10 Questions with Will Kennedy Part 2

Will Kennedy

Read Time 21 Minutes

Will Kennedy
Will Kennedy

In part 1 of this interview, Will Kennedy of Studio P, rolled up his sleeves in got into the real dirt of the history behind career paths for engineers and producers, choosing a team for your project and budgeting your release.

Part 2 of this interview will goes into even further depth and tackles of the merits of analog versus digital, mastering and home recording pit falls.

6: What measuring stick could bands use to to determine if they’re capable of cutting the tracks in a short period of time?

One thing I’d recommend to artists is to get a simple recording device, like a handheld digital recorder. Record your live show or a rehearsal of the tunes you plan to record. DON’T CHEAT! No multi-tracking, fixing or endless re-cuts. Then sit down with people who are really objective about it and have them answer the question, “Is this something you’d pay to hear on a recording?” These people should NOT be your friends, or anyone emotionally beholden to you. Preferably, they should be people in the recording industry whose opinion you trust and who are not going to shy away from telling you the truth. It’s not just a question of, “Do we have the chops to pull this off live?” The essential question is, “Will the recording of the live thing meet your listener’s expectations when they buy it?”

For instance, with a three piece rock band I might double track a guitar in stereo because it’s going to sound cooler to the listener at home. My goal is to make sure that when your audience fires up your recording, they’re going to get that feeling that they get from seeing you play live. Three people playing simply might not carry enough weight on a recording. In that case we’re going to have to overdub a guitar, or perhaps a couple of guitars. It’s additional sound that might not be needed live because the visual aspect makes up for it. But I can’t lean on visuals.

I’d like to bring up the issue of cutting to a click track. The discussion I have with a band about whether or not to cut to a click tells me a lot about them. It goes one of three ways:

The first way is for the band to say, “Yeah sure, let’s cut to a click.” Simple.

The second way – and usually the drummer is the first to pipe up – is, “Man I don’t want to cut to a click. That ruins my feel.” When someone says, “The click ruins my feel,” that doesn’t tell me they’re making an informed musical decision. That tells me they can’t play to a metronome. Don’t try to snow your producer. You have no idea how many great “feeling” records (including some of your favorites) were cut to a click track. Just admit that you can’t play to a click, and we can get to the part where we try to figure out how to handle it.

The third (and my favorite) way is when the band says, “We have no problem doing it to a click …but do we want to do it to a click?” Now we’re actually having a discussion about the musicality of playing to a click track. There’s no question of whether or not it’s possible. It’s, “Should we cut this song loose because there’s a natural push and pull we consciously built into it? Or would cutting to a click give it the consistency we’re looking for?” This is a totally different discussion from the knee-jerk, “It ruins the feel,” reaction.

The click can also be a factor in overdubbing. Let’s say you have a long stretch at the beginning of a song that’s just guitar and vocals. Then the band comes in on the chorus. Unless you have some sort of tempo reference, the band’s going to have a mess of a time finding their entrance. Or if there’s no click to reference during a break, then we’re going to waste a whole lot of time during overdubs trying to guess at where the entrance is…hoping that the next take will nail it. In the end, we might be forced to make a decision about what take to keep based on the accuracy of the entrance, not the value of the performance. Then multiply that by however many tracks have to be overdubbed.

Analog Tape Machine
Analog Tape

7. As there’s been a resurgence of bands recording to analog, could you weigh in on the merits of analog versus digital recording?

First of all, there’s a mythology that working on analog tape is automatically going to give you a better, or more natural sounding recording. This isn’t true. I’ve been lucky to have this conversation with a number of engineers with a lot of experience working on tape, and most would tell you that they actually prefer cutting to digital (which these days means a DAW like Pro Tools). There are a tremendous number of adjustments and alignments that have to be made correctly for analog tape to do its job well. The machines have to be well maintained. They have to be in a studio with assistants and technicians who understand how they work. None of which is common these days. Despite what you may have heard, digital is far more forgiving and flexible as a medium. It’s true that analog tape CAN sound amazing, but it takes a lot of experience, skill and great equipment to make it so. It’s a time-consuming process. So those who worked through the analog era are basically saying the convenience of working digitally more than outweighs what’s become a fairly small sonic disadvantage.

