retain a real love of good country music to this day, although I think for us politically the boundaries were set and closed from day one. Realizing that, we decided to do what we felt from our hearts and "Ingenue" emerged, which was the album that really opened things up for us.
"Constant Craving" was the single that really hit it out of the park for you.
How'd that work out with the Stones? They lifted a part of that, didn't they?
I'm sure it was unconscious, but apparently that's what happened. Their lawyers contacted us on very short notice and said that they'd recognized the similarity between the two songs. To avoid any problems in the future they suggested sharing the authorship, which was very gentlemanly of them.
So now you're co-written with Mick and Keith!
I look forward to meeting them someday! [laughs]
Recently you've been writing with Geddy Lee. I thought that was a bit of a twist.
Well, Geddy and I have been close friends for years. Rush were fans of FM, and at one point (1979), we'd toured with them. I also recorded with Rush on the Signals album. (A violin solo on the song "Losing It"). From that period on, I guess it was about 1980, we've been friends. During that entire time, we've never tried to write anything. It's always been just hanging around although he used to play bass on some of the k.d. demos; sometimes he'd casually come over, play bass, and then we'd catch a Blue Jays game afterwards.
So Rush fans need to know that if they can get their hands on some k.d. bootleg demos...
[laughs] I don't think there's too many around, but there's always been that interaction, in its' own incongruous way. I used to listen to all of Rush's album demos, and Geddy to mine, and we would offer each other our opinions.
How did your writing session go now that you guys finally got the chance to sit down and write?
Just fine, thanks entirely to Roland equipment... [laughs] No seriously, it went quite well. We have no great aspirations; it's a reason to hang out as much as anything else and we'll see what happens.
We have parallel studio setups...his in Toronto and mine in Vancouver, with virtually the same set of equipment. So that theoretically, when I go to Toronto, we can basically plug everything in and get up and running in a moment, and it's the same here.
So what do your studios look like?
As far as the computers go, we're both running Macs (mine a G3 and Geddy a 9600) and we're both using Logic Audio heavily. We've both got ProTools 24 mix systems. As far as outboard gear, we both have Roland JD-990's (with orchestra cards). Geddy still has the S-770's which he's been using faithfully for many years.
He's always raved about "that sampler". It's never gone down even during all Rush's tours.
They got the first four in the country [from Saved by Technology in Toronto]. That was for the Presto tour. We met Geddy backstage when the tour hit Vancouver, and he mentioned that the S-770's hadn't let him down once.
Well, they don't, they're great samplers. So he still uses his.
We have some Demeter DI mic and instrument preamps; we're also using a new mic by Neumann, the TLM-103. We tried them when they first came out, they've been fantastic. As far as mic preamps go, he's got the Demeter at his studio and I switch between a couple I'm still trying out; I have a John Hardy M-1, and we tried the Drawmer which worked out pretty well, too.
Eddie Schwartz was raving about them to me.
Yeah, they're nice. But I'm definitely not a "gear fascist". I think you can take any decent microphone and by moving it this way or this way, make it sound like half the other mics in the world. And if you know what you're going for, it truly doesn't matter.
I've heard fantastic pieces of equipment sound like garbage, because of poor taste. Ultimately, it's all about taste anyway (hopefully good) and great performances, not to mention good songs.
I use a dbx-160X compressor which I've had for ages. The combination of the [John Hardy] M-1 and the dbx-160 has been used on all our vocals for probably the last eight years. I keep comparing to a lot of the new preamps like the Avalons, etc. but I still prefer the dbx/Hardy combo. We've used that with k.d. on a good deal of her recordings.
This way, with similar set-ups, you and Geddy can swap data very easily.
Yeah, that was the idea. Backing up data is always the problem. We're using the DVD ROM rewritable format now. You can get 5.2 Gigs or 2.1 Gigs per side, which is still not enough [laughs]. And they're quite slow. But, you know, everyone's got those kinds of problems.
We walk in with those disks, open them up and it's all there... except when it's not.
Do you guys run similar mixing desks?
