The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here.
Front and Center: Benita Lewis, Drummer, Sound Engineer, & Co-CEO of UltraMedia Studios
By Myki Angeline
Benita Lewis is an accomplished drummer, sound engineer, co-CEO of UltraMedia Studios. If that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she is also the Senior Financial Controller and Manager of Supply Chain for North American Operations at Native Instruments, Inc.
As a drummer, Benita has played with a host of Gospel, Jazz and R&B artists such as Marvin Winans, Commissioned, Randy Scott, The Dramatics, Richard Street & The Temptations, Lalah Hathaway, and Frank McComb to name a few. Benita has also played at the She Rocks Awards with house band Rock Sugah in 2016 and 2017. She is a proud endorser of Sakae drums and hardware, Remo drum heads, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth drum sticks, Gibraltar drum racks, Latin Percussion products, KickPort drum accessories, Roland electronic percussion, Audix microphones, JH Audio in-ear monitors, SKB cases, and Gruv Gear products.
Her journey into music is both incredible and inspiring. Benita shared with us her triumphs and struggles that make her such a vitalizing force in the industry today.
WiMN: You’re a drummer, sound engineer, and Co-CEO of UltraMedia Studios. Please share with us the progression of things—how and when you came to discover each of those talents and interests, and what musical training you had.
BL: I started playing drums at my father’s church in Michigan, at the age of 10. My childhood crush (and later boyfriend), Mark, was one of the main drummers at our church. I was so intrigued by his skill, and he eventually noticed my interest and began to take time to show me around the drums. It wasn’t long before I was playing regularly. I continued teaching myself to play by ear. Later, I was introduced to Jazz/Fusion by another friend and that’s when I felt myself completely consumed by the music. It was hearing Dave Weckl play on John Patitucci’s first album “On The Corner” that got me hooked. From that point, It was a quick progression, later teaching myself to read music, and my commitment to the instrument has led me to work with some great artists including Lalah Hathaway, Larry Graham, Maysa, Regina Belle, Jennifer Batten, Frank McComb, Randy Scott, and Lexi, to name a few.
At the age of 15, I was introduced to sound engineering by my brother Jerry (we call him Coobie). He use to come pick me up right before midnight and take me to studio sessions where he was recording music for his gospel group. I became fascinated with all the gear and the way it was able to shape sound. We’d leave the studio at 8:00am the next morning, and I just remember not being able to wait to go back. Over the years, I became obsessed with the art of sound and the gear used to manipulate it. Together, my brother and I spent hours in the music stores testing out gear, always dreaming about, and “picking out” what equipment we’d buy for a “future” studio. In 2000, My father took notice of our extreme passion and gifted us with the latest of all the studio equipment we’d dreamed of. We leased a building and my brother, who is also a builder, designed and built out the studio to perfection. We were finally co-owners of our own recording and mixing facility. It’s amazing what you attract when you first believe it in your mind. Since then, we’ve had multiple studios in different locations, finally ending up back in our home city of Los Angeles, CA.
In 2004, I attended and graduated from The Los Angeles Recording School. It was there that I learned the special techniques for everything that I was already doing in the studio as I watched my brother. A few years later, I also attended and graduated from Video Symphony where I trained on Avid Pro Tools for music recording, sound design, and film post-production.
WiMN: You are also the Senior Financial Controller and Manager of Supply Chain for North American Operations at Native Instruments, Inc. HOW do you balance your time between music things and managerial duties?
BL: Being part of the corporate world makes it difficult to travel as a drummer as much as I use to. I’m fortunate to have traveled extensively when I was younger, supporting and sharing the stage with some of the most amazing artists in the business. Currently, most of my day is spent in the office, and I’m left with evenings and weekends to feed my other passions. I’m fortunate to work for an innovative digital music instrument company. It’s as close to a dream job that you can get when you have multiple skill sets and passions in music and finance. Every day, it’s almost like going into the studio. I love that I can work in accounting and finance, and at the same time, be surrounded by some of the best creative gear in the industry!
WiMN: Who influenced you the most when you were growing up?
BL: My biggest influences were my father and mother. My dad always told me that I can be and do anything I put my mind to and that absolutely nothing in this world is out of my reach. My mother echoed that affirmation. They both always pushed me and all of my siblings into uncharted territory. I’m fearless because of them, and my confidence and mindset is strong because of what I witnessed in them. They were my greatest example. For as far back as I can remember, both my father and mother were always the most distinguished, intelligent, and creative in the room. They were admired and loved by so many! I’m so grateful to have had them as the wind beneath my wings. Today, I freely command my life – attaining anything I want, according to what I know I deserve. It’s a virtue they instilled within me from the very beginning, something that I absolutely believe to be true, and one that I apply to my life every day.
WiMN: Your mixing and mastering work with Grammy-Winning artist Lalah Hathaway on her album Lalah Hathaway LIVE resulted in Grammys for – Best R&B Album (2016), Best Traditional R&B Song (2016), Best Traditional R&B Performance (2016), and a No #1 single “Angel” on the Billboard R&B/Soul Charts for 9 consecutive weeks. Congratulations! Can you share with us what working on that album was like? How does it feel knowing your work was part of the reason the album and singles won 3 Grammys?
