I’m excited to announce that the popular local blog Ditmas Park Corner posted an interview of me by author Chris Farrell. We discuss life as musician and studio owner at the intersection of Kensington, Windsor Terrace and Ditmas Park, and he asks some interesting questions about my piano and keyboard collection. You can check it out the original post here. Due to space constraints, DPC cut almost half of the content- here it is in it’s entirety.
Bennett Paster interview by Chris Farrell (6/1/16), photo by Scott Freidlander
You might think that for a small recording studio located in the basement of a house in Kensington, the presence of a Steinway grand piano would be the most extraordinary factor in the business’ success. But for Benny’s Wash N Dry, it’s also those three things crucial to so much New York commerce: location, location, location.
“We’re basically between the Cortelyou Road business district and the Kensington/Church Avenue and the Fort Hamilton business districts, about the same walk to all those places,” explained the owner, Bennett Paster, “What I’ve seen in the 15 years I’ve been here is that musicians moved in around me and all the way kind of down the Q train line toward Cortelyou, Ditmas, and Newkirk.”
Paster, a keyboardist himself, says the studio comprises a “well-curated collection of essential classic keyboards.” In addition to the Steinway–and a second Steinway he keeps in his home upstairs and makes available for recording when necessary– the Wash N-Dry studio offers access to instruments that have shaped a century of popular music. The collection includes a Fender Rhodes electric piano, a Hammond CV organ with a Leslie speaker, a Hohner D6 Clavinet, and much more.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Paster finished helping a client record backing tapes for a theatrical performance celebrating Edith Piaf and sat down for a wide-ranging conversation about living and working in Kensington, the stories behind some of the most famous names in the music business, and the experience of running a recording studio.
How long has the studio been here?
I’ve had the house for 15 years and I opened the studio right away when I got here. It took a while to get to the functional professional level that it’s at now. When we renovated the house seven and a half years ago is when I got rid of the kitchen that used to be along the wall and put in the proper vocal-booth, that completely floated isolated room. So, 15 years, but the last seven or eight years the work has gotten really good
Did you have all the keyboards when you moved in?
Not all of them, but I moved from Boston with this 1933 Steinway B (6’10”) piano–I got it in ‘93 or ‘94. I had the Wurlitzer (electric piano), and the mini-Moog Model D and the clavinet. The Hammond I got here in New York from my keyboard tech. So actually I had most of them when I moved.
Did you set out to collect keyboards?
I’m a keyboardist, so it just made sense to me. I know a lot of people who have a lot more keyboards than me but I think of what’s here as being the classic ones I’d need for a wide variety of projects and styles. I don’t have a collection of really esoteric keyboards- it would have been fun to collect all that- but I sort of missed the boat on when that stuff was affordable.
When I first got all these instruments, none of my contemporaries had the real things, we all used samples. Twenty-five years ago when I started buying them, everybody knew what they sounded like from the records but everybody wanted the new keyboards. I chose the olds ones because the experience of playing them is that of playing a vital, breathing instrument, not triggering a recording of an instrument.
Where does the name Benny’s Wash N Dry come from?
Exactly where we’re sitting, right here, there used to be a washer and dryer. The goal was for the name to be casual and to kind of make people feel comfortable in the studio, not to feel like they were going to some big expensive place where they had to be nervous and it was formal.
After the renovation, I thought long and hard about changing it to something like, you know, “Kensington Sound” or, “Bennett Paster Studio”. A business consultant told me it’s a terrible name, but people said they liked it so at this point after 15 years I’ve just embraced the name.
What effect do you think being in Kensington has on the business and the people who come here?
There are so many musicians in Brooklyn. The reason I moved to Brooklyn in ‘96, Windsor Terrace at the time, was because all my jazz-musician friends from Boston were living in Park Slope. I didn’t realize at the time what a big decision what neighborhood you pick to move to in New York City has on your whole life.
You just think you are getting an apartment and that’s that, but the people you surround yourself with and are convenient to play with become the people you do projects with. A jam session leads to a project. It’s really hard for a drummer to drive over here from Queens in the middle of the day to play. Not that they can’t do it, but it’s hassle. So you’re going to call someone who lives close. With so many musicians living close, it was a good place to live.
