Herb Trawick & Dave Pensado
Photo: Brian A. Patersen
Dave Pensado & Herb Trawick On "Pensado's Place," Expanding Audio's Scope & Being Inducted Into The TEC Hall Of Fame
Talk about unlikely heroes... GRAMMY-winning mix engineer Dave Pensado and veteran music industry exec Herb Trawick are not exactly the prototypical small screen stars you'd imagine emerging and dominating in the YouTube era. Yet their long-form web series "Pensado's Place," has rocketed from its humble beginnig as an interview show to an audio empire the likes of which the world—or the worldwide web—has never seen.
So how did they do it? If you've read Malcom Gladwell's modern classic Outliers, you could look at the story of Dave and Herb's success through a few key factors such as timing, opportunity, and effort to defy the odds and strike internet gold. In many ways, what the two began a decade ago was at the cross-section of the onset of podcasting, the boom of both aspiring audio professionals and available careers and the unique combination of Dave and Herb's skill sets, accompliments, personalities and strengths.
"The show has always been about audio writ large, but through the eyes of engineering," Trawick says. "As we often say in our talks, there's no place in the world that's silent, so that makes for a very large community of people that often use the same tools, but in very different ways."
Indeed, what "Pensado's Place" has built goes way beyond a new content model. In a trade many still don't understand, Dave and Herb have given audio professionals an infrastructure for community to share resources and go beyond the board to connect with other passionate and successful studio pros. A "salon for audio," as Herb so eloquently puts it, the show has expanded to become a force including live events, innovative sponsor integration, a broad swath of applications for audio and aproximately 450 episodes and counting. Not bad for the self-proclaimed "oldest guys doing it."
And perhaps the greatest accomplishment "Pensado's Place" can tally is providing the audio industry with an antidote for oversaturation of incoming career hopefuls. By exploring so many other areas of audio, from tech and streaming companies, to audio forensics, to television, film and beyond, there are countless paths in which young audio enthusiasts can turn their passion into a living. In this way, their show transcends info-tainment and can become life-changing for the right viewer at the right time.
Jumping on the phone with Dave and Herb can be an intimidating prospect, considering each week these two are the ones doing the interviewing. But not long into our conversation with "The Place" co-hosts, it becomes easy to see why their conversation styles and congnitive processes work so well with each other. Dave, the humble sage with more No. 1 mixes to his name than you'd think judging from his humility, and Herb, the generous guru with laser beam insight into all things music, business and people.
Just before they were inducted into the TEC Hall Of Fame (introduced by the Recording Academy's own Maureen Droney, no less), we talked to Dave and Herb about the honor, the show's past, present and future, their thoughts on the success of Billie Eilish and FINNEAS, "the commoditiztion of audio," and more...
If you're a football player, let's say, you know the Hall of Fame is the pinnacle. But what you both do is harder to quantify. So what does being inducted into the TEC Hall of Fame mean for the telling of the story of your legacy?
Dave: For me, I've always worked from a position of massive insecurities, kind of combined and sprinkled in with a total absorbing arrogance and self-confidence, and so for me it was just a wonderful feeling to know that people that you respect and admire and have been influenced by them actually like you, you know? And so for me, I've taken it very seriously, and I feel like, "wow, all the hard work Herb and I put into the show, and then our background and the struggles we had on the pathway to the show," somebody said, "Hey, guys, good work." And that just feels so, so, so good.
Herb: I think a confirmation of a bunch of one-name legends, Al, Quincy, Phil [Spector], Arif, Rose, Ed, you know, all those, the idea that all your work is good enough to stand beside theirs and be inclusive of theirs says a whole lot of things. I don't know that you work to get in the Hall of Fame, so it's great that somebody recognizes it.
Herb and Dave being inducted into the TEC Hall of Fame on Jan. 18, 2020
Photo: Jesse Grant/WireImage
"Pensado's Place" is nearing episode #450, a remarkable run. But the show has gone way beyond successful content and actual built a community. Was that the intent when you started to dream up "Pensado's Place"?
Dave: Well, yeah, I daydream, Herb had deep REM sleep dreams. I wasn't sure if the show would catch on. I mean, we were in completely new territory. I would even offer the word "pioneering" territory, and having a little bit of experience online, I thought, "Well, you know, I know we'll do a good job," but I didn't think it would ever last, I thought it would be over pretty quick like everything on the Internet usually is. So I come from that kind of position. I never dreamed it could be this big.
