When I got the offer to interview Ben Allen I was a little confused at first. I had enjoyed his work with Gnarls Barkley and Animal Collective, but Puff Daddy and the Bad Boy empire? Christina Aguilera? I was an analog purist, and that pop stuff just screamed, "Pro Tools!" I was initially more excited to visit Mission Sound, where we met in Brooklyn, than I was to talk to this guy who had become so successful working with the digital format and Top 20 radio. I arrived at the interview feeling a touch standoffish — what the hell were we going to talk about? The first thing Ben did when we sat down was compliment me on my worn-out leather Vans, setting the tone for his generous nature and supportive attitude. As the interview went on, I was struck by his true enthusiasm for music, and his genuine hospitality towards me. He so gently dismantled my own arrogant thinking, that not only did I buy my first Pro Tools set up shortly after our visit, but I also hand wrote a letter to Tchad Blake! Ben's words have continued to resonate with me for weeks after our interview. He reminded me not to judge a book by its cover, and to remember that in the end, it really is about the song...
Tell me a little bit about where you started.
I grew up in Athens, Georgia. I heard Jimmy Page and I realized that he knew how to record, so I wanted to learn how to do that. I borrowed some money from my parents and I bought a Fostex 1/4 inch 8-track, an ART 16-channel mixer, a Digitech effects unit and my master recorder was a VCR. I would record mine and my friends' bands in my parents' basement. My band put out cassettes in high school with artwork and everything. Later I was going to college in Boston, but I dropped out. I had some friends in [Albuquerque] New Mexico that were building a studio — ThunderBird Recording — and they called me and asked me to come out and help them build and then assist the engineer. I learned under this guy named Scott Jarrett, who was the first guy I hung out with that really knew what he was doing. He was super organic — it was all about the musicians, tape and nothing digital. He made a suggestion — "Look at the records you like, and find out what studio they're made in." I was listening to all this hip-hop music at the time — A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde and The Roots. They were all made in New York. I found out about ten studios and called them for weeks. I interviewed for internships at Sony, Hit Factory, Quad, Platinum Island, Battery and Chung King, and I ended up getting a paid internship at Battery with minimum wage and benefits, plus time and a half! It was peanuts, but I could basically work a hundred hours a week and pay my expenses as a glorified runner. After a year I left and went to The Cutting Room. I worked for this up-and-coming producer, Mike Mangini. He had done Digable Planets and a bunch of pop stuff. But they owed me money and weren't able to pay me, so I basically just quit on the spot. The very next day, a friend of mine called and said, "Hey, I'm in the Bahamas with Puff Daddy and we need assistants." The next day I was in the Bahamas! Puff Daddy had rented two rooms at Compass Point and two rooms in an apartment building across the street. He had this grand idea to get all the hottest hip-hop producers to come in and make all these tracks. I was one of three assistants and there were six or seven engineers. There were sessions 24 hours a day for three weeks. They were running producers in eight hour shifts, making all these tracks for Bad Boy Records. At the end we had about 300 tracks! Then I came back to New York with that camp and stayed with them for a few years — first as an assistant, then as an engineer. And that was one of the first projects to use Pro Tools to record. Michael Patterson, Tony Maserati, Paul Logus and "Prince Charles" Alexander were the guys who started using Pro Tools that way, so it was great to be on the cutting edge of that. I borrowed some money and bought a Pro Tools system, which I installed in one of Puffy's studios, and I started a little gear rental company, which was cushioning my income. Then I started freelancing out of the Pro Tools room for about a year or so. I didn't have any employees, but I had this Pro Tools rig. People would use Puffy's studio and have to write me a check. It was really convenient!
Why did you go to Atlanta?
My lifestyle caught up with me. I was young, making a lot of money and got myself into some trouble. I needed a break, so I went to Atlanta and hooked up with Monica Tannian, who has a consulting company called Milk Money — managing producers and engineers in Atlanta. She hooked me up with Cee-Lo [Green, of Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley], and we really hit it off. I had musical sensibilities that he was really psyched about, and I was excited because he was sort of on the left side of hip-hop and soul. I worked for him for about four years as an engineer, a guitar player and sometimes a co-producer.
Did he have his own room there?
We built him a room and leased him the space, but initially we were working in different studios around town. Then I built what became Maze.
