David Thoener – Shaping The Sound Of The Genesis

by Tammy Hilderbrand
This is part 3 of a series entitled, “The Genesis of Ben Becker the Artist.” Part 1 of this series on Ben Becker and those in the genesis of his career was published on May 19. Part 2, “Nina Musolino – Managing The Genesis” was published on May 24th.

After more than 40 years as a recording engineer, producer and mix engineer, David Thoener of Nashville is a seasoned veteran of the recording industry.

Thoener mixed Ben Becker’s debut cd, Fall, which was released this month on iTunes, Spotify and over 50 music service platforms.

Ben and David Thoener listening to one of the tracks of Fall at Blue Grotto Sound

Like most musical roads, Thoener’s is a long one. He recalls being only 10 years old when the Beatles washed ashore in America.

“From the moment I heard them, I knew I wanted a life in music,” smiled Thoener acknowledging that many of his peers had the same response to the first wave of the British Invasion.

“I tried piano, but I wasn’t prepared for the discipline,” he admitted as he discussed the bumpy start to his young career.

He was a senior in high school in Yonkers, New York, when his devotion to a life in music was solidified. He had the chance to visit a recording studio in New York City. “Once I visited that studio, I was hooked,” laughed Thoener.

He enrolled at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in 1972 and after two semesters he found a job at National Recording Studios as a messenger and then took a job with Dick Charles Recording as a tape copier and mastering engineering. From there, he began working on demos for walk-in songwriters, recording and mastering their demos on acetate. He moved to Record Plant Studio in 1974, and that’s where his career took off.

Just four months later, he was working with John Lennon, David Bowie, Chick Corea and Edgar Winter as assistant engineer on their albums. In a 2001 interview with Mix Magazine, Thoener stated:

Jimmy Iovine and I were assistants [at RPS] the same time (1974). The chief engineer was Shelly Yakus, and since owner Roy Cicala had Jimmy, Shelly took me. That was great, because Shelly was one of the hottest engineers in New York. I got to work on some amazing projects.

David with the J. Geils Band (circa 1978).

In 1975, Thoener assisted Bill Szymcyk on a J. Geils album titled Hot Line. The following year found Szymchyk busy working with The Eagles on their landmark Hotel California album, so J. Geils Band asked Thoener to engineer Monkey Island which led to Thoener recording and mixing Sanctuary, Love Stinks, and Freeze Frame.

From there, things definitely began to rock and roll for the young engineer. He was getting frequent requests from managers and labels of iconic artists such as Billy Squire, Heart, AC/DC, John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan, Meatloaf, Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Kiss, and Matchbox 20. Thoener has worked on over 400 albums.

Thoener wasn’t just in the middle of American musical history, he was shaping the sound we think of from that era.

Thoener started working in Nashville in 1986 when he was asked to work on Rodney Crowell’s album, Street Language.

“I liked Nashville, and we continued to work on future albums there. In 1993, I decided the cost of living in New York was getting to be too expensive, so I made the transition to Nashville,” explained Thoener.

Brian Johnson of AC/DC on the left with David Thoener (right).

Thoener’s daughter was only 4 at the time, and he found Nashville to be a great town to raise his daughter.

“Initially there was a little bit of culture shock, but through the years Nashville has grown into a major city. It’s no small town anymore,” commented Thoener.

In the years since, he also worked with many country and Christian artists including Keith Urban, Brooks and Dunn, Point of Grace, Faith Hill, The Newsboys, PFR and Jars of Clay. It was also during this period that international artists began calling to book Thoener for their project.

When Brian Becker, Ben’s father, initially contacted Thoener back in March, the engineer recalls he was immediately impressed with Ben’s work.

“I was contacted by Brian by email with a rough mix of ‘DUI.’ I thought Ben had very good lyrics and melodies, and I was very impressed with his talent, especially with him being only 18 years old. I responded that I was very interested in helping to take Ben’s work to the next level,” recalled Thoener. “I knew I could drastically improve what they had.”

David Thoener was assistant engineer on Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic (1975).

“Ben is a very talented songwriter and performer,” said Thoener. “He has a gift, and I think he can shine, even in a town like Nashville where there is a lot of great talent.”

Thoener said Ben has a unique ability to smoothly go from full voice to falsetto, “that makes him a really interesting vocal performer. I think he has a bright future as an artist.”

For a guy with 43 years of experience in the music industry, with multiple platinum and gold records on his wall next to three Grammy Awards, that is definitely sound praise. Clearly, Thoener is proud to be part of Ben’s debut album.

Brian Becker cannot say enough about Thoener’s impact on the album.

“I was searching for a solid engineer to mix Ben’s project and came across David’s name,” Brian said. “I knew that it was like shooting for the moon to get David Thoener involved with this project, but on a whim I emailed him. I couldn’t believe it when he responded, yes!

Producer Matt Serletic & engineer David Thoener with “Album of the Year” Grammy Awards for Santana Supernatural (2000).

“Getting David for this project is indescribable. It would be like if you were renting a car and paying for a Ford Fusion but they hand you the keys to a Ferrari and say, bring it back when you are done. Honestly, that’s the best way I know to describe the upgrade we got when David Thoener said he was in.”

“I knew the tracks we had recorded were good,” said Brian. “But I wanted more than just the sum of their parts.”

Brian credits Thoener for taking those tracks over the top. “David is really down to earth and was completely invested in what Ben was doing,” explained Brian.

Ben agreed.

“When you come into a studio to meet with a man who has worked on absolutely incredible records, you kind of assume you’re going to have to just sit down and shut up. I really expected to have to fight for my ideas when going into this,” explained the young artist.

“But David told me right away that this was my album, not his. He turned our tracks into something really fantastic. He just has incredible ears. I learned something from him every moment I spent with him. I couldn’t be happier with the way this album sounds, and that is all thanks to David,” admitted Ben.

Brian explains,  “What a mix engineer does is blend all those recorded tracks and reshapes the sonic nature of each instrument. A typical song of Ben’s had 30+ tracks of music and 15 tracks of vocals. But when you listen to the final mix, you just hear 2 tracks – left and right.”

He continued, “Each of those tracks has to take up sonic space based on volume, panning and frequency. A mix engineer uses compressors, equalizers, delays, reverb and other effects to shape each sound.  Whether it’s figuring out which part of the kick drum needs to be accentuated, what effect to put on the vocals, or how loud the electric guitar should be, the mix engineer helps the listener hear the nuances of the music.”

Every great story has a great beginning, which is why having an iconic music veteran shaping the sound of a young artist is so exciting.

“It’s always interesting to be with an artist at the beginning of their career, and to see that career blossom,” said Thoener. “I am very excited about Ben’s future. Ben somewhat reminds me of Jason Mraz and John Mayer. I think he can really go places.”

The genesis is the most magical part of a story.

And, we get to witness it….

This is part 3 of a series entitled, “The Genesis of Ben Becker the Artist.” Part 1 of this series on Ben Becker and those in the genesis of his career was published on May 19. Part 2, “Nina Musolino – Managing The Genesis” was published on May 24th.

Ben’s album Fall is available on iTunes and all other services starting June 16.

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