We interviewed Will Kennedy in Los Angeles last week; the latest in our ‘Engineer behind the desk” series. Will has been working in the industry for over 15 years both as freelance and with many of the majors. He has a real gift and passion for recording and mixing and it’s amazing the things that you find out about sound engineers when you talk to them and Will is certainly no exception.
Read on to learn about Will Kennedy!
mixing Audio Pros – How and when did you start your musical career? Can you give me a bit of background info? who were you early influences, early studio you worked in etc?
Will Kennedy – I fell in love with music when I was very young, but I’d say my path to making it my living started at Berklee College Of Music in 1996. After spending my first two years at two different universities with two different majors, I decided to take some time off. I was frustrated because I knew I wanted to make music my life, but wasn’t exactly sure how. I was an average trombonist. Not a lot of jobs for average trombone players. Berklee is where I discovered my passion for recording. In fact it was in one of my early recording classes that I realized I had fallen in love with a number of records as much for how they sounded as the music itself! And they all had the same producer: Alan Moulder. He was my first influence, because it was through listening to the records that he worked on that I became aware of what production and mixing mean to the sound of a recording. Then I dug back further, and found that in my younger days I’d unknowingly fallen in love with the Genesis, Phil Collins, and Police records Hugh Padgham produced. Carl Beatty, a great engineer in his own right who taught that class, still serves as a huge inspiration to me as well.
Early in my career I worked at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, then Right Track Recording (now MSR) in New York City. The first session I ever assisted was for Ed Cherney. One of the kindest men you will ever meet, who showed me that when you know what you’re listening for, you’re in a great room, with great talent, great sounds come easily. When it’s hard, you’re doing something wrong! In New York I was heavily influenced by our then studio manager Barry Bongiovi. He and his brother Tony had run the great Power Station studios (now Avatar), and Barry was also a great engineer. He had an incredible way of cutting through to the core of any situation, but doing it with a certain sensitivity that didn’t put people off.
mixing Audio Pros: when did you first start running your own studio and how you made that progression from first working in studios to running your own?
Will Kennedy: For me the transition was very gradual. I was simply following the industry trend. I had been putting together a collection of equipment based on my needs for almost a decade. When I was working in a big studio, I’d bring what they didn’t have covered in-house. My main goal was to have a set of gear that I could deliver great mixes with, since that was where studio costs were most often cut at first. Then I found myself doing a large amount of tracking at the old Sound City here in Los Angeles. What it boasted in sound and charm it unfortunately lacked in microphones! So I set about filling out my collection to make sure the sessions I did there were covered. My two biggest mentors in L.A. (David Bianco and Matt Wallace) were always incredibly generous in allowing me to use their facilities for tracking my projects. I was mixing out of my home studio. But by 2009, it had become clear that I needed a consolidated tracking and mixing space. My good friend Rafael Serrano and I pooled our resources to create Studio P, which has been my home base ever since!
mixing Audio Pros: Do you have any particular methods or preferences of note? i.e using certain gear for certain sounds? any preferences of ways if working or even preferences of musical styles etc? is there a particular way you approach a mix initially?
Will Kennedy: While I certainly have methods (I usually start by mixing drums, I have some go-to settings, etc.), I see my first duty as working in service of the music. And if that means working outside of my comfort zone, or trying out something different in search of what a song/album needs, that’s what I do! For instance, I use the same mix chain for all of my mixes (JCF Audio Blender custom analog summing bus, Smart C1 compressor, JCF Audio Percolator custom EQ, JCF Audio French Press custom analog limiter, JCF Audio Latte A/D converter, modified Waves L2 hardware digital limiter). But if a mix isn’t sitting right for me, I’ll happily remove something from that chain, go for a setting I might rarely use, or even bypass it completely if that’s the sound we’re going for. I don’t think any piece of gear (or any setting) should ever be thought of as “indispensable.” I have a great collection of modified and/or custom equipment that I’ve assembled based on very specific roles they were to fill. In most instances it serves me very well. But sometimes we have to approach things from a direction we didn’t anticipate. It’s a creative endeavor, which means as much as we try to make it so, it isn’t predictable. Every project is different. That’s part of why I love it!
mixing Audio Pros: How’s the local music scene in LA. Any bands or currently trends that you are enjoying?
