Ken Lewis lacks for nothing in terms of a resume within the music industry. From songwriting to mixing, and being an all-around production powerhouse, his credits are littered all across popular urban music acts like Mary J Blidge, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Drake, Common, Jay Z and Beyonce, as well as famous names from other genres, like Fun and Krewella. So when my Universal Audio interview led to an opportunity to chat with him, I naturally jumped on it right away. In addition to being an in-demand mix engineer, Lewis also runs his own website that provides educational content for mix engineers and producers, called Audio School Online, with videos have accrued millions of views in total. Needles to say, his multiple activities gave us much to talk about.
Part 1 – Mixing Techniques
You’ve developed quite a reputation for being an aficionado for big drum sounds. Aside from the obvious need to tailor each sound to the record in question, what are some princlipes/techniques that you can share about achieving thunderous drums?
There are a million techniques and paths to get big drums. For instance, the big drums on “We Are Young” was made up of many layers of samples from my collections, which were layered and crushed until they sounded the way they do. On Alicia Keys “Girl On Fire”, the big drums were an actual live recording of a real drummer, Dylan Wissing, playing the kick and snare. I had about 20 mics set up around Dylan at the studio in New York, The Oven, then we had him play several different configurations of kicks and snares. Then I took all those recordings back to my studio and layered, mashed, and EQ’d them. One of the keys to getting the snare sound on “Girl On Fire” was putting splash cymbal, with the wide end down, on the snare head and hitting next to it.That was a new one for me. It gave the snare this massively wide mid-range.
I often feed a single snare hit through a long dense reverb, like a plate or big chamber. Then I gate the reverb return and key the gate with the snare hit. I will let the gate open for maybe a half second to one second, and let the gate cut off abruptly. For the snare on “We Are Young” I took the final sample and either used the Vari-Fi plugin to unnaturally slow it down right before it cuts off, or I might have done a super-fast automated filter sweep down, from 20K to 0Hz, right on the tail. It gives this imperceptible whooshing sound that makes the snare sound ten times cooler.
As someone with a knack for drums let me ask this: many people harp on kicks and other drum elements always being mono in order to not interfere with other elements of the track, yet your drums are often heard as having strong stereo components. Do stereo kicks and drums create phase problems for you?
A lot of what I produce with Katalyst (me and Brent Kolatalo), utilizes stereo kicks. If you have a 4-on-the-floor dance song, a mono kick is all you need. But for instance, we are currently producing a couple songs for an Interscope band, X Ambassadors, and we really like the extra size you can get perceptually with the kicks having a distinct stereo element. Those kinds of kicks can become easier to hear without overpowering the mix.
As far as phase problems go, my ear is very dialed in to hearing phase incoherence, and I don’t perceive that as a problem with stereo kicks. Sometimes they pull your mix perception a little left or right, but thats fixable. Speaking of phase, making sure your live kit is time-aligned can be an effective way to tighten up the sound of a drum kit. We couldn’t do things like that with tape, though I love the drum sounds from the vinyl era, so take this with a grain of salt, but there’s a plugin called SoundRadix TimeAlign. I just put it on each of the 12 live drum mic tracks from the same kit, and I time-aligned each track to the close snare mic. Everything sounded great aligned! Always check phase with live drums.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re able to drive certain plugins to the point of what would be considered distortion, yet you get a musical type of saturation from them instead. Can you give some examples of plugins that this happens with?
Believe it or not, the one I use most is the Joe Meek Compressor or the UAD Fairchild 660 in Pro Tools. I sometimes crush sounds and crank up the outputs. When you listen in solo, the sound sounds super compressed and fuzzily distorted, though not in a bad way. Then put that back in your mix and it sits perfectly…sometimes.
As someone with a history of operating in both analog and digital realms, what are some of your most recommended analog emulation plugins?
Anything from Universal Audio. They make the best plugin emulations hands down. When I got the UAD EMT 140 Plate, I literally almost stopped using my real vintage EMT 140. The UAD emulation is that good. Not only does it sound near-identical to my real plate, it can also give me 40 different choices in a very short period of time; my real plate can’t do that.
The UAD 33609 is my favorite compression emulation for when I don’t want to hear the compression and I just want smooth, transparent compression. The LA2A emulations are really smooth as well. If I need a compressor that bites and colors the sound, I’ll often go for the UAD 1176 emulations or the ShadowHills Mastering Compressor (which I often use on channels when I want noticeable compression sounds).
As someone who has mixed down to a real Ampex analog 2-track machine for much of my earlier career, when I hear the UAD Ampex 102 emulation I was just blown away. It really has that subtle magic that the old machines have, and sometimes I’ll use the Ampex 102 as an effect on one of its more drastic settings.