The second major issue is cost which is a two-pronged problem.

The 90’s were really the end of the heyday of tape. The companies that made tape then (BASF and Ampex) are out of the tape business. There are two boutique tape companies now and their tape is VERY expensive. Here’s a comparison of the expense of tape vs. digital:

Recording an entire album on a DAW such as Pro Tools or Logic (depending on the file sizes); you could probably get the entire project on a 250 gb hard drive. That’s every take, overdub, out take, cough and alternate mix saved from beginning to end on a drive that sells for about $75. With a backup you’ve spent $150 on recording media for your entire project.

ONE REEL of 2” analog tape costs $345. That will give you up to 24 tracks. At 30 ips (inches per second) that’s 15 MINUTES of recording time. To save tape, you could run the machine at 15 ips which will double your recording time to 30 minutes a reel, but will also increase the amount of tape hiss on your recordings pretty significantly. In which case you could use a noise-reduction unit like Dolby SR, which (assuming you can find one at all) these days you’ll most likely have to rent.

So let’s say you have 10 songs that average 3:30 a piece. If you only keep one take of each song – even at 15 ips – you’ve already spent $690 for two reels. You’ll double that cost if you want to run at 30 ips. It adds up fast.

To work in a studio that has a well-maintained machine, a good technical staff, and an assistant whose been properly trained on running the machine isn’t cheap. Here in the Los Angeles area, I’d say the best you’d find would be in the $1250-$1500/day range. Unless you dump your recording to digital, you’re going to have to stay in that expensive studio for your entire project. Going the tape transfer to digital route is another option, but I’ll come back to that.

Here’s the biggest issue with tape: Unless you buy extra tape, you can’t keep alternate takes of songs. There’s no “playlisting” of individual tracks on tape. So if you’re playing a guitar solo (or a full-band take for that matter), and it’s really close, but you think you can do something a little better, you’d better be really sure about that. Because as soon as the engineer hits record your last take is gone. It’s never coming back. That’s not a work flow most people are familiar, or comfortable with, these days.

Let’s come back to the hybrid, “track on tape and dump to digital,” model.

Tape started gaining this mythical status because the first usable computer multitrack systems (meaning the old Pro Tools MIX systems, which were the best of a very small bunch at handling digital audio, and became the industry standard) didn’t sound very good in comparison to tape. . This was the mid-to-late 90’s. There were – by the way – amazing sounding digital tape machines around as well. So it really isn’t so much about analog vs. digital, as analog vs. DAW. DAW’s offered HUGE advantages for editing and recording flexibility. Producers and artists wanted to find a way to use the advantages of both. The compromise was to track as much as possible on tape, dump it to a DAW for editing, then back again as needed. When the Pro Tools HD systems were introduced in the early 2000’s, the general feeling was that they finally sounded good enough for professional work. At that point, most of the pro recording world started tracking directly into Pro Tools.

I would never claim that analog and digital recordings sound the same. But these days I also wouldn’t claim that analog simply sounds better. It’s different for sure, but the IDEA that analog tape is vastly superior has made its way into the consciousness of the ever-growing world of home recording. Most people who record at home (or in project studios) have never had the experience of actually doing an analog recording session so the rather serious disadvantages have been swept under the rug.

Since most budgets don’t allow for a month-long stay at a full analog studio, the hybrid approach might seem like a good compromise, but it’s still going to be very expensive and quite possibly the least sonically productive. Because in this scenario, you now have to not only purchase analog tape, but a set of hard drives as well. You’re going to be working across two mediums and that means you’re introducing the pitfalls of both for a relatively small potential gain.

My advice to independent artists on a budget tends to be, “Don’t even entertain the idea of tracking to tape.” The disadvantages so outweigh the advantages. And again, it’s not the arrow, it’s the archer. If you’re working with good people, they’re going to deliver good results.

