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Born and raised in New York City, Ben Greenberg is a producer and mixing engineer with more than 20 years of studio experience. Perhaps best known as the guitarist of industrial-punk outfit Uniform, Greenberg’s truest talent is helping artists capture the chaos and translate their performances into a studio setting.
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Greenberg at his studio, Circular Ruin, for our Five Sounds With series. Read on to learn about his work with Bad Breeding, Portrayal of Guilt, METZ, Show Me The Body and what it’s like in the studio with his own band, Uniform.
I've worked with Bad Breeding on almost every record they've put out. Those guys are great at telling their own story in a really genuine and visceral way. The number one thing for capturing that energy is getting them in a room where they can actually look at each other and respond the way they would on stage. If you can highlight the contrast between them and try to bridge the gap a little bit, I've found that it goes a really long way to getting a more exciting sound.
People always get intimidated when I say that because they think I'm going to be some sort of purist who's not going to allow any overdubs or edits or thinks that computers are cheating, but that’s not really the case. I use a hybrid approach to recording. I record on tape, but I mix from a computer and use a combination of analog outboard gear and plug-ins. I mix on a desk, but Pro Tools is still an important part of the process.
Bad Breeding is a four-piece with drums, bass, guitar and vocals, so I start by getting all of the players as close to each other as physically possible. I’ll isolate the amps within reason, depending on where we’re recording and what resources we have available. I start with the player’s physical form and how they approach the instrument, then focus on the instrument itself.
I used to prefer big, wide-open tracking rooms for drums, but now I actually prefer more control. I like to build a house around the kit using gobos, or even stick the kit in an iso booth if it sounds good. The tracking room I use here in New York, Strange Weather, has an unbelievable-sounding booth for drums. It's got so much low end and punch in there. I don't know what they did—they must've filled the walls with lead or something. But it just sounds incredible in there.
I spend a lot of time getting the sounds right in pre-production. I'm not one of those people that sets up 40 drum mics and makes decisions later. I like to talk to the musicians about each song as we go and really get the sounds right for each song. I would rather go to six rehearsals with a band before we ever step foot in the studio than find out a whole bunch of stuff on day one. I would rather talk about the songs and what textures we want so I can make more informed decisions about what gear we should use.
On the latest Bad Breeding record, Exiled, I also did a lot of MIDI mapping with the drums to trigger some unconventional sounds. We have a modular synth set up at Circular Ruin that I use to design kick, snare and tom samples to accompany the organic drum sounds.
Portrayal Of Guilt came here to New York for their last record. We tracked at Strange Weather and did all the production and mixing at my studio, Circular Ruin. The process was different than the Bad Breeding sessions in a lot of ways.
Portrayal Of Guilt uses a lot of atonality and all of these wild time signatures. They like a lot of stark contrast within a given song. In terms of process, a lot of that comes down to the choices we make for gear. We might move things in tighter or pull them out looser depending on the music. We may swap out the kick or snare drum for each song, or even within different sections of a song.
I wound up using clean, pre-pedal DI tracks for guitar and bass with Portrayal Of Guilt, which gave us a lot of flexibility to play with contrast. We would map out how we want each section to sound like, “In this section, the guitar is going to sound like it’s coming out of a car stereo that’s been transplanted into a rocket ship that’s launching into space—then it’s going to smash back down again and sound like you’re in the open mouth of the gates of Hell.” We needed a lot of flexibility to be able to put those things next to each other and still make it sound cohesive.
As far as amps go, I don’t typically use sims or modelers. I prefer analog cab replacement pedals and things like that. I’m a big fan of this Russian company called AMT Electronics that makes a line of amp simulation pedals that sound astoundingly good and are surprisingly affordable. I also love running guitars through filters, both analog and digital, which is something I don’t think gets enough love these days.
I'm a huge fan of digital gear from the 90s, like the Roland EF-303 Groove Effects and the Akai S2000. We have a vintage Korg MS-20 and a vintage Minimoog at Circular Ruin that I use for processing guitar, bass, drums and even vocals sometimes. I’m also a huge fan of everything Eventide has ever made. All of those came in really handy on this record.
As for mics, I’m a big fan of binaural mics, which I use for recording drums and vocals quite often. I really like the old AKG D99 binaural mic a lot. We also have one of the newer 3Dio mics that sounds really good. It’s an interesting texture that you can’t get any other way.
When it comes to tracking guitars for Uniform, I’m always recording a DI and an amp. I'm a huge proponent of making composite sounds that are half organic and half synthetic because that's what our ears want. Today, I think anything that's only one or the other sounds like it's missing something. Anything that's only organic sounds like it was recorded pre-1980 and anything that's totally synthetic sounds like it was recorded in the early 2000s. In order to make something that feels current and contemporary or even new, you’ve really got to learn how to put your hands together with that stuff.