Tell me about Maze Studios
It was a total dump for years. I used to smoke in my control room! It had double walls and floating floors, but it was all done sort of crappy. It was just in a warehouse in an office park. This guy had built these rehearsal rooms to be rented out to touring bands in Atlanta, but there's no market for that there! So I just rolled in a bunch of gear — a [Pro Tools] Mix Plus system with eight ins and outs, one Avalon, a couple of Neves, a couple of okay mics, a reissue [UA] 1176 and a table, monitor, mouse and keyboard. In Atlanta no one would come do vocals at your place if you didn't have an Avalon, but I wouldn't even use it. People would say, "Oh, that sounds amazing," and I'd be using the Neve and the 1176. That's how "Crazy" and all the other Gnarls Barkley vocals were cut, with a bare bones Mix Plus system, a Neumann TLM103, a Neve 3118 and the 1176. But Maze has evolved. We have a ton of great outboard gear now and it's great for overdubs and mixing. Eighty percent of my mixing is done there. We have Apogee convertors, a Neve summing bus , a great Demeter spring reverb [RV-1] and a Fairchild that's really awesome. I'm just getting to the point now that I need a bigger studio and console.
Did you have any creative input on the Gnarls Barkley stuff?
I think I had a lot of input, but it would be inappropriate to say that I produced it. A lot of the vocals were just me and Cee-Lo. Danger Mouse would send us a drum loop and a couple of samples, but there was no live instrumentation at all. We would cut that up into a different arrangement and Cee-Lo would do all his vocals. The count off on "Crazy" was just a click for Cee-Lo to start, but we kept it, and that's how the song starts! But I had a lot of input as to how it sounded. Danger Mouse and his engineer, Kenny Takahashi — I think they were going for this retro/futuristic thing, but Cee-Lo wasn't happy with the mixes, so he sent me out to L.A. to represent him [on the mixes]. Everything was really dry and up front — really sparse — and it sort of sounded like the Gorillaz record. [The sounds] didn't really explode, but I think it really started to work once we made it sound a little over the top.
I saw a photo of your studio online. It looked rather modest!
I've got a pair of ProAc [speakers] now. So it's those and the KV2s, the [Yamaha] NS-10s and a little pair of Altec monitors. You look at [other recording magazines], you see these Holy Grail studios. But I do think that a good song and a good performance trumps everything else. I get inspired by a space that is limiting. I think that creates the inspiration in some way. The way records are made right now is that the number of options is so great that people have gotten into this lack of commitment, of security, of confidence. Every mix can be recalled and every vocal can be redone, comped and tuned. There's this lack of immediacy — this sense of "We can fix this later." They don't realize how much time that takes, that I've got to pay my assistant. They want to share [the mix] with all the A&R people, the band and the manager. I get 20 emails full of comments! Twenty years ago, it was, "We have one day to mix at this studio." You had one shot, and everyone had to be on his or her best game. It almost makes me want to go back to analog tape, and not because it sounds better. It's not some analog versus digital bullshit. How does something that has an unlimited track count and unlimited editing capabilities affect the energetic character of a person? How does it affect the performance?
New Mexico, the Bahamas, New York and Atlanta — it sounds like you've got a bit of a hustle going.
If there ever was a music business where you could make tons of money doing work that you loved, then that train left the station a long time ago. But I feel like I've got a chain attached to the back, and I'm being dragged along by the caboose! [laughter] I think we're at a point now where you have to like making music more than you like making money, if you want to survive and be happy with it. I think you can be successful and content. I think you can make a living working on things that are artistically and creatively satisfying. I'm just working on stuff that I like with people who I like being around. They're honest people, I like what they do and they're interested in pushing their own personal boundaries in some way. It seems like as I've become more successful, I've become more humble, more interested in just hanging out with people so I can learn.
You mentioned the immediacy that is lost. How do you maintain that working in a digital realm?
I don't know that I have! That immediacy is very important for Animal Collective, but we go through a lot of mixes — that's a big part of their process. That's something I'm trying to understand with this new place I'm building in Atlanta. How can I have a structural process that lets people know what type of performance is going to be expected of them? I wonder if I need a tape machine, to be perfectly honest. "We've got 24 tracks, 16 minutes and no Beat Detective — so let's do this right the first time." You can also talk with bands ahead of time about what sorts of limitations to impose, so it's not this open chasm of possibilities.
I bought a tape machine for that very reason, and now I've got to sell the client on it.
Maybe it's a tool you only bring out for those situations, where you say, "Hey, would you be willing to try working this way?"
When did you start calling yourself a producer, and what changed both in your work and internally that allowed you to do that?
I don't know that I would call myself a producer yet. When people ask what I do, I just say, "Music stuff." Maybe once my income is more from producing than anything else, then I can call myself a producer. I'm right on the cusp. I've been hired to produce records for just a couple years. With Animal Collective I'm an engineer, and it's gratifying to be in the room with them and pushed to explore things that I would never do otherwise.
Sean "Diddy" Combs calls himself a producer. I see him on VH1, and it looks like he knows how to throw some money at people, get them together and then not do anything.
Well, 50 years ago that's what you did! How is that any different from Rick Rubin or George Martin? The talent is knowing how to get the right song, the right artist, the right band and the right engineer in the right studio at the right time. Put 'em all in there, sit in the corner and smoke a cigarette. Keep them happy and motivated so they can do their job.
