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Artist interview

We Talk Taylor Swift, Kanye West And Reverb With Grammy Winner Ken Lewis

By 12th March 2024No Comments
Ken Lewis - Mixer

Fresh off the back of his Grammy-award for engineering on Album of the Year with Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’, we recently had the honour of chatting with renowned record producer and mix engineer Ken Lewis.

Ken’s eclectic resume spans over 30 years, boasting iconic credits ranging from Wu Tang Clan, Mary J. Blige and Kanye West to Bruno Mars, BTS, Lady Gaga and many more, firmly cementing his status as a musical luminary.

Ken’s journey began at the age of ten when his passion for music was ignited after his parents finally gave him the guitar he’d been begging for. After playing in high school bands, Ken fell in love with the process of recording, creating and producing, attending Berklee College of Music in Boston where he graduated in 1991, moving to New York City in 1993 and recently making the move back to his home state, Ohio.

We pick things up with Ken from there…

What was your first studio gig? 

I did two internships in college. I worked as an intern at Downtown Recorders and then at Soundtrack Studios in Boston which got me in the door at Soundtrack New York City. I got an interview there and the owner called up Boston and they gave me glowing reviews, he hired me on the spot and gave me a good starting salary. 

Was there some kind of tipping point where you thought, I think I can do this for the rest of my life?

You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had that one big break. It’s been one foot in front of the other for 32 years now. There have been connective moments that have completely changed the course of my career, like meeting Just Blaze, I did a ton of records with him, and he also introduced me to Kanye West. Without meeting Justin, my history with Kanye probably wouldn’t exist.

You never know who you’re going to meet and how that’s going to work out. It’s quite often, not the first thing you work on together, it’s the 20th or 30th thing you do, and then that grows into more relationships. I never gave myself a plan B ever for anything, so there was never a question of ‘can I do this?’. It’s ‘I am doing this’. I always thought that I would be the broke musician and my wife would be supporting me and it just turned out that I found my way through the industry and learned how to make great records and found my way to making a good living at it.

I think getting to New York City was a ‘moment’ because I had worked on a couple of label things before that, but I knew when I got to NYC that I was in the middle of label land and I was at a studio that had six rooms when I got there, nine rooms when I left, and they were all booked all the time. There were so many high-level artists coming in and out of that studio, it was just an incredible place to be. I got to learn so many different types of gear. They had API, Neve, and SSL consoles. They had every microphone on earth, all the outboard you could ever want. So, for me, that was a really incredible place to get in to. I got top notch credits and my skill sets just exploded and I feel like that prepared me to go freelance, which I did in 1995. 

What’s interesting looking at your credits is you don’t seem to have boxed yourself in. You’ve worked with all sorts of artists – Kanye, BTS, Taylor Swift… is that a choice that you’ve made to keep yourself fresh by just mixing it up?

Yes, a hundred percent. I’m lucky that I get to mix it up with such high-level artists. That’s the real joy of it. But it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because I have all of these amazing skill sets and if I never mix another record in my life, I can pivot to four other things and be fine financially and keep working on the levels that I want and vice versa. I could lose complete income streams and still be fine, so I’m very insulated in the industry. But it’s hard to become the king of anything when everybody knows you for a whole lot of things. So, like, I’ll never be as sought after as Serban [Ghenea], I’ll never be the tip top producer, but I’m going to be one of those ninjas who, when you need somebody with skill sets that nobody else has, and insights and experience that nobody else has, that can bring magic to your project, that’s me.

Is that because you would get bored in one genre? 

Yes. I think boredom is one possibility, curiosity more likely, but the thing that really galvanized it for me was Kanye West. I started working with Kanye when almost nobody knew Kanye. He had produced one or two hit singles, but that’s all he was known for. He wasn’t known as an artist. I started working with him as a musician back then and started helping him create music and things like that, and then I worked a ton on the College Dropout album, got a writing credit and some production credit on that and then worked with him through to The Life Of Pablo which was the last album that I did anything with him on.

I became the ‘figure it out’ guy for Kanye West. When Kanye had a vision for what he wanted, but nobody in his inner circle could get it, they’d say ‘send it to Ken, he’ll figure it out’. So, for instance, the horn section on All Of The Lights, when Kanye called me for that, he never asked me, ‘hey, Ken, do you know anything about horns?’ That was not an issue for him, and I had never done horn work for him. He just called me, and he sent me this really simple melody line out of a Casio keyboard, and he said, ‘I want this to sound like a marching band in a stadium at halftime’, and that was almost the extent of the conversation. I was like, ‘okay, I’m the figure it out guy, I’m going to just figure this shit out.’ So, all of those horns are completely live, I did the arrangement, I followed the melodies that he wanted, we embellished more. The payoff moment for that was this little mini movie that Kanye did alongside the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I watched it debut on MTV the night before the album came out with my wife and all of a sudden this marching band comes marching onto the field of the stadium, playing All Of The Lights.

