Photo: Rachel Kumar
Kid Andersen calls his studio Greaseland, and that offers a couple of clues about both him and his musical persuasions. Andersen revels in the greasy vibe of old-school Southern blues and soul music and possesses a rapid and wry sense of humor that he uses to good effect in keeping things playful during tracking sessions.
Aside from his formidable chops in the control room, Kid is an in-demand multi-instrumentalist who often gets out from behind the board to play pivotal roles in the music he produces as well as on live dates. While he loves old-school soul, R&B and blues, nobody could accuse Kid of being a purist. As he reveals in our conversation, he loves the convenience and extended possibilities that Pro Tools affords. He’s also not averse to adding a little sweetening here and there in his productions with non-orthodox stuff like harpsichord or mellotron fills.
Of course, his drool-worthy collection of vintage amps and instruments is a mainstay too.
We talked to Kid at his San Jose, California studio—a location he refers to as “The Deep South Bay.”
The HUB: How did you get your start in music?
Kid Andersen: I was born in Norway and when I was about ten or eleven years old my second cousin, who was like a brother to me and a local guitar hero who lived down the road, told me that if I got a guitar he’d teach me how to play. Within a couple of months I had surpassed him and most of the other kids.
The HUB: Do you think that growing up in Norway gives you a different perspective on American music and musicians?
KA: Probably. What attracted me first to music and then particularly to blues was that it sounded like such a completely different world to where I lived. Yet it had a familiar ring to it. I found that very attractive. Norway’s a very rich country. You don’t really have to worry about anything, because if you fail, the government will take care of you. So that’s great—in a way. I found America a wild west kind of a thing where you’ve got to fend for yourself.
It’s a lot less safe, and being as disturbed as I am, it actually seemed very appealing. And the music was my first exposure to my America. I have essays I wrote from when I was a kid asking what I wanted to do when I grow up, and they all said ‘I want to move to America.’
The HUB: Do you think that the social safety net you describe tends to eliminate that dues-paying kind of sense that a lot soul and blues artists seem to possess?
KA: I think tough conditions tend to breed a lot of pretty soulful music. That’s not to say that I want anybody to have it bad, but historically that seems to have been the case. People look for that escape from reality. My ancestors way back were into that. They were adventurers, but now everything is safe and organized and by the book in the Scandinavian countries. You can’t hardly do anything without having to fill out some kind of form and go through the proper channels. And to my core I’m just kind of a renegade. So that whole mentality just rubbed me the wrong way. That’s why I wanted to come here.
The HUB: You came over here as a musician as opposed to a producer, is that right?
KA: Yes. I’ve always been a musician and still am. To me, the studio is a musical instrument. When I was 18 or 19, I got a gig in Oslo at a blues club that doesn’t exist any more called Muddy Waters. We would back up different American blues acts. They’d bring over Homesick James, Nappy Brown, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Jimmy Dawkins—all those guys are dead now—and we would back them up. And that was a great real-life experience. And every time I played with one of these guys, I’d be like, ‘Hey man, I want to move to America but I need a gig.’ So eventually this guy, Terry Hanck, a great saxophone player and singer from the Bay Area came over. His guitar player had just undergone a major life change and had to move, actually while Terry was there. So he offered me a gig—that was in 2000, and I moved here in 2001.
The HUB: How did you make the transition from musician to producer?
KA: That was pretty natural. I’ve always played several musical instrument, I started out fooling around on the piano before I got started on guitar. I wanted to start a band with this friend down the street whose mom was a cleaning lady at a church where there was a drum kit and I taught myself how to play drums. I learned how to play so I could teach him how to play drums.
Then after a couple of years of guitar playing, I really got into bass. But I had the same experience as with the drums. Nobody played bass the way I wanted to hear it, so I learned that. Then I got into keyboards. I have a very good ear—I don’t have perfect pitch—but I’ve got very good relative pitch. I can figure stuff out real easily. I understand music theory—I learned a bunch of that when I went through music high school. I learned how to arrange four-part choral harmony and all the rules of that. I learned a lot of jazz standards so I was starting to get a pretty good grasp of it. There are people who understand complex harmonies better than me, but the meat and potatoes stuff I can figure out.
