Ben Price keeps an open mind

The Studilaroche producer talks about the virtues of community

Thursday June 16, 2016 04:00 am EDT

Ben Price has spent the better part of his professional life in recording studios doing everything from soldering cables and repairing gear to playing a hands-on role helping musicians realize their sounds and visions. As the man behind the console for records by Little Tybee, Faun and a Pan Flute, Hello Ocho, and countless others, Price's name and his Studilaroche home recording studio have become synonymous with a new Atlanta sound. His signature as a producer and engineer is capturing lush and complex musical arrangements. But for Price, building a sense of community around the musicians he works with is chief among his business and artistic aspirations. Price took a few minutes to talk about his long and storied history working with Atlanta music — from playing a minor role constructing OutKast's Southern hip-hop titan Stankonia to Hello Ocho's deranged avant-garde rock creeper In Portuguese. For Price, moving forward is about doing good work and always keeping an open mind.

You're kind of a kingpin of Atlanta music. You've worked with Little Tybee, Hello Ocho, Peter Webb, To Too My, Faun and a Pan Flute, Mara, Book of Colors ... How did you start working as a producer?

I started in 1998 at a place called Southern Living at Its Finest, which was Ricky Keller's studio. He was a bassist extraordinaire who had a studio next door to ZAC — Zumpano Audio Complex. I got to meet all kinds of great engineers working there.

I'm from Chicago, but my dad retired to North Georgia in 1993. I was accepted to the University of Georgia but I hadn't set up any financing. I'd been kicked out of my house and didn't have any way to pay for school. So I ended up in Savannah, just kind of kicking around. My plan was to find a gig as an intern in Athens. I called every studio I could find, but everybody said, "You gotta go to Atlanta and find Jim Zumpano. Jim Z is the guy. Call some studios and ask where to find him."

Finally I found him at Tree Sound. Jim gave me an internship. I was there for three months. He also had a pro audio equipment rental company called Eclipse Audio housed inside Ricky's studio. Jim had an assistant who quit suddenly, and needed help. So I went from an unpaid internship at Tree Sounds to a paid assistant at Eclipse.

When did you start doing hands-on work?

I became a house assistant at Ricky's. That's where a lot of the big names on my résumé come from: OutKast, Scarface, Tony Braxton, Ciara. I was one of a long line of assistant engineers who worked on Stankonia. They bought Bobby Brown's place next to Jim's. They turned it into Stankonia, and were working on that record. Andre wanted to do some music for the sketches between the tunes. So he hired our studio and Matt Still as the engineer. The band Ex Vortex came in with a horn section. Andre was going back-and-forth between the two studios. He would come to our place and say, "Let's do something like this," and gave us an Afro-Cuban vibe. So he would coax the band into something he dug and say, "Run with it!" All the music behind all the skits on that album is what we did during the sessions. It's a small part of a big record.

When did you start having creative input?

Twittering Machine recorded an EP on their own. Everybody told them: "Get Pro Tools and cut it yourself!" ... They couldn't get it to sound right. They heard Ricky's was the place to go. Alex Lowe talked with them about doing some work. I saw their CD sitting on the desk and popped it in. I thought, "This is made for me." I said, "Alex, I'm stealing this." I inserted myself. We had a meeting in my little basement studio that I had at the time and decided to work together.

There's a clear aesthetic thread connecting Twittering Machine to Faun and a Pan Flute, Little Tybee, and Book of Colors.

The first time I heard Little Tybee I thought, "This is similar to Twittering Machine." It's different, but there's an interest in technical precision — Tybee carries that further. Also, the chord structures aren't your average major rock progressions. I played some guitar on Twittering Machine's 2003 album Breakfast By the Dunes. I'm not a great guitar player — I play chords my mom taught me. I saw the charts that were written out for me and it was full of chords I'd never heard of. Tybee has even more elaborate chord structures. There's a European-continental vibe to both bands. Twittering Machine played that up; Beth, the singer, had a real lounge vibe. Tybee has more of a Latin vibe going on with the strings, flute, and muted trumpet.

Twittering Machine wanted to make a great album. Little Tybee, Book of Colors, Hello Ocho, they're aiming high. Especially Hello Ocho. Rock is part of their thing, but the others aren't really rock bands. Their instruments are more elaborate and their sounds are more detailed, more nuanced. Complex music yields a richer experience. I like that as a music fan.

I've struggled putting Faun and a Pan Flute into context, looking for that right combination of words like jazz or experimental. But to say it's experimental implies they don't know what they're doing.