Herb: the show was initiated as a response to a medical condition, and [early on], I think benefited from the standpoint that I wasn't an engineer, so the way I valued that particular skillset was one, "Why is this a secret", two, "We should be showing all the different incredibly talented people." Engineers often sit at the intersection of art and commerce. Nobody looked at it that way. And more importantly, the show has always been about audio writ large, but through the eyes of engineering, so our show has had Netflix on, has had Google on, has had you know, was shot at "Saturday Night Live," went to Skywalker Ranch, went behind the scenes of "Let's Make A Deal," had audio forensics on. As we often say in our talks, there's no place in the world that's silent, so that makes for a very large community of people that often use the same tools, but in very different ways.
"Engineers often sit at the intersection of art and commerce. Nobody looked at it that way." –Herb Trawick
And then the other impetus was technology came in like a lion, has remained like a lion. We've seen it evolve over ten years, and that's made for lots of different opportunities, challenges, and other kinds of things, to keep the audio area vibrant and ever evolving. So we try to capture all of that and make it a salon about audio, so that you don't necessarily have to be one thing to get something out of the show.
You both have really committed so much of your time to the mentorship culture of the audio industry. Why was that so important to you, to give back with the show and your work?
Herb: I think from my standpoint, if you get any place in life, you likely got mentored by somebody.
Dave: Yeah, absolutely.
Herb: You don't get here alone, and anybody who acts like they do is sort of full of sh*t. And ultimately, depending on the human being that you are, I don't know how you, when people come up to you and say, hey, could you help me with this, unless you're just cold hearted, it's hard not to do it, but more importantly, it's so gratifying to do it.
So we saw very early on, we have so many anecdotal stories, I won't bore you with them, but when you have parents come up to you in tears because you helped them make the right decision about school, or people who have graduated, and said, "God, your information kept me from making a bad decision." We've had people with mental health challenges who were close to harming themselves and they found something in the show, either they got a laugh or they heard a tip or done whatever. We've had emails from people in beleaguered countries who aren't even supposed to be doing audio, and find a way to communicate with us and find inspiration. And so even though we didn't know that was going to be the outcome of it, the responsibility of it has been huge, and hasn't always just been students.
There have been tons of pros who either want to have lunch, or say they, and frankly, that's how Dave and I take our signals, when we have people, as recently as Anderson .Paak, since you saw it, who come on and say, "This is on my bucket list," or, "I can't believe I'm here," or they are just so enthusiastic and they are such big players. And it's eleven years in and they still feel that way, that's how we measure if we're being impactful or not and how much we are different than the competition because of our approach. Not only from a content standpoint, but from a production standpoint and how we approach things. So it's kind of a joy. You get it back in affirmation in what people say to you.
Dave: I think, my teaching, and probably most people's teaching, comes from a good spot and sometimes it comes from an egotistical spot. Sometimes I'm not teaching, I'm just showing off, and sometimes I'm teaching and sharing, but the rewards are the same, so it's definitely something that I enjoy doing.
You have an exciting episode coming up featuring FINNEAS, who is up for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical. I have a two-part question about this because each of you have a different insight on them. First off all, Dave, to a lot of people, these Billie Eilish records sound fresh. What do you hear when you hear these songs?
Dave: I think that melodies will never go out of style, and then great melodies will always be in style, and now in today's world, melody is a little bit of a different term with the rise—and I'm happy it has— [of the] place that hip-hop controls, there is melody there. So what I like about Billie Eilish is her age, I like the fact that she works with her brother, but when I first heard "Ocean Eyes," what struck me was simultaneously, there was a lot in there that I felt came from proximity to the parents, and so for me that felt really good. And then there was a lot that was really new, and for me, that gave me growth and then when I saw the video, it was game over.
In today's world, there's a lot of artists that when I watch or listen to the video, the whole experience is enhanced. So I always like to listen to her stuff by watching a video, because you really kind of get a feeling of who she is and where she is. But the thing when we had FINNEAS on ["Pensado's Place"] was, I have a sister, and I'm real close to my sister, and it was a really good feeling to see how close they are and how unselfish they are with each other, and I think all of those, the elements with great parents, and the opportunity to be able to afford good gear, and that sort of thing, and come up and come up in the way they did, I think it's inspirational.