Tell me about Christina Aguilera and the song you wrote with Tony Reyes, "Here To Stay".
Tony was producer Dallas Austin's guitar player for many years. He played on records by Madonna and Gwen Stefani. He was also managed by Milk Money. We started writing songs together and we heard that Christina Aguilera was looking for songs. We wrote three or four songs and one was based on this sample of Candi Staton, this incredible soul singer from the '60s. [Christina] liked that one, so she flew us out to L.A. and we recorded it in a few days. I'll never forget Christina's engineer, Oscar Ramirez, had a tattoo of a [Neve] 1073 channel strip on his arm with the Christina Aguilera vocal setting, with "Christina" written beneath it. [Christina] was a total pro! Incredible voice, insane work ethic. She sat on the stool and sang the song for six hours until it was done — didn't leave the booth once and didn't make a single phone call. I think she has an internal sense of quality. She's not going to be done [with a song] until she's satisfied.
You probably hear your own work all week long, coming out of a car or flipping through the channels.
God! My parents had [Gnarls Barkley's] "Crazy" as their cell phone ring for about a year. We'd be out having dinner in Atlanta, and their phone would go off and I'm like [mimics crawling under the table].
My friend works for [an insanely huge hip-hop producer], and he tells me these horror stories. [The artist] is overdubbing vocals with the monitors right in front of the microphone, creating this feedback loop, and he's yelling at my friend!
There was a time that the singer would walk into the vocal booth, sing the song, and that would be it. If you were an engineer on an Aretha Franklin song, you had to be prepared! We're there to record people's music — it's really about them! It's about the artist, not about the engineer. That being said, sometimes there is an insecurity that happens with an artist, where if the conditions aren't exactly the way they want them then they feel like they can't do what they're there to do. Anyone can do what [engineers] do — there's nothing magical about it. What's magical is being able to create trust with someone really quickly. There's a way to talk to an artist to create a bit of trust and patience. I'm at my most attentive, my most eager and earnest when the person in the booth is giving his all and it makes me want to [reciprocate]. There's a dance to it that I find very exciting. But with budgets being so small now, people do want to just walk in the door and do their thing. I think that's why we're here.
To provide a service. It's a trade. But getting that trust is another ball of wax.
That's the art of it. You have to master the trade to be artful with it, but it's just a tool you use to make the art. I was interviewing for a mixing job and the producer pulled up a track and said, "See, the kick has this hump at 43 Hz. How would you deal with that?" I don't know! I just do it until it sounds good, then I turn around and look at the artist to see if he agrees.
You're getting out of the pop realm and more into the indie stuff with Animal Collective and The Constellations. What's different about this from the pop music?
What's pop music? What does that even mean? Given the right circumstances just about anything can be a hit these days. I'm not here to make hits — there are easier ways to make money! I'm here to make great music. It's got to be about the art at some level, otherwise what's the point?
What about with the vocals? I listen to the pop stuff and every note, every phrase has to be perfect. I envision a lot of comping. How do you produce a great vocal and maintain that immediacy?
It's different every single time. For me, everything defers to the vocal. There's this song with Animal Collective we're working on now — "Sky" — where we got a very dry, up-front vocal. But getting them to that point has been about a two-year process. "Crazy" is one vocal take, except for the little "oohs." But then with Christina — that song was probably comped from a hundred different takes! She nailed every single one, but she wants to comp it until she's in love with it. There's nothing less valid about that. To argue about the validity of it is silly. It's whatever gets you to the destination. I've been in chaotic situations where I was asked to leave, but that's because I wasn't prepared. The best thing you can do is give it a hundred percent and continue to do that until the artist is satisfied. That's more important than any vocal mic.
How many singers do you find have a good mic technique?
It just depends. If they trust you it takes 10 minutes to show them, and once they come into the control room and hear what it sounds like, they'll never forget it. One thing I've been learning lately is to resist the urge to put the most expensive mic up. I've been using a Shure SM7 lately on vocals. "I want to go get my U47 copy that I spent $3000 on! I've got to use this thing!" I'll put it up, I'll try and try and then I'll put the $300 Shure up, and it's just better. I know we hear it every day, but you've got to listen and trust your ears. Our business has gotten so gear- centric. "This series pre with this transformer..." I don't give a shit about transformers!
But didn't you have to learn all that technical stuff to then unlearn it? Absolutely. I would never use that as an excuse to say,
"Just use shitty gear." But [Shure SM]57s as overheads on a Sufjan Stevens record? Those records sound cool! Pick the best song and the best performance and just really listen. Those other things are just tools, but the real meat of what we do is listening and making decisions. It's easy to think, "I need a hundred thousand dollar console! It'll look great in my room, people will be impressed!" But I really don't need it. I've been doing this for so long without something like that. I wish I had the ears to say, "That [gear] sounds better than this [gear]." I can hear differences. I can hear ADATs and I can hear [Pro Tools] Mix Plus versus HD. But I'm listening from such an energetic standpoint that it doesn't matter. I can always hear someone who's not in the mood to sing. It doesn't matter if you've got Mytek converters — if someone's not in the mood to sing, no converter is going to help you. I'm more focused on the song and the performance.
