Up & Coming Engineers: Ryan Benyo on Radio, Recording and “Kid Pan Alley”

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Ryan Benyo at work.

Ryan Benyo at work.

Ryan Benyo produces an independent and internationally syndicated radio show called Passport Approved.

Airing on over 30 stations across the world, Passport Approved was the first North American radio show to play artists including Adele, Lorde, Tove Lo, The Temper Trap, and Lily Allen.

Benyo talks to us about what goes into the engineering and production of a syndicated radio show, and his own L.A. studio, Benyo Sound—all while finding time to work with the music non-profit Kid Pan Alley.

You recently finished your fourth West Coast tour, where you took the Passport Approved radio show on the road. How did that go?

It was exceptional. This time around, we had Switzerland’s Death By Chocolate, Australia’s Evol Walks, and the U.S.’s Sean Kelly—who I actually played keyboards with on the tour.

My roles were basically driving one of the tour buses, co-road managing, load-ins, sound checks, playing, and being available in-person for all things Passport Approved.

That’s basically what a tour entails: Getting the bands safely and on-time to their destination and solving problems as they come up. We were in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Fresno, Santa Cruz, Sacramento, Portland and Seattle.

How did you get started working with Passport Approved?

It actually came through a referral from a fellow student from my college McNally Smith College of Music—he was working with [creator and DJ of Passport Approved] Sat Bisla as well.

Can you describe your duties as the producer?

Passport Approved is all about being the first point of contact for international music. So my job as the producer is keeping it all about the music and making sure the technical aspects of the show are captured and delivered on time. We’ve been the first North American (and in some cases, the first worldwide) radio program to play artists like Adele, Lorde, Kongos, Tove Lo, Bastille, Lily Allen, The Temper Trap and so many more.

What software and hardware are you using in this context?

Currently, I’m using Pro Tools for the actual compilation of songs, voice overs, sweeper and music beds that make up the program. It’s a rather old-school import radio show approach, which really gives it its authentic charm I think!

Can you talk about the business side of running a syndicated radio show?

Whether you are inspiring stations to play your radio show, promoting your band in a new market, or marketing a new product, the theory is the same: have a stellar product and put it in front of the right people who should be interested in it.

It’s a relationship business, like all business for that matter, so knowing the right folks in radio always helps. Though those seats are pretty hot sometimes — radio people tend to move around a lot, so you are constantly needing to both keep and reform relationships!

In terms of business, how do the licenses, royalties, and ad sales work — do you have to make individual arrangements with each station?

It’s really mostly technical for me. I don’t handle most of the specific backends of the business side of everything. I can say that radio stations are responsible for their own licenses to play and air music.

What was the most challenging thing about starting your own studio in the midst of all this?

The most difficult thing for me is dealing with clients’ schedules. It’s so hard to get the right people in the right room at the right time and ultimately, any unbooked time is a loss of business.

The saving grace there is that since my studio is a private production space designed to be an asset to my projects, making it work is more about the amount of projects I have going on rather than the amount of time booked—but the math is similar.

One thing I’ve learned along the way is how to delegate in the studio and have great people to work and collaborate with. Also, I’ve learned to say no on certain things when it risks affecting the quality of other projects, or just my overall sanity! [Laughs]

It’s 100% entrepreneurial. And all things entrepreneurial are pretty much the same I think. Business is business.

I don’t rent my studio out to engineers. The place is set up for my unique needs and wouldn’t really be the best option for outside engineers anyway. We have other great rooms in the building available for renting studio time like that.

What do you think makes someone great at mixing?

Listen and respond. I know that sounds obvious but it’s pretty important. Figure out what the song needs, and most importantly, what it doesn’t need and go from there.

Also, listen to your artist/client. They have a perspective on their tune that others don’t. Sometimes it’s a hindrance, and it feels like it’s ruining everything while other times it’s the essential insight that helps you focus the direction. Besides that, pick your battles as ultimately, it’s their art.

The other thing is…know that if leaving it alone isn’t working, it’s OK to totally change everything around to improve the song. If the bass doesn’t sound right, you could run it through a Pultec and dbx 160; you could leave it alone and say “it’s got the indie vibe to it now”, you could nudge it around to really make it sit right, or you can bring in a killer bass player friend of yours and have them replay the part.

Odds are, the latter will yield the best results but it’s always good to keep all options on the table and mix and match when needed. Don’t be afraid to re-program drums, add some percussion, strings, or cut out the bridge or intro—but just be ready for the artist to completely hate everything you did. At least for the first few listens!

The line between producer, mixer, and engineer are so blurry that all bets are off in terms of where your jobs begins and finishes and it’s really just about serving the song in the end.

In terms of serving the song, what was your experience working in the studio producing and mixing bands like Parachute, Sheppard, and Alberta Cross?

Well, Passport Approved gave Sheppard their first radio airplay outside of Australia so I’ve been fortunate to know them from the very beginning. They, of course, have been doing the majority (or probably all) of their recording in Brisbon, but they have done a few exclusive acoustic recordings with us to air on the show and let me tell you, those guys are pure talent. They are full of energy, meticulously well-rehearsed, and probably one of the easiest artists I’ve gotten to work with in a studio setting.

Parachute was a trip. I was assisting at a studio in Virginia and their first day in the studio recording was my first day as well. They were there to work on pre-production for their second album The Way It Was. Naturally, I had never heard of the band until that day so I had no idea what to expect. We had a lot of songs to record at a high level with little time so I got a lot of hands-on experience with the band, purely out of necessity. They are total pros. They are tech-savvy, get the pop formula, and are super nice guys.

Alberta Cross was a similar scenario to Parachute but very different music of course. They were actually focusing more on writing during those sessions. It was a great learning experience to watch their process. They have a natural artistry. On a funny note, I think it was FIFA season and there was some FIFA madness in the air which threw a wrench into the mix scheduling-wise. Those guys are serious about their “Football”!

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