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Gnarls Barkley & The Atlanta Sound

Ben Allen
Published December 2006
By Tom Flint

Their combination of Southern soul and hip-hop gave Gnarls Barkley one of the biggest hits of the year, 'Crazy', thanks in part to the mixing wizardry of Ben Allen.

You could say that Ben Allen has a habit of being in the right place at the right time. When rapper and singer Cee Lo Green began a casual collaboration with DJ and producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, Ben happened to be working as Green's engineer. The project, eventually named Gnarls Barkley, produced the worldwide hit single 'Crazy' and acclaimed album St Elsewhere. No-one could have predicted that the record would have been such a huge success, despite the reputations of those involved, but Ben was there from the start, primarily recording Cee Lo's vocals and instrumentation at his own Maze Studios in Atlanta, then mixing the album at Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank, together with Danger Mouse and his engineer Kentaro Tokohashi.

There was the time Ben resigned from his job as Assistant Engineer at the Cutting Room Studios in New York without having anywhere else to go, only to find himself filling the empty Assistant Engineer's seat at Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records a mere two days later!There was the time Ben resigned from his job as Assistant Engineer at the Cutting Room Studios in New York without having anywhere else to go, only to find himself filling the empty Assistant Engineer's seat at Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records a mere two days later!

There was also the time Ben resigned from his job as Assistant Engineer at the Cutting Room Studios in New York without having anywhere else to go, only to find himself filling the empty Assistant Engineer's seat at Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records a mere two days later! He stayed on for two and a half years, graduating to engineer, and working on projects by the likes of Puff Daddy himself, Lil Kim, Mase and Carl Thomas.

Even Ben's demo tapes share his gift for timing. When he and writing partner Tony Reyes penned a track called 'Here To Stay', it was thrown onto a demo at the last second and posted off to Christina Aguilera, who selected it for her Back To Basics album.

Going Down South

But Ben's fortune, as you might have guessed, is the result of many years of hard work in the industry, steadily gaining experience, improving his skills and making the most of his opportunities. "In high school I played in bands like everybody else," recalls Ben, "bought my first eight-track quarter-inch machine when I was 15 and started recording my friend's band in my parents' basement while I was a teenager. I went to college briefly, but took a year off and began helping some friends build a recording studio in the middle of a desert in New Mexico. After working there for about a year I decided it was what I wanted to do for a living."

During his stint in the desert, Ben started researching the best places in the USA to go to make certain styles of music, surmising that LA studios produced rock, Nashville was the home of country and New York was the centre for rap and hip-hop. At the time, Ben's ambition was to get into rap production, so his next move took him to New York's Battery Studios, where he was initially put to work making coffee, cleaning the bathrooms and grafting, as he puts it "about 90 hours a week for a minimum wage". After serving his apprenticeship at Battery, Ben landed an Assistant Engineer post at The Cutting Room Studios in New York, but eventually became unhappy with how he was being paid and abruptly left, at which point he received a timely call from a friend with a contact at Puff Daddy's Bad Boy records. Before he knew it, he was working in the Bahamas for arguably the biggest name in rap.

Equipment at Ben Allen's Maze Studios reflects his emphasis on recording real instruments.Equipment at Ben Allen's Maze Studios reflects his emphasis on recording real instruments.

More recently, Ben relocated to the city of Atlanta, Georgia, established a reputation for mixing crunk records, and became regular engineer for Cee Lo Green. "I'd got really good at making rap," says Ben, "but I decided it was time to leave Bad Boy when I came in one day and noticed that everyone had a gun except me! I chose Atlanta because I am originally from Georgia, and got started mixing crunk records because they're Atlanta's take on rap. I've been Cee Lo's engineer all that time — I did his last record and everything of his since then."

The Barkley School Of Music

Cee Lo Green is, of course, one half of Gnarls Barkley, whose single 'Crazy' has been one of the biggest worldwide hits of 2006. Key to their success is an ability to combine a range of musical styles while retaining credibility in urban music circles. Gnarls Barkley's other half, Danger Mouse, had already proved himself able to mix styles, most notably in producing Gorillaz's eclectic second album Demon Days, and by remixing rapper Jay-Z's Black Album with samples from the Beatles' White Album, to create the notorious Grey Album.