I'm often bored with hip-hop because the structure is more or less always the same. Where do you think hip- hop could go from here?
I'm just a 33-year-old white guy from Athens, [Georgia], but I think that in a way, Timbaland killed hip-hop and invented modern pop all with that early Missy Elliott stuff. It was brilliant and completely different from everything that had come before it, but it was very mechanical. It was the beginning of the end of sampling. Hip-hop up to then had been built on soul samples, so there was this natural swing to the tracks. Timbaland came along with a great musical sense and some interesting drum sounds. He made hip-hop that was more dance and pop influenced and less funk and soul influenced. I think we're still in that period of sound, even with the Atlanta crunk thing. Hip-hop is in this massive hangover from the excess of the last ten to fifteen years, and it's trying to find itself. I would love to see more albums with a more conceptual approach. And where are the duos or trios? Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys or Pharcyde? Salt-n-Pepa? There are no "rap units" any more, and I miss that.
The crunk thing is hard for me to swallow. It's very brittle to my ears, all those direct-line keyboards and plug-ins.
I never liked dance music until a friend gave me some ecstasy and took me out to a club. "Oh! I get it!" Atlanta is a car city, and Peachtree Street on Friday and Saturday night is just lined for miles with cars cruising with two 15s in the trunk, bumping the new Lil Wayne or whatever.
Are you consciously engineering stuff for those two 15s?
Animal Collective, for example, will say, "Hey, we want this to rattle the subs."
So how do you do that?
It's 808s and some sub-harmonic synthesis. On their CD, Merriweather Post Pavilion, we used Drumagog a lot. It's just a matter of finessing the trigger to get that right.
What are you using to monitor those really low frequencies?
I have a sub that I'll generally plug in for those mixes, and I have these big KV2 PA speakers that are designed to be cranked up. That's all they're there for. You go to any studio in Atlanta and you'll see Augspurger 12s in the walls, and these 12s and 15s on the floor, you know?
Do you think that stuff translates as well in reality?
It depends. I usually only turn those subs on for about ten seconds, and say, "Yeah, that sounds right," and then I'll check it a few times through a mix. But I'd say that ninety percent of the time it's just two tiny Altec speakers, which are generally behind me. My process is about switching between a lot of different monitors and listening to things in as casual a way as I can. Sometimes I'll put them on the other side of the room and listen as if I were just hanging out in my house.
Little things will jump out that you wouldn't otherwise hear...
Totally! Just listen like a human being. I try to think as little about other engineers as possible, and just think about how a casual listener is going to hear this. Put the speakers on the other side of the room, surf the net and listen to a mix twenty times.
What about the people who are going to listen through their computer speakers or their ear buds?
So then [I] listen on ear buds or my MacBook computer speakers. I have a few pairs of these little Altecs, which I always travel with.
Why do you keep them behind you?
Just to keep it casual, like I'm not paying too much attention to it.
What do you think about the ego that can sometimes come into play with these big names?
The more successful I've become, the more I realize how little I actually know. I started out really cocky, a bit of a know-it-all. I think that was really just masking a basic insecurity — I really wanted to fit in. I missed a lot of opportunities to learn because I was too busy acting like I already knew what I was doing. It's really humbled me. What we do is an oral tradition, passed on from one to another. I'm really worried because the studio is not really the central location for ideas anymore — it's the bedroom now. I think that's great for the producer — Danger Mouse is someone who was born of that trend. He does everything in [Sony] Acid, a $300 piece of software on a PC laptop! He just knows how to do what he does and he's great at it. Wherever Timbaland is working, that's where it's happening — it could be the back of a tour bus! But that chain of making coffee, being a general assistant, an assistant engineer and a head engineer is kind of lost.
What's your trajectory look like? Where do you want to be in 10 or 20 years?
That's an excellent question. If you figure it out, tell my girlfriend, 'cause she'd like to know! [laughter] Right now I'm in a mode of trying to learn as much as possible by getting in an environment where I'm around people who are better at what I do. I think I've gotten a long way on my own steam, and so now I'm trying to get out more. But I really want to oversee the nurturing of this oral tradition from a systematic standpoint.
To be in a place where you're providing that?
I don't know that I have too much to give on that front just yet. I'd rather be creating those opportunities [for others]. It's going to be really critical to the future because there's a danger of ability and technique being lost if that chain is broken.
Alex McKenzie is a New England-based producer/engineer, firstname.lastname@example.org Photographs by Angela Morris, www.angelaphotography.com