That was just an absolute moment because it was the full circle of ‘okay, I nailed what Kanye wanted, and here’s the visual representation of that actually happening’. Then, to later on hear marching bands in actual stadiums at college football games playing that arrangement is mind blowing. So, when you’re the figure it out guy for Kanye for 15 years, then a lot of other people take notice, and you get crazy calls because of it. 

I mixed the entire Wu Tang Clan’s secret album [Once Upon A Time In Shaolin] that they sold at auction to Pharma Bro [Martin Shkreli], and then it went into a government locker, and now it’s owned by PleasrDAO. It’s a full double album. I’ve probably heard it the second most of anybody in the world because I got to mix every song on it. I’d love to hear it again!

How did the Taylor Swift thing happen? 

Jack Antonoff [Producer of the Year] tapped me in to do a few things that he didn’t have time for and he knew I was good at. I also worked on the Taylor Swift Lover album for Jack and I’ve worked on Lorde and Bleachers and a whole bunch of other stuff. I have this weird career where sometimes I’m the lead guy, I’m the main producer or I’m the mix engineer and sometimes I’m just the designated hitter for some heavy who just needs something done and knows I’m Mr Reliable. It keeps things interesting because every day is a different day. 

And while you had all that legendary stuff behind you, did you feel a pressure because everyone knows who Taylor Swift is?

No, because I’ve been delivering for people of that level for decades. I don’t want to understate it but it’s a day in the life for me. If I put my name on it, if it’s Taylor or an independent, I’m putting 100 percent into it. I like the pressure of big projects. I will be the guy that delivers and that philosophy helped me a lot with groups like BTS who I think I’ve done 48 mixes for now. Again, being reliable and fast and good. 

Jack has never tapped me in for mixing, but I’m sure I would kill it and he would love it but that’s not what he sees me as. Just like Kanye. Kanye didn’t even know I was a mix engineer for the first two or three years we worked together. 

Let’s talk about reverbs. You’ve obviously seen over your mixing career that reverb has kind of gone in and out of fashion, that there are periods where it’s always really tight upfront vocals and other times when they sound like they’re singing in a tunnel.

Many, many times, but I think that was driven more by radio than it is nowadays. When radio was king, there was always a sound to radio. There’s not a unified sound to things nowadays.

Is there a sense of you trying to get a narrative arc for that song when you mix? Obviously, the song is often arranged and written in that way so do you find that you’re following that arc with the mix as well in terms of dynamics and the shape of it?

In terms of perceived dynamics and slightly in terms of dynamics, I think you can mix really loud and really musically. If you are arranged correctly, your verse is going to be almost the same volume as your chorus, but your chorus is going to add enough to really make it explode. So, I think it’s always song dependent with that kind of stuff. As a mixer, I’m always trying to tap into what the song is telling me. I start my mix by listening to the rough mix five, six times, and just getting a picture in my mind of, ‘okay, this is the song, this is the single thing that I’m mixing and this is my vision for where I think I want to take it’. Which is never exactly where you end up, but it gives you a good compass to start and then it will give you ideas to try along the way that are going to help you lock in that vision for where you want to go.

And then I always refer back to the rough mix every now and then for two reasons. One, because there’s probably a reason why that rough sounds that way – they probably connect on some level with it. So, if you’re going to depart from the direction of the rough as a mixer, you’d better be confident in your direction. But also, I always find that even at late stage mixing, the rough often has one or two elements that just got handled better than you did. Even if it’s just a shaker and you listen, and you think ‘their shaker drives the chorus better than mine, let me match that’. I just always try and be conscious of the one single song (instead of all the parts) that I’m mixing and where I hear it going. 

How are you using reverbs generally? When do you reach for the verbs when you’re mixing?

I like to add effects after my foundation is built. So, I may just real rough mix everything into the mix. If I have 80 tracks, those 80 tracks are all going to be in the mix within 20 or 30 minutes and then I’ll start balancing further and I’ll start compressing and EQ-ing, I’ll start adding reverbs and touches here and there and I’ll just start building the palette out further. So, I’ll go from really fast to medium fast to kind of slow to fine tuning and touches, and reverb gets added and tried and taken away all throughout the process.

I’m big on looking for the emotion with what type of reverb you choose. Like a bone-dry in-your-face vocal is going to be a completely different listener experience than a mid-length plate or a long hall. So, for me, you listen to the song and you kind of picture in your mind, ‘what do I think is going to be the best reverb for this?’ and then you just start playing to see if your expectations match, or just play until you stumble across something that’s like ‘the one’. I often scroll presets until the “a-ha!” moment happens.

Do you have go-to verbs or do you start from scratch?