Mixing can be a different story because the cost-benefit ratio works more to your advantage. This is assuming you’re working with a knowledgeable mixer who has access to a good tape machine. As I said, tape does have a certain sound to it. People’s ears these days have gotten used to hearing all-digital recordings. The sound of tape can be a nice change – especially if you’re going for something a little more vibe-y, or old-school. I tend to find the high end on tape is more smooth, if less clear (which was always an issue with tape). I also prefer how low-end sits on tape as well. This isn’t make-or-break stuff. I’m very happy with how my digital mixes sound as well. I have a refurbished Ampex 440-B ¼” 2-track tape machine for mixdown. A reel of ¼” tape costs $50. I can mix one version of each song for an entire record for roughly $150 bucks but obviously that depends on song length. The other standard versions of mixes (instrumental, TV, etc.) can be printed digitally to save money. Now you’re in a far more reasonable area cost-wise. Just don’t be sucked in by the, “We have to do it on tape because everyone says/I’ve read tape is better,” argument.

On the upside, one huge advantage about analog tape a lot of home/project studio recordists don’t appreciate was its limitations. You generally had a maximum of 46 tracks at your disposal (2 24-track machines locked together, with a track on each used for time code). It was possible to get more, but very rarely done. So once you’d filled track 46, you either had to sub-mix tracks together to create space, or call it done. When people talk about how huge some of those classic records sound, that’s a piece that’s usually overlooked. It’s counter-intuitive, but adding more stuff isn’t what makes a recording sound bigger. In fact, past a certain point, it actually makes the recording sound smaller. That’s great lesson for guitar players. Once you get past – say – a rhythm track and a stereo double, you’re making it sound different than it did, but not necessarily making it sound bigger. And that could be the sound you want, but if you’re adding more tracks because bigger is what you’re going for, you probably need to look in another direction.

I once set up a mix for a friend of mine that came in with 36 tracks of the SAME rhythm guitar part. Each pass had been recorded with 3 different microphones, and there were 12 passes. Know what happened? My friend sat down, listened, and proceeded to mute 34 of those tracks. There are two lessons here:

  1. The song immediately sounded bigger, because all of the other instruments had space to breathe.
  2. DAW’s allow you the freedom to record everything. Virtually unlimited tracks and playlists have led to a lack of decision-making during the recording process. You just can’t make 150 tracks fit coherently into 2 speakers.

So for an artist who’s self-producing: As a mix engineer (and I think I can safely say this holds true for most) I really don’t want to take a lot of time choosing between 3 or 4 different microphones on the same performance. It’s very unlikely I’m going to use all of them. I’m going to take a quick listen, pick my favorite, and mute the rest. So unless you’ve got a well thought out, explained, and compelling reason to send me all of those tracks, why not just pick the one you like best? The less stuff I have to weed through as a mixer, the happier I am, and the faster you’re going to get your mixes!

So if you think you’ve overdone it and you’re trying to weed your tracks out, here’s a good tip: Pick out three things at any given time that you want your listener to pay attention to and this will be your “foreground.” Everything else either has to be background, or go away entirely. Those three can morph and change throughout a song (lead vocal gives way to guitar solo), but that seems to be the breaking point for people. Beyond that people’s ears start to overload. It’s not a conscious thing. They won’t think to themselves, “I really like this song, but there’s a lot of information coming at me.” They’ll simply think, “I don’t like this song,” and hit the “skip” button. Making decisions is a huge part of a producer’s job and it’s an even bigger one in the digital world, because the limitations of analog tape used to make a lot of those decisions for you.

8. For many home recordists, mastering means using a plug in preset and compressing it as much as possible to make it louder.  Since many artists don’t even consider mastering as part of their budgeting expenses, can you talk a little bit about the advantages of mastering and what people should look for in a mastering engineer and/or facility?