Herb, from an industry standpoint, and you've broken artists your whole career, what do you think this says about how artists break in today's industry?
Herb: Well, what I see, first of all, is musical in that she and FINNEAS aren't afraid to have depth. There's not a lot of depth in the music that's out. There's a lot of cool stuff, a lot of cool hybrid stuff. There's some interesting things, there's funky things. Billie and FINNEAS' music have depth. They have depth in lyrics, they have depth in melody, they make you think, and they have mastered that way of ... you know, genius is about how you get to simplicity. And there's very few that get to simplicity, and they are brilliant at it. And then when you add the fact that the trust in the family and all the stuff comes through, I think that what people are responding to in Billie in almost every way is that she's fearless. She's fearless in her dress, she's fearless in her performance, she's fearless, and you know, she's 17.
"Genius is about how you get to simplicity" –Herb Trawick
But the other side of the FINNEAS coin, is that FINNEAS is every bit the artist that Billie is. When you listen to his stuff, he's not going through a major, he's going through and independent, but his stuff is amazing. I think he's a soulful crooner with a kind of interesting pop edge, but it's hard to define. So, but I know it makes me think, and I'm certainly not his age. When he was on the show, it felt like talking to a peer, it also felt like talking to a star.
Wow. Great answer, Herb. It's incredible insight. I think it's always interesting to talk to people who interview others, and your interviews always feel really conversational and inspiring, not just as an engineer and an audio person, but as a music person.
Herb: Well, I've got to tell you, that alone, on my end specifically, is about as best a compliment as I can get about the show. Because from my end, the show is always about a number of things, how to take Dave's expertise, and his kind of Uncle-Fester-meets-audio-Einstein thing he does.
And add that to what I do, which is try to have a holistic 360 view, and have it appeal to people who are not audio people. And if we could find that balance, it would make the show interesting no matter what. So when I have interviewers, we've had a number of people from the TV side, or from the interview side, who come up and say, "God, I love you guys' interviews," or we've had ... I remember it was Chad Smith, we had him on, the drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers, and when he was walking to his car, he was like, "that was one of the best interviews I've done." And you know, when you think about how many times he's been interviewed, or Randy Jackson's kids said, "Oh, that's one of the best interviews we've seen my dad do."
And not to get off track, but the thing that's so cool about that is obviously we weren't trained at this, it wasn't specific, we didn't know what the f**k we were doing when we came up with the idea, and the fact that we've been able to morph into something that people value is very important to me because you don't want to be wasting people's time. So thank you for that as an interviewer.
Absolutely. Well, it's been 11 years, 400+ shows, and countless memorable events and moments - what are you cooking up in 2020 and beyond?
Dave: I'd like to see us work with more quality manufacturers. I think the symbiosis there is an asset to the music community, and I'd like to see more of that. Herb made me sign an NDA and this call [laughs]... So I can't speak about what's coming up, but it's going to be good.
Herb: You know, I think the analysis has to come from, when we started this, there was no competition. And I would say we were an early podcast before they were even called podcasts. And now, when you hear Spotify say that they believe podcasting will compete with their use of music for eyeballs in the future the future, I think people underestimate just how big a statement that is. And the podcasting business is massive in terms of people doing it, and so the way that I look at that is that now you're in the battle for eyeballs, ears and everything else. If you don't take that seriously, you're just going to lose. So we've seen in our run, where there was no competition, now there's lots of people doing what we're doing. Some do it differently than we do. We have never gone for scale, we focus on engagement and high quality stuff and so and so forth.
So what we have to do moving forward in terms of content, is be ahead of the curve, and if you're not committed to being ahead of the curve, and you can't be ahead of the curve if you look backwards. So I'm not as interested in being defined by my relationship with somebody else, unless they're looking forward as well too. Because you bring yourself down to your competition's level when you do that, because that's what they're doing.
And we have never, or at least I have never, I've tried to never be what everybody else is doing. So our live events are never like anybody else's live events, and we were early in that space. And we are the only people who have an audio fashion runway show. We're the only people that created a block party in Nashville that three to four thousand people would come to every year for a five-hour period. We're the only people who did a cap jam in Washington, D.C. with the GRAMMYs where people showed up from 21 countries.