So it went from me telling other people in the band what I wanted to hear. And then later, when we started recording, I was completely in love with the possibilities from the get-go. I think I played on my first full-length CD in the studio when I was 18 or 19, and I took to it right away. I was experimenting with different amps and layering stuff. I can listen to that record today and still be pretty proud of it. Basically, when I got in the studio, even though I wasn’t engineering, I had this whole library of sound to draw from. So once I got into the studio I started to learn how to recreate sounds that I love and how to take those sounds and use them for something else.
So then I sort of co-produced or was a backseat driver on a couple of different albums. When I got to the U.S., Terry Hanck was in the process of making a record. He was pretty clued to a lot of things you could do in the studio, and how to make stuff better. I’ve played with a lot of people who can only tell you when it’s wrong or right. They can’t connect the dots in between. Terry would even sing a part to you—he’d be dancing and making movements with his lips—and he’d say, ‘No it’s more like this…’ [vocalizes a riff] he wasn’t actually making a sound, but you could see what was going on in his head and pick up on it.
That was part of my learning to be a translator by getting into the artist’s head and hearing the sounds they were hearing. And then through my growing arsenal of stuff I could do, I could actually put that on a record.
The HUB: It’s interesting that you came from overseas yet found you had the ability to musically articulate some pretty subtle stuff in a second language. What do you attribute that to? Just a good ear, or what?
KA: Yeah, probably a good ear is part of it. I don’t think of English as a second language anymore. Ever since I was a kid, I watched movies in English, I read magazines and books in English. Even before I moved to America, I had several American friends who I would hang out with a lot. I would think and even dream in English. I don’t know. Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived here longer than I’ve been alive and you know how his English sounds.
The HUB: He has a pretty pronounced accent. Whereas if I was asked where I thought you might be from, I’d suspect somewhere in the middle South.
KA: Well, most of the American music I like is of a southern origin. I guess I pick and choose what I want to incorporate into how I want to talk. It’s not a conscious process.
The HUB: Getting back to your evolution as a musician and producer, you said you had some formal training in school where music was concerned, but was learning record production mostly seat-of-the-pants?
KA: Yeah, it was learning by doing and just having an interest in it. People always ask me, ‘How do you go from playing keyboards to guitar?’ and I go, ‘It’s all the same thing. The notes are arranged relatively the same.’ And I think it’s the same with engineering. When I started playing guitar I had stompboxes and amps and figuring out a signal chain just made sense to me. To me, using a Telefunken tube preamp is the same as using a Fuzz Face.
At first I was baffled. It seemed like you needed a lot of brains to operate a mixing console not to mention the computer. At the time I got started computer-based recording was already happening though I had done lots of stuff on tape.
During the first three or four years I was here I didn’t do any engineering—at least not professionally. But I worked on a lot of records and I became known for having a good ear. I made a record for [harp player] R. J. Mischo and several for Terry. But I started having a realization and began to feel like the engineer was in my way. I found I was being called in to go in and tell the engineer what to do. But it was like riding in a taxi cab giving the guy directions. At some point you just say, ‘Just let me drive the ****ing car!’ [Laughter]
The HUB: Just get your own hands on the faders huh?
KA: Yeah. I’d observe the whole chain before it hit the tape. At some point around 2006, I had a lot of spare time. I had a friend who was a janitor at a radio station. They were throwing out an old Otari MX-5050 half-inch eight track tape machine and a RAMSA board and some other outboard gear. He gave me the stuff and I had it all fixed up and I started making my own records here at the same house I’m still in.
The HUB: Do you still use the Otari?
KA: I sold it and really regret it. It got to be a little unreliable and I got to tripping out about it and I sold it for like six hundred bucks.
The HUB: It’s kind of hard to beat that tape saturation.
KA: It just sounded good. I got inspired by it right away. I had a really nice Gretsch drum kit here. I put up like four mics and I got an incredible drum sound. You didn’t have to know much about what you were doing at all. It really helped to inspire me at first.
So just to backtrack a little, when I made my first record, I wasn’t paying for it—the label was—I started realizing that I was working with an engineer who was getting paid by the hour. He had preconceived notions that were different from my aesthetics, and that was a big obstacle for me. It was a daily fight to get him to do what I wanted him to do to get the sounds I wanted to hear—not necessarily what he deemed to be his optimal sounds.