Ben, whose talent for mixing has given him the nick name Ben-ji The Blender, was a natural choice as engineer for the sessions, particularly as he was performing as a guitarist in his own rock band at the time. Ben explains why the project required an understanding of various musical genres. "If you'd never listened to an Atlanta rap record but came and tried to make beats here, you'd never survive, because you wouldn't understand, literally, the cultural and social implications of a snare sound! You can't just use any of the 300 snare sounds that have been used in the last year: it has to be the right one.

"I grew up in Georgia listening to all these great indie rock bands like REM, B52s and Pylon, and have that core tone or sonic memory, so if someone wants me as an indie rock guitarist, or to do a pop record with hip-hop beats, I can. But if I made a hip-hop record it would probably be totally ridiculous, because I don't have enough experience to do it with authenticity. You have to know your place a little bit, but, in my view, bridging the gap between different styles with a lot of authenticity is exactly what Danger Mouse has been so successful in doing."

A selection of guitar and bass amps, including the Fender Vibro Champ reissue and Marshall Plexi / Orange cab combination used by Ben Allen on the Gnarls Barkley album.A selection of guitar and bass amps, including the Fender Vibro Champ reissue and Marshall Plexi / Orange cab combination used by Ben Allen on the Gnarls Barkley album.

According to Ben, Danger Mouse and Green had been talking about collaborating for some time, although they had no definite plans to make an album at first. Danger Mouse initiated things by sending tracks to Cee Lo, who then began recording his vocals in a booth at Ben's Maze Studios using a Neumann TLM103 fed into a Neve 33118 microphone preamp/EQ, compressed through a UA 1176. Despite their distinctive sound, Ben says that the vocals actually remained fairly unprocessed, their unique quality stemming mainly from Cee Lo's natural tone. '"He's got one of the best recorded voices I've ever heard, and it is really hard to screw up," enthuses Ben. "You'd have to distort it horribly for it not to be really great. We did use some specific EQ and effects but mainly to achieve a consistency across the songs, so his voice sounded more or less the same throughout.

"I don't recall specific effects, but I do remember that the goal was to give the vocals room to be really big without sounding effect-heavy. We didn't want the listener to pay attention to the effects at all, so if they didn't notice there were any, then that would be a total success.

"Many of the live parts were recorded by Danger Mouse in LA with his own set of musicians, but at Maze we cut keyboards, guitar and bass on 'Necro', 'Gone Daddy Gone' and 'Who Cares?', as well as a bit of percussion. All the keyboards and samplers went through Vintech Dual 72 microphone preamps. I played the guitars on those songs using a Fender Tele plugged into a Vibro Champ repro amp, and the bass went through a Marshall Plexi reissue and Orange 4 x 12 cab."

Incredible Christina

When Ben and his songwriting partner, Tony Reyes, decided to offer two soulful ballads to Christina Aguilera as possible material for her Back To Basics album, they added a third composition, eventually called 'Here To Stay', as an afterthought, never expecting it to get used.

"She loved that one and we were a little unprepared for that," says Ben. "She wrote to the parts we sent her, then flew us to LA to work on the song. She has her own engineer, who's called Oscar Ramirez, and no one cuts her vocal other than him, so Tony and I were producers at that point.

"Christina knows what she wants and how to do it, so it's a case of her doing something incredible 12 times and you deciding which incredible vocal take to use. We took it all back to Maze, together with some comments and suggestions, and added more music around the vocals."

"It's interesting that I've done Gnarls Barkley and Christina's song this year, because they were both trying to do something sounding really old. Her big thing was to make a soulful record like all the music that inspired her, so our challenge was to come up with parts in the arrangements that wouldn't sound too modern. We'd used a sample as a basis, which we'd pulled off a CD and cut up, so Tony and I added percussion, Wurlitzer, guitar, bass, hand claps, tambourines and all kinds of stuff around it, to dress it up with a little texture."

Trust The Mouse

For Ben, who was used to working on rap records using heavy bass, kick and snare to underpin the vocal, mixing Gnarls Barkley proved to be a learning experience. "I had to take everything that I had learned about mixing records and throw it away," he stresses. "Danger Mouse pushed me to do things very differently from what I was used to and, at that time, I didn't agree with him because it was so unusual. I now realise that it was really brilliant."