Will Kennedy: One of the great things about living in Los Angeles is that the “local” music scene is really the world’s music scene! Or at least the western world’s music scene. So on many nights you can see an amazing local band at a small club, a huge concert in an arena, or a huge act trying out new material at a small club! The whole music business passes through L.A., and that’s part of what makes being here so exciting. The things that I’m digging most right now (and it changes regularly) are a great “local” band called The 88 who’ve just released an incredible album called “Fortune Teller.” If you’ve seen Ray Davies at all in the past few years, you’ve seen these guys not only opening for him, but serving as his backing band. I’m also HUGELY digging Sun Rai. Yes, I’m working with him, but that relationship came from falling in love with his music and musicianship. He’s from Sydney, AUS., but he now calls L.A. home. There’s a great moody rock band called The Cold And Lovely whose first record is a thrill to listen to. And while he’s not L.A.-based, I’ve become a HUGE fan of Bernhoft (JarleBernhoft). I’m also listening to amazing jazz alto-saxophonist Jaleel Shaw’s new album, a bunch of Martin Solveig remixes, Deadmau5, and on, and on!
mixing Audio Pros: You are obviously adapting to the changes in technology and the music industry in that you are offering online services. How do you feel that the industry is adapting to “‘remote services” such as online mixing and mastering for instance?
Will Kennedy: On the mixing and mastering side of the recording industry, remote services are now the most common way of doing business. Even my Los Angeles based clients rarely come to the studio for mix sessions! And it’s certainly made some things about the process easier. Being able to quickly and cheaply share mixes and notes over huge distances being the primary advantage. I think one of the challenges this freedom has created is for independent artists, who often wonder what a “professional” mixing or mastering job does for them, or what it costs. They have an overwhelming number of choices, and aren’t sure who to spend their hard-earned money with. Which is a big part of why I’ve decided to partner with MixingAudioPros. It’s a great resource for potential clients to get answers to their questions, and find a producer, mixer, or engineer that fits their needs and budget. Something more than the typical “listing” sites out there now, with thousands of choices, and nobody to work through the process with you. Which is extremely important!
mixing Audio Pros: Can you tell us a little more about your new series of in-the-studio videos with Matt Wallace (Maroon 5, Faith, The Replacements).
Will Kennedy: I can honestly say I am thrilled to be a part of the “Live At Studio Delux” video/audio sessions! The idea started off in the fall of 2012 as a series of discussions between Matt, RaiThistlethwayte (Sun Rai, Thirsty Merc) and myself. Rai had just moved over to L.A., and invited us to see him play live at a tiny bar in Hollywood. When we saw what he was doing, we knew we had to do something to capture it in the studio. For those who haven’t seen him, he plays piano/keys with his right hand, while playing bass keyboard with his left, sings, and often beatboxes his own rhythms. And he does it all flawlessly. Truly a tremendous talent. The huge question was, “How do we capture that, and make the excitement of what Rai is doing live translate in a recorded medium?”
Our answer was to do a series of simultaneous live in-studio audio and video recordings. It was the only way we could be certain the audience would understand that what they were hearing was real! The three of us have a large circle of incredible musician friends, and we thought it would be cool to have one of them come in and play with Rai on each session. To top it off, there would be no overdubbing or audio editing of any kind. The video would be edited from multiple cameras, but all sourced from the same take as the audio. So the whole thing is truly live And I do mean LIVE! What we release is an “as it happened” piece. Exactly what went down in the room!
We will do multiple takes. Often the musicians are learning the songs during the session, or trying to find a cool approach to a cover song. But a lot of what we’re putting out is one-take stuff! There’s a real jam-session kind of electricity in the room, and it’s genuinely amazing to be capturing those moments without the “safety net” of overdubs and editing to fall back on. Of course it goes without saying that Matt and I also want the stuff to sound amazing. So it’s going back to our roots in a lot of ways. Making sure we’re as on top of our game on the recording side as the players are on theirs. If we miss it, or screw something up, there’s no getting that moment back!