The second thing I realized is that the slower he worked the more money he made. So that eventually led me to doing my own recording. At a later point, I briefly moved out of here and moved in with a woman in Sacramento, and then I really had a lot of spare time. But I had left my recording rig here for my roommates. While I was there, I got a Digi002 and figured I could start dicking around with Pro Tools. So I started working with some musician friends up there and I got to where I could operate that too.
Then I bought a few pieces of outboard gear that really took it up a notch and brought us close to that sound I remembered from the Otari and the RAMSA. I think the first thing I bought that gave my recordings a noticeable lift was my first Universal Audio LA 610 preamp. That and a decent mic, and I was starting to sound like something.
The HUB: That was a quantum leap for you, huh?
KA: That was one of a few quantum leaps.
The HUB: What was the mic?
KA: I think it was one of those tube M Audio Sputnik mics. It was bright, but I kind of like bright. I ran that through the LA 610 preamp, and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s starting to sound more presentable.’
One of the things I was listening to were some old Freddie King records. He’s got this huge, awesome, gnarly distorted sound. But it’s not a super-distorted amp, it’s like several layers of crunchiness. It was the mic, the mic preamp and the tape machine all adding their little layer of distortion.
Before that, I was using a 57 [Shure SM57 mic] on my amp going into a pretty clean solid state preamp going to digital. And that was creating a disappointment that was starting to get to me. Something would sound great in the room, but then when you go back to listen to it, your heart just drops because it sounds so unimpressive and wimpy. So I started realizing that distortion is what I like—saturation, if you will.
The HUB: Harmonic distortion?
KA: Yeah, harmonic distortion; what would that be—second-order harmonic distortion? Just grit. Varying degrees of that have been important ever since. There are some good plug-in sounds that can do that for me. You know, I’m happy with the sound I’m getting in digital now.
The HUB: What are your go-to plug-ins these days?
KA: The Universal Audio stuff is really great. I usually use the Studer A800 plug-in on just about every track. And the Ampex ATR-102 plug-in on the master bus. I have several of their preamps too to get a little extra grit going in. It’s a fine line—some clients like distortion more than others. So I usually try to record pretty clean.
So the Universal Audio plug-ins are great; the Waves Kramer [Master Tape] plug-in is good too. I like the sound of the Soundtoys Decapitator—that’s a good one. One of the first plug-ins that—bam!—took my sound to another level was the PSP MixPack—they're a Polish company and their stuff is great. Their MixSaturator plug-in has a great tape machine sound. That was the first third-party plug-in I bought because they didn’t have any tape saturation plug-ins stock in Pro Tools. It was like either that or run everything through AmpliTube LE—but you can’t run everything through a fake Twin!
The HUB: So those plug-ins got you closer to that Freddie King sound you were jonesing for?
KA: Oh yeah, they got me as close as I wanted to be. After that, it’s just up to your playing.
The HUB: You mostly work in the realms of soul, blues and R&B, and I sometimes hear the idea that there’s nothing new that can be said in those genres—all the great music has already happened and today’s old-school artists are just recycling those sounds. What’s your response to that?
KA: Well, is there anything good being said in the other genres? [Laughs]
The HUB: Good question.
KA: To me, the qualities of new and innovative run a distant second to just good and expressive, soulful. Most of the stuff I hear now that they consider new and innovative, it’s recycled old stuff anyway. Evolution has to happen naturally. I can smell it if someone is trying to force change on their artistry; it’s just very obvious to me. I don’t want to hear people think when I listen to their records. I want to hear stuff just pouring out of people. I don’t want to get the visual image of them banging their head against the wall to come up with something which nobody has ever done before. I mean, who cares? If you want to go out and get a meatball sandwich, you don’t want strawberries on it.
Basically, the way I see it, this kind of music—blues, soul—particularly blues, it’s a musical language. The English language is just fine; people are still writing books; you don’t have to invent some new cyborg language for people to enjoy a book. It’s the same with blues. It’s a language, and if you get to a certain level and it becomes your mother tongue and you have a story to tell, you can tell your own personal story in that language. It will have originality and personality. That’s what's important to me. I could care less if there’s some kind of new revolutionary thing that’s never been done before.
