The Honablue Institute of Audio Engineering in Brooklyn
WRITTEN BY LARRY CRANE ON MAY 7, 2014
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LARRY CRANE
With over 40 years of studio experience, and having worked with artists like Dave Brubeck, George Benson, and Weather Report, Robert Honablue was recently the Director of Engineering at The Honablue Institute of Audio Engineering in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. I dropped in one afternoon to talk about his career. Unfortunately, soon after our chat Robert closed down THI.
“It is with great sadness that I have to announce the closing of THI Studios to our clients and all potential clients. I know that THI served as one of the finest studios around for your projects. But running THI as a school, studio and mastering suite has taken its toll on me, and my doctor has suggested that I let go of the business for health reasons.” – Robert Honablue
Did you work in video, initially?
I started out at NBC as a videotape engineer in ’67 and I hated it. I stayed there for one year. I’ll never forget the time I got so fed up that I actually gave my two-week notice without even having a job lined up. I didn’t know where I was going to go.
Did you just not like the environment?
I liked the audio portion. They stuck me with The Tonight Show to do audio, but it was nothing of substance; Johnny Carson’s ribbon desk mic, a few boom overheads, and some EV 635 omnidirectional mics. They didn’t even have a decent console. They didn’t really care about the audio too much. I remember going over to CBS Records faithfully every week and filling out my application. I wanted that job at CBS. There was something about the vibe there that I liked. Dave Brubeck, a pioneer for civil rights and noted jazz musician, suggested I contact his record producer, Teo Macero, who introduced me to the Director of Engineering, Roy Friedman, of CBS Records. He said, “You’ve got the job. By the way, what are you doing tonight? Can you come by the studio?” Years later, I found out what that was about. I was the first black engineer to work for CBS records, and they were showing me off because we were right next door to the United Negro College Fund who were also at the party. I didn’t know what was going on. I stayed there for four years and did a lot of mastering and recording. I was also the first mastering engineer who got credits on an album (for Edgar Winter’s White Trash).
Did they have multiple suites for mastering?
The whole fifth floor was disc mastering, the fourth floor was editing. Studio B was on the second floor, and Studio E was on the sixth floor. I started out in mastering. I was the youngest kid up there, and I remember all these old white guys. They told me, “Stay away from the guys in the studio. They’re crazy!” Then one day my supervisor said, “Honablue, we need an assistant down in the studio. Do you mind going down there?” I get down there, and these guys aren’t crazy! The problem was that these guys were sending tapes up for mastering, and they’d say to us that they wanted it cut at a certain level. The mastering guys didn’t want to do anything but just put the sliders down, start it up, and read the paper. That was my first time in the studio. I was wearing a suit and tie and we were working on Laura Nyro’s album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. CBS was a great place to work. I learned a lot. I stayed there for maybe four years.
What did you do after CBS?
I had a studio called Natural Sound in ’74. It was on West 29th street, a decent studio. I had the first Allen & Heath console that came into New York City. It was an 8-bus board. It was nice and clean. I also had a 1-inch Scully 8-track. After that studio, I hooked up with George Benson for a couple of years. We ran a studio called Triangle Recording Studios.
That was in the Bronx, in his garage. It wasn’t anything big. I remember saying to George, “Why do we call this place Triangle?” He said that it takes three people to make a hit record. It takes an artist for the creativity, a producer to monitor the creativity, and an engineer to track the creativity. That always made sense to me. To this day, George will never produce his sessions (even though he probably could), and he won’t engineer (though I know he can). He just wants to walk into a studio, take out his guitar, play, and leave.
What did you work on?
Triangle Studios was all local artists and friends of his. Ronnie Foster and Lou Donaldson would come through. Remember the Fatback Band? Bill Curtis? Then I went out on the West Coast and worked for Motown for two horrible years.
Motown had been out in Los Angeles for a while?
Yeah. You remember the song, “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene [Marilynn D’Angelo Oliver]? That was my first time working with her on her recording “Are You Free.” An awesome singer. She’s coming here in November to discuss my engineering another recording for her this year.
I started out in mastering. I was the youngest kid up there, and I remember all these old white guys. They told me, “Stay away from the guys in the studio. They’re crazy!”