Ah yes, the black art of mastering. Well, a mastering engineer doesn’t just make everything louder. They’re not – at least if they’re professionals – throwing a leveling plug in on your mix, and slamming the hell out of it until ears bleed. They may certainly boost the level of the mixes, but the real goal of a mastering engineer is to make sure that the songs on your record have something sonically in common, and that your listener doesn’t have to reach for the volume control to make adjustments for every song.

Your mix engineer will certainly strive for consistency between each of their mixes. But because it can be a long process, there are often differences between each of them. The mastering engineer is the last objective set of ears in the chain. He/she hasn’t heard the recordings before, and is trained to take a global view. They’ll smooth out or adjust overall EQ, add compression if necessary, and help make the final product sound, “of a piece.” This is also the last chance to steer the recordings in a particular direction. There are definitely different approaches for, say, mastering an R&B album vs. a rock album.

I’m lucky to most often work with Robert Hadley. He works at the Mastering Lab, which is the oldest independent mastering studio in the world. The owner (who trained Robert) is Doug Sax. He’s one of the fathers of mastering. If you go to AES, NAMM, or other industry trade show that has “pro” panel on mastering – chances are Doug’s going to be on it.

But I don’t go to the Mastering Lab because they have the most kick ass gear (although they do). The reason I go there is because of Robert. He and I have worked together long enough that I know his tendencies, and he knows mine. I actually mix a certain way based on that. I’m already thinking, “When we master, this instrument is going to get boosted a little by the compression, and this one’s going to get cut. Robert’s going to add a little EQ in that range, so I can leave it alone.” I’m planning on that ahead of time to make sure the final product has the sound I’m looking for. We listen carefully to the mixes. We talk about what the overall sound for the project is. Then he puts his plan into action. Because he has a good idea of what I like, it usually goes very quickly and smoothly. What a good mastering engineer does is well worth the money…I just can’t stress that enough. When an artist comes with me to a mastering session and Robert A/B’s the final mix against the master, their faces just light up.

Studio Rack9. In my own experiences, I’m amazed at the difference between how something can sound great at home in my headphones and then just not work at all in a mix.  With regards to gear, what preparations should guitarists make before they go into the studio?

Start with the simple stuff like making sure your guitar is in playable condition. Think ahead about what you’re going for. Put on new strings. Have it intonated. Or if you’re going for something crappy, keep the old strings, and don’t intonate it (laughs). Make sure your amp is in good shape. Bring good cables. The studio will hopefully have some, but don’t count on it. Have extra picks and multiple thicknesses if you’re into that kind of thing. Bring extra strings.

Don’t make the assumption that because your tone sounds good in your bedroom it’s going to sound good recorded. You may have spent days/weeks/months picking out the perfect guitar, the perfect amplifier and tweaking the knobs by a hundredth of a degree so you sound great in your bedroom or the club, but when you stick a microphone an inch in front of an amp and listen back through studio speakers, it’s going to change. Nobody listens with their ears an inch away from an amp. Don’t expect to show up, plug-in and sound glorious. There are a lot of translations that need to happen to make a recorded guitar tone sound great. That’s what your engineer is for.

That’s the next issue. Be ready for the engineer to make changes to your settings. If what we’re hearing out of the speakers doesn’t sound right, we’re trained to first fix it at the source. Our immediate response isn’t going to be to reach for an EQ or a compressor. Assuming there’s a choice, I start by asking, “Is this the right guitar for the sound we’re after? Are we on the right pickup? Tone setting? Is this the right amp? Are the amp settings correct? Should we use a pedal?” All of that has to be correct before I reach for recording gear. I spend a lot of time going back and forth between the control room and the amp, listening to how it sounds. We’re going for emotional impact on the recording, and the audience will never know (or in most cases care) how the amp dials were set.

