On the Record: Grammy-Winning Producer Ken Lewis
You may not know the name Ken Lewis, but you definitely know his tunes. Having worked as a major-label mix engineer, producer, songwriter, and musician for more than 20 years, Lewis has amassed a client list that reads like a “who’s who” of the music industry: Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Jay Z, Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande, fun., Mariah Carey, John Legend, Lenny Kravitz, David Byrne, and Lana Del Rey are just a few.
Known for his ability to wear many different hats in the studio, and for his signature “big drums,” Ken’s credits include 12 Grammy winners and 40 total nominations, 70 Gold and Platinum albums and singles, and 44 Number One hits so far, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. In addition to all of that, Ken has also recently ventured into the world of education by founding AudioSchoolOnline.com, a site he envisions as “the counterbalance to the big, expensive audio schools.” I was lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with Ken to hear about the new school, his career, his “go-to” pieces of gear, and the record-making process.
Ken, I’d like to thank you for speaking with me today.
Thanks for having me!
If you take a look at the timeline of your credit list, it seems like you started out mostly as an engineer and mixer, and then gradually got into more and more writing and production. Can you talk a bit about the progression of your career and how you got from point A to point B?
Yes, definitely early on, my professional career started as a tracking engineer in 1992. I moved to New York City in 1993 and started working with virtually every '90s East Coast rapper and a good chunk of the West Coast guys. The rap gigs led to R&B and pop gigs, and beyond. Eventually I made the switch to mix engineer and stopped taking any tracking gigs—a painful switch financially, but sometimes you take one step back to get two steps forward. The whole time I've been a producer, but it wasn't my number-one gig, until really last year. Producing and writing have taken over my life full time now. Again, it means turning down a lot of paychecks for mixing to focus on producing, but this is the direction I want my career to go. The music industry, in general, for most people, is usually riddled with bad choices and sacrifices. It’s been that way for me, though I’m not complaining at all. I’ve had an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding career, but I still work insane amounts of hours, which is better than no hours.
"I'd say I am a musical chameleon. I can wear any hat and work in a very wide range of genres."
I'd say I am a musical chameleon. I can wear any hat and work in a very wide range of genres. I'd say my long job description is producer, songwriter, mixer, arranger, musician, vocalist, engineer, and educator. I’ve played all of those roles (except educator) on Grammy-nominated and winning albums. It definitely keeps my days busy and fresh, constantly switching hats, changing genres, seven days a week, all the time. I didn’t get these superpowers overnight—this is 21 years of constantly working, always pushing myself to improve, always trying to keep my work at a world-class level, or get it to world-class level. Songwriting has been my latest endeavor. I always thought I had good ideas, but never thought I had what it took to be a great top-line writer. I knew my production team (me and Brent Kolatalo are "KATALYST") would be much more powerful if I could contribute well as a top-liner. So one day I stopped being scared of it and went all in. We'll see what 2014 holds for that, I think I’m about to sign a major publishing deal, so that will help get our songs into the right artists' hands. It really takes a great team to be successful in this business, and I have an amazing team, from production partner to management, publisher, and my awesome network of co-writers and co-producers. We signed to super producer Boi-1da as producer/writers, and our collaborations are getting placed like hotcakes. It’s really a fantastic and exciting time in my career. 2013 was the best year of a 21-year label career and I think 2014 will dwarf it. You gotta set big goals, then put in the work. I have a LOT more to accomplish.
You’re known for getting some pretty huge drum sounds. fun.’s five-time Platinum Grammy-winning “We Are Young” and Alicia Keys’s smash hit “Girl On Fire” come to mind as having just huge kicks and snares. Can you detail some of the techniques and processing that you use to get these big drum sounds?
Patience. Those drums took forever to create. Lots of layers, lots of compression and EQ, filters, distortion, etc. The funny thing is they were created completely differently. The fun. drums were all drum samples I had, live and drum-machine samples, layered together and manipulated, each doing a certain thing. The “Girl On Fire” drums are one kick and one snare, recorded at Alicia's The Oven Studios, in Manhattan, with session drummer Dylan Wissing. I captured him with about 20 mics of all different shapes sizes and sonic colors, then took all of it back to my studio and spent a long two days sifting thru each mic, each hit, maybe distorting one distant mic and thinning out another, adding tons of bottom to a different one, compressing, limiting, carving, you name it. The end result is what’s on the record for both songs. I'd say the “Girl on Fire” drums I probably used 10 to 14 of the 20+ mics I put up. Lots of sonic layers of the same recording.
Speaking of microphones, can you clue us in to some of your favorite mics and how you like to use them?
My main vocal mic is a Sony C800G tube condenser. It sounds amazing on virtually everyone. I did an 11-mic blind shootout on snare drum once; the Shure SM57 beat them all. It’s a classic for a reason. The '57 is also great on guitar amps, though I always use two mics on an amp that sound different. Maybe a ribbon and a condenser like a Royer R122 and an AKG 451 or a '57 and a ribbon. Something like that. Drum overheads at my studio, I’ve been using Shure KSM 137s, which I love. I think a close second to the Sony C800G is the Manley Reference Cardioid. My favorite cheap condenser is the Studio Projects B1. Great on hi-hat, acoustic guitars, and a bunch of things.