I moved to Kensington because I couldn’t afford a house in the Terrace. (Now I couldn’t afford this house, if I had to buy it again.)
So it’s nice to have all the musicians in this neighborhood but what I also didn’t factor in when I bought the house is what a great family neighborhood this is. I just wasn’t thinking about that. If I had looked at our local zoned school when I first bought the house 15 years ago I might have said, “Hmm; I guess I’ll save up for that house on the Terrace.”
But in that intervening eight years, P.S.130 got really great. All the District 15 schools are solid now. And now people are moving here for that school. My wife and I are both really involved in the PTA.over there. We love the school because it does reflect the diversity of Kensington. There are 21 languages spoken at P.S. 130.
You talked about musicians moving in over the last 15 years Has that been steady, or was there a tipping point?
That’s a good question. I feel like when I first moved here people were like, “What? Where?” Then maybe like, you know, five years later, people started hearing about what was going on on Cortelyou; it was kind of the first strip to gentrify and add some spots with music.
It wasn’t long after that–10 years ago maybe–that I first heard about musicians moving. And now it seems like between this neighborhood and what we call the jazz dorms over on Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Road there are a lot of musicians here. So, I guess the tipping point was about 10 years ago.
Some people claim that Steinway became the most famous piano manufacturer in the world because they bribed the judges at 1he 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Have you heard that story?
I never have!
Do you think that Steinway is prominent because the company has best workmanship, the best PR or combination of both?
It never occurred to me that it wasn’t somehow rooted in the actual quality of the instruments because I’ve always found Steinways in general to be a very fine make of piano. But they are not the only fine make of piano.There were a lot of great pianos made in the United States before the war, and some since the war. There are tons of great European pianos and Japanese, and Korean pianos made now, but I think that Steinway has long been synonymous with quality and they certainly built a recognizable brand name built around their quality. But I am sure as you say their marketing department did a good job as well as their manufacturing department.
And not every Steinway is a great piano but many of them are really great pianos.
Do you mean that not every Steinway model is great, or not every individual Steinway?
Both, I’ve never personally been a fan of Steinway uprights at all. I mean I would rather have a Yamaha. I’d almost always rather have a 7-foot piano than I would a 5-foot piano, and I would rather have a 7-foot Baldwin or Yamaha than a 5-foot Steinway. But once you get above about 5-foot 10”, the L and the O Steinway models, chances are a Steinway either is a great piano or it could be made into a great piano with some work.
If a trained pianist hears a Steinway, can they recognize it from other brands, and what is the tell?
That’s a good question. Different piano brands and makes definitely have sound flavors, associated with them. For instance the Yamaha is often considered a very bright piano well-suited to jazz and pop music. The Steinway generally has a darker, woodier tone to it.
But could you identify a Steinway upon hearing? I think most people could not, but perhaps some savvy piano aficionados could. You can generally tell if a piano is not a Steinway. There’s a lot of bad, really bright, pianos out there.
I think there is a classic Steinway sound. My piano has really dark, kind of classic, American pre-war Steinway sound to it. But even pianos with consecutive serial numbers might sound different. And certainly once you get a half a year or a year apart in manufacturing dates, there could be significant variations in the wood, felt and leather that they used that could make a difference.
This piano is almost 85 years old now, and any Steinway that’s that old has had a lot of parts replaced. Last time I toured the Steinway factory they used the word “Stein-was” for any Steinway piano that wasn’t rebuilt at the factory. They said, “If anybody but us rebuilt it, it’s not a Steinway anymore.”
Your website describes the difference in action between piano here in the studio and the other Steinway you have upstairs. If you blindfolded a musician and sat them down to play one of them, would they know right away which one it was?
For sure. These two pianos feel really different. And they sound really different. The B here in the studio is a full foot longer, and that makes an unmistakable sound difference. Like two siblings, they’re just different, in both sound and feel.