Ben explains the reason for his initial doubts. "For someone like Cee Lo, who is typically thought of as an urban artist, there isn't a lot of low end on any of the album songs, except perhaps on 'Who Cares?'. St Elsewhere doesn't hit very hard compared to Atlanta music. It's punchy, for sure, but it doesn't have a lot of boom in it. Even pop music in America is all low end and fully urbanised, so I was used to making things sound that way. I was looking at Danger Mouse saying 'Are you sure about this?' and he was saying 'Trust me.'

"I was also used to making things sound a little bit cleaner, but the goal with Gnarls Barkley was to make something that sounded both old and new at the same time, so that the backing was like a vintage record, while Cee Lo's vocals sounded modern. And if you listen to the record in a studio on a good set of speakers, Cee Lo's vocals always sound the shiniest, brightest, thing in any given song.

"To make everything else feel crunchy and old we were simply using a combination of EQ and plug-ins to carve out both the low and high end, but I don't remember using amp simulators or anything like that."

Rock Meets Rap

So far in Ben's career, he has been fortunate enough to work with some of the leading rap artists of the era, and that, together with his work on Atlanta crunk records, has greatly influenced the way he approaches production in general, even when producing or mixing rock and other musical genres. "For me," says Ben, "the techniques used in rap and rock all go together. I like putting 808s — which form the low-end boom of all Atlanta rap tracks — and acoustic guitars into rock songs. At the moment I'm producing a Bowie-esque synth/pop band from New York called the Management, and I'm trying to put a little bit of urban bottom and oomph in the production so that it has a deeper, harder sound.

"With rap records it is all kick, snare and vocals, and that's the whole track. As long as they hit hard and you can hear the vocal, then anything else is just ear candy. The mid range is sacred, so I make that sparse to give the vocal room. That's very much a Rick Rubin style. On almost every record he's made, the kick, snare and vocal are the loudest things. His success with rock is that the recordings end up sounding like rap records.

"When I'm working with rock bands, I get annoyed if guitars are playing all the time, because it fills that space in the mid range. I'm constantly finding myself telling the guitarist to shut up and let the singer sing. It may sound like I don't want to hear any guitars, but what I'm trying to do is get the singer to be better. A lot of people are not motivated to perform until you get all the shit out of the way. The more you take out, the more pressure you put on the vocalist to deliver a lyric or melody in a compelling way.

"I tell rock bands to try playing their songs with no guitars in the verses and see what it sounds like. Nine times out of 10 they love it because when they add the guitars in the chorus it sounds massive. It's just getting them to see the magic in that, which is sometimes near-impossible. I also encourage them to try the same part on piano or Wurlitzer — it doesn't have to be guitar all the time.

"I've definitely developed a sense of the different spaces that low end can inhabit. Punch, thump and then boom is how I describe it to people. Punch hits you in the chest, thump in the stomach and boom lower than that! Cee Lo and I have a vocabulary based around that idea, so I can say 'Are you talking about more punch, or thump, or what?' Technique-wise, I start by deciding whether it is going to be the bass or the kick/808 occupying the very low boom, because they can't both be there. I might decide that the bass will carry the thump and the 808 will be the boom, or vice versa, but the biggest challenge is carving out a space for each of those instruments.

"Compression is very important, but for vocals I tend not to use very much going in — just enough for it to be listenable when we're working, but not so much that it's going to tie us to that sound. If I'm mixing in Pro Tools I'll group all the background vocals and send them through one auxiliary buss with a compressor and maybe a Waves L1 on it, to keep it up-front and in your face.

"I do a lot of bussing, especially with vocals, but if there are stacks of them I may cut a stereo vocal track mix. It's mainly because then there's less to think about when it's done. I can't stand cutting a bunch of stuff and then having to sift through numerous tracks of vocals in Pro Tools three days later. I'd much rather do it right and have one track of vocals, so I mix as I track. If I'm recording a really dynamic vocal part, for example, I'll get the singer to work the mic so the loud parts are not loud on the tape. Or if we're recording a guitar part I might put one mic on the amp and one in the room but compress the crap out of the room mic with an 1176, using a really fast attack and release to give it a big boom, like an old Stax record. I'm a huge fan of Tchad Blake, who made a couple of records in the early 1990s with Mitchell Froom which were sonically very adventurous, and you could tell that the sounds were part of the recording process."