We’ve shot two sessions so far: Sun Rai and Victor Indrizzo, and Sun Rai with Matt Chamberlain. Two videos (one from each session) have been released as of now, and we’ll be rolling them out weekly until roughly mid-summer 2013. We have more sessions in the works with Rai (with whom we’re planning to do a number of series), as well as some other great bands. But the formula will remain the same, and the audio from the sessions will be available for purchase as well through all of the usual digital outlets.
mixing Audio Pros: You have worked with some great artists over the years, Andy Grammar, Sun Rai, Thirsty Merc and vanity mAchine to name but a few. Can you share any great moments with us.
Will Kennedy: I worked with Michael Franti And Spearhead on the “All Rebel Rockers” album. At the time they earned almost all of their money on the road, so the recording schedule for the album was squeezed in between two already-booked tours. This was the third project I’d worked on with Matt Wallace, but my first as one of his “main” engineers. I was determined to deliver the goods. We had (if memory serves) 19 days to completely track and overdub 17 songs before the band got back on a bus. Of course even on this ridiculous schedule, Michael insisted on making often fundamental changes to nearly-completed songs. It drove us crazy, but it’s clearly his prerogative as the artist. I think I finally lost my cool about 10 days in when he added an 18th song to the mix; which he started focusing on exclusively. Worried that we wouldn’t be able to deliver the other 17 for him at the pace we were going, I asked him what his plan was for finishing this 18th song. His reply to me?
“I don’t make plans. I make records.”
At the time I don’t mind saying that I was STEAMING! But that song became “Say Hey,” and it went on to become the most successful song in the history of the group. Going on to platinum status, and finding its way into many commercials, movies, and televisions shows. It’s a lesson I carry with me to this day. Logistics should never be the master of creativity. Nobody’s ever going to remember whether you got the project to the duplicator on time, but they’ll remember a great recording of a great song forever!
mixing Audio Pros: What has been your biggest challenge so far professionally within the industry?
Will Kennedy: My biggest challenge IS the industry! Or at least keeping up with the constantly shifting sands of how it operates. I stepped out into a world of analog recording, in big studios, with big budgets most often provided by one of 6 major labels. Now it’s almost exclusively digital recording, with even the “big” budgets often being 1/10th of what they were when I started out, and 3 (ish) major labels left! Meanwhile, more music is being recorded and released than EVER before (over 75,000 albums worldwide in 2011), but often at lower quality. Not because big budgets and big studios disappeared (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss sushi dinners and the smell of 2″ tape), but because recording is as much an art as playing an instrument, or writing a song. It takes talent, it takes skill, and it takes experience. I sure do miss tracking drums at Sound City. Walking into that amazing-sounding room where so much incredible music had been made. But ultimately it’s not the room, or the gear that makes the magic: It’s the people.
I see it as part of my job to bring the same level of creativity and inventiveness to our evolving new way of doing things. For all of my nostalgia, I never could have dreamed of having the kind of power I have in my studio 20 years ago! I would have needed literally millions of dollars. Now I’m free to spend more time chasing fun ideas in a mix because there isn’t a meter running, or a staff of people to worry about. By applying a lot of the basic lessons I learned working in the “old” recording model, I’ve been able to accomplish some truly astounding things applying those lessons to new technology. I love that I can mix songs for bands across the U.S., U.K., and Europe from my space, let them listen to what I’m doing in real time, and give me feedback. And I love that I still occasionally mix projects to my glorious old Ampex 440 tape machine, and have them released on vinyl! It’s a really exciting time, if less profitable than decades past. But I didn’t get into recording to get rich. I did it because I love what I do.
mixing Audio Pros: Simple but extremely complex. Favorite band?
Will Kennedy: Okay, gun to my head I’d have to say Swervedriver. Hugely influential to me for a whole host of reasons from their songwriting, to their playing, to the sonics of their albums. But I’d also have to put Hall & Oates near the top of that list. When I was very young, their music was EVERYWHERE! To this day I am addicted to it. I’d also put The Police near the top, as well as electronic music pioneers Underworld & Meat Beat Manifesto, and Miles Davis who was my first real musical hero. And older Helmet. Plus I’ve been getting into some old Das EFX. So there’s a complex answer!
mixing Audio Pros: What is the single best decision you have made in your life so far?
Will Kennedy: That one’s easy: Marrying my wife Peggy. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without her!