Doug Benson has had a career in engineering music, whether at other studios or at his own Commodore recording studio on Main Street in Thurmont. Yet despite all his experience, it wasn’t until recently that he embarked on perhaps his most rewarding project when he released “The Rosetta Stone”, a collection of songs that features 63 local musicians and has was apparently made for her son Drew, who has autism and likes to listen to music through his headphones. The result is an album that can be downloaded for free from his studio’s website, www.commodorestudio.com. In this conversation, Benson talks about the four-year process of compiling “The Rosetta Stone,” why he was initially reluctant to adapt his practices to a more technological world, and, of course, Drew’s response to his album a once he heard the set finished.
Can you summarize the project for those reading? It seemed like such a massive undertaking to put it all together.
It was. It started with one song, and we turned it into a video, and there are all the little squares with all the individual players and so on. We did this before COVID so it was before it was cool [laughs]. It’s just something that kind of evolved. It’s not like I have a master plan. Then when it was finally done, I was trying to show off the talent that was in the area because everyone that was in the video for “It All Rolls Back Around” is from that tri-state area. Then when COVID happened all the musicians lost their gigs and for a while my business went down the drain so I had a lot of free time to do creative things on my own. My son Drew – who is 31 and has autism and will probably live with us forever – he has a few favorite recordings he loves to listen to, Beethoven and one of my jazz recordings from a few years ago. I thought he was going to outlast us, and I want to make sure he has something with my voice on it and a lot of voice on it that he can listen to the same way. It’s something that just fell together after a few years. It wasn’t really supposed to release a CD until about a year before it was finished. I said, “I’ve got enough of those songs now that I can probably do something with them.” What I was really trying to do was put full, thick mixes on it. If you listen to part of it through headphones, you’ll hear a sustain chord or a human voice that transitions into a flute that transitions into a muted trumpet. It’s just something different he hears every time. So when it was finally over and we put “The Rosetta Stone” on his Kindle and he listened for the first time, the smile on his face was like, “Hey, what’s that? is? That’s cool.”
I was going to ask you about this. Seeing the response you received from him, how good did it do you?
I’m kind of his person, and you put it together hoping you’d get the response you want, but that was really, really, really awesome. Knowing that you were able to give such a gift. He functions badly enough that he doesn’t really understand the lyrics of the songs, but when the name “Dr. Seuss” comes out, it makes sense to him, even if it’s out of the context of the story told by the song. So , you just feel like it’s another notch or something that can help make his life more enjoyable and give him more interesting things to occupy his senses.
Would you do another?
I could. My only problem is that I am developing very bad tinnitus. It’s getting harder and harder for me to hear some of the frequencies I’m recording. Much of the work I do and have done over the past 15 years is restoring older things. We’ve had a few historic Grammy-nominated releases. 1920s stuff. Jazz, mostly. There’s some stuff coming out this year that might get a Grammy nod, but we’ll see about that. So if I’m able to listen through the ringing that’s still in my ears, I could keep doing stuff like that. It was a four year business, so I want to take a little break before I get back to creating more stuff.
You had written that there were musicians unable to come to the studio. Were there any musicians you had in mind that didn’t make it on the album at all because it didn’t work out?
Not really. I established a very good relationship with many musicians. I’ve been open in this commercial building for almost 10 years now, and even when people couldn’t come, they could usually do some type of check-in in their own environment and send it to me. I have some instruments on it and vocals that have been added to the choruses and things like that. If you only listen to their voice, it’s kinda wonky because it was recorded on an iPhone or something. But in the context of the big chorus, it’s actually quite compelling. So it was a lot of fun for me to put that together, just to see what I was able to do sonically. A friend of mine said, “Yeah, that’s definitely your ‘Sgt. Pepper.'”
From a technology perspective, is this something you thought you could do 20, 30 years ago?
How did this color the recording sessions? Did it take anything away from the process or is it something you adapted to? Has the ability to work remotely with people and go back and forth hurt the process?
It really didn’t take anything away from him. I’m just kind of with the flow when it comes to technology. For noise reduction software, which I use a lot on older recordings, there were things that are now available for a few hundred dollars on the internet that you couldn’t get at any price there is five years. Even digital recording – I grew up in the 70s and 80s using tapes and razor blades. I resisted computer recording for years. Well, I had to learn it because I had to teach a course on it at Montgomery College. So I sat down with my free academic copy of Pro Tools and started playing with it, and after the first 10 minutes I was kicking myself. I was like, “Wait, what can you do with that? Is editing easy? So I’ve been a convert ever since.
How long have you had the studio?
I’ve had a studio in Thurmont since 1992. I’ve been working in studios since 1978. Under the current name, Commodore Recording, where we rented a commercial building, I’ve been here since 2013.
Was it always something you wanted to do? Or were there other passions you thought you could pursue?
When you’re a teenager you always want to be a rock star, so I thought I was a performing musician, but that’s not where I’m supposed to be. I have probably the worst stage presence of anyone I know. When I played in bands for years, I played various instruments but the one that suited me best was a keyboardist because all I had to do was sit there. When it came to technology and my interest in old recordings, it really drifted more towards the engineering part and I’m very happy about that.
What drew you to early music from the late 1800s, early 1900s?
I just always liked it. When I was 10, I went to the church jumble sale and found some 78s. I got them for 10 cents apiece or something and I’ve always been fascinated by them. Then I met a few friends along the way who shared the same interests, and we’re still friends today. We work together and release things that have been released internationally. So it’s just one of those things that happens.
Did you also play this type of music for your son? And does he like it?
I don’t think he would appreciate that. If you met Drew, you would understand a little more. Everything he knows, he knows by heart. He memorized every song from every Disney movie. That sort of thing. We call him the gentle giant because he’s bigger than us and bigger than us and he could probably beat us, but he’s so adorable it’s not even a problem. One thing I did was harden my machines to be able to read outdated formats. I took reel to reel tape to see if the tape would play. I plugged in some headphones and played it on the reel machine and let Drew listen while he played, and he was just mesmerized. He loves having classical music in the car. One of the two main things he listens to on his Kindle is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Maybe it’s because it’s the one from “Fantasia”, but anyway, I think it’s a good thing for him to enrich his ears a bit.
Colin McGuire has been in bands for over 20 years and also helps produce gigs in and around Frederick. His work has appeared in Alternative Press magazine, PopMatters, and 72 Hours, among others. He is convinced that the difference between being in a group and being in a romantic relationship is far from minimal. Contact him at [email protected]