Yeah, right now we both have Mackie 32's, and as far as mixing we're still experimenting with how much computer automation to use as opposed to just "putting-your-hands-on-the-fader". There's still something very exciting about that. Mixes are still performances. You can build them of course, slowly, but it's generally more exciting to get your hands on the faders and simply react instead of sitting there tweaking your mouse hour after hour.
Basically our systems run around Logic. We rely heavily on it because we don't have the time or patience for any more learning curves.
That's a really important factor. Geddy stressed that too, when he was here trying our new bass amp.
You don't have enough time. When you have families as we do, you really have to partition your time effectively and I would rather take ten steps quickly than one that's going to probably lead me to a dead end because I don't know that program.
But I'm always open to new things and I keep learning new stuff when I'm not faced with a deadline.
Well you've been into Roland modules for a long time.
Oh yeah, quite a while. I consider the R-8, and I'm not saying this because I'm doing an interview with Roland, but I truly think the R-8 was in many ways for me, the rhythmic foundation of "Ingenue". I had one of the Jazz Brush (and Jazz kit) cards, which had the acoustic bass too.
I love that card!
Yeah. All my sketch ideas for that album were done with that card. The sketches became so important as to how the final album sounded that we ended up just using them. There are tracks, like "Save Me", where the entire drum program was transferred in mono from the rented 16-track Tascam machine. The snare drum's married to the kick drum. The bass part is also a combination of David Piltch on real acoustic bass, and the R-8 sample.
So when you say there's nothing on it, you mean no reverb?
No, to my recollection it's basically flat and dry, because they were on a mono track and we didn't bother to separate it. The fsk sync even wavered because I was using tape, and we weren't big MIDI-heads at that point, so we just went with it. It sounded and felt great so we just went with it. And so much of the album is based on that. I mean, those sounds are everywhere. One of the brush sounds was used on, I would say, half the songs.
That's really surprising, because first of all when you say you took a drum machine straight up without any processing, and secondly if you ran it in mono like that, everybody you talk to would say you can't do that! Not on a recording! Maybe on a demo, but you can't get away with that, that's impossible!
Well, we got some equipment from the local store. [laughs] We rented a mixing desk, an AKG414 microphone, a Tascam 16-track tape recorder, and didn't really know what we were doing, basically, and yet there's a decent proportion of the vocals that went on to get Grammy nominated. That's straight from that "garbage" format. Talk about mic preamps! We didn't even use any. We plugged straight into the board and directly to tape. k.d. sang most of the album, on that rented 414 mic, right out of the box. It goes to show you that what always, ALWAYS, matters is performance and heart. Of course you have to have a certain technical quality or esthetic, and I wouldn't say that we neglected that at all. We tweaked those performances as best we could and built around them, and they held up.
We tried to better them and when we couldn't, we used the original demos and they won. Period.
I think that's really inspiring. Some of us have our little V-Studios at home and we look in magazines like Mix or EQ and we see these awesome setups and we think we can never get those sounds without all that gear, and then you hear something like this where you just plugged a mic into a board and went for it.
Well even a bad mic. It's done everywhere now to the point where nobody cares, which is great. Listen to Radiohead for example. Their stuff is so compelling, and the sounds are "inspired," but largely lo-fi. It just works. They know how to manipulate garbage. And most of the world runs like that now, too. I don't think it's anything too novel any longer.
As a kid, I learned by playing with garbage, and then you work real hard and learn what's supposedly "good" sound. You go through that and in the end you come up with a library of personal taste. And it includes low tech. A "bad" sound works great as a foil for a "good" sound. In the end it's a matter of taste. Whatever is going to, as Geddy says, "combust," is right. You search for sounds to combust the track. The ingredients don't matter.
Roland equipment has always been an important part of my set up. I think you've got some way to go regarding your manuals [laughs]. But over time, I think they've proven to be still my favourite and most important gear.
I've got a number of modules and pedals, a VG-8 and the guitar synth (GI-10), which I both use have really been fantastic.
You use that to control your JD-990?
I use it to control everything. If I need a keyboard, I've got the little Roland PC-200, that I use all the time.
That's a modest keyboard.
It's tiny. I'm really into compact size. I don't want to have to keep things set up and cluttered all the time. And the R-8 is still there, of course, and the mallet card sounds are really good.