While we’re on the subject of gear, what kind of studio monitors and sub do you use in your setup?
Nearfields are Adam A7s with dual JBL 4312 subwoofers. The subs are always on with the Adams. I also have an off-the-shelf Sharp boombox with an Aux input that I use as my "real-world" speakers. I do about half my mixing on each pair and I’m very often back and forth. Nothing ever leaves my studio until it sounds great on both pairs of monitors.
What are some of your go-to plug-ins or outboard processors that you like to use on specific instruments?
Well, I am a huge UAD fan. Their plug-ins all sound amazing and they are on a PCIe card, so it doesn’t tax my computer DSP—very convenient for big mixes. Lexicon PCM reverbs were the first I’d ever heard that were 100% as good as the flagship Lexicon outboard verbs. I've always been a fan of IK, Waves, Brainworx, and Kush. There are just so many great plug-ins to choose from nowadays.
Specifics... the UAD EMT 140 has virtually replaced my real vintage EMT 140 plate. My favorite transparent compressor is the UAD Neve 33609, while my favorite compressor for color when you want to HEAR the compression is the Kush UBK-1. I'm also a fan of the Waves Kramer Pie compressor. Delays: the H-Delay and the Echoboy get about 90% of my use. The UAD Cooper Time Cube is cool too, and I'll use the Digirack stuff for pitch spreading. IK Amplitube 3 and its variations are almost always my go-to guitar setup. We just produced a single for Ciara, featuring Future, that’s all Amplitube guitars and they sound great. IK Ampeg SVX is used on all my bass tracks. Man, I have hundreds of plug-ins, this could be a book. Here are a few of my go-tos:
UAD: 33609, EMT 140, Ampex 102, Vitalizer, Manley Massive Passive, Pultecs
Lexicon: all of the PCM Reverbs are fantastic
IK: Amplitube, Ampeg SVX, Black 76
Brainworx: BX Digital, every mix.
Kush: UBK-1 and Clariphonic
Softube: TubeTech Channel
I use a blue million soft synths and hardware synths for production. Hardware would be the Waldorf Q+ Phoenix and Virus Ti. Virtual: Omnisphere, Kontakt, EXS24, Sylenth, Arturia V Collection, NI Komplete. I have a TON of it and use it, though we often try to incorporate live instruments into our productions.
Due to legal complications, artists often have a hard time clearing samples of copyrighted recordings and they hire you to “recreate” the sample to make the song work. Can you shed some light on your approach to recreating a sample while preserving the feel of the track—from both a vibe and a technical perspective?
This is, hands-down, the most tedious and grueling work I get called to do, but I’m one of the very best in the world at it. On average, it takes Brent and me about 10 to 20 hours PER BAR of music to recreate a sample. No joke. So if you hear a four-bar sample I recreated, that’s probably 40 to 80 man-hours of work. Every sample is different, and it’s like an onion: you have no idea how many layers of sound there are until you listen to the same bar of music for four hours straight. The closer you get to matching the original sound, the more sounds present themselves to you. I've been eight hours into a sample and said "Huh, I didn’t know there was a Rhodes in this, it was hiding behind the piano the whole time." It happens a lot.
"...it takes experience from every part of my brain, from engineering to mixing to arranging, to playing multiple instruments and singing, everything comes into play."
It’s not just about matching the notes and the rhythms; that’s hard enough. Then you've got to match HOW the note was played. Soft? Loud? Slightly out of tune? What instruments are in the string section? Is it just violins? Quartet? Large ensemble? There are a million small questions that need to be answered—and solved—to bring it all together, and it takes experience from every part of my brain, from engineering to mixing to arranging, to playing multiple instruments and singing, everything comes into play. You've got to know the sound of every instrument in the orchestra, how vintage records sound, etc. It's by far the most challenging and difficult work I do, and I honestly don't like doing it at all, but it's opened doors for me and gotten me on a lot of big records.
That's how I started with Kanye, and before you know it, he was asking me to play many roles far beyond sample recreation. I arranged the horn section and put it all together for "All of the Lights." I've produced or co-produced or contributed additional production to a lot of his records. I produced a large choir for the Yeezus album; every time it’s a different call and a different role with him, and it’s flattering that he has such confidence in me to deliver on such a wide range of things. I'm really not trying to do any sample recreation anymore, but you know, if Kanye calls, I'm there for whatever he needs. Beyond that, I’m trying to get away from it.
Speaking of Kanye West, one of the most incredible tracks from a sonic perspective on 808s and Heartbreak is “Robocop,” because it mixes together a lot of unusual textures that sound great together in an unconventional way. Can you talk a bit about how the arrangements were produced?
I still have nightmares about those orchestral parts. Took me about a week of long days to create them. It’s basically a sample recreation and everything you are hearing with the big sweeping orchestral section is MIDI, created in Logic. Mostly I used a lot of East West Platinum orchestra, IK Miroslav, and I have a load of orchestral libraries for the Logic EXS 24 sampler; some of those got used as well. I won't go into details about how difficult and time consuming it is to make MIDI sound and feel like a real orchestra, but sometimes I still wake up at night screaming. Wish I was kidding.