This leads me to my next point. Keep in mind that no one’s EVER going to hear the sound of your solo’d guitar. The solo button is a tool for the engineer to make critical technical decisions. That’s it. If the engineer is soloing things that are individually bothering you, or if they’re adjusting your sound before a take, let them follow through on their sonic thought before you pass judgment. Wait until they say, “I’m thinking this is how it’s going to sound.” And remember the sound has to be tailored to fit the mix. That may necessitate the engineer making some adjustments that you may not feel are correct when you hear them by themselves. Again, you have to have trust in your team. Now, if you’ve done a take, are listening back to the full mix, and still aren’t digging the sound, THAT’S the time to speak up. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t think that’s what we’re going for. Can we make a change?” If you’re working with a good team, they’re going to want to get it right.

Along the same lines, when I’m mixing I’ll generally tell the band to come to the studio later on in afternoon. I’ll certainly have asked for their thoughts on the direction of the mixes and hopefully have gotten some good references to work from. In the early stages of a mix, there’s not much useful information they can give me about the sound of, say, a kick drum because I’m trying to sculpt that in relation to the mix as a whole. There’s a lot of technical minutia involved in getting the mix to a place where it’s even worth listening to. I don’t think it does an artist any good to sit there from the beginning of the day while the mixer takes stock of what they have for 45 minutes (listening to the kick drum for 15 minutes, the snare drum for 15 minutes, etc.) You’re wasting valuable ear time. You’re going to get completely burned out before the mixer actually needs your input and none of that stuff is going to mean much to you musically anyway. These days you’re always a phone call/email/IM away. If a mixer has a question about something, they’ll get in touch.

In the same way a great guitarist doesn’t expect a mixer to pick up a guitar and play an Yngwie Malmsteen solo, an experienced mixer doesn’t expect an artist to walk into a studio and tell them how the drums need to be eq’d. So if they need a little time, let ‘em do their thing until they’re ready for you to hear it. That’s what you’re paying them for.

10. Let’s say that it’s a new band and they’re not ready to go into the studio yet.  Maybe they’re just starting out and at the songwriting stage or demo stage.  What are common pitfalls in home studios that people could avoid?

I think the most important parts of doing a recording are the quality of the songs, and quality of the performances. After that, recording is basically about trying not to ruin a good thing! So start with the question – is it a good song? Don’t invest a lot of time layering tracks on a so-so song thinking that’s going to make the difference. Invest that time in re-writing until it is good. When I start producing a project, I will often toss elaborate demos, sit down with the songwriter and strip it back to acoustic guitar and voice. I want to hear the raw song and make sure we’ve got good bones to start hanging the meat on. So think about the song from that perspective.

At first when you’re recording, ignore the desire to endlessly fix things. Your attention span and focus are finite resources. Every time you go back and overdub a part you already have a decent performance of, you’re using focus you’re going to need for the next guitar, bass or vocal part. Save the fixing for later (or for somebody else if you’re making a demo for a band). Getting the bones of the song down is the important thing.

Once you’ve gotten the basics together, THEN go back and dial the tones in. Spend the time you need getting your sounds, but when you hit record with intent (trying to get keeper takes), put a clock on yourself. Take 50 is not going to have some magic in it that take 5 didn’t. At that point you’re going to be far more worried about technical aspects than emotional ones. The emotional stuff is what’s truly interesting so walk away if you have to and come at it fresh later on.

If you’ve got a home studio, and a lot of time, maybe pick out a song a day. Sit down. Really listen to it. Ask, “Is this how I intended it to sound?” And ask it from both a sonic and performance perspective. If the answer is no, then try to determine what has to be changed. That might not take an entire day for each song, but you’ll be able to listen fresh each time you come back. That perspective is invaluable.

From a technical standpoint – assuming you’ve already got some form of recording device – the most important pieces of equipment are microphones, mic pre-amps, and monitors (speakers). Unless you’ve spent a lot of time studying EQ and compression you can easily do without them. Spend your money where it will do you the most good and save the fancy stuff for the pros.

If you’re a guitar player, the place to start is with a Shure SM 57 microphone. It’s around $100. I don’t care that everybody you know has one or that it’s the boring choice. It’s the sound of a recorded guitar. You can go out and spend thousands of dollars on something different and exotic, but most of the time you’ll be trying to get it to sound like a 57. Save yourself a ton of time and money by just buying one. Make your second mic, if you need one, something different.

