My Soapbox: Ben Cochran, Soap Floats Recording

A Cincinnati native with a lifelong musical infatuation, Ben Cochran had played in some form of musical group since age 13, becoming a multi-instrumentalist in the process. Today, he's the creative force behind Soap Floats Recording, a recording studio in Columbia-Tusculum.

Located in an old neighborhood church, Soap Floats has worked with Cincinnati Entertainment Award winners and nominees, Midpoint Music Festival artists and regional headlining acts, including several that have gone on to gain national recognition. And the studio is just hitting its stride. With a local music scene in the midst of a major revival, Soap Floats is poised to carve out a reputation as a place where performers are really able to make their mark. A place where, as Cochran describes it, the goal is “to help those more talented bring their music to the masses.”

We recently sat down with Cochran in the control room of Soap Floats Recording to find out more about his business.

Can you tell me a little about how Soap Floats got started? I know you were originally located in a different neighborhood.

I think technically it was North Fairmount, just across the Hopple Street Bridge. At the time, I was doing like a two mikes and a bar type thing, recording my band TriFectaFunk or whoever else I was playing with in other bands that were there at the time.

The guy who worked on our CD was moving to Austin and said, “I’ve got this spot … it’s cheap.” And one of the guys he worked with was Chris Schmidt, who has been the sound guy at The Mad Frog forever, one of the better recording and mixing engineers in town. He moved in with me on that but couldn’t totally commit, and it kind of became my baby.

In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing—didn’t have enough equipment to really ever do a full band. The first band I did was a group called Gregory Morris Group; they’re Shiny Old Soul now. A couple people in that band worked for a music equipment distributing company and helped me get stands, cables, training for doing the recording. That was in 2009. At the time, it wasn’t incorporated or anything, so I was really still trying to figure things out. I was there for a little over 18 months then moved to a spot on Kellogg for just over a year before moving here. I did get incorporated while I was still at the old church on the west side around 2010, toward the end of the run there.

Do you know how long the building that houses your studio has been here?

Not for certain. One of the guys found a picture with a little article on a Columbia-Tusculum historical society page or something. Their estimate was mid-1800s. It looks different than back then. The outside structure is a facade; the inside has been outfitted, obviously. I mean that’s classic '70s/'80s panel board there. But the bones and stuff are a good 150 years old, which makes sense with the location and shape of the building, proximity to the rail line. I don’t think this was originally a church. Maybe an armory or something like that. I’d like to find out more myself.

You consider Soap Floats a collaborative project studio. Can you describe what that means?

That really hasn’t come totally into being yet, at least not until more recently. From the beginning, I had the idea of there being more than one person doing work here. Like I said, Chris was kind of involved but never all in, and I had a few other people somewhat involved for a period. Now I actually have a couple people doing regular work out of here.

That’s part of it, but as far as what project means, that’s just a classification. Not a full-fledged commercial studio that is built to suit, but also not some basement studio. Basically, that is a phrase used to describe an intermediate type studio.

Grasshopper Juice is one of the more well-known labels in the region, and you do a lot of work with them as well as with Shepherd’s Pie Recording and BUNK News. How did those relationships develop?

The guy running Grasshopper is a good friend of mine. I’ve done work for his bands in the past, and we’ve done some events and shows together. I also do their audio/recording if they need it done, a lot of mixing.

Shepherd’s Pie is Chris (Schmidt). Then BUNK News is an art collaborative that is more a connection through Grasshopper, but they do art, especially for live.

In terms of local artists, Soap Floats has worked with a pretty diverse group of performers, including groups like The Harlequins, Rumpke Mountain Boys and Walk the Moon. How would you describe the current music scene in Cincinnati?

It is definitely stronger in my opinion than it’s maybe ever been. I know some people that were around or part of the scene 20-30 years ago might say it was better then. Things got pretty thin for a while in the late '90s, early 2000s, but the main thing that stands out is the level of talent.

Sure there’s probably more in cities like Austin, L.A., or Nashville, but they’re much larger music communities. Per capita, we have it as good as anywhere in the country, in terms of talent.

A lot of what you see downtown and in OTR—all the clubs popping up there, what’s been developing with Midpoint in particular the last five years and Bunbury, Buckle Up—is all indicative of how big the scene here is becoming.

Soap Floats seems to have allowed you to dip your toes in a wide range of music genres.

I’ve made it a point to do that—not get pigeon holed as the guy that does this or the “cymbals guy” or whatever.

That seems like a better way to learn or evolve while working. Is there a favorite genre you like recording?

I don’t know about a specific genre. I have developed a reputation for drum work. I think a lot of that goes back to Walk the Moon. I’ve had specific calls about getting that drum sound.

I love working with larger groups, particular with horns and brass because I think they’re fun. My musical background is heavily steeped in jazz and big band stuff, so I tend to gravitate to that.

Is there a particular genre you’d like a crack at that you haven’t recorded yet?

That’s a good question … I’m sure there is. I don’t know if there’s one particular, but there is a group of people called The Marburg Collective and they’ve fostered bands such as The Happy Maladies, No No Knots. I’ve worked with them a little: Happy Maladies did a show at the old church, and I did a song with Molly Sullivan who was in No No Knots.

The thing with them is they are mostly CCM (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music) or Cincinnati State kids. Some are in school for engineering, so they’re kind of a DIY collaborative, but I think some of the coolest, most animated music in town is coming from that group.

Can you describe your approach to the recording process?