Who of the other producers, engineers, writers, and artists that you’ve worked with over the years have you learned the most from? What were some things you learned that pushed you to the next level?
I try to be a sponge, and I'd say I've learned a lot from a lot of guys. I wasn't ever an assistant engineer for very long, so I didn't learn too much from other engineers that I assisted, though there are definitely a few: Tony Maserati, Angela Piva, Troy Hightower early on, as an assistant. A producer I learned a lot from that I’ve worked with over the years is Mike Mangini (not the drummer from Dream Theater). Mike is a pop producer and a damn good one. We made a bunch of records together in the late '90s, and I learned a lot about production from him. On the Hip Hop/Urban side, it’s always been an ongoing education from a lot of the producers and artists I’ve worked with. Kanye West, Just Blaze, Malik Pendleton, Puffy and his producers, Boi-1da, and so many others. As a songwriter, early on I learned a lot from Phil Galdston, and I constantly learn from many of my co-writers: Frankie Storm, Shelly Peiken, Rock City, Toby Gad, and so many others. I've been incredibly lucky to have crossed paths with so many of the industry elite at their crafts and most of my education has come from working with them.
What mix credit are you most proud of and why? What writing or production credit are you most proud of and why?
Mix credit. Damn, that’s a loaded question. Probably "Down On Me," from Jeremih and 50 Cent. That record spent six months climbing the Billboard singles charts to #1 and stayed on the singles charts for over seven months. It’s virtually unheard of to have that long a climb to #1, which I think is a testament to the song itself, and hopefully my mix gave that song its best representation. Jeremih's manager, Luis Duran, called me after the mix, raving about it and said, "You killed it, I hear things now that I didn't even know were in the song, it moves so well." Calls like that are everything.
"In terms of production and writing, most recently we produced (and wrote the music) for the new Ciara / Future single 'Anytime'."
In terms of production and writing, most recently we produced (and wrote the music) for the new Ciara / Future single "Anytime." A demo version of the song has leaked, and people seem to be loving the demo. They are gonna LOVE the final, if Epic ever services the actual single, hopefully very soon. It’s a beautiful song with lots of guitars and live strings. I never thought of that music as "Ciara music," but she really brought it to the next level. We also have a cut we produced on Future's new album dropping soon.
I have small co-writes on some classic albums. Minor writing contributions to major albums like Kanye's The College Dropout and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I produced a song called "Awesome" with Kanye for the Yeezus album, but Rick Rubin cut the song in the final week. It was too happy for such a dark album. I was, of course, heartbroken. Late last, year Eminem reached out to us (Katalyst) to produce a song for him called "Don't Front." A career call for sure. Unfortunately, one sample couldn't clear in time to make the main album, which Eminem was very disappointed in (imagine how we felt!!), but we made a deluxe release of the album, thankfully!
You now have your own online music production school, AudioSchoolOnline.com. Can you tell us a little bit about the school and the principles behind it?
I envision ASO as the counterbalance to the big, expensive audio schools. I created a site where anyone around the world can have access to high-quality knowledge at a very low price. Both were very important to me. I teach all of the lessons (about 40 on the site; some free, some paid). They cover mixing, recording, production, etc. I run the gamut and I hold nothing back. I've been making major-label records for 21 years. I’ve got job security and a ton of knowledge and experience, so it’s time to help the next wave of aspiring engineers and producers, from the kid in his basement with a laptop to the young pros.
I have a very direct connect approach, I don’t talk at you or down to you, the lessons feel more like I’m sitting next to you in the studio showing you all of my techniques and how you can do them. The responses to my lessons have been overwhelmingly positive, far beyond what I had anticipated. For people scouring YouTube for knowledge, there is some good stuff out there, but there is just soooooo much stuff you can’t trust at all, or flat-out wrong. With my lessons you know that the person teaching you probably just worked on the record you just heard on the radio, so the information is current and relevant to what a lot of people want to learn.
What would your advice be for aspiring engineers, producers, and musicians?
If you are being hired for a job, work out the business up front. If you take the gig then do your best, 110% every time, whether you love or hate the music or artist. They aren’t paying you to love their music, they are paying you for your skills, and since you agreed to the gig, you owe them your best. You get to wake up tomorrow or next week and make someone else’s record, but that artist needs to stand behind that project for their whole career. Try to help the artist avoid pitfalls, try to help them feel creative, try not to feel your own importance too much. Too many engineers, producers, musicians, etc., carry too much of their own ego into a session.
If you are a session musician, realize that you are not the star. Don’t plug in and start playing a flurry of notes, it’s not your song. Listen to the song and play ONLY what the song needs. That’s most often a very simple, tasteful part that enhances what the song does without stepping all over it. I see many producers mix a song to feature their beat instead of featuring the artist. The #1 most important part of any song is the vocal performance and the vocal mix. Make sure it’s right and that the song is centered around that.