We're the only people who, you know, 1900 people showed up in Toronto to see what we did, and we gave away recording studios and scholarships. And we've given away hundreds of thousands of dollars of gear. We try to have an interactive experience with people, and give them inspiration and opportunity where they can't get it elsewhere.
So the challenge is, and we have the right team to do it, how do you keep innovating. And if you're going to sit back and do the same thing, we should just stop it. But if we're going to innovate, we keep the audience. And the other part too, sorry to be so long winded, is that we always have to remember our audience is global, and there's a little bit of a tendency to just think America. So what inspires the Russian guys? Because we hear from them. And what, you know, the people in Costa Rica, and the people in the UK, and the people in Argentina, and so and so forth.
The audio world is really large. And if you have audio skills, it may be applicable to some other place you hadn't thought about. I'd like you to find that on "Pensado's Place." Like, I never thought I could go do that. And it's the same skills. We see schools having to evolve in terms of how they see it. Not everybody's going to mix Imagine Dragons. You know, you're a reformed mix engineer.
Yeah. Totally. And ultimately it led to a career in content, which was not on my radar in engineering school.
Herb: And that is precisely where my head is. Because if you're not doing that, you're behind. And I applaud you for being ahead. And by the way, we've learned that from some of the guest. When we had Netflix on, they were former audio people from AVID. When we went up to Facebook, we ran into, I literally had an engineer come up to me, he went to Facebook developer school, and then they went to a boot camp, and 90-days later, came out and got a job for 190 grand.
And so, audio people tend to devalue their skills and put it in a smaller box. Our job, in my view, and it's just my view, is that we need to expand the box, show what the opportunities are, and keep people ahead of the curve and not behind the curve.
That's really the cure for the overabundance of audio programs and oversaturation of audio graduates, right? That was certainly my experience.
Herb: What you experienced is what we call the commoditization of audio. When there's too much of something. Too much Internet, too many graduates, not enough studios, whatever the case may be, you have to find another route. It doesn't make the skills you learned bad, it's the application and you have to find some place to help you think through what you might not have thought through. And I think our ability to potentially serve as that, and often sometimes hit it on the head, I think has been one of the best things that keeps us relevant and influencers to people.
If you take Dave's expertise at what he does, and my expertise at what I do, and then we put that together in the way we put it together and try and stay ahead, the thing I laugh about the most, is you know we have a big hip-hop following, right? But the show has started out through phases, it started out through legends, which were mostly Dave's friends, and then we had the early Als and Eds and everybody else. And then we had, we stupidly, but smartly, decided let's cover all the music business, not let's just focus on one thing. So we started doing that, that's a lot of people. And then the hip-hop world, you know, often times you have the youngest, most cutting-edge people, and they think we are just cool as f**k. And we're really the oldest guys doing it.
Dave: Also, thanks to Herb's leadership, we've always tried to have the best quality show. So we routinely shoot with four or five cameras, high quality 4K, and I think that shows respect for the audience. I'm not saying that if you don't have all of that equipment, you can't show respect for your audience. We really respect the audience in a way that we incur quite an expense in trying to get it a great show. Not just from a content perspective, but from a look and from giving the viewer a feeling that this is high-quality stuff presented in a high quality way and I just said that because I just want people to know that there is expense involved, and we've so far lucky to be able to present it free, you know.
Herb: We're here because of a fantastic team. And I think that our current team is probably our best team - Talisha Romero, Tyler Scott, as well as Shaun Youth and Kevin Estrada. Their care and diligence [is key], because we try to run the show in a way where the vision is present, you leave room for people to be able to execute and use their instincts, but it has to be sort of free flowing and tight all at the same time, so it hits the standard. And even though I'm involved with lots of different parts of the show, we don't do it alone. So that's and important integration.
Herb: And it's a show that doesn't have a sales team… We have salaried people that have to work every week, but the idea that we've been able to stay afloat from inbounds, from people who want to be involved, who want to become sponsors, some have been four or five years, but for over a decade, is pretty amazing.
Herb: Almost unheard of. And so we have a lot to be thankful for, people like yourself who get it. Because again, neither one of us did this a living when we started. I was a manager, Dave was a mix engineer, and all of a sudden, we've really become broadcasters. And there are about 4,655 funny stories about how bad we were.
Dave: Me. Me in particular.
Herb: But here we are.