The Manley Massive Passive is one of the most transparent plugin EQ’s on the market. Half of the time you have to bypass it to tell if its doing much at all, but when you do that you notice what a huge difference it makes.
Lastly, The Kush Audio Clariphonic plugin. I own the real thing, which sounds amazing. But I’m lazy, and sometimes I want to use a whole rack full of Clariphonics. I think the plugin sounds a little different, but is nonetheless exceptionally useful for giving life to dull dark tracks.
Plenty of companies do good emulations and many are really good, but from a sonics and consistency standpoint, Universal Audio leads the pack. Plus, with the outboard processing that comes with it, it doesn’t tax my CPU and I can get more done faster.
What are some of your most-used effect chains for creating a big low-end when dealing with bass guitars or bass synths? And how do you avoid having that clash with the drums?
Well, there are the typicals, like the Pultecs, but often I’ll compress bass guitars really hard and smash them up against the digital wall. If you’re careful, it can give you the best compression on the edge of distortion, which in a dense song can make the bass sit solidly in the mix without getting too loud and have a definition to it. My Audio School Online has a lesson called “Mixing Indie Rock” where I show how to do this really effectively with a bass guitar. I’ve had people email me freaking out over that trick. It’s one I came up with just experimenting on my own one day and I’ve used it well over 100 times since.
I also like the UAD Fairchild for that sound. That’s a great compressor, and I use it a lot for 808’s.
As far as how to get the bass and kick to live together, that’s a different challenge with every mix. If there are low frequency tuning problems between the kick and bass or 808, your low end can sound really sloppy. Sometimes I’ll tune the kick resonance (if it has a tone to it) to the key of the song, or to match an important bass note. This often gives the low end much more solid power. And always check the phase between your low end instruments that play together. You might be shocked sometimes how much a simple phase flip can affect your entire sound.
Part 2 – Urban Music
What’s it been like for you to mix the yet-to-be-heard (if ever) album from the Wu Tang Clan. How does it feel knowing that the public may or may not ever hear your mixes?
Well, it’s a double-edged sword of course. I’m not upset that the public might not hear my mixing work, but the music, yeah, I wish it was different. But they are planning to do a museum listening tour through many major cities before it goes to auction, so some people will get to hear it at least. I love being a small contributor to what could also be called an art piece that might sell for millions. If you are a Wu Tang fan, it’s a great album. I’m so honored to be a part of it, and with everything else I’ve done in hip hop, this was the one that made me feel like my hip hop cred is finally secure for life. I was under a strict gag request for over a year; I didn’t even tell my manager. You should have seen the look on his face when I did, and then when the worldwide press had a short-term heart attack over the album announcement. It was kind of wild.
Truly, my hope is that some rich athlete or oil sheik buys it to impress their friends, keeps it for a year then releases it for free on the internet. That would be amazing, but that’s a real pie-in-the-sky hope.
Your production credits are almost more mind-blowing than your mixing ones, with some of the most impressive tracks from several acclaimed albums having your work on it. Particularly the Roc Nation and GOOD Music teams, who are very selective about who they work with. Can I ask how you become acquainted with those camps?
I’ve been working with Kanye since long before he was a signed artist. I met him through Just Blaze about 13 years ago and have been working with him off and on ever since. I’ve worked on every album he’s put out, and have a jack-of-all-trades role with him. I’ve produced for and with him many times, arranged a ton of music for him, mixed a few records for him, recreated a bunch of samples, engineered a few sessions, and I also have writing credits on “Last Call”, “Power”, and on the GOOD Music compilation for “Higher” and “To The World“, as well as “Sanctified” by Rick Ross featuring Kanye and Big Sean on the new “Mastermind” album.
How did you end up contributing lyrics to Rick Ross’ “Sanctified” track on his latest album? One wouldn’t imagine that a rapper would reach out to a production team about something like that. Were you surprised that it came about?
I wrote the gospel lyrics; certainly not the raps. Kanye almost never asks me if I am capable of whatever job he throws my way. He always asks different things of me, and I always find a way to deliver, so it just seemed like another day at the office working for him on “Sanctified”.
One of Drake’s most lauded tracks on his “Take Care” album is “Lord Knows”, which you did arrangements for. How did that process unfold, and what kind of challenges were presented to you in that?
Just Blaze produced that track, my personal favorite off the album, though I’m a little biased. Just Blaze wanted a massive choir and live band, and I put it together for him. It was all his vision and his production, I just created for him what he asked me to, and it came out sounding pretty epic.
Was the choir production for tracks on J Cole’s “Born Sinner” and Kanye’s “Yeezus” album similar to the one above? You also did strings on that album, correct? How did you do go about with that?
