Ken Lewis Crafts Hits for Fun, Kanye West
Other than massive popularity, what do Drake, Kanye West, Fun., Alicia Keys, and Bruno Mars all have in common? Whether for mixing or production, songwriting or arranging — or in some cases, all of the above — they have all called upon the sonic craftsmanship of Ken Lewis to help turn their musical ideas into hits of the platinum variety.
With over twenty years experience in the studio, Lewis has amassed credits on a dozen Grammy awards and over 60 gold, platinum, and number-one records. Most recently, he worked on the Grammy winning "Take Care" album for Drake, and captured multiple nominations for his contributions with Fun on "We Are Young." He's also responsible for crafting drum sounds on Alicia Keys' massive hit "Girl on Fire".
Lewis' interests include sharing his hard-won studio knowledge and, to that end, he recently founded www.AudioSchoolOnline.com, where students can learn mixing and production techniques directly from the master. Here's what Lewis had to say about mentoring the next generation of mixers, crafting hits for the biggest stars in the business, and the UAD Powered Plug-Ins he's used to help make it all happen.
What's particularly new and exciting in your world?
Wow — well, I'm doing some work on the new Kanye West record. I have no idea when that's going to come out, quite honestly. I'm not even certain that it's his record or somebody else's. They never really tell me. But the good thing is, whenever Kanye calls, you know you're working on a hit record. [Laughs.] That's never a bad thing.
I'm doing some work for J. Cole, too. One of the other most exciting things for me is a new artist named Ben Stevenson. We just found out that he got offered a label deal from a good major. We have at least two songs on that project and we'll be working on a lot more with Ben on that record as that comes up. Then there's Kat Dahlia, a great artist who I think is going to be huge this year. And I've also been working with Fabolous. There's always ten things going on here. Never a dull moment.
Do you have go-to Universal Audio products that you use on these projects?
I'm getting the new Apollo Interface for my new studio I'm setting up — but the plug-ins, I have them all. The great thing for me is that I've been making major-label records for 21 years and I have owned, or still own, many of the items that UAD has modeled. I've extensively used virtually every vintage piece of UAD plug-ins that they've emulated. The Neve 33609, the MXR Flanger/Doubler, the API 500 Series EQ Collection that just came out, the Ampex ATR-102 Tape Recorder; I actually own a real EMT 140 plate reverb, which I started using a heck of a lot less after I got the UAD EMT 140 Plate Reverb plug-in and realized that not only did it sound as good as my plate, but it was ten times more versatile.
The other piece that I currently own that UAD models is the Roland Dimension D. I probably use my Dimension D a quarter as much as I used to now that I have the plug-in, because the plug-in sounds just like the outboard. In fact, I could probably get rid of the outboard all together, but I'm just nostalgic over it. [Laughs.] I don't want to give it up. Those things are hard to find!
“I own a real EMT 140 plate reverb, which I started using a heck of a lot less after I got the UAD EMT 140 Plate Reverb plug-in and realized that not only did it sound as good as my plate, but it was ten times more versatile.”
How do those plug-ins affect your creative process?
They give me the enormous creative power to know that I can create any sound that I want. If I can envision what I want to go for, there's going to be a tool in there somewhere that's going to help me carve it. It's just like having the best safety net you can imagine. It also lets me stop thinking about the technology. I don't have to worry about, "How am I going to do this?" I just look at my plug-in list and I go, "Oh, the 33609," or "Oh, the Cambridge EQ." I just use them like crazy.
What was your first project using UAD plug-ins?
Drake's Lord Knows record was the first time I started using UAD stuff. I arranged choir and music for Lord Knows, and I know I used the EMT Plate 140 on both. I was also using the 33609, Cambridge EQ, and the Neve EQs.
How did you use them?
Basically I was going for a really gritty, overdriven, crunchy sound and I got that vibe on this specific record by driving those plug-ins past their normal limit. Distortion isn't the right word, because you get such a musical sound when they saturate.
How did you make that happen?
The plug-ins saturate just like if you crank an EQ gain all the way up and overdrive a channel on a real console. So a lot of what I did was just overdriving channels, and compressing stuff, and finding ways to just obliterate sounds. [Laughs.] The goal was to make this massive choir sound really raw.
What was your work like with Fun?
I created the big drum sounds for "We Are Young" by layering a ton of different programmed kicks and snares along with live kicks and snares recorded in live rooms. I also used a ton of filters like the Cambridge EQ. That plug-in has a filter setting called "Elliptic 6". It's the steepest fall-off-a-cliff filter with this cool resonance at the cutoff frequency and it gives you this fuzzy distortion wherever you're cutting it off.
How did you filter the drums exactly?
I would process different drums in different ways. I might filter out all of the bottom end of one snare and then filter out the top end of another, then blend those two together and hit them with a 33609, maybe with a limiter for a super-fast attack and super-fast release. So I'd remove the transients but still get this cool ring out of it. Then I'd layer in other drum sounds just to give me the transients. With the room sounds, I used the 33609 — again, fast attack and fast release, just so that the room had an explosive impact to it.
How did you combine the drum sounds after filtering and processing?
