Haydn Bendall on His Timeless and Boundless Passion for Music

Every year, our graduates from around the world gather in London for a memorable celebration: receiving their diplomas at the iconic Abbey Road Studios. It’s more than just a ceremony; it’s an experience. New graduates take part in immersive workshops at Abbey Road and Angel Studios, where they enhance their skills and ignite their creativity. For several years, we have been privileged to offer a special workshop led by the renowned Haydn Bendall. While on a recent work trip to the Netherlands, Haydn made a special stop at our institute and toured the facility. We had the perfect opportunity to interview him and he shared his invaluable insights.

During our chat, Haydn discussed his passion for sound engineering and production. This is the edited interview:

Haydn Bendall: Five Decades of Musical Brilliance

To say you’ve spent half a century living and breathing all sorts of music is a feat many of us can only dream of. But for legendary engineer-producer and former Senior Engineer at Abbey Road Studios, Haydn Bendall, this is reality. For the past 50 years, Bendall has done what feels like everything. He has toured with a band as a musician and spent the better part of his life engineering and producing records with some of the world’s greatest talents.

Haydn’s production expertise is not limited by genre. He has worked with incredibly talented musicians and bands like A-HA, Andrea Bocelli, Kate Bush, Everything But The Girl, Massive Attack, Gary Moore, Pet Shop Boys, Van Morrison, Tina Turner, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Haydn is as passionate about music as he is about sharing his experience with music production and sound engineering students.

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Haydn Bendall Production Workshop at Angel Studio

Haydn Bendall Production Workshop at Angel Studio

How did it all start for you?

I wanted to study medicine after college. I already had a place at York University. I was in a band during college, and we used to play gigs all over the country. Our manager, Cliff Cooper, had a secondhand music store in Soho. He had built a recording studio in the basement of the shop. It was the biggest configuration you could have at the time, and I loved being there. As soon as I walked into the studio, I realised I’d prefer it much more to playing live. It felt like a really beautiful, inspiring environment.

I knew nothing about engineering or production, so I never thought I’d be able to get a job in a studio. When I needed money for university, I asked Cliff if I could have a job in the shop. He said I wouldn’t like it in the shop and suggested I work in the studio as an assistant and tea boy instead. I started working in the studio, and I loved it so much that I didn’t leave and said no to university.

After a while, I started working for Steinway & Sons as a concert technician for two or three years. I’d be sent to concerts, rehearsals, and recording sessions to tune the piano, and I met some of the greatest artists in the world. That’s how I met people from Abbey Road Studios. I thought this was a place I’d really love to work.

I told Ken Townsend, who was the boss at the time, that I’d love to work here. But there was no vacancy. He said I’d be on top of the list if a vacancy came up. Meanwhile, he asked me to join Abbey Road Studios part-time, like sometimes during weekends and at night, which I did for a year. When a vacancy finally came up, I was taken as an assistant balance and control engineer. That’s how I started at Abbey Road.

What was it that inspired you to work in a studio rather than play live?

The fact that you could try things and be creative. You got time to talk about and experiment with different things, and it was a magical place for me.

When did you get into engineering?

It took five or six years before I started doing any engineering at Abbey Road Studios. It was a long, slow, and thorough process. Eventually, I ended up as the Senior Engineer for about 10 years. I was at Abbey Road for about 18 years, and for the last 10 of those, I was a Senior Engineer.

How was it being at Abbey Road Studios?

It was amazing! I still can’t believe my luck, and I still love the fact that it’s so incredibly professional. Everybody tries to be excellent all the time, there aren’t many egos, and music is the most important thing.
We had the world’s greatest classical, pop, jazz, and middle-of-the-road artists. I learned very quickly that the source of music is irrelevant; what matters is the musicianship of the people performing. That stayed with me throughout my working life. That’s why I’ve been able to do it for 50 years.

I was so entranced by different sorts of music, and I still am. I didn’t want to specialise in anything. I worked with incredible talents across different genres. People like Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pré, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Stéphane Grappelli, are so extremely talented, and once they started playing or singing, you immediately understood why they were huge. So, the time at Abbey Road was hugely influential. There is still no other studio in the world that can give you the same variety. It’s such a wonderfully and beautifully fertile environment.

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Haydn Bendall recording drums

Haydn Bendall recording drums

You’ve really developed your career over the past years. How do you see your role now? What is your contribution when you record with a band or artist?