Spend the dough you saved on the microphone on mic pres and speakers. If you’re recording guitar you’ll need one – possibly two – mic pres. This will absolutely be a case of getting what you pay for. There is no $75 mic pre that sounds like a $1500 mic pre. Do some research and, within reason, spend the most your budget will allow. You can do very well in the $500-$1500 per channel range.

Speakers are incredibly important. Think of them as eyes for your audio. Recording with bad speakers is like putting milky colored contact lenses on your eyes and trying to drive a race car. Your speakers don’t have to be the same set everyone else has. It comes down to your understanding them. It takes time to learn. Like getting a new pair of glasses or driving a new car. So if you go out and buy a new set of speakers, plan on spending the time to get used to them. They’re going to feel really weird at first while you learn how they relate to other listening environments. I plan on keeping the speakers I own now for the rest of my career. I spent a LONG time getting to know them. I’m happy with how they sound, and I love how my mixes translate on iPods, small speakers, hi-fi setups, etc. If you want to get that deep, that’s your ultimate goal. But you don’t necessarily have to break the bank to achieve it. You can find a lot of solid studio monitors in the $1000-$2000/pair range. Like the mic pre’s, you can spend a lot more if you want, but it becomes less a matter of quality and more a matter of taste.

There are lot of great amp sims out there for guitarists now. I hesitate to say one is better than another because I use them based on the situation I’m facing (like when I can’t have an amp blaring into drum microphones). I still believe that there is a magic to speaker cones pushing air that cannot be recreated with a simulator, but in terms of bang for your buck – how could you do better? You get a virtual room full of amplifiers, guitars, and recording equipment at your disposal. Try them all out! Have fun! If you have a real amp that’s not happening for a sound, but you have a simulator you think might work, use it! It’s about the sound, not the gear.

When I take on projects (either for production work or to mix) that were recorded in a home studio, there are usually a lot of things to address. Let’s assume it’s a rock thing. Drums are going to be at the top of the list. They’re one of the harder things to record well. So chances are I’m going to have to address those sounds one way or another. That could include editing, sound replacement, or re-cutting them outright. They’re also a big cue to the listener. If the drums sound like crap, they can be pretty quick to dismiss the rest of the recording. The same is true for vocals. Vocals can be hit or miss, and they’re very important. Unfortunately, the only real fixes for a bad vocal track are tuning (if that’s the issue), or re-cutting if there are technical problems. Bass – for better or worse – is one of the easier instruments to get a usable tone for. So sometimes that will slide by. I may find myself augmenting it in the mix via re-amping, distortion, or a sim. Keyboards are often in pretty good shape, because most of them are recorded direct, sometimes via quantized MIDI.

In terms of guitar tones…some people have a really good read on how their tone is coming across while others don’t. Guitarists are a strange breed. They can get dialed into an idea of a tone (especially if they’ve spent a long time working on it), and forget that it’s not going to fit every situation. Everything you’re doing on a recording HAS TO BE in the service of the song. So while it’s great that you dialed up that relatively clean tone, if the song needs to rock, time to crank it up! As I said before, only other guitarists – (and even then only sometimes) – really care what your amp settings were. The vast majority of your audience cares about how your music makes them feel. The better you are at your craft, the better you’ll be at evoking their emotions. That’s what I think we should all be shooting for.

Will thank you so much for your time. You can find out more about Will Kennedy and Studio P, by visiting them online at http://www.willkennedyproducer.com/ .


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Scott Collins

Scott Collins is the author of the pedagogical/reference series, <i>The GuitArchitect’s Guide To:</i> and several e-book titles that include: <i>An Indie Musician Wake Up Call</i> and <i>Selling It Versus Selling Out</i>. His playing is inspired by a wide range of western and non-western music, and, as a performer, he specializes in real-time composition.

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