I start from scratch every time. In the olden days, we would put a bunch of reverbs on channels on the console and we would just try each of those. I used to start my mixes with a bunch of reverbs already instantiated. Now, I like to pick as I go, listen and just ask myself ‘how do I hear this vocal? What kind of space do I want to put it in?’ and maybe that’s not reverb at all, maybe that’s just like a little tiny chorusing or pitch spreading or something like that. Or it might be a super short, impactful reverb that just makes it sound bigger and more present, but still in your face. I just try and listen and let it tell me, and be open to being wrong. So, if I try a reverb that I’m sure is going to sound good, I’m still going to try and listen objectively and ask, ‘does it give me that emotion?’ and if not, I’ll just try something else. 

Ken Lewis StudioWhat kind of LiquidSonics reverbs are you using on your mixes? 

Seventh Heaven Pro is probably my main go-to for stereo mixing. I’m using Cinematic Rooms a lot for Atmos. I think I’m actually using Seventh Heaven Pro for Atmos as well now. Those are my two main Atmos reverbs and I just start with those because I put one short and one kind of medium and then I’ll tweak them, if needed, in the mix or copy it to another channel and just open up another verb. But those are just beautiful in Atmos and stereo. You can add a real short reverb to something in Atmos, and it doesn’t feel or sound like reverb, but it sounds so much richer or vibier, or has the emotional impact that you want it to have.

So you tend to tip between the ambience and the reverb setting in those verbs? 

Yeah, especially in Atmos because a lot of times you’re looking for really short reverbs or you’re looking to get rid of short reflections or emphasize them sometimes. A lot of times, especially in Atmos, I’m like, ‘early, late, early, late’, and I want to hear what they’re doing and then figure out if the centre is the right or how much of each I want. The other thing that I do with the Atmos reverbs a lot is, if I’m putting a reverb on something that’s in LR that already has a verb on it from the stem, I’ll deactivate LR from Seventh Heaven Pro or Cinematic Rooms and I’ll put the reverb on the rest of immersive field. I also use stereo reverbs a lot in Atmos to add depth or space to a sound in a particular location. 

In terms of presets, most people say they open up Cinematic Rooms and use Amethyst Hall because that’s the one there, and it does the job and they just tweak it. Is that true for you?

There’s definitely some truth to that and I find that with a lot of plugin companies; they’ve probably worked very hard to make sure that the preset on instantiation is a real gem and I think the Amethyst Hall in Cinematic Rooms is a real gem. I really like the super tight rooms on Cinematic Rooms, I think it’s short room ABCD or something like that *. If I have something that’s just a little bit too dry in the headphones and a little bit too separated from everything, some of those short rooms just really bring things into focus.

* See “Small Room Amb” in the “Ambiences” bank

You’ve mixed so much stuff. You’ve been around so much great talent. What one piece of advice would you give young men and women who are getting into mixing that you think would stand them in good stead?

I would tell young people on the come-up that credits are much more valuable than money. Money is going to be spent in a month. That credit can last forever. And, you don’t know what you don’t know and don’t get cocky about it.

So many young record makers have so much talent but refuse to collaborate with, or tap in the people, that could really level them up because they want to do it all themselves. And really, most top levels of this business are really collaborative; people like working with other people. One hundred percent of something that’s mediocre or good, ain’t worth much, but fifty or fifteen percent of something that’s amazing is worth a lot. 

Or in your case, a very small percentage of something that’s really big right now (ie. Taylor Swift) is very important, isn’t it?

Oh, 100%. Yeah, the value of credits, and that’s a credit that will last forever. I got a bunch of those, I’m really lucky, you’ve got to try and keep your credits fresh if you want to stay working in the industry. The music industry is a fickle bitch, man. They always want to be hiring the top of the food chain. If you’re third tick or fourth tick down, you don’t get hired anywhere near as much as the top tier. That’s just the way it is. The value of credits, that can propel your career or, if you don’t have any, can really slow it down. I came up through a studio where I could get credits and experience before I went freelance. Everybody just wants to be freelance now. I made a whole lot of tea. I cleaned a lot of bathrooms. I ran some crazy errands, and lost so much sleep. Anybody I think who’s really made it to my level in this industry has probably swum through a river of shit to get here. It’s definitely hard work. Luck might get you in a door or two, but keeping that gig is hard work and getting the people that give you that gig to tell their friends about you is hard and that’s really how you get the best work in this business – word of mouth. 

Being a staffer at a studio where I could be anonymous and, at first when I was getting hired as a recording engineer for label sessions, they couldn’t afford a freelancer so they were happy with whoever the studio gave them. I was able to build my experience and my credits in a somewhat safe space before I had to go out and try and build myself as a freelancer, I had three gold and platinum records before I went freelance – people want to do it nowadays with no credits!