It changes depending on who I’m working with. How you speak generally depends on the type of relationship you have with the person. I’m not saying you change as a person, but you change your approach depending on who you’re dealing with. I suppose my general approach has been to quickly, efficiently, and with a degree of accuracy make the technology disappear. I try to make the recording seamless.

I try to hold up a mirror to an artist or musician. If they don’t like what they see, then we can try working from a different angle. I can suggest harmony or phrasing changes, for instance. I’m much more loyal to the music than to the musician or artist.

Just because you like something as an artist is not necessarily a good enough reason for it to be on the record. It’s the artist’s decision in the end, but part of my job path is to have an opinion about things. I’m not saying we’ve got to do it my way; I am just shining a light on a slightly different or radical way of doing things.

I’m also very conscious that it’s never my record, and I don’t want anything to be my record. I’m a very happy and satisfied producer and engineer. And I like the fact that it’s not my record. The sound is never yours as a producer.

After you’ve been engineering for a bit, it’s great to be able to recognise frequencies and understand the logic behind certain sounds and musical concepts. But you have to start listening as well.

You are an engineer-producer. But often, these things are also seen as different roles. Do you see how it’s sort of blending nowadays?

For me, it’s a blend. Sometimes I get asked to engineer, but the client expects a production sensitivity to it. With digital technology, the arrangement, recording, mixing, production, and engineering have all become much more homogenous. The only thing that separates the production and engineering roles is that the producer should have the final decision about the technical aspects of the recording.

The producer is generally responsible for the budget and delivery times to the record company, but I don’t think there is a big chasm between the two things.

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Haydn Bendall in the control room talking to the band

Haydn Bendall Angel Studio Session

You have a reputation for bringing out the best in musicians and artists during studio sessions. What is your approach to achieving that?

I blame my parents, really. I was brought up to try to be considerate, understand people, and listen. So, there’s not a Machiavellian attitude where I think, “If I do this to this musician, I’ll get a much better performance” because it’s not my performance.

I generally try to make people feel secure and as though they can do what they need to do. I also try very hard to give practical and accurate feedback all the time so that I can become a trusted colleague or partner in this venture. When I express to someone that they’re a bit sharp, for instance, they know it’s coming from a reliable source.

I find it quite easy to come up with production ideas, and some things become obvious to me as an onlooker rather than as a participant in the writing of the music. Hopefully, I am a trusted onlooker. The important thing is to ensure that your response comes from an egoless place when you’re asked for your opinion on aspects of the music.

My response always comes from absolute focus of what I think would help make that recording the most communicative, heartfelt, and honest rendition of music we could do. For instance, if someone asks for my opinion I’ll say, “I think your idea is fantastic, I think we should work on it” or “I think it’s gonna suit it.” I might also say, “The idea is good, but I think it goes against the very direction we’re trying to go in.”

Are you aware that you are using the right wording to convey the message? Are you actively thinking about that, or does it come naturally to you?

I think it’s a combination of the two. I think genuinely I can judge people quite well. I can understand what they’re sensitive or insensitive to and what they will or won’t respond to. So, the conversation is couched within those terms. I try to adjust the conversation.

The productions I love are the completely transparent ones. It’s a bit of the psychology you’d use with any trusted person. You know what this person likes or dislikes and you know what they will or won’t respond to. Whatever my opinion is on the recording, we always discuss it openly and honestly but with a degree of sensitivity. This doesn’t necessarily mean being diplomatic because I don’t think diplomacy works in a creative environment, but sensitivity does.

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International Abbey Road Institute Graduates with Haydn Bendall

International Abbey Road Institute Graduates with Haydn Bendall

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the session is not going as you envisioned it to? What steps do you take in such instances?

It depends on the personality of the instance. Maybe we got the wrong sound on things. Maybe the song is not that good, the drum sound is awful, or maybe the guitarist can’t play. If the session isn’t going as planned, then I generally see that as a great opportunity to do something different.

When things aren’t working, you don’t just continue doing the same thing over and over. You figure out why things aren’t working. You think about things differently. The music is never really defined apart from the melody. So, you can introduce a different instrument, for instance. When things go wrong, I view it as an opportunity to do something great.

I’ve produced a few successful records. I’ve also made many more terrible ones, and I don’t think you learn anything from success. I’m talking about success in recording, not commercial success.