I would blend all of those sounds together, sometimes through the EMT 140 to add some reverb, and then bounce that entire signal down through the stereo bus. Then I would bring it back in and chop the ending off so they sounded even more processed. The effect in the end is this big reverb that just cuts off instantly. Then we hit it with tape saturation — the whole nine yards. Basically we threw the kitchen sink at these drums and tried to get them to sound unique and have their own character.
“Whenever I have a kick that just doesn't have enough weight to it, I'll reach for the Little Labs VOG, tweak it for a few minutes, and just dial it in. It finds low frequencies that you didn't even know were there.”
This sounds intense. How long did it take?
Forever. It took us two days to create just a kick and snare. [Laughs.] It really was custom drum building. But the end result was six million singles sold on "We Are Young" and five Grammy nominations, so I can't complain. I played a small role in a big picture, but I'll take it. [Laughs.]
Did you fill a similar role for Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire"?
I was hired to do the big drums on that song, and that's all I did — just big kick and big snare. I ended up doing big drums on three huge projects last year, Bruno Mars being the last one. I think it's just one of those things where people find out that you did this one thing and want you to do it for their records, too.
Did you use the same techniques as with "We Are Young"?
With Alicia Keys, it was all live drums. I had my drummer Dylan Wissing come up to Alicia's studio, The Oven, in New York City, and I set up about twenty mics. I tried to capture as many different colors of the drum picture as I possibly could — close room, far room, close-up mics, you name it. We recorded maybe six or seven different snare drums and probably that many kick drums as well. Then I brought everything back to my studio and started listening and sorting, layering room sounds against dry sounds.
Were there any other UAD plug-ins you used on those drums that were different than what you did for Fun?
When I want to do either mid-side EQ work or really surgical stuff, I'll go for the Brainworx bx digital EQ v2. I know I used the Brainworx a lot on that, because the stereoness of those sounds was much more important than the stereoness on the Fun record. Fun was more monocentric, centered drum sounds, where the width of the stereo rooms was much more important on the "Girl on Fire" record.
How exactly did you process the stereo image of the drums?
I got the room to sound the way it did by using only the side EQs on the room return, and either brightening them up, carving out frequencies on the side that I was not touching on the middle, or sometimes even pulling out the middle but boosting the sides.
Are there any particular UAD tips or tricks you can share?
One of my favorites is the SPL Vitalizer plug-in. One of things I've been using it for heavily lately is background vocals. I'll buss maybe sixteen tracks of backgrounds to a stereo group, then I'll usually compress it with the 33609. Then I'll put the Vitalizer on.
What exactly does the Vitalizer do in that context?
It opens up the top end on vocals unlike anything else that I've heard. I'm not really sure how to describe it other than it's just like voodoo. It does things that I know I can't get with equalization and it just gives this brightness without being harsh, this presence to the vocals that helps them sit right in the mix and cut through where I need them to cut through — and be tame where I need them to be tame.
I've been using the Little Labs VOG Bass Resonance Tool plug-in quite a bit for kick drums. That thing is just a monster. A lot of times, whenever I have a kick that just doesn't have enough weight to it, I'll reach for the Little Labs VOG, tweak it for a minute or two, and just dial it in. It finds low frequencies that you didn't even know were there. I run two subs in my studio, so when I find those sub frequencies that really come through, I can really feel it.
You mentioned that you really enjoy teaching audio production to up and coming producers. Tell us a bit more about your online audio school, AudioSchoolOnline.com.
My mom was a teacher and I used to teach private guitar lessons growing up, so I think teaching must be in my blood. I noticed that there was this huge gap in the ability to find accurate, great information all in one place, all from somebody trustworthy. A forum like Gearslutz.com is wonderful, but there's so much misinformation there and on YouTube that I remember thinking, "You know, somebody needs to put all of his or her skills out there and teach the next wave of producers and engineers how to make records." So I decided to start an online school where I could lay out all of my knowledge.
How's it going so far?
It's great. The good and bad thing about the Internet is that people will find fault with every little thing you do, but what's pleasantly surprised me with the school is how amazingly over-the-top the reactions are. It's great to know that the things I'm trying to teach are connecting and helping people in a real way. I also have a lot of professionals, maybe in smaller markets, come back to me and tell me, "My clients are noticing that my mixes are better because of your lessons." It's amazing to get feedback like that.
Word on the street is that you use UAD plug-ins in your lessons.
I mixed a song called "Down On Me" for Jeremiah and 50 Cent, which was a number-one single and spent seven months on the singles charts. 50 Cent allowed me, very graciously, to build a series of three web episodes around how I mixed that tune and he allowed me to use the actual session. What you're hearing are the raw tracks and you're watching me put them together, just like I put them together when I mixed the original song. I use the UAD Neve 33609 extensively in this lesson, and other things as well. Virtually every one of my lessons uses UAD software in it somewhere, if not quite a bit throughout.
Why are you pursuing the school now in your career?
I'm pushing myself much more into producing and writing, so even though I still mix probably 100 songs or more per year, I feel like I've already been there and done that at pretty much the biggest levels you can do it. It feels like the right time to let that knowledge go and teach the next round of up-and-coming mixers, engineers, and producers.
Photos ©2013 Juan Patino Photography. Check out more at www.juanpatinophotography.com.
— Michael Gallant