Although he's happy to use a conventional mixing desk in other studios, most of the time Ben Allen is just as happy to work without one.Although he's happy to use a conventional mixing desk in other studios, most of the time Ben Allen is just as happy to work without one.

In The Maze

Over the last four years, Ben has been developing his own Atlanta-based Maze Studios, which he uses to produce bands, record his own projects and as a recording base for Cee Lo Green. "We're in the process of building Cee Lo's room," says Ben. "He's got Ausberger monitors, a full Pro Tools rig — everything he needs. It is for writing and production initially, but if we get enough plug-ins, he'll be able to make records in there too."

Ben has very particular views on what a recording studio should be like, and has designed Maze so that it fulfils his requirements. "It's really just a bunch of nice rehearsal rooms with gear in them. There are lots of Atlanta studios with marble floors and modern, multi-million-dollar designs, but I can't stand the luxury of that environment! I'd rather feel like I'm in my living room, and one of my goals was to keep my overheads low so that I can pick and choose the records I want to work on.

"I'm running Pro Tools 7 on an HD3 rig with Apogee converters and Apogee Big Ben clocking. We have a bunch of Neve 33118 and Vintech Dual 72 mic preamps, a Urei 1176 and the Avalon [VT737] that studios have to have in Atlanta, although I don't think it sound that good. I love the 1176, though. I've also got couple of Grace Designs preamps, plus a set of SSL 4000-series line amps and mic preamps we use for tracking out of Akai MPCs. I use a lot of Lawson microphones. They are a company from Nashville who hand-make Neumann U47 and 251 copies that sound phenomenal.

There's a relatively small but high-quality array of outboard at Maze Studios, including Neve, Vintech and Grace Designs preamps.There's a relatively small but high-quality array of outboard at Maze Studios, including Neve, Vintech and Grace Designs preamps.

"I particularly like to use lots of instruments, so we have several drum kits, about 12 guitar amps, a bunch of guitars, lots of analogue synths, a Rhodes and a Wurlitzer. It's designed so people will want to touch stuff. One band wanted to set up every keyboard in the room, which is what I want.

"There's not a lot from a preamp and EQ perspective, but I like to find creative ways to use the gear I have and enjoy being in that state of mind. When the studio is a raw, imperfect space it forces you to be more creative. I don't think that Gnarls Barkley would have been so compelling if we'd had a $3000-a-day room with girls bringing us fresh fruit and orange, which is what it's like in LA."

Unusually, Ben has no mixer or hardware control surface in his studio, preferring to use a mouse for mixing. "My desk is literally a pine table that's about six feet long by four feet wide, holding a computer monitor, mouse and keyboard. I do use a desk for some clients. I just mixed a couple of tracks for UK artist Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, and for that I booked an SSL in town because I felt the material needed it. If I can't get what I need here I'll just rent a room. At the moment I'd only use a desk a third of the time and that doesn't warrant the expense or maintenance costs."

Here And Now

Naturally, Ben's association with Gnarls Barkley has opened doors, allowing him to pick and choose from a variety of offers. A new Cee Lo Green project is underway, and Ben has been commissioned to work on a variety of remixes, including ones for Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly and a new dance-rock band called White Rose Movement. As a producer, Ben is also busy developing his own projects, most notably the Constellations, which he describes as a mini-supergroup.

"It's like a Southern version of the Gorillaz and includes a couple of singers, MCs, producers and musicians. We're doing off-the-wall stuff that is part spoken word, part rap — a bit of everything. Lyrically and sonically I want it to sound Southern. It has a lot of low end and 808-type things that mark the Atlanta sound, but the songs and arrangements are more musical than your average rap record. Elijah Jones, who's one of the singers, is talking about places in Atlanta you'd only know about if you were from here. There's a lot of country and blues in there too. We just did one song that sounds like David Allan Coe mixed with the Neptunes.

"Doing the same thing repeatedly would drive me nuts, but Gnarls Barkley has given me the opportunity to do all the stuff I've wanted all along. I'm doing a lot of mixing, remixes and production on stuff I think is really interesting, and that is the real pay-off." 

Published December 2006

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