So L.A. wasn’t your favorite experience, overall?
L.A. was nice, but not Motown. I wasn’t happy with the way they used to treat their artists. Teena Marie [Mary Christine Brockert] was a writer there, and they really stiffed her on some of the songs she wrote. Robbie Douglas wrote one of the tunes for The Stylistics, one of their big hits. I said, “Robbie, you should be living high off the hog now!” He says, “Honablue, they made me sign a piece of paper and gave me a check for $500 for the rights to the song.” That was a lesson for him.
Do you think that was going on before at Motown?
I’m sure it was. I’m sure it still goes on; not only with Motown, but with all the labels. It’s a business for them. It’s nothing more than a business. I worked at Sunrise, Sunset Studios, and the Jobete Studio for some of the recording projects. I also did work for Anna [Gordy] Gaye, who was Berry Gordy’s older sister. After Motown, I freelanced and started a couple of small studios on my own. In L.A., I started Natural Sound West, but it was more manufacturing than anything else. I realized that people needed records pressed, and that was my forte. CBS always treated me nicely by taking me on as a client. Back then you had to order a minimum of 3,000 to go to press with them. Because I had worked there and knew their specs, they’d do mine at either 500 or 1,000. It was a blessing because they gave me the same price, and I could pass the savings on to my customers.
After that, did you move back to the East Coast?
After Motown, I ran a couple companies out there, small studios. I did a lot of freelancing at a lot of studios. In fact, Michael Allsup from Three Dog Night, had a studio. I did the original Three Dog Night “Celebrate,” and it was rejected by CBS. A lot of the artists I worked with were rejected by CBS. Not for the engineering! I spent at least a year or two freelancing in this place; not for him, but for different artists.
What led to getting into this space here and doing the school?
I had learned that Eric Porterfield (of CBS Records) played an important part in the designing of this studio here in Restoration Plaza. It was designed as part of a plan to provide the Bed-Stuy residents with a place to learn, as well as to record their projects. This was a recording studio and school; but everyone who took it over kept it as a studio, so the community wasn’t really benefiting from it. The studio changed ownership maybe four times. We took over the space in 2007. It started out as a workshop program. We do things for kids. I invite all the high schools to come down; especially grade-schoolers, because those kids have never been in a studio like this before. I let them touch the console, play with the faders, and let them assist us with recording and mixing. I tell people that they’ll never know what impact moving that fader will have on a kid’s life in ten years. I have a unique way of teaching.
It’s more hands-on. To me, theory without application is meaningless. I really believe that when kids come on board, you should throw them behind the console. Let them get a feel for the faders, the pots, and the switches. There’s no need to talk to them about resistors when they don’t even know what a resistor does. It’s easier to teach theory once they get some hands-on time under their belt. We spend nine months teaching them analog recording, because a lot of kids coming out of digital schools know nothing about mic placement or where digital came from. The workshop program is ten months long. We go from a beginner stage, which has to do with learning how to be an assistant engineer, what’s entailed, and what they do. Then you graduate and become an intermediate engineer. An intermediate engineer is a recording engineer. Now they’re doing sessions. The final stages of our curriculum is mixing, learning Pro Tools, and then mastering.
Where do you see the Institute going in the future?
Once the accreditation kicks in, we’ll be able to offer financial aid for people in the community and beyond. We’re having a hard time convincing people to come to Bed-Stuy. It’s safe. We’ve got yellow taxis and police on the street, but Bed-Stuy had a reputation. However, the neighborhood is changing for the better – and our tuition is one third that of the costlier schools in Manhattan.
While the students are learning, you’re bringing in artists and they’re recording sessions?
Oh, absolutely. We also run a third-shift studio here. Third-shift is where our clients come in at night and work with our student engineers at a reduced rate. We’ve only had one graduate so far; but with 11 or 12 more this coming year, we are making headway. We are becoming a great place to get training, as well as an audio education. We are licensed by the NY State Education Department and we provide our students with a Certificate of Completion for their ten months of studying. I tell my students that freelance engineering is the way to go. I’m teaching them how to market themselves.