Number one, it’s what does the band want. Usually there are a couple ways to work: You can shoot for a more live sound, where everyone plays together in the same room, not worrying about sound bleed. Or you can do everything piecemeal individually; some bands like to do it that way.

Because of the price point and what not, I tend to work with a lot of developing bands with a little less studio experience. Going the individual recording route can make you pull your hair out if you aren’t used to playing that way. It doesn’t come off or feel the way you thought it would. Then you end up going back to do a lot of re-recording.

Recording live captures how the band plays, practices, interacts. Recording is really just capturing a moment, and you can record a bunch of little moments and “collage” them to get something cool. But, for me, there’s no substitute for having everybody in the room making eye contact, feeding off each other in the moment.

How would you describe your role, whether recording or producing?

Primarily, what I do is recording or tracking engineering. I also do a fair amount of mixing. There are a lot of bands that come in, and if they are doing a full album, I end up doing the mix. I don’t do a ton of mastering, although if I need to I will. Chris does a great job with mixing and mastering, too, so I send almost everything I can to him.

It wasn’t until I moved here a couple years ago that I started wearing the producer’s hat a little more. I wasn’t really comfortable with it because that wasn’t what I was paid to do. Having been a musician for a long time, I was like, “Who am I to tell somebody how they should play a song?” But the bands—especially those doing full-length albums—kept asking for input, looking for advice, so I gradually became more comfortable making suggestions.

When providing input do you find it difficult, having been a performer, to be critical? Or do you think having an honest dialogue is something people appreciate?

Really both, and it’s difficult especially with anything artistic, where it is very personal for the artist. You do have to tread lightly and think about what you say, when to say it. At the same time, a lot of these people don’t get much feedback outside the brownnose bubble of friends and family, and I think that can be harmful for your growth.

I know I could have used more of it—probably still can. That’s one thing I don’t get much of right now. I really crave feedback, be it from someone I’m recording or peers. That is just the best way to figure out whether what you are doing is working or not. If you don’t have some kind of sounding board, you’re kind of just floating around not really sure what the hell is going on. Feedback is hard to get. Negative feedback is really hard to get because nobody wants to be negative, but that’s the most important kind. That is how you learn, improve and adapt.

You mentioned the Marburg Collective, but are there any other regional artists you haven’t worked with and would like to?

I wish more would come to mind. I’ve been friends with the banjo player for 15-120 years now, but it took a while before I worked with Rumpke in studio. I used to work with him and the band; I’ve seen probably 100 or so of their shows and done shows with them. But, until a few years ago, we hadn’t worked in studio. We did a live album called Trash Grass, which was recorded in a huge basement at a friend’s house in New Richmond. They recently came in and have been doing stuff in our studio.

There are others. The All Mighty Get Down is a killer band. It would be cool to work with Walk the Moon again, but … none of us knew what was going to happen with them when we were working on the album (2010’s I Want! I Want!), including them. Now they are getting really big. The album they did with RCA (2012’s Walk the Moon) remixed some of what we did in the studio, but basically it’s the same thing. I think they have a new one coming out and have been touring for 200 or 300 days of the year.

What was the first concert you went to?

Shit … I know there are some Bogart’s shows. The one that stands out to me is Smashing Pumpkins at U.S. Bank Arena—it was probably the Coliseum then—for the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness tour. I was maybe a freshman in high school. That was the first big “whoa” kind of rock show moment for me. That was when they were really in their peak, too.

Any albums that really impacted you growing up?

Well Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream (Smashing Pumpkins), too; that is still one of my top 5 or 10 albums, personally.
Growing up, my brother was seven years older, so he introduced me to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Stones and stuff like Depeche Mode, Tori Amos. When he moved out, he left his CDs in the closet, and I just went on a journey.

Currently, Wilco is my paragon. Sky Blue Sky in particular is still one of those that I listen to regularly. It is just so well done; everything is really clean and well-positioned. I remember reading an article about how it was made. The album was recorded live with mostly SM57s, which are these $100 dynamic microphones you see on guitar amps, snare drums. To find out they got that level of clarity with pretty rudimentary tools is just a sign of a group really figuring things out, hitting their stride.

Was there a certain point where you knew you wanted to live your life in this particular world? Making music?

You know, not until recently, which is unusual, I think, for most people. I was in school orchestra, jazz band, through high school. I played with the Xavier Jazz Ensemble for a while and was in some kind of band pretty much since I was a kid.

The band I was in from college through post-college, the guy who did most of the writing, Tristan, moved out west. I’d been doing it for a while and was finally just like, it’s time to make a change—not just become some journeyman bass player or whatever.
About the same time was when the original spot became available, so I figured, what the hell, let’s give it a shot. Three years ago was when I knew ultimately this is what I was going to do to make a living. Prior to that, I always enjoyed it, but that was a point where it was like, if I’m going to lose my ass on this—which I did for a while—I need to be all in.

You can work at it, barely sustain things while delivering pizzas on the side, or completely rededicate your life. I had some things go on in my life that forced my hand into making a decision to just dive in and commit to it. I was 31 years old. I didn’t have too long to figure out if this could work or not, so I just got my ass moving and dove in. See if I fall on my face or not. 

Now things are going really well, and really it’s at the point where I probably need to look for a bigger space.

Read more articles by Benjamin Plattner.

Benjamin Plattner is a freelance writer, University of Cincinnati graduate (B.A. in Political Science) and an uber-votary of coffee, food, drink, music, travel and Cincinnati’s newfound momentum (feel free to contact him to discuss any of these things). He lives in Columbia-Tusculum with his luminous wife Ieva and their canine cohorts Violet and Clover.
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