Mixing Outside the Lines

Jul 30, 2008 2:05 PM, By Janice Brown



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After recording and mixing one of the coolest-sounding records of recent years—Gnarls Barkley’s sleeper hit St. Elsewhere—Atlanta-based producer/engineer Ben H. Allen popped up on the radar of bands everywhere, wondering who was behind that sound. It’s a quality Allen describes as “futuristic and vintage,” a sound that from an engineering perspective tied in naturally with his personal aesthetic. “I grew up listening to Motown records,” Allen shares, “which to this day are my reference point for how music should sound.”

These days, no matter what kind of music he’s engineering, Allen finds himself returning to techniques he can trace directly back to those records. “I’m doing a lot of things in mono these days, less stereo in terms of where things are sitting in the mix, especially with effects,” he points out. “That spring and plate reverb used in those old Motown records was all mono, and it gives off this eerie quality, but it’s not superwide and lush-sounding. So, if anything, my mono effects have become a bit of a trademark for me lately.”

While Allen’s discography is decidedly urban—having coming up engineering late-'90s New York City hip-hop and later helping to cultivate the Dirty South crunk movement—his work has attracted more rock bands lately, and most recently the uber-experimental Brooklyn art-rock band Animal Collective. “They hired me to record and mix because they wanted really aggressive low end on their new album,” he shares. “My background being in urban music, managing low end is one of the things I do really well.”

Just prior to hitting Chase Park Transduction Studios to mix the Animal Collective record, Allen describes the highly creative recording and pre-mixing process. “To get the low end they wanted, we set up four different reamping stations in the studio—using a Fender spring reverb, an Ampeg Portaflex bass amp, a little Gibson guitar amp and the huge QSC P.A. system they use for their live shows,” describes Allen. “They’d record things straight out of their samplers through the Neve 80 Series desk into Pro Tools, and then we’d reamp the kick drum or the snare drum or 20 snare drums or bass synth parts through one of those stations, pick the sound we liked best and record that back into the computer.”

Putting up room mics and reamping these low-end elements gives the band the “live” sound they’re after, as Allen explains. “We’re using that setup to create ambience that didn’t exist in the samples themselves, which makes them sound like a band playing in a room.”

Pre-mixing in-the-box throughout the recording process encouraged productive decision-making. “As each part gets recorded, and often triple- or quadruple-tracked, I take all those mics and run them through an aux input in Pro Tools and effect it at that stage, and get a balance,” he explains. “So once I open up the Pro Tools sessions, the rough mixes are all balanced, and in mixing it becomes a question of what will be up front and what will go behind? Also, we’ve left it open enough so that we can make decisions on how much room—or dirt—we want on the sound, or how closed and tight we want it to feel.”

Going into the mix, Allen shares, “The whole vibe is to have this really tight and punchy low end, like a New York hip-hop record, and then this really washy Beach Boys–style vocal approach. We went and bought a bunch of spring reverbs and cheap reverbs on eBay that we’re going to use for vocals, a lot of which are triple- or quadruple-tracked.”

Allen will use his 32 channels of outputs to submix on the Sony MXP-3036 console at Chase Park, and plans to experiment extensively with both outboard and plug-in processing while mixing with Animal Collective. “They’ve booked two weeks to mix 12 songs and they want to experiment as much as possible,” Allen adds. In addition to effects pedals and plate reverbs, Allen talks up some highly creative plug-ins, noting that he plans to use Audio Ease’s Speakerphone plug-in on Animal Collective tracks. “Instead of just EQ'ing a big mid-boost and cutting the low and high end to get a radio effect, with Speakerphone you have 30 to 40 models of all these different devices—walkie-talkies, P.A. systems and megaphones—and all these different environments,” he describes. “It’s infinitely tweakable, an awesome plug-in.”

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