The sound of the Fender Rhodes is quite distinctive,, because, along with the Wurlitzer, it was one of the first electric pianos. How would you compare those with the Steinway?
Oh, it couldn’t be more different. The piano is a super complex waveform full of different harmonics. It’s rich with different harmonics. And especially the Fender Rhodes is a very pure sound with very few overtones and harmonics. It’s bell-y, almost crystal clear. The attack has some color but the sound itself is much more—it’s much less complex in a literally physics sense. If you looked at an oscilloscope the piano would be a real jagged, crazy waveform and the Rhodes would be much closer to a sine wave, especially on the note decay.
Harold Rhodes was an inventor, not a piano manufacturer. A Fender Rhodes has a rubber hammer-tip at the end of a very simple lever hitting a metal tine.
Wurlitzer was an acoustic piano manufacturing company, so if you open up their electric piano you see piano hammers, piano action, piano escape mechanisms. Things that need to be regulated by a piano technician. The guy who works on my acoustic piano could work on my Wurli but might not have any idea what to do with a Fender Rhodes unless he were trained in that.
If you were to choose a recording that has that iconic Fender Rhodes sound, what would you think of?
Pink Floyd: “Money.” Stevie Wonder, um–dun-dun-dada dun dun–“I Wish.” That was a Suitcase Rhodes. There were two models of the Rhodes.The Suitcase had the big built in bottom speaker that the keyboard sat on and the Stage has the metal leg. Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” is another iconic Rhodes tune.
Now that there are polyphonic keyboard synthesizers that can produce virtually any sound, what is a musician looking for when they come to the studio to play a the Fender Rhodes?
The synthesizers, samplers and workstation keyboards have gotten great. If they’re playing back recordings, really great recordings of a well-maintained instrument, it can sound really good. But what they lack is the fact that every time you play the same note on a piano or Rhodes, it’s going to be a little bit different. Physics just dictates that it vibrates a little differently. You know, it’s kind of imperceptible on an individual basis. But the overall result is that every time you hit a drum in real life, or hit a piano note or a Rhodes note, there’s variation to it. And the way those notes all sympathetically affect each other while they are vibrating gives the instrument a certain richness that a sample or even a very, very complex computer model can’t quite get to.
A lot of the newest technologies, instead of playing back a recording, they are actually generating sound using a mathematical algorithm. Somebody has programmed in an algorithm that accounts for the hardness of the rubber hammer, the length of the tine, the distance of the tine from the pickup, the height of the pickup. They’re amazing because you can create all these great sounds with them. In a way they’re a little richer than samples. But they still lack a certain irregularity and just general funkiness that the real instruments have.
For kids who have grown up with a Nord synthesizer, when they first play their first real Rhodes or their first Wurlitzer, they understand immediately and instinctively what the difference is. It doesn’t take long to be able to feel that difference. But vintage instruments are expensive, hard to maintain, and until recently even the parts weren’t very easy to get. So for a young musician or for a travelling musician they’re not a very viable option.
The Leslie is a kind of speaker that’s been used with many different instruments, but the classic combination is a Leslie speaker paired with a Hammond organ, which is what you have here. But I’ve heard that Donald Leslie, who invented it, hated Hammonds. How did they end up so closely associated?
I should know the story better, but it goes something like this: The organ in a church setting, a pipe organ, (which is originally what the Hammond was intended to replace), has pipes that would be spread throughout that church. So when you play it, it literally sounds like it is coming from everywhere. Nothing’s moving, but the sound is coming from all over the room.
Don Leslie wanted the electric organ to sound like it was coming from all over the room. And his innovation was, if you can’t make the organ spread out around the room, make the speaker rotate to simulate the sound coming from around the room. So on a Leslie the top speaker spins and the bottom speaker fires down and has essentially what is like a wooden bucket with a hole cut in one side that rotates opposite from the top. And the sound fires out, the sound is projected through where the hole in the bucket is.
So there’re two things going on. The top gives a Doppler effect as the horn spins and the bottom gives you more of an amplitude modulation. Leslie was trying to make the organ sound like it’s coming from all around the church. But what he didn’t factor in was that there was going to be this pitch and amplitude modulation. I don’t think that was part of his design aesthetic. But the result is just so cool! Nothing else does it, and even the digital simulations of it now really aren’t very good.