I used a lot of the same choir members; they’ve been rock solid for me, led by the amazing Alvin Fields, who I work with a lot. Of all the choirs I’ve produced, the J Cole album was my favorite. We really got to dig in and be creative, and J Cole was a consummate gentleman to work for. He came to the choir session, and even stayed a long time after to talk to the choir members, thank them personally, take pictures, etc. He’s a really down to earth guy who happens to also be a very gifted artist. He was at the live string section sessions as well. He had never heard real string players (16 of them) play together live in front of him, and playing his songs no less! It was a moment.
My favorite Kanye choir may never be heard. I produced a song for Yeezus called “Awesome“, which Rick Rubin cut from the album about 2 weeks before it hit stores! I was heartbroken. It’s a great song and would have been a big single, but it was a really happy and uplifting love song to Kim Kardashian and it didn’t fit the dark electronica framework that Yeezus became. There is a live version of the song on Youtube with just Kanye and a rhodes, but I produced full choir, full horn section, and band for it. Most of what I do for Kanye as a producer is more about specialty roles, but this one was a full on production. I hope he releases it some day.
You have credits on Lil Wayne’s first single for his upcoming “Carter V” album. Can you tell me a bit about what you contributed to the “Believe Me” track. Any challenges on that project?
I only played the piano part that drives the track. Boi-1da and Vinyls were the main creative forces behind that record. I am signed as a producer to Boi-1da, and he needed a bit of help with the record, so I helped. Right guy in the right place at the right time and I had just enough talent for the job. Everybody wins.
Part 3 – Audio School Online
You have a website called Audio School Online, which serves as a learning resource for producers and mixers. How’s that been going for you lately? We haven’t seen as many videos go up as in the past.
The school has been really awesome and I am exceptionally proud of it, and just blown away by all of the positive feedback I hear from users all the time. It’s overwhelming. The blessing of it is that people would probably like to learn from me because I am very actively working on many of the records that are in stores and on radio right now (I currently have credits on 6 albums in the Billboard Top 50 albums), so I’m teaching very current information that you can really trust. The curse is that as my production career is taking off right now, it leaves less time to make new lessons. I’m trying to remedy that soon, and make sure I keep releasing more great lessons. But for people who’ve never seen it, I have over 30 great in-depth lessons up on the site that will keep you very busy learning for a long time. New lessons coming soon.
Are there ever things that as a veteran engineer/mixer that you wouldn’t want to share? Or is Audio School Online a place where anything can potentially be revealed under the right circumstances?
I think anything can be revealed as far as skills and techniques go. I can’t always talk about specifics of an album or song I worked on because, quite frankly, my clients don’t necessarily want the world to know all of the behind the scenes stuff, and I never want my clients to feel like if they hire me, I’m going to do a lesson about them. That’s not the way I work. But the skills and techniques I use to make those and many other records are all fair game. Also, some things are just too difficult to teach, but I’m an open book for the most part.
Do you have any interesting developments planed for Audio School Online this year? Ever thought about having some of your famous clients do a guest feature for it?
I have have great lessons waiting to be rolled out. I’ve worked with a lot of big Jamaican artists recently (and throughout my career). I recently mixed a single called “Riot” for Sean Paul and Damien Marley (though I’m not doing a lesson on it). However, I recently did a Shaggy mix, as well as a Maxi Priest mix that I have been given the rights and permission to base lessons around, so that’s going to be really fun. There’s also a pop group in Canada named The JV Project, who consistently chart on Canadian radio, and I have a killer club-pop song from them to mix for a lesson. I’d love to do more, but we’ll see.
Rounding up, can you tell me about your current projects and what’s coming up for you this year. I hear you’ve got music in the works with some more big name clients?
Last year was hands down the best year of my career, but I feel like this year could top it. It’s not even July yet, and I feel like I’ve surpassed last year already. We – Katalyst – have produced for Eminem, Ciara, and Future and we just found out that our song “Blood Sweat Tears” will be Future’s next single. He just shot the music video this week. I have writer credits on Lil Wayne’s and Drake’s “Believe Me” and Rick Ross’ “Sanctified“. We produced Ciara’s first single which was put on hold due to her pregnancy. Now that her baby has arrived we’re hoping that will get back on track but who knows. We have productions in the works with Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, Emmy Palmer (Columbia), Cam Anthony (Aftermath), Tinashe (RCA), Iggy Izalea (Island), Nipsy Hustle, K Michelle, Pia Mia (Interscope), Rocky Fresh (MMG), Erik Hassle (RCA), X Ambassadors (Interscope), and a couple others. I’m sure that not all of those productions will make it onto their final album releases, but certainly with that much going on, we’ll be getting a lot more release cuts this year. And I think the Future single will open some doors wider for us as well. All production and writing. At this time next year, we’ll be in a whole different league.
That sounds exciting! Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to talk again when that happens. Congrats on the continued success.