I also use the R-8 pads as a controller. I find that the pads are among the most sensitive I've tried for poking in drum rhythms. Whatever drum module I'm using, it's my main pad controller, because you can effect the [velocity] curves on them and use the little roll feature. And if you want to really get precise, it's pretty easy.
So when you guys sit down to write, do you sit down with guitars, or what do you do?
He plugs in a bass and I get a guitar. Generally, that's the way we start. And then we just start noodling. The actual writing goes very, very quickly. The arrangements etc., take as long as we need them to, but we're also learning as we go along.
Are you using any of the SR-JV expansion boards?
Yeah. We're using the Orchestral one a fair bit, which I've used for years. I've used some of the string sounds to supplement my own strings, 'cause I play violin live on record. But I'll use them to supplement. There's some excellent cello patches, and the warm strings and viola sounds are really quite good for thickening up section parts. I really haven't had a chance to listen to some of the other cards. The Asian card sounds good, but one has to be careful. You certainly hear a lot of these patches on recordings, and they can get worn out pretty quickly.
If you end up using patches right out of the boxes, it's often going to sound like "patches right out of the box". There's so much you can do with them afterwards.
It surprises me when you look at a used keyboard in a store, how few of the factory patches have generally been modified at all.
Well I usually don't. It takes too much time when you're on a creative roll. I simply press through some buttons until I find the one that's closest. At that point, I may start to fool around with it in an outboard manner. I'll usually print it and then manipulate it by adding an effect to it, like sending it through an amp or pitch modulating it; something to twist the inherent character of it. But generally I don't have the patience to live in the window of a synth module. All lot of keyboard players I know somehow do, but I'm primarily a string player and have a need for immediate results
I can't even begin to hunt and peck through a window and think "where's this algorithm?" It's like torture to me.
This would make me suspect you're not real big into sampling.
But I am! I have been for years and years.
That takes a lot of tweaking.
Yeah, it takes tweaking, but they usually start in an organic world, and are far more personalized off the bat. There are musicians who junk sample, like DJ's, who I think have the right idea. You know, "Just grab something!". Who cares if it's truncated with a click on the end, you know?
These days I like to sample things and print them right into the computer. I'll do my editing and manipulation on the big screen. My sampler's still an S-1000 that I've had for thirteen years but I'm currently looking for a new model.
I still think samples generally sound more unique--I'll still take them over a synth most days. At least they're personalized... but one shouldn't overlook the combination of both... where you can work them together and shade one against the other.
What kind of stuff do you sample? Do you sample your own playing?
Yeah, everything. I have numerous collections ... vocal things and lots of strings and whatever I've compiled over the years that has character. If not, I just make one up.
A lot of times I use Time Bandit, which will take the one note, copy it and retain the original qualities. I think it's as good as anything I've heard. Vibratos and most of the characteristics are retained even with the time stretch over an octave, and it'll also convert individual notes into a scale over the keyboard. I'll also then use ReCycle, which is another program that I guess a lot of people are familiar with that chops up drum loops or whatever and shoots it off to your sampler where it'll lay out the programs for you. It works in mono, which is a little unfortunate, but doesn't really matter too much. It'll save you eons of time, though. You simply send it via MIDI, or SCSI , to your sampler and it lays out the whole program across the keyboard chromatically, in a moment. So what used to take me hours just takes minutes. I'll create my libraries like that, and if they're not too hard to access at the moment I'll just call them up.
I've got tons of Roland gear lying around here. I never go to a studio session without my DR-660, the little rhythm box. I always keep it around. If I need an extra little cymbal hit or anything, I'll just poke it in quickly. And for click tracks, it's so tiny and MIDI friendly.
For Drum programming I also use a little handpad, that Roland stopped making, called the Handy Pad, PAD-5. I bought one for about $30 from a friend. It's also got really sensitive touch pads, so if you want to tap in a bongo rhythm it's really cool.
So what are you working on next?
I'm writing with a number of people, and I'm presently producing an ethnic recording for a group called Finjan. It's going to be released on Rounder records. It's Eastern European klezmer music. I'm just finishing that up today and tomorrow. That'll probably be out in the summer.