The HUB: We recently interviewed producer Rick Beato as part of this same Art of Sound Series. He has the theory that once the blues progressions and sounds left pop and rock music in the 1990s, that was the end of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it. I’m guessing you’d probably agree.
KA: Yeah, I think so. It’s kind of a blanket statement. There are some kinds of rock I enjoy that are completely devoid of blues. But I’m talking about way back, like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes. But that’s just because I’m a weirdo. I actually do have to agree though with what he’s saying; you can’t really properly rock without blues. As I said, blues is a language, and rock ‘n’ roll is just somebody’s strain of that language.
But it’s not just the absence of blues in a lot of music. People are just not digging in; they’re not learning, they’re so shallow. I have a huge palette of stuff to draw from. Not just blues, but soul and rock and jazz and classical music—even Indian music.
One time I was playing with Charlie Musselwhite in London and there was this young rock band there. These 20-year-old, rock star-looking dudes. And I was hanging out getting drunk with them. And one of the guys looked just like Paul Stanley. And I go, ‘You know, you look just like Paul Stanley,’ and they all go, ‘Who’s that?’ These guys are signed with a big label; they’re there to shoot a video that’ll probably cost more than everything I’ve done combined, and they did not know who Paul Stanley was. I went off on them—I was drunk. So I go, ‘What kinda stuff do you guys listen to?’ And they go, ‘Classic rock.’ And I go, ‘Like what?’ And they go, ‘Nirvana.’
I think most of the new stuff I hear tends to suffer from a lack of eclecticism. And it seems like whatever they’re drawing from happened a month ago.
The HUB: Speaking of the influences, when you were first exposed to blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan was a big deal, but you delved into his influences with the great blues guitarists. I wondered what your take on Stevie Ray is today.
KA: When I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, it blew my mind. When I started out playing I was listening to The Beatles and Chuck Berry. But when I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was like, ‘I want to get into blues.’ And I bought a guitar magazine that had Stevie Ray Vaughan on the cover—he had actually just died right around then. I read an interview with him and he listed all his influences: Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hubert Sumlin, Lonnie Mack and all these guys. I made a list of those names and I went to all the record stores in close proximity to my home town and got every record I could.
It seems like for a lot of people who heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, it was, ‘That’s it. I’m gonna copy that guy.’ I didn’t think I was doing anything unique at the time by digging deeper. But as I grew up, I realized a lot of people don’t do that. It was digging into those other guys that led me into wondering how they got those sounds and into engineering.
The HUB: In a lot of sessions these days, when the artists and engineers aren’t getting the sound they’re hearing in their heads, there’s sometimes a tendency to say, ‘Let’s keep going—we’ll fix it in the mix.’ With all the tricks you can pull off with Pro Tools and Auto Tune and the plug-ins out there, a lot of tweaks can be made later on. But what about the more difficult to define things like feel and swing? From my perspective there’s nothing that can beat a great studio performance.
KA: That’s right. If somebody misses a break, you can fix that. You can fix it when somebody’s a little out of tune. But it’s very, very hard to fix somebody who’s just not hitting it right. Not to mention not swinging. Although if you’ve got a good drummer that helps. You know, most guys tend to rush a bit. I find that often nudging somebody 15 or 30 milliseconds to the right can improve the performance by 50 to 90 percent. The ideal is to get good players in your studio, but that’s not always your call.
When I’m working with strong players, I burn a rough mix to two track when they’re tracking, and that usually sounds just about like the finished record. We might spend a couple of weeks tweaking it to get out all the kinks that satisfy everyone in the band’s OCD, but basically the rough mixes sound like the record.
The HUB: So your EQing is all done up front?
KA: I try to get the sound right at the source. I don’t have a lot of very fancy EQs. I’ve got a couple of channels of Orban EQ and I have low and high shelving on the LA-610s, and I have a bunch of high pass filters in Pro Tools. I might use a little of that. But I don’t want to do anything too radical going in because I might regret it. But mainly when you get in the mix its mainly balance. If the guys in the band are playing their parts right by listening to each other, then you can pretty much just check your email.
