Dave Hampton Returns to CSU Dominguez Hills to Share Experiences as Grammy-Winning Audio Engineer
When Dave Hampton attended California State University, Dominguez Hills in the 1980s, the Los Angeles native, who was building missile guidance systems for Hughes Aircraft, was merely exploring his interest in music and recording. This summer, he will return to the campus to discuss his nearly 20-year career as a panelist in the upcoming “Music, Movies and More Symposium” on June 26. An audio engineer and designer of studios and touring rigs, he has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Prince, Herbie Hancock, Chicago, and Marcus Miller, whose 2001 album, “M2” won Hampton a Grammy Award.
After his early training in electronics at Los Angeles Trade Tech College and CSU Dominguez Hills, Hampton worked at Oberheim Electronics, where he acquired his in-depth knowledge of analog synthesizer technology. During this period he began striking out on his own as an independent engineer, technician, and sound editor, and left the company after five years to start his own business, MATK Corporation.
Besides designing, consulting, writing, and lecturing, Hampton is currently working on producing original audio and visual projects with his company. He also sits on the steering committee of the Producers and Engineers Wing of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which is the organization that bestows the Grammy Awards. The former technical director of high-profile studios including Paisley Park in Minneapolis and Hancock Music in Los Angeles plans to share his expertise and anecdotes about the entertainment business at the Symposium, experiences he has chronicled in his two books, “So, You’re an Audio Engineer” and “The Business of Audio Engineering.”
Dateline recently spoke with Hampton about how he got started in the music industry, how to maintain integrity in a business with an emphasis on “who-you-know,” and how his mother is still waiting to see his diploma from CSU Dominguez Hills.
Dateline: How did you end up in the recording business?
Dave Hampton: I had a friend who was a piano player. He was taking a class [at Dominguez Hills] called electronic music and recording. One day I came to school with him, and I sat in on a class [where they were looking at flow charts]. I went up to the instrument. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew computers, I knew electronics, and I knew how to read a flow chart. So I ended up programming a synthesizer. The teacher said, ‘Man, you’re pretty quick at this, you should look into doing this.”
Once I got to Oberheim, that really opened the door. I wasn’t just Dave, the kid from South Central with a screwdriver. It was a really good experience that gave me a lot of training on the technology that was just changing the industry. I’d work from 7:30 in the morning until 2 p.m. at Oberheim, then I would work from about 3:00 in the afternoon until midnight in sessions, working on records. Pretty soon, I was making more in two to three days than I would in two weeks at Oberheim.
I went independent. My first company was Keyboard Tech West. I’d fix people’s [equipment] and programmed sounds that were going on records. I did that and built up a clientele.
Once of the projects I did in school was [write] a paper on building a studio. I had built a studio in my mom’s house and was renting it out to a band. I happened to mention this in a session one day, and someone said, ‘I’m trying to [build a studio] in my house, can you help?’ I gave him a hand, built his studio and helped make his records. Pretty soon, I was doing three or four studios a year.
Dateline: What are the hallmarks of a Dave Hampton studio?
DH: I was probably one of the first to do large room acoustics in a small room. I would do all the things you see in a big professional studio. Normally, you would see a slanted ceiling if you were in a large control room. I would mount monitors in the wall, [and create] the large studio experience in a small room.
In the end, it’s a service-oriented business. It’s about reputation. Up until now, I [haven’t used] business cards, only word-of-mouth. I knew that there was a defined community I could serve that needed the skill set I had.
Dateline: How have you distilled your technical skills and business ethics into your books and in your lectures to students?
DH: A lot of the books that are out there [take the approach of], ‘This is my theory on mixing.’ My theory is that all of our DNA is so different that no one can hear exactly the same way. It would be arrogant for me to say my way is the right way. I know many artists who are famous and win all these awards, but they are deaf in one ear because of a childhood illness. Does that mean that they’re wrong? No, they hear what they hear, they’ve figured out a way.
My first book was all about how to maintain a good reputation, how to have good work habits and people skills, and how to recognize information when it’s in front of you. Information isn’t about just looking at one way [of doing things]. Information can be found in questions.
Aside from what I learned about music, I learned so much about my life and my responsibility to the world as far as being a decent human being.
Dateline: How do you incorporate that into your business?
DH: A lot of what I do is centered on allowing people to have access. I work with a lot of charity groups, with the mayor’s office, the Boyle Heights Community Center in downtown L.A., and programs over in Watts. [Art is] one of the few things where you can see kids still instantly respond and get a reaction out of them. In the inner city where I grew up, it really is something that’s needed.
Dateline: How have your contacts from Dominguez Hills helped you to succeed and also give back with activities like the Symposium?
DH: Anything that [Dominguez Hills] calls me about, I’m really down for because it changed my life. There are so many from this school who have prospered in the industry.
I want to see the [music recording] department get its accolades. Several of us have won Grammys, written books. Jose ‘Chilitos’ Valenzuela is the first author to create a create the actual words for electronic music and recording in a Spanish dictionary. Another alum, Brian Kehew wrote the definitive book on recording The Beatles. Dirk Sciarrotta is an Emmy winner. I’ve sent students to them, because I can trust them. If you’ve got relationships [from] back in school with people that you know, they follow you your whole life.
Dateline: What advantages do CSU Dominguez Hills graduates have over students from pricier or more famous recording schools?
DH: One of the things that is unique [about Dominguez Hills] is the thing we’re trying to change, which is limited resources. But it’s actually a very good thing.
You’re getting more than just the ability to work on records and music. While it’s important to keep students competitive and up-to-date with the new [technology], the thing that keeps the department going is the fact that if students can survive here, they know how to do everything in their heads. They’ve worked through the hardest scenario they’ll ever see, in [the Dominguez Hills studio].
Dateline: What are some career options for graduates with a degree in digital media arts?
As an audio engineer, you’re given theories and immutable laws of physics. You can apply those anywhere. You could go to your church and be an engineer. You could work on a cruise ship, or go to the police department and do forensic audio.
It might not get you a Grammy. I wasn’t trying to win a Grammy. I was just doing what I do, going to record Herbie’s piano.
Dateline: What do your parents think of your success?
DH: My dad passed away before I became successful, but I give him a tribute in one of my books. Growing up, we didn’t have much, but we had was his big record collection. Every Saturday when we did chores, he would put on records... by the same artists I ended up working with: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Donald Berg. When it came time to do some of their tunes, I knew them because I had heard them every Saturday. In a roundabout way, I’m where I’m supposed to be.
My mom is still alive and she now... understands why I was the way I was when I was a child. I could always play by myself, I was OK with me. It’s a blessing when your family can see everything unfold. That’s why I still want to get my degree. To her, that would be a crowning achievement.
I said, ‘Mom, I’ve been all around the world, I’ve done this and this.’ She says, ‘You’ve still got to get your degree.’
- Reported by Joanie Harmon