I feel like they're folk music, which seems odd, but I've been thinking a lot about genre recently. Folk music, to me, is becoming less like Joan Baez or Bob Dylan in the '60s. Sometimes hip-hop is folk music. It's music of a community using what's available for cheap. Like at the beginning of hip-hop, Roland made that 808 drum machine and nobody wanted to use it because it didn't sound like a drum kit. It ended up in a pawn shop where poor kids in the city could afford it. Then they turned it into an instrument sort of like turntables. Faun is playing common rock and jazz instruments but it's stuff that is in every school. It's definitely experimental, but that's a far less interesting descriptor. What a lot of what people call experimental doesn't seem all that experimental to me. A lot of noise stuff would be called experimental, but they're doing noise in the way that other people have done noise. Faun is somewhere between folk music and what I call classical music. It's all composed, but there are moments of improv. The more I think about genre the more I think in broad strokes.

Which is sort of the opposite of how a lot of younger people getting into music think in terms of micro-genres.

I taught some classes at the Atlanta Institute of Music for a while. I noticed this. I was in my mid-30s and my students were 18-24. I noticed there was less of an appreciation for album-length work and it was more about singles. I was surprised about the breadth of the music the students knew, but how little they knew about the music, and anything besides the most obvious choices. They knew "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" but that was the only Otis Redding tune they knew. They didn't know anything about Stax or Booker T. There was little deeper understanding of albums or careers or genre. Which is kind of cool because they turned me on to Kendrick Lamar long before I would have heard of him otherwise.

Do you find many learning opportunities working with musicians?

When Hello Ocho were working on their album Chris Yonker said, "I have this guitar and I think it will get this really weird sound if we record it in the bathtub." I thought reverberations, coming off the tile? And he said, "No, like in the water." I didn't think it would work, but hey, let's try it. It's rare that someone comes to me and says, "I wanna get mostly naked and get in your tub with a guitar and mic it up." We spent two hours on it. It was worthless. But we had to try, and it was a great time. We filled up the tub and put a bunch of water in the guitar. Of course there was nothing resonating. It was filled with water. Later, we realized we should have tried was plucking the strings and dipping that in the water, sort of like water percussion. Maybe that would have given us something useful. This was just thuddy and splashy.

Price spent 18 months in sales where he learned to discuss the pros and cons of different equipment. Has that training helped you in the studio?

Absolutely. Ricky passed away in 2003. Alex Lowe and I kept that studio going through 2003. Then it closed. I went freelance. Alex and I started a place called Red Tuxedo for a few years and then I allowed Alex to buy me out of the company. I was freelance for a while and it didn't go well. I didn't have a lot of work. I'd just had my first kid. My wife and I were balancing our freelance schedules and everything was chaos. It was a rough time for me business-wise. So in 2007 I was like looking for jobs.

I started doing studio work before the effects of Napster, and then September 11 came along. The industry tanked. Ricky's was the best place in town and I met all the best musicians and engineers there. Looking back, when he passed away I was thrust into this world that I wasn't ready for. There is no Ricky, having built up relationships with people since the '70s. I had been in a privileged situation.

By 2006 I was burned out. I took a sales job in Indiana with an 18-month contract. I was in a cubicle, wearing a headset, selling equipment. I saw how bad it could be.

Sales training felt like I was in the enemy camp being brainwashed by everything I'd fought against as an anti-marketing person. When my contract was up I realized I needed to be in Atlanta. That's where all my connections are. I have the skills to employ myself. So I left a job that had a minimal paycheck and good health insurance so I had to kick ass.

I came back with a brand-new appreciation for Atlanta. A lot of it was drawn from that sales experience. I had to pick up customers and do cold calls.

When Ricky died you lost your connection to the community that he created. Do you feel like you've created a similar situation with Studilaroche?

I saw what Ricky had done just by virtue of being himself. He didn't conspire to make anything. He was a genuinely warm person and a phenomenal musician and engineer. He attracted the best. He started his studio to document Col. Bruce Hampton and the Hampton Grease Band and then the Late Bronze Age. He was a good person who did great work. He taught me so much. From the beginning I thought that's the way forward. Not what I've seen other studios and musicians and engineers do, which is more about ego and sales and charts. Ricky had a real love for what he was doing. I saw the community that coalesced around him. How do you do that? Ricky had charisma, and I hope that some of that rubbed off on me. That's what I've always wanted.

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