BL: Working with Lalah Hathaway is a dream come true. She’s my favorite artist of all time! I started out as a “super fan,” and eventually that turned into a great friendship. She’s actually like a sister to me. I felt so fortunate just to be in the same room with her, let alone have creative input when it came time to mix and master the project. This subject is another example of how speaking things you desire will manifest, if you first believe it to be already true. For years, I had spoken to my best friend, Pam, about how one day I would meet Lalah. That affirmation later turned into “one day I will play drums for her,” and then finally, “one day I will work with her in the studio.” Initially, my best friend would tell me that I was delusional because at the time of my affirming this, I had no plan on how any of this would come together. One thing led to another, the stars aligned, and the universe delivered.
I met Lalah in 2005 through a mutual friend. It just so happened that she needed a drummer for a few gigs. She called me, and, of course, I accepted. We became friends after that and started hanging out together, and I ended up, along with my brother, designing and building out her home studios. One day, I mentioned to her that my brother is a phenomenal audio recording and mix engineer, and she ended up having him mix a few singles she recorded in 2013. Around this time, I was her go-to person, advising her on studio equipment purchases, and my brother became one of her live sound engineers. In 2015, Lalah recorded her first live album, “Lalah Hathaway Live” at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the same venue where her father and soul music legend, Donny Hathaway, recorded his “Donny Hathaway Live” album in 1972. It was an historical event, and I was fortunate to coordinate and advise on the recording equipment to be used for the show. A couple months after, Lalah invited me to her home to listen to the unmixed songs from that recording, and I told her she should let my brother take a shot at mixing “Angel”, a song by Anita Baker that Lalah covered at her live show. She agreed, and my brother and I spent 4th of July weekend mixing the song while she was away at the Essence Festival. We sent her the final mix, and within a couple hours, she sent me a text saying that she loved the mix, she had no changes (which is usually unheard of), and that she wanted us to mix and master the entire record. This, alone, was a full-circle moment for me, so surreal, so much fun, and a completely amazing experience! The fact that the album later went on to win 3 Grammys was no surprise to me because there was so much buzz and anticipation around Lalah and that live performance, and the significance of her recording at the same venue as her father once recorded. Not to mention, Lalah is just an incredible musician. She is music royalty, with a voice like no one else on the planet! She’s been the best kept secret in the music industry, for far too long! I’m glad she’s finally getting the recognition she’s deserved for so many years. My brother and I are extremely grateful for the opportunity and very fortunate and thankful that she entrusted us with shaping and polishing the sound of this record, for the whole world to hear.
WiMN: Share a little known fact about you.
BL: This may seem off-kilter to some, but I’m extremely obsessed with real estate! I love everything about it: the sales side, the loan side, development, and investing. I come from a family of real estate developers, so the passion rubbed off on me. I was a real estate agent when I lived in Michigan, and now I service the state of California. Much of my down time, outside of music, is spent showing and selling some of the most luxurious homes in the area, and also looking for my next investment property. For many musicians, especially, the ups and downs of the music industry make it seem difficult to believe in owning a home as opposed to renting, especially, here in California. I’m passionate about being able to advise other musicians on how they can realize their dream of home ownership!
WiMN: As a woman drummer, were there ever any instances where you were faced with discrimination. If so, how did you overcome it?
BL: When I started out playing drums, professionally, there were very few men and women who took me seriously when they’d see me walk into the gig with sticks, a snare, and pedal. The men would usually ask, “Are you the drummer?” Many times, out of frustration, I’d answer, “No, I just love carrying drum gear around.” The women were pleasantly surprised, but still seemed a little skeptical. This supposed “uncertainty” from them would be short-lived once they heard me play. Of course, I would always get the “You’re good for a girl,” or “I don’t know too many women who hit hard like a man.” Apparently, there is a misconception that women musicians are “soft” or not as “aggressive” as they should be on their instrument. This was bothersome to me in my early years of playing; so much so, that I use to play entirely too hard; hard enough that I would break sticks and even crack cymbals at every gig, trying to prove a point.
Eventually, I learned to serve the music and play for the enhancement of the song, instead of the approval of the ones watching. I also learned control and that many times, less is more. I think the most important thing I’ve learned about being a musician is that sometimes the note or notes you don’t play have more of an impact on the emotions felt of those hearing a song than the note or notes you do play. It’s amazing what “space” can lend to a composition.
WiMN: What advice would you give to women who are looking to possibly pursue a career in music, either as a performer or in some other aspect of the industry?
I would tell all women to learn their craft, listen to and learn various genres, and continue to be a student of the music, allowing it to forge their creativity forward. I would also stress to them to learn the business of music, get a good attorney, and never lose sight of the love and passion that first drew them into this career. It’s also important to surround yourself with people who are better than you, so you can remain challenged and inspired. You are the sum of the 5 people you hang around the most. If you’re in a band, you want to be surrounded by better players, as this will force you to step up to the plate and deliver your musical contributions as eloquently as your band mate does! If you’re on the business side, you want to surround yourself with as many successful people as possible; people who’ve already been there an done that, so you can learn what and what not to do and apply that to your own endeavors of becoming successful. In the end, the most important thing is to believe in yourself and have as much fun as you can, inside the journey!