Words of Wisdom from Dave Hampton

What do Prince, Lady Gaga, Herbie Hancock, Justin Timberlake, and Babyface have in common (besides Grammy awards, of course)? Each of them has leaned on the expertise of tech-guru Dave Hampton. Known for the broad range of skills he brings to the table, Hampton has helped these and numerous other high-profile clients with services ranging from engineering and production to studio design and live-rig support (including real-time 5.1 surround-sound engineering for Herbie Hancock’s Future2Future tour).

Hampton honed his production chops in the ‘80s LA music scene, while spending his formative electrical engineering years at Oberheim Electronics. Eventually, his breadth of knowledge about audio helped him become an in-demand studio designer, whose work spans large-scale facilities (Babyface, Marcus Miller, and Creflo Dollar Ministries) to highly personalized recording spaces (Herbie Hancock, Rafael Saadiq, Maxwell, Marcus Miller, and Organized Noyze). Hampton was even tapped to complete the restoration of Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis. In addition, he has served as Technical Director at both Paisley Park and Hancock Music in Los Angeles.

Hampton is equally adept at designing touring rigs, including systems for Whitney Houston, Chicago, and Maxwell. His client list also includes Eddie Murphy, Teddy Riley, RZA, Bill Withers, Sinbad and M.I.A. He regularly does lectures and workshops on production and recording, and his book The Business of Audio Engineering (Hal Leonard) has become a standard text for programs throughout the world.

And if that wasn’t enough, Hampton has launched Reftone, a line of small monitors that are “designed to promote basic near-field monitoring principles,” he told me in a recent interview. “The goal is that the user, at any level of audio experience, can hear full-range signals clearly at low volume for placement and accuracy.“

Dave Hampton recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me on the phone.

What do you tell aspiring engineers about studio etiquette, when it comes time for them to deal with clients?
First, it’s a service-oriented business.

Second, it’s never about you.

Third, meet people with equal energy. Don’t be too up; don’t be too laid back and comfortable.

Also, dress for the occasion. If you’re working as an assistant, dress as an assistant. Don’t go dressed as the aspiring rock-and-roll star. We don’t need anything else. You just need you to play the role, and by playing the role it’ll put you in the right environment. And if you’re focused on being service oriented, you will focus only on the immediate needs of those people in the room. As soon as they know that they are the focus of your attention, they will respect you for being professional and then you will start to see other things happen, where they’ll start to talk to you on breaks, and so on.

When you get that first thank you from people who don’t normally give thank you’s, it’s a pretty powerful thing.

How should they conduct themselves?
Try to say as little as possible. It’s not about being passive. You have to be observant. Be smart enough to recognize how creative people get to their creativity.

And you’ve got to write things down. The biggest sign of respect that you can give is to go into a meeting with a pad and a pencil because if you’re willing to write it down, it means you’re focusing on what’s being said and you’re paying attention. So there’s a lot of those things we do overtly and covertly as signs of acknowledgement that we’re paying attention—that we are invested in the situation. And I think that’s the best thing for young, upcoming folks who realize that opportunity can look like anything today.

I’ve seen really good people have some tremendous opportunities; I’ve seen some really talented people miss opportunities because at some point in time they weren’t focused on remembering that it’s a service-oriented business—especially if you’re trying to be a recording engineer. If you’re trying to be a producer and you’re learning recording engineering, then it’s a time to be humble, because the lessons are going to come at you. And they’re just for you.

This is true in every aspect of the business, isn’t it?
It’s not just music, these days. It’s now expanded to transmedia, which is actually stronger than music. We are in the age where music is a component of content. Today you need to deal with creatives of every type. So you’ve got to have a game for all of those. As production professionals, we have to expand our conversation to deal with how content is developed today.

When you don’t know the answer to something in these situations, how do you deal with that?

For example, if somebody at the level of Herbie Hancock asks you to do something, you say that you don’t know! I have a very funny story about a lesson I learned from Herbie. When I first came to work with him, Mix magazine had done an article on a studio I had done, I think for Babyface. Herbie had read it, so he hired me to come in and do some changes to the studio, and I came and made the changes. Over the course of doing that, he found out that I had a history of working for Oberheim and that I knew about working with analog synthesizers. So, consequently, it led to the next 12 years of my life handling all the technical responsibilities for Herbie Hancock.

So at some point we were doing the electric band and preparing to go out on the road. And as we’re going into rehearsal, I said “Okay Herbie, I’ve got it worked out.” We were working with new software and a bunch of other stuff and I told him “Here’s the plan. We’ll work on this, and if this gives us any problems, we’re going to go over here, and this unit is already running. And we’re going to work on this one, and we’ll just switch over.”

And he looked at me and said “Dave, let’s just plan on it working. Never mind a back-up plan.” [laughs.] “Plan on the main thing working.”

He knew I was very strategic that way. I always wanted a back-up solution in place because he liked to perform on a wire; he liked to try something new when it was, like, prototype phase and could possibly start smoking as you played it. And I didn’t really like that because as a technical person you want to see machines work smoothly.

So I learned a valuable lesson. From that day forward, I never, ever did the back-up-plan thing again. I put all my energy and all my focus into making it work, into the intention. And he was trying to speak to intent—that’s what he was trying to tell me with his comment: Why don’t you intend on things working. Don’t intend on things breaking. If it breaks, we’ll deal with that as it comes. Don’t work with the intention of an accident.

That’s an interesting concept.
It was very profound for me because as a technical person, I felt proud that I had a back-up plan. But after I thought about [Hancock’s comments], I said “Wow, I’ve wasted a lot of time over the years with this back-up-plan scenario. [laughs.] So it was a real good moment for me., I learned a lot.

Intention—you’ve got to put your all into it and intend on things working exactly how you wanted.

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