As for amps, I love recording a MESA/Boogie Triple Rectifier. I know they're not exactly in vogue anymore—everybody wants to use a Kemper or a 6505 or a vintage Marshall. Those all sound amazing, but the combination of a Triple Rec on the “Modern” channel and a blasted distorted DI sound—that’s the Uniform guitar sound. And that’s something you can’t really get any other way, I've found. The rest of the recording process has evolved a lot over the years. From our first record, Perfect World, when we wrote everything over an Akai XR20 drum machine and an Arturia MiniBrute, through Wake in Fright, when I started sequencing everything to the grid in Pro Tools, up until we added a drummer on The Long Walk.
On our most recent album, Shame, I wanted to really bring the acoustic drums into the realm of composite or hybridized sound. We’d used some triggers via a Roland TM-2 on The Long Walk, but on Shame, I wanted to really make people question what they were hearing. I MIDI-mapped our drummer Mike Sharp’s takes and we ran that through our modular rig at Circular Ruin to create some wild complementary textures. We have two of those Future-Retro Transient Plus modules that really sound so amazing, along with a bunch of other toys. Our singer Mike Berdan is an avid synth collector as well and he brought a ton of amazing sounds on his Elektron Digitakt and Analog Four machines. He’d spend—I don’t even know how many hours on his huge modular rig at home just creating drum sounds and sampling them on the Digitakt, so we had a huge library of wild material to pull from.
And of course, Randall Dunn was absolutely key to the sound of Shame. This was the first time I’d ever handed over the mix on my own band’s record. I had literally never done that before. It took some deep breathing and some trust falls, but it was very worth it. Randall is my studio partner at Circular Ruin and an absolute musical genius. He brought so much experience and wisdom to the process at a time when we, as a band, were really ready for it. People think producing is about control, but it’s not: it’s about the process. Sometimes as producers, we need to control the process and the workflow in order to show an artist the clearest path to achieving their vision. But sometimes, it’s about giving up control: creating the right space and conditions for a great musical mind to flourish and then stepping back and watching it all come together. It’s a balancing act, for sure—and it can be tricky! It’s deeply personal and you wind up getting to know all sorts of people. Ultimately, that’s one of my favorite parts of what I do.
I worked on Atlas Vending with METZ, which was their fourth record. They felt that they had already tried a lot of things sonically and were ready for a new approach. They really wanted to nail the drum and guitar sounds they’d been after on the last three records. They wanted everything to be super gritty and distorted but still retain the fidelity. We had to capture the character and the energy of the performance to achieve that balance.
We did that record at Machines With Magnets, which Seth Manchester engineered—he’s a genius. He had an AEA R88 in front of the kick, a pair of Beyerdynamic M 160s as overheads and an Altec 175 on the snare—an old Steve Albini trick that makes the snare sound like a 22 pistol. They also have this big hallway off to the side of where they set up the drums with a pair of Schoeps condensers as room mics. And that's the sound. It’s big, wide, expansive, roomy, but still very clear.
As for the bass, if I could use a GK 800RB on every single record I ever make for the rest of my life, I'd be happy. It's just the best. It does everything. It nails every sound. Every time somebody brings a different bass head to the studio, we always get a better sound out of the 800RB.
We spent a lot of time dialing in the right texture for the guitar tone. Alex expressed he felt they never really captured the live guitar sound of the band on a record. His guitar rig is a Fender Twin Reverb with a 4x12 cab—which, anyone who makes records is going to hear that and say, “Why would you try and record that? The ohmage doesn’t even add up!” We were able to get him to branch out quite a bit into different sounds, which all comes down to trust. Those guys know me. We've toured together before. They know that I make records with my own band and that I'm able to juggle those different hats.
With “Survive,” the lyrics are really the star of the show in many ways, so I wanted to bring them into the limelight without overshadowing anything. The vocal chain for that record was a Neumann U 47 FET through a Trident preamp into an Empirical Labs Distressor, straight into a Lynx Aurora.
We recorded the whole thing at their home studio, which I helped them build out and calibrate as part of making this record. Show Me The Body has made a few records, both with DIY setups and with expensive producers in fancy studios. They were ready to gain a better understanding of the process. They told me they wanted to “build their own house,” which I thought was really cool because it meant not only a space where they could record but also a space that they could open up to their community as a resource.
We built the studio in a former mechanic's garage, so we had this big, open concrete space to work with, which was really fun. We set them up with a Trident 65, a 16-track Tascam tape machine and a couple of pieces of outboard gear. I also got them a small mic list including some Coles, some Sennheiser MD 421 mics and a FET 47. I told them they really needed a good, all-around mic that they can use for professional recordings on any source—vocals, amps, drums, anything.
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