OK, Ken Lewis has graciously taken the time to answer many of the questions posted in the community, along with a few of our own.
For those of you arriving late, this is the first "ask the experts" post in the Bandzoogle blog. It is your opportunitiy to ask questions to key people in the industry.
Ken is a Producer / Mixer / Engineer / Musician / Songwriter for over 14 years. He has worked with top selling artists like Kanye West, Beastie Boys, Usher, Lenny Kravitz, Janet Jackson and Bandzoogle's own Small Town Sleeper. His credits include 2 Grammy's, 38 Gold and Platinum albums and singles, 19 #1 albums and singles, and 18 more Grammy nominations. He has started an innovative Pay Per Download service called IndieTunes.com which caters specifically to independent musicians.
Q: Any suggestions on the best way to build contacts quickly with the goal of breaking into the publishing and songwriting side of the business?
A: In complete honesty and sincerity, here's the real answer to this question. First, write and record a song that sounds like (and has the potential to someday be) a hit song.
If you cannot do that, then really, why are publishers going to be interested in your material? Why would an artist want to buy a song from you? A great song will open alot of doors for you. So, if your songwriting isnt yet "amazing", or at least really really good, refine your creft before attempting to break into that market. it is REALLY difficult to break into publishing and songwriting and actually make money doing it.
If you think you have exceptional material, then you can find lists of publishers, TV and film placement companies. I co-own one, www.SongandFilm.com, we've been at it for a while with a great catalog and really good connections and i can tell you from first hand experience, its not easy at all to place songs in film and TV, but certainly not impossible. Sometimes if a band has a killer album, they can get it directly to a music supervisor and on rare occasion they'll listen and like it, and license a song or two for use.
Keep in mind though, if your material doesnt stand out from the crowd already, its probably not going to get placed by a publisher or with another artist, though there are exceptions to every rule.
Q: When listening to a new track or band how long are you willing to wait for the hook?
A: For me at least for the first song, I try to be patient and give it at least til the end of the first hook before deciding whether to listen on. Sometimes even i cant take it, but i do try. However, i will give you some guidelines. If your trying to get a record deal, and your shopping your songs to labels, managers, etc... there are a few good guidelines
- never put more than 3 or 4 songs on a shopping disc. you may LOVE the songs, but they will quite often look at that many songs and decide they have no time to spend listening to any of them. and if you give them too much material, its too much for them to absorb, retain, and make sound judgements on.
- if your a band who wants to get played on the radio, GET TO THE HOOK FAST!!!!!! 30 seconds to a minute MAX. typically you get one minute or less to impress an A&R guy. If he's not really hooked by 60 seconds, often the disc goes into the very large reject pile with all the other discs.
- keep in mind, just because the arrangement works live, doesnt mean it'll work on tape. a 30 second intro live isnt a whole lot of time, but for radio its suicide for airplay.
Q: In the mixing process, which instrument do you rough in first? Is there a particular order that seems to work for you?
A: The first thing i try to do is a very fast rough mix of the song. All faders down to start, and two full passes top to bottom to get EVERYTHING balanced and listenable (i've been doing this a while). then i might sit back and simply listen to the song many times just to catch a vibe. When i think i have the song internalized, i'll often go back to building the mix from scratch, usually drums first, then bass, guitars, etc..... At some point early, i'll bring in the vocal, and just keep it low so i remember its there, and so i remember to carve a nice big hole in the mix for it to live. Personally, i like to mix fast early on, I probably do 80% of my mixing in the first hour or two, and might spend another 8 hours tweeking, refining, trying special ideas, etc... but it will almost always sound like a song within 2 hours. it may not sound like a finished mix for ten hours.
one of the worst things you can do in a mix is solo each instrument one by one and eq it til it sounds great. When your done eq;ing each instrument, your going to have everything fighting for sonic space instead of working together. Often instruments in my mixes that sound great in the final would sound terrible if they were solo'd. You'd hear a bunch of crazy eq'ing sometimes that i do to open up space for other things, but in the end, everything really works. Mixing is about creating a great stereo mix, not about making individual things sound great.
Q: We record all our live shows to a 24 track digital hard drive recorder. Our mixed down of shows never sound pro, why? Is it the lack of processing effects
A: Honestly, there's probably several things working against you. First, is your recording gear really good? Mics? mic pre's? eq's, etc... 24 bits of crap is a pristinely recorded recording of crap.
second, is a recording engineer who really knows what they are doing recording you? Are you giving them as long time to sound check and fine tune their sounds?
third, are you using studio quality gear on stage, and tuning it really well. the most expensive drums in the world will sound like crap if they are tuned poorly, or played poorly. How bout your amps? guitars? vocal mic?
Third, if your comparing your live recordings to live albums you buy from your favorite artists in the store, chances are one of several things. Several hundred thousand dollars was spent recording and mixing that record. Second, many "live" records you hear have been significantly enhanced after the fact in the studio. i have personally been involved in making a few of these "live" records. And also, many live albums are compilations of a tours worth of recordings, capturing the most amazing performance of each of their songs, meaning each song probably got recorded 20 times on tour, and they picked the best of the 20 takes for each song.
Q: Should we spend the money on trying to get a good live recording or should we go into a studio?
