Ben West is a songwriter and producer working out of metro Detroit and Nashville. He has an extensive production background and has written songs for artists like P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, Lady A, Blake Shelton, Carly Pearce, and Detroit’s own JR JR, to name a few. West has a small writing room in Nashville but was looking to build a home studio in Michigan that could support writing, recording and mixing projects—as well as house his instrument collection.

West worked with Vintage King Audio Consultant Jacob Schneider to outfit the space he recently built in his garage. We checked in with West to see how things are going at his studio, named Stone Airplane after a Shel Silverstein poem. Continue reading to learn more about some of West’s favorite gear, his approach to recording vocals, and which synth reminds him of his childhood.

How did you first get into music and recording?

My older brother got me into music. We both took violin and piano lessons but I really just wanted to play drums. At some point, he bought a four-track cassette recorder and we discovered the magic of hearing yourself played back—even if it could be terrifying and brutally honest!

We grew up going to a church that was really into music—they put out their own records and stuff. I learned so much from the incredible musicians who came through there. The church let us mess around on their discarded old recording gear. We wired up an Ampex 16-track half-inch tape machine to a Tapco mixing board in a storage closet and tried to figure it all out. I’m pretty sure we made joke songs exclusively—rewriting the church songs. 

Through high school, my brother and I cut lawns and put any profit we earned into keyboards, cables, drumheads and regretfully, piccolo snares and splash cymbals. We ended up with a decent MIDI sequencing setup with a few keyboards and an MPC 3000—this was back before there were DAWs—and eventually bought a Tascam DA-88 for recording vocals and whatever else.

My brother went off to MSU and by the time I got a few years into my college career at Wayne State, I had four DA-88s connected to two Yamaha O2R digital boards and a few cheap mics and speakers. I was pretty sure I knew everything there was to know about recording and I dropped out. I wouldn’t advise doing that—the educators at Wayne State were incredible. They might have only had a Mackie 8-bus and some sketchy ADAT machines in a converted morgue/studio at the time, but they were serious about teaching us how to play music. And the very best part was meeting other musicians and building meaningful relationships—one of my classmates, Kris Pooley, is a huge reason why I’m still in music today.

What was your first studio like?

After dropping out of school, I worked at another church. We put a project studio in the basement there with a really basic Pro Tools rig. It was love at first copy/paste. And so much Vari-fi’ng and reversing! That was in the early 2000s, so I think it was a Digi 001. The whole studio was the 001, a computer, a few mics, and some hand-me-down JBL monitors—enough to record voice-overs and edit or compose music to be set to video or somehow support the weekend services.

I got married around that time and started putting together a little basement studio, driving my wife crazy, taking over the entire house to record my friends’ indie rock bands. A few projects went well so in the mid-2000s I quit my day job and started out on my own. That’s around the time I first started working with Vintage King—a mutual friend named Dave Piechura was an engineer and gear collector who worked there. He would stop by my moldy basement with some amazing pieces of vintage gear for me to check out and patiently show me some tricks and techniques. And eventually, I’d buy it if I could! You know how it is with recording—you get a piece of gear and teach yourself how to use it. Turns out I had a lot to learn—still do!!

When did you move into your current space? 

I've been in my current space since 2016. Before that, I worked out of a studio called The Aashrum up in Ortonville, MI, which is owned by a dear friend of mine, Scott Loudon. It’s a beautiful recording space built into a pole barn. He didn’t have a ton of gear when I first met him so we combined forces for quite a few years. His space was a godsend—I was doing a lot of production work with my friend from Wayne State, Kris Pooley, which by this point had blossomed into a full-on production partnership. He moved to L.A. right after graduating and in what seemed like no time at all became an in-demand producer and musical director. Together we did production work for TV shows, tour support, films, ads, you name it. He introduced me to all of his L.A. friends as well and I would do production and work-for-hire songwriting projects on the side with them too.

Around the time my wife and I started having kids my work was becoming more and more about songwriting so I was looking to streamline a few things and stay closer to home. In 2016, with the help of acousticians Glenn Brown, Ken Capton and a local contractor, we built a two-car garage with a loft space for the studio.

What was your goal while building out the new space? 

Mainly, it had to keep my neighbors happy! I have great neighbors but I didn’t want to annoy them whenever I was playing drums or searching for that perfect 808 bass. Glenn and Ken to the rescue there—they designed the wall and floor layers and treated the interior as well. It sounds great in here and the bleed to the neighborhood is minimal.