We learn the most valuable lessons through failure. When everything in the studio session is perfect, you don’t learn anything. Whereas if you fail a lot, which you will do, it’s not a waste of time. It’s something to be welcomed because you never know what’s causing your success, but you nearly always know what’s caused the failure. So, you know never to do it again. When something goes wrong, a secret part of me explodes with joy because we can do something here.

If you sit in front of a piano or pick up a guitar, you’ve got to love the process. The great musicians, writers, engineers, and producers are just fascinated by the process. You don’t think, “I’m a great engineer; I don’t need to learn anymore.” If I produced, engineered, and played something that I thought was perfect, then there’d be no point in carrying on because everything after that would be a disappointment.

Excellent! Can you share a standout moment from your profession?

That’s not an easy one to answer. I mean, there were standout moments, but for many different reasons. It’s like being asked to share a standout sunset or sunrise. They’re things you love but for different reasons.

I’ve worked with some incredible artists. I’ve been very lucky, but not having standout moments is linked to the idea of a lack of ownership. I don’t own the records or any of the recordings. So, there are no great moments. I was working with Luther Vandross, and the first time I heard his voice in the studio, I was stunned. I was as stunned the first time I heard Elton John, Paul McCartney, or John Williams play.

I was stunned the first time I heard of an incredible arrangement by a dear friend of mine who is no longer with us. The first time I heard his arrangement played by the most incredible musicians, it felt so special. And the thing that makes it so special is that I had nothing to do with it. It would’ve existed without me.

That’s beautifully said. Throughout your career, you’ve experienced numerous changes within the industry and in the technology used. How did you navigate those changes?

When I was a young engineer at Abbey Road, I decided never to specialise in anything. It was all too interesting to split, and I wanted to do as many different sorts of music as I possibly could. I also decided to make musicians my friends. No record company, producer, or recording studio matters more than the musician.

You can have the most incredible equipment in the world, but it’ll make no difference if you don’t have a great musician. No microphone, compressor, clever engineering, or clever production will make up for a terrible musician.

If you’ve got a genius musician you feel comfortable with, you can use an SM57 mic, and it will sound amazing. I know this sounds egotistical, but I wanted to be liked and respected by musicians, not managers, recording studios, or labels. If a musician pays me a compliment, it means more to me than any other compliment.

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Haydn Bendall in Angel Studio One

Haydn Bendall in Angel Studio One

I’ve seen you working twice, and you build a relationship with all the musicians, not only the lead vocalist.

It’s because I’m interested in trying things and in people. I like being with people. I like having conversations with people, and I like working with people who stimulate me in some way.

How is it now to share all that experience and knowledge through the Abbey Road Institute?

It’s a great joy and pleasure. The wonderful thing about being brought up at Abbey Road is there were some incredible engineers there. Abbey Road never employed producers, and I think that’s the thing. Experienced engineers are always ready to share their expertise.

When you do your first sessions, it’s terrifying because you don’t know anything. You know how to press buttons, but you’re not even sure what sounds good and what doesn’t. At Abbey Road, there’s this huge pool of knowledge, and they were very generous in sharing it.

My father was an artist and a teacher. So, I’ve always thought teaching was a good thing. I never thought I’d be lucky enough to be in the position to pass on some experience. So, it’s a great honor that students will listen to me.

It’s a great pleasure because everyone in the room is passionately interested in a subject we love. So, it’s always great to talk about those things. If people want to listen, and there’s an area for discussion, then fantastic. I think it’s a responsibility and a pleasure. My experience at the Institute is mainly in London and recently also in Paris, and I love it all. All the Institute students I’ve come across have been extremely bright, motivated, and lovely.

There are no practice studios these days, and the Institute provides such a valuable source because most of what’s available online is bad. But where else can interested young musicians or engineers get the information? I mean, what’s available on the Internet is awful. You get all these renowned engineers, producers, and even some universities taking advantage of people’s love for music.

But the Abbey Road Institute is above that. So, it’s a great joy and an honour to teach there. It’s something I take seriously. I’ve worked with some students in London, and I continue to either offer advice or help them now and again. So, I’ll do that because I’m in absolute sympathy with the passion they have and the desire to be good. They have a desire not to be famous but to be good.

Thank you Haydn!


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Interview, text edits and pictures by Dennis Beentjes