Zach Benton: Musical Integrity and Imagination

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September 28, 2014

Zach Benton is a musician who performs live with an acoustic guitar, records with a virtual band, finds inspiration in soundtrack music and is a big fan of Star Trek. He values innovation, and is ready to meet challenges that come his way.

Zach Benton (MPlotczyk Photo) 1536

Last fall Zach released Fall In, an album full of R&B roots along with some funk influences. Late this summer he added live tracks and re-released Mr. Robert’s Epiphany.  Now he is working on a CD which promises a new sound.   “If I were to do the same thing on this album I would be cheating myself and the listener; there wouldn’t be more depth,” Zach explained.  “New styles encourage your audience to become exposed to new music”.

For starters, In Thy Image (the original proposed title for the first Star Trek Movie), will use more instrumentation produced by sampling.  Sampling involves recording a note from a musical instrument and then emulating other notes using a keyboard.  It differs from synthesized notes in that the musician starts with     the actual instrument, rather than mimicking the sound.  Zach has used sampling before; you can hear sampled flute on Reed In the Wind, the last song on Fall In.

Other departures from his first CD will be the use of acoustic rather than electric guitar, and analog synthesized drums on some of the songs. “There will be a tension between the organic sounds and the drum samples.  I want a grander sound for this CD, which you can’t get with just bass, guitar, drums and keyboards.”  Already Zach has recorded Truer Love  (listen here), a ballad with a medieval feel to it. David Allen, a friend and collaborator since college, wrote the string arrangement.

Zach’s method of selecting songs to include in the album will have a new approach.  For Fall In, all of the songs on the CD had been played before live audiences. Those that he enjoyed performing - and the audience enjoyed hearing- were included. However, he will not be previewing songs for his audience on this project. “These new songs are more personal and I don’t know if people will like them. That makes it scary but exciting.”

Innovation has also come from some unexpected challenges. A bout of carpal tunnel syndrome meant a break from playing acoustic for a while, and is one reason for his using drum samples on this new recording.  Acid reflux interfered with his ability to sing last winter, and now his accommodations include tuning his guitar down two steps and lowering the vocal range of his songs.  “You hear musicians who have been trying to push through those high notes for too long. It doesn’t have to be a matter of pride to sing those great songs in a lower key.”

Zach enjoys both recording and performing.  “In the studio I take more risks, I want the recording to be timeless so that it still sounds good decades from now.” His approach is to make the CD sound as if it is live, which goes counter to the studio sound so often heard in modern recordings.  In contrast, Zach says he plays it safe with his live performances.   “I drink water, I take care of myself, I have learned to stop straining my voice.  I want to be approachable and to create a memory.  I don’t cultivate an image, because there goes my innovation.”

I asked about local musicians whom he finds creative. He named Santa Croce, a band of six siblings who have multiple writers and multiple lead vocalists.  “That is risky these days – usually it is just one vocalist.  Their performance is so honest. That’s another risk; they don’t just plug in and play the same way they recorded a song.  They make their performance seem special.” He also mentioned BC3, whom he saw perform at Keene Music Festival. “Their instrumentation was quite innovative.”

Disturbing Trends in the Music Industry

While Zach champions the innovations that can come with good musicianship, he notes that record companies use technology in a way that squelches the creativity of new music.  Vocal pitch correction is one technique that Zach finds lacking in integrity of the artist: “Be honest,” he says.  “Sing flat, use vibrato, or keep perfecting your craft as you get better and better. It’s great to hear musicians grow.” He urges artists to join him in including a note on their CD’s that no pitch correction is used.

Another trend is the “loudness war” where music is so compressed that there is no contrast in the volume. The listener can’t hear the highs and lows of a song, resulting in ear fatigue where the songs start sounding the same. This wasn’t a problem with LP’s because one could compress music to a much lesser degree than with digital technology.  Older CD’s tend to be less compressed, so Zach seeks editions stored in jewel cases that have the black spine with ridges. You can go to the Dynamic Range Database  to research what a CD’s dynamic range is. This website rates the dynamic range of various editions of a recording on a scale of 1 – 20. (“Good” is a rating of at least 14.)  Zach has his recordings mastered with as much dynamic range as possible.  “Music shouldn’t be loud for loudness’ sake,” he says.

 An opportunity for more original music

Zach is very active in the local musical community – collaborating, performing with other artists, and finding new talent at Fritz’s – where he hosts Acoustic Thursdays.

Zach Benton and Sam Clapp at FritzZach performing with Sam Clapp at Fritz The Place to Eat Acoustic Thursdays

He finds music in the Keene area is thriving, and there are many open mics where new musicians can get a start.  Typically restaurants have mostly hired cover bands, but recently music licensing companies have been serving notice to local venues that they need to pay fees when copyrighted songs are played.  Due to the high costs of these fees, some venues have stopped hosting live music, an unfortunate outcome for musicians and music lovers alike.  But Zach sees possible opportunity here.  “This could encourage musicians to write original music.  Venues could open up to musicians writing their own material, and this could be good for everyone, including the audience.  The audience doesn’t know what they want next.  We can surprise them – and it will surprise ourselves too.”

In addition to working on the new album, Zach has just released Old Paint, a cowboy song from the 1800’s. He and David Allen are also collaborating for fun on a soundtrack to Stephen King’s book The Stand. “I enjoyed the book and had some ideas.  My parts are synthesized like they would have sounded back in 1978 when the book was published, while David’s are more orchestral.”

Zach’s complete discography, including his soundtracks and hobby recordings, is on Bandcamp. To learn more about Zach, his upcoming shows, and  more of his thoughts on his music and musical trends, go to his Facebook page.

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Monadnotes promotes live music opportunities in the southwestern New Hampshire area. We list musicians, venues, community ensembles, and events in Keene, Peterborough, Milford, Henniker and surrounding towns, as well as in the greater Connecticut River Valley and Pioneer Valley regions.  Monadnotes has the most complete calendar listing of events and continues to expand.  Contact us to be listed on our website.