I love recording real instruments, so the space was built with that in mind—it’s cozy but has just enough room for everything. I wanted to be able to sit down and play drums or keys or guitars and not spend 10 minutes re-patching. It’s all on a patch bay so it’s flexible enough to switch the combinations up whenever I want to as well.

Jacob Schneider at Vintage King totally understood that and helped me pick out a lot of the gear in this space. I've known him for years and have bought the majority of my stuff from him. He's always had great ideas on how to streamline a process or find different sounds to try. He owned a studio as well so he really knows what he’s talking about.

What's one piece of gear that you can't live without? 

Can I have three? A solid mic that just always works—like an SM7B, a pair of headphones like Sennheiser MD 280s with good isolation for tracking, and some honest monitors for mixing! But if I can only have one of those three I’d say monitors since we spend the most time listening to them.

What studio monitors are you using in your space?

Here in the garage, I’ve got a pair of ATC SCM25A Pro speakers with an SCS70 Pro sub. In my writing room in Nashville, I’ve got a pair of Barefoot MM35 speakers, which they don’t make anymore. They’re a smaller three-way box that still get really loud and have plenty of low-end. They’re really fun to build a track on. But I love mixing on my ATCs because they’ve got a bit more of a mid-range focus.

What’s your console or interface setup look like? 

I've had a lot of converters over the years. Here in Michigan, I've got a Lynx Aurora (N) for the interface, which has 24 analog inputs and 16 outputs all in one gloriously silent rack space! I also have the AES card on it so I can go directly into my Grace Design m905 monitor controller. Down in Nashville, I was using a BURL Audio B2 Bomber ADC that I really liked, but I recently switched over to a Universal Audio Apollo X8P interface to keep things simple for other people who occasionally use the space.

For faders, I’m using an Avid S3. I had an S6 for a while but I wanted something a little smaller and simpler. I’ve also got an Avid S1 down in Nashville.

So you prefer a hybrid approach in the studio?

I'm definitely a fan of the hybrid approach. I don’t have a summing box, but I often end up doing some sort of subgroup processing. I love running stuff through guitar pedals—drums especially. Jacob suggested these Radial EXTC boxes for that. Or I’ll take a vocal and run it through my Retro 176. On the mix bus I like to use an Overstayer M-A-S with a Smart Research C1

Tell me about some of the outboard gear that you've got racked up.

I have a mix of vintage and new preamps and compressors and weird effect stuff—classics like 1073s and V72s and some new BAE, Meris and Overstayer stuff too. An 1176, Distressors, a Shure SE-30 for crunchy good times compression. 

500 series-wise, I like the API 512c a lot—not only because of how they sound but also because it’s nice to have a meter when you’re setting the gain. I have a Spectra 1964 STX100 that I like, too. I also love these Inward Connections Magnum preamps—I don't think they're available anymore, but I love them on bass and even vocals. I’m also a big fan of their Brute optical compressor/limiter. 

I have a lot of Overstayer gear but I’m quite partial to their Modular Channel, which is a two-channel preamp, compressor, filter and saturator. As complicated as it looks, I don’t think it’s possible to get a bad sound out of it!

How do you feel about plugins? 

Seems like maybe there just aren’t enough of them? They are like little candies designed to keep our email inboxes full and our mixes on a constant sugar high. Seriously though, plug-ins are awesome—I mean, Soothe alone has been a game-changer. And as much as I love the hybrid approach I’m more than happy to keep all of the processing in the box, especially if I’m collaborating on production and not the mixer.

A typical vocal chain for me would be FabFilter Pro-Q 3, then depending on how it was recorded, a fast and slow compressor chain with a 1176 type of compressor followed by a LA-2A type of compressor, then probably a de-esser like the FabFilter Pro-DS or Soothe2—or both! Sometimes the de-esser or Soothe2 is first in the chain—it just depends on the singer and how hard the vocal is being compressed.

When I record a vocal, I usually run it through my Retro Instruments 176 tube limiter or the Inward Connections Brute compressor on the way in. But if I’m working on someone else’s recordings and it wasn’t tracked with compression I’ll often put the Waves RVox on a vocal before anything else just to get a slightly more consistent starting place. It’s one of those set-it-and-forget-it plug-ins that I’m not at all ashamed to use. Ok, maybe a little. Don’t judge me.

Do you record most of the tracks that you're working on or do you typically work on other people’s recordings? 

