Grammy-nominated producer Howard Benson knew early on that utilizing the benefits of a computer would be a game-changer when it came to making music. The Philadelphia native (and self-described Doors fan) initially thought that life as a keyboard player would be his future. However, after graduating from Drexel University, and walking away with a degree in aerospace engineering, his journey led him down a different path. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and landed a stable job full of promise. Roughly four years later, he gave it all up for his love of music.
While Benson started off playing in a band, it was his self-produced demos that were catching people’s attention. “I was 27 or 28 years old, and I thought, if I don’t try this now I’m never going to get the chance get to try it,” Benson tells AXS. “So, I took a bit of a risk, quit the job, and started doing demos; lots of demos, five years of demos. Then I finally got a record to produce.”
In the late ‘80s, Benson had scored the opportunity to collaborate with the hardcore punk band, T.S.O.L. “That was something I got randomly,” he recalled. “I was literally at a Denny's and met them there. They were in the next seats over, and I heard them talking about their record; that they couldn't get it put out because they didn't have it finished. And, I was working at Sunset Sound with a friend of mine who was just an assistant. I said, ‘Oh, let me finish your record.’ Not knowing whether that would even happen, but I just threw it out there.” The band agreed, and Benson got them in the studio. They finished the album, and that became his first credit.
In the mid-90s, Benson began revolutionizing the way a record was made, by utilizing Pro Tools. It was not a common practice at that time. His style attracted acts such as Less Than Jake and Zebrahead, but it was his work with P.O.D. that earned Benson his first big hit. “I took this band, and I made hits in the computer with them. At the time, it was very groundbreaking. It wasn’t something people did that much.” As a producer, he went on to see massive success with groups such as My Chemical Romance, Papa Roach, Daughtry, Halestorm, and Three Days Grace.
Ultimately, the road led Benson to Mike Plotnikoff, an engineer from Little Mountain Sound, in Vancouver. “When I started working with Mike, I started realizing we were getting known for our guitar tones. Plus our hit records; but people were hiring us because our drums and guitars sounded great,” Benson told AXS. “At the time, I didn’t realize it was that important, but we had kept track of all the guitar tones, we wrote everything down. That was something that was very old-school; you don’t that see anymore. We still do it to this day.”
By 2018, the pair had hooked up with Sonny Truelove (CEO and founder of STL) to create an all-in-one guitar plug-in suite called STL Tonality: developed from Benson and Plotnikoff's signature guitar sounds. They got into the studio, brought up their notes (dating back to 1999) and were able to recreate all of their work.
“It’s pretty cool,” Sonny Truelove said, sitting across from Benson and Plotnikoff as the three recounted their journey. “Working on the sounds for this plug-in, being a fan, and seeing all of these old sessions get pulled up; just to hear [these guitar sounds] solo, was phenomenal. "They have this closet library; actual notepads where [you can see] every little note," Truelove added. "I don’t think we’d really be able to recreate it to this extent if they didn’t have these notes, to be honest.”
The trio calls what they’ve created, “the Tesla of plug-ins.” It’s the top of the line, and, it’s easy to use. You don’t need an instruction manual. “There was a time when we were making 10 albums a year,” Benson continued. “I produced about 160 albums. A lot of that is because we knew what we wanted. We thought about that process when we made the plug-in. A lot of people spend too much time trying to dial-in things. If you’re a guitar player, you don’t want to sit around trying to get a sound, you want to write the riff, so [we wanted to] give them something where they can just go.”
Plotnikoff says that as an engineer, his thought was to make things as easy as possible. “When people throw it up, it sounds good right away. You don’t have to sit there,” he explained. “I understand that people are technical, and it gives them that ability, too; if they want to be technical to go in there. But, the overall plug-in is easy to use.”
Benson, Plotnikoff, and Truelove say that they are just at the starting point with STL Tonality. The plan is to put out some preset packs, along with additional material, in the future. “We’re going to dig deeper into the vault,” Benson tells AXS. “We haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”