It’s one of those instruments that doesn’t even record the way it sounds in a room. There’s something special about being in a room with the speaker spinning around that you can’t exactly capture. When you are in the room, it’s magic.
The Hammond organ is a purely electronic instrument, but there’s something about the fact that the Leslie speakers spin around that gives it a certain organic quality that you can’t really easily imitate. Lawrence Hammond’s tone cabinet speakers were just static. They’re good speakers with tube amps, but they just pointed right at you and they stayed there. There’s no motion to them. And I don’t think Don Leslie achieved what he was going for but he accidentally invented the most incredible thing ever without which so much modern rock and pop and jazz and gospel would not sound the same.
What records would you pick to give a sense of the classic Hammond Leslie sound?
Any Jimmy Smith record would give the classic jazz organ sound with a Leslie (“Back at the Chicken Shack”) and if you want to compare that without a Leslie, you could listen to Mel Rhyne, the organ player who played with Wes Montgomery (“Days of Wine and Roses”). On those records, like Boss Guitar, he’s playing through a Hammond tone cabinet, not a Leslie. There’s no modulation on it at all, the organ is right at you the whole time and he still makes it really sing, but it’s such a different sound.
Other classic Hammond/Leslie recordings would include Chester Thompson with Tower of Power (“What Is Hip”), one of my favorite organ players, or Keith Emerson with ELP (“Tarkus”). Billy Preston, another one of my favorite organ players, any of those Billie Preston 70s albums where he plays the organ (“Right Now” or “Let the Music Play”). There this Sam Cooke record he plays on too, I think it’s called Night Beat. Billy must have been like 17 or 18.
So another keyboard you have at the studio is a Hohner Clavinet. I know the name Hohner from harmonicas, but what is a clavinet?
So Benny’s Wash N Dry could really be a museum of keyboards, except you’re committed to using them and putting them in service of people looking for something a little special in a recording studio.
My clients come from all over the city and all over the tri state area and in some cases even from overseas, but I definitely also try to serve the community. I do high school audition tapes and videos for people. We recently had a girl come over who won some time at the PS 130 auction who is a 9th grader who recorded some of her original rock and pop tunes. I love working on lots of different kinds of music and I’m not afraid to get into anything. A drummer from South Korea just made a record here last month, too.
Do you serve a particular type of musician or specialize in a certain genre?
What with the amazing piano, we do a lot of jazz and also singer-songwriters. But really anything can happen here and I love that about this job. I look at my musical and jazz training–I trained as a jazz pianist at New England Conservatory and English from Tufts–I look at it like problem solving.
You have a great collection of instruments, and it seems like in some ways the studio itself is an instrument..
I listen to what my clients, friends and co-artists are trying to accomplish, and use the skills both ol listening and problem solving, to help make it sound the way we want it to sound. That might mean calling in a musician to play a different instrument, or writing an arrangement or knowing how to use the computer software. Microphones, pre-amps and plug-ins.
To me, that’s all part of the music making process. It’s hard for me to imagine making music without a studio now. As fun as it is to just go play piano on a gig–I love that– the process of making music in a contemporary setting is all about being able to use the old and the new together and to bring people together to make something new and interesting and to help artists realize their vision, both my clients’ and my own.
I love to produce, play, write and record music and I feel that I’m lucky to have the ability to synthesize all of these skills together into this studio that I have here. It sustains and nurtures me in this city where I always wanted to live.
Paster will be performing on his meticulously renovated Fender Rhodes on Sunday, June 5 along with Jim Whitney on bass and Joe Strasser on drums at 61 Local (61 Bergen Street in Carroll Gardens).
“My trio covers a lot of musical ground, from original music to favorites from the American Songbook, jazz standards, Latin and Brazilian tunes and classic rock and R&B favorites,” Paster said. “I’ve has been playing Fender Rhodes since 6th grade, and I consider the instrument a vital voice in my musical self-expression.”