It’s a bit of both—most of the work I do is highly collaborative, and I absolutely love that. I love working with other producers or even for other producers on their own projects. 

When there’s a proper budget, I get to put together an amazing group of musicians in amazing studios recorded by amazing engineers like my friend Dave Clauss—and Dave will eventually mix those projects as well. But other times to save money I end up doing a lot of work here by myself—playing and engineering most of it and having a few musicians overdub parts remotely.

I also work with artists who are extremely hands-on with their production. There’s an artist I work with named Patrick Droney like that. We finished a full-length album for him entirely over FaceTime and AudioMovers during the pandemic. Some of the production we took all the way down to the studs and rebuilt, other songs only needed a little editing and mixing work.

When you're recording, what are some of your go-to microphones?

Aside from the SM7B, I like to use a Flea 47 NEXT or an Upton 251 for vocals. Both of those mics are a reliable way to get those classic sounds without being too crazy expensive.

I’m super lucky to have a nice collection of vintage mics—a lot of them that Jacob helped me find—a pair of Sony C37As, an AKG C24, a Neumann SM69, a pair of CMV563s with M7 capsules, a pair of U67s. 

Before we found the 67s Jacob hooked me up with a Wunder Audio CM67 S, which I still use just as much as the vintage ones. Recently, he helped me find the Gefell M 300, which is a small diaphragm condenser I use for acoustics, and an AEA RCA 44CE, which is a simplified version of the original 44 that I love over the kick drum for a lo-fi mono kit sound.

Do you have a go-to signal chain when you're recording or do you tend to use a different approach every time? 

For vocals, I’ll start with a Neve 1073 preamp, followed by either the Retro 176 or the Inward Connections Brute. If it’s a really soft airy vocal, I'll try to get the cleanest, quietest chain that I can and maybe go to an API 512c or the Spectra preamp and take the tube compressor out of the circuit to get a little less noise. For instruments it just depends on the song and the part—I try to switch things up more there.

You’ve got a really impressive collection of synths, guitars and other instruments. What are some of your favorite pieces?

One of my favorites is the Mellotron 4000D Mini, which Jacob actually helped me find. I have all the expansion cards too. I love that thing, it's just so fun.

Another fun one is the Arp Soloist—perfect for that Johnny Costa / Mr. Rogers soft flute lead sound that reminds me of my childhood! If you know, you know.

In Nashville I have a Hammond B3 that belonged to my dear friend Michael Busbee—it’s probably the most special piece of gear that I have. That and some handmade guitar picks my kids gave me with cut-outs of their faces glued on them! I swear they sound the best.

What's a typical day in the studio look like for you?

A typical day usually starts around 9 AM by catching up with my publisher, co-producers or artists over text, email or a call. Or I’ll just jump into tweaking something that I was previously working on—I like to have fresh ears first thing in the morning to finish out a mix or demo before I pass it along.

If I’m writing that day, co-writes usually start at 11 AM or Noon and go until about 3 or 4 PM. After that, I'll keep building the track for whatever song we just wrote or I’ll open up other sessions that need work. I usually stop around 5 or 6 PM and head in the house and hang with the family. 

I guess it's kind of a 9 to 5 situation but I've got four kids so our schedules can be all over the place. I confess I'll work for a while at night after everyone goes to bed, too. I know it's a total luxury to have a workspace in the backyard but because it’s always right there, I also have to consciously try not to work too much.

Are there any cool or exciting projects that you're working on right now that you can tell us about? 

I’m really excited about all of the projects I get to work on—it’s really hard to whittle it down!

One of them is with this country / Americana artist named Stephen Wilson, Jr. that I've been working with for years. We met in the Nashville writing circles and hit it off from the start. I love him dearly. We've got a double album's worth of songs nearly done and I can’t wait for people to get to know him!

There’s another incredible artist based in Nashville named Laci Kaye Booth. She has one of my favorite voices of all time and that’s not an exaggeration. She recently came up to Michigan to do pre-production on a bunch of songs that will hopefully become a full-length album.

And I always love anything involving my dear friends in JR JR. They always bring back that magical “how is this happening” 4-track feeling—minus the terror! They've got a new album I got to play on and mix that I’m really excited about as well.

I’m extremely fortunate to work with so many truly wonderful artists, writers, musicians, mixers, publishers, and gear freaks who make me look like I sorta know what I’m doing! It’s a classic case of borrowed prestige—thank you all!

Jacob SchneiderIf you have any questions about any of the gear mentioned in this blog, please reach out to us! Contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.