A: The above answer should answer most of this, i usually bet against live recordings if you want anything to sound pro. If it was as easy to get pro quality as sticking up a bunch of mics and recording a show, everybody would do it. Making a song truly translate well on tape usually means alot of time spent in the studio with talented studio people. If care is taken, alot of overdub recording can happen in a home studio effectively. vocals, guitars, etc... can be effectively recorded even on an Mbox (ugh) as long as you take the time to get the performance right, tune your instrument, tweek your amps, move the mic around til it really sounds good, etc....
One of my pet peeves is getting a song in from someone i know recorded it in their home studio and the vocal is still really out of tune. Its your home, there's no time pressure, spend the time it takes to get a great performance.
Q: There is debate on whether unknown bands should have pay-per-download vs. offering free tracks. What are your thoughts on this issue? Would it be considered poor PR if a band has free tracks on its own site but offers the same tracks on pay-per-track sites?
A: I think you should always give your fans the option of monetarily supporting you thru buying your music, which is part of the reason i set up indietunes.com
I always think bands should give something away free. your indie, its expected and its an effective way of gaining fan interest. But i think fans often feel closer to a band when they can "own" a piece of that band thru buying their songs. I mean if a fan cant cough up 99 cents for a song if they hear one they like, how much of a fan are they really?
indietunes.com offers both streaming of songs and the ability to then purchase an MP3 of that song if they like it. Customer hears the song and can immediately own it if they like what they hear, and all for a whole lot less than a cup of coffee. There seems to be a prevailing indie attitude that if your profiting from music, thats bad. The world needs artists, and you are those people, you provide a valuable function of entertainment and connection to music thru what you create. if you can make some money back great!!! you probably spent more on recording the song than you'll earn back, so yes, encourage your fans to support you and help you earn enough money off this album to record the next!!!!
Q: How important is having a good mix when submitting your demos to A&R reps? As a producer you must have a good ear for what's a hit and what's not, but do you think A&R reps have the same ear if presented with a poorly recorded song?
A: Some A&R guys will get it. a chosen few. but i think there are two ways to effectively shop. Send an amazing sounding fully produced song, great recording and mix, great artist performance, great songs. Or.....
very bare bones presentation, such as piano/vocal. however, still with an amazing recording and performance. Sometimes this can be very effective. Not for a metal band, but for a singer songwriter maybe.
Keep in mind, these guys get a TON of material every week, most of which they never listen to. Usually the only stuff they listen to is given to them by someone they know and has come thru the door highly recommended. Also keep in mind a typical A&R guy might see 100 to 200 artists a year live, might meet with half those artists, or double that number with in office meetings, etc.... and they might sign one or two a year (usually more like 1). Major label interest is not a meeting. Major label interest is a president, VP or high level A&R person coming out to a show based off of what they've heard. Major label interest is a contract in front of you. The meetings are important, but you have to keep things in perspective. If i had a nickel for every time I've heard a band say "we have major label interest" i'd have alot of nickels.
Q: With the advancements of technology today, how do you feel about musicians setting up their own home studio with programs like ProTools or CuBase?
A: you'll catch a theme here with me. In the right hands, it can be creative magic. in the wrong hands career suicide. I think the quality of the majority of recordings, even on a major label level, has gone down in recent years, but there are alot of people out there who really know how to work the gear and maximize their creativity with it.
I think if your goal is to use it as a songwriting tool, giving you a platform to explore ideas and arrangements, home recording gear is a great tool. If you want to compete sonically with the records you hear on the radio and buy in stores, a very chosen few are good enough to meet that level. However, i get songs in to mix all the time from people all over the world who recorded some or all of their songs in their home studios and quite often the finished product comes out great. Keep in mind there are things i know how to do as a mixer that the common person with the same gear will never even consider. 14 years of being in the studio everyday is irreplaceable knowledge. I can often work magic with recordings that are just ok. (yes i am quite self confident, you dont get to this level unless you believe 150% in your own abilities :-)
Q: What are your thoughts on using software plugins in comparison to using expensive outboard gear? Can a plugin really compare to the real thing?
A: In the hands of the right person, yes. sometimes better. in the hands of the wrong person it can sound very bad. Of course the same holds true for analog outboard. If it was easy, everybody would be an engineer. i sucked for years before i got good
Q: Before starting a mix, do you know what the final product will sound like in your head?
A: Sometimes, as a producer, i'll hear an acoustic guitar and vocal demo of a song and hear the entire thing completely finished in my head, with orchestrations, harmonies, layered sounds, etc... It never comes out exactly like that vision, but thats sometimes a great barometer for me. If a song does that to me when i hear it in raw form, i know i'm about to produce a great song. As a mixer, it sometimes is like that, sometimes, i just start and see where it takes me. usually i like where i go. sometimes I dont and i'll back track or start again.
Q: What is the one piece of gear you cannot do without when mixing records?
A: My ears. my experience. thats my gear. Other than that, put me in any room and i'll find a way to make it sound good. I certainly have alot of gear i'm comfortable using, and alot of gear i love using, but the indispensible things are attached. A mediocre mixer with the most amazing gear in the world is going to give you a mediocre mix. (i've heard alot of them....."oh yeah, it was mixed on an SSL" - apparently by someone deaf)
Every now and then they might get lucky and crank out a good one, but as a professional mixer, I'm expected to hit a home run every time, and every time i step up to the plate to mix any record, from the biggest artist in the world to the smallest independent, I'm trying to knock it out of the park.
Thanks Ken for your insights! Hopefully we'll host another Q+A with Ken in the future!