You could be forgiven for thinking that Ben Allen has moved on to the big leagues—for thinking that the local producer, engineer and all-around sound pro, now that he’s worked with the likes of Gnarls Barkley, P. Diddy, Christina Aguilera and other top names of the mainstream and indie worlds, has moved on to bigger things.
You could—and maybe should—be forgiven, because you’d be wrong.
Allen’s idea of success isn’t working with the biggest names or most current artists; it’s being able to do whatever it is he wants to do at that time. “At this point I want to do things that keep me creative,” says Allen. One of the benefits of making a name for yourself, he says, is that you develop a sonic signature. “I’m most interested with working with people who are interested in working with me. When people are looking for that, it makes it a lot easier.”
Though Allen cut his teeth on urban music, and though his skills in that realm are evident, he doesn’t like being called a hip-hop producer. Fair enough, since he’s produced or engineered all across the board, from the muscular guitar rock of Athens’ Whigs to the outre indie psychedelia of Animal Collective to his pet creative project, Atlanta’s The Constellations. He credits Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, with helping influence his willingness to experiment. Allen says he learned a lot while recording with Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo for their groundbreaking Gnarls Barkley album St. Elsewhere.
“Working with Brian was a huge revelation for me at the time, as I brought all these skills from the urban world to the recording, and he basically blew it out of the water,” he says. “At the time I thought that it was a little strange that he’d push back against [predictable sounds], and it wasn’t until six months later that I understood it totally.”
A place to work
Owning his own recording studio helps him work toward that goal of sonic variety. Atlanta’s Maze Studios isn’t ostentatious or glamorous. It gets the job done, and it gets the job done affordably. “My overhead at my current space is low so that it allows me to work on the things I want to work on,” says Allen. “At a big space you have to work on what comes through the door just to be able to pay the rent and all the bills, but here I have the flexibility.”
Allen grew up in Athens, but after leaving high school, at an age when many of his peers were making a Classic City pilgrimage, he departed. He learned the ins and outs of recording while in New York, but resettled in Georgia earlier this decade. Again, coming home was a choice that allowed him more options. “When I moved down from New York, I had a bunch of stuff to do and record, and I wanted to do what I needed at the time,” he says. “A local recording channel would give me the flexibility to do different projects; that was my main form of income. [Maze Studios] sort of evolved into what it is today.”
Only about 30 to 40 percent of Allen’s work takes place at Maze—the rest happens at a handful of other studios he’s come to know and rely on. “At this point [Maze is] just a home base for me and has evolved beyond what it started as,” he says, adding that the choice of recording studio—be it Athens’ Chase Park Transduction, Atlanta’s Glow In The Dark or Sweet Tea in Oxford, Miss.—is “driven by the project and is budget related. I’ve got a mental list of the five studios [I use] and their attributes, and it depends creatively on what we’re trying to achieve. Studios to me are like instruments, and are part of the creative process. Being mindful of what kind of studio you’re in is essential. It’s nice to have one place to work in, but the reality of the projects demands options.”
Allen has currently worked on four projects this year he’s willing to speak about (and one hush-hush one). He co-produced and co-wrote the new album Sidewalks from Brooklyn pop duo Matt & Kim, out in November. Deerhunter’s latest was recorded in Athens at Chase Park. Atlanta neighbors Gringo Star have some irons in the fire, and Allen just finished mixing the new Cut Copy album at Southern Tracks studio.
Of particular interest to Allen at this point is a young band called Reptar, a frenetic band whose home base is Athens. The talk of the college town, Reptar has made a name in Athens for its incendiary live performances. “I saw Reptar a year ago and just fell in love with the band. They’ve got an incredible energy on stage and are really nice guys, too. We started hanging out and they’re easy to work with.” Allen and Reptar plan to issue an EP later this year and possibly a full-length in 2011 on Allen’s own Make Records Not Bombs imprint, which Allen says is less of an official record label and more of a “conduit for me to find stuff I like and stay grounded. That’s how I stay excited about stuff. For me it’s more fun even though it’s a lot of work.”
And finally, watch the fine print of local music news over the next several months… Allen says one of his projects, which he declines to reveal, is “the biggest record I’ve ever done.” The recording is in a holding pattern right now as industry nitty-gritties get worked out, but Allen’s enthusiasm for it is evident despite his tight-lipped prudence—he’s sure it’ll solidify his rep as a versatile and talented studio hand. He shouldn’t worry so much: he’s already proved that a few times over.