I try to get it right first with levels and then if I have to, I EQ a little. Sweeten it up with some reverb. I want the band to do a take then come in here [the control room] and say ‘Wow!’ I want it to sound better than they thought it did. I’ve been in recording situations where you’d come into the control room and be completely underwhelmed. They had the world’s greatest guitar amps stuck in a foam enclosure to stop bleeding into the the other mics. But that kills any fun you get from having a great amp in the room. I listen to it and go, ‘Man can’t we at least put some reverb on it?’ And the guy goes, ‘Nah, we’re gonna do that in the mix.’ To me, there’s no mix—most of my favorite stuff was mixed as it was tracked. I don’t want it to sound good later, I want it to sound good now.
My role varies depending on who I’m working with and what I’m hired to do, and the kind of relationship I have with everybody in the band. I can go from just taking musical dictation—just recording and playing back on command—to telling some bands what to play, note by note. I’ll sit down and show them a drum break or fill or groove that I think will be better. I’ll be very hands on trying to get it right in their performance.
I have had performances that required a lot of editing. I have to say that I’ve taken some performances that did not groove and eventually, after laborious hours of editing, created something that actually has a groove. But that’s too much work for me.
The HUB: I hear that. How do you deal with bruised egos when you feel the performance just isn’t coming together?
KA: Well, I have a gun… [Laughter] Usually it goes pretty well though. I haven’t had too many real bad blowups. Usually everybody will have a common goal to get this s**t done. I always try to defuse situations with a lot of humor. I don’t want to be the guy who picks on one guy. You want to make people feel better about what they’re doing. A lot of times I can tell if somebody’s playing a beat, say it’s a shuffle, and it’’s not swinging; it’s too stiff, I know how to tell somebody how to fix that. I can also usually tell whether or not this information is going to help the guy. So I’m not going to tell anybody to do something that I’m fairly sure they won’t be able to do. That’ll just make it worse. I think the main way to avoid bruising egos is to ask people to do what you’re confident they can do. If they can’t do it just move on.
The HUB: That makes sense; otherwise you’re just creating tension.
KA: I did have a rough recording session the other day doing some vocal overdubs. It was actually a background vocal part—it was a doo-wop group sound. I had three guys; two were very experienced singers and one guy was not. It ended up being a huge editing job in Pro Tools because we had to have these guys learn everything one phrase at a time, then loop that and put it all together where it belongs in the song. I realized quickly that this was how we were going to have to do it because the one guy couldn’t find his note and the other two guys were getting thrown off by that. They’d practice one line acapella and they’d have it. But then as the pre-roll came up for that part of the song, it would be gone.
The HUB: That sounds like a really laborious punch-in process!
KA: Yeah, really laborious. So I ended up doing the whole song phrase by phrase. Just to a very quiet drum track with one piano note for reference. But there were some ego issues. The two more experienced guy said ‘No we're going to get this all the way through.’ And I go, ‘That's not going to happen.’ But I had to let them go at it that way for about an hour before they realized, ‘Fine, let’s do it your way.’
It was a little tense but I got it done. After all that laborious editing I sent everybody a rough mix and none of them couldn't believe it because it sounded bitchin’.
The HUB: Transforming crap into gold huh? How often do you start with a rhythm track as opposed to a full band performance?
KA: I like to get everybody all at once; that’s my ideal thing. Especially for blues, soul, country, jazz and rockabilly—the stuff I record. It’s interactive—people play to each other—it’s an organic, symbiotic thing. When you start with bass and drum, I’ve done records like that, and it’s stupid, man! Maybe sometimes you have to do that because of schedules. If somebody wants to redo their stuff, that’s cool, but I want to get everybody playing at once. If you have a good singer like we did with Wee Willie Walker, his vocal takes were what we thought would be scratch tracks—they were live takes with the band. The same thing with Frank Bey. If you’re the lead singer or instrumentalist, you don’t want to have to play to future imaginary instruments. You can’t go, ‘Well, I think I’m going to lay out here because I think there may be horns.’ That’s not making music. It’s like playing Tetris or something. I like how Frank and Anthony cut with the horns in the room. How it’s going to sound on the record is how it sounds when we’re tracking it. That’s the way to do it. You can’t always afford that luxury. Sometimes you realize, ‘This would be bitchin’ with horns’ and then you do it that way.
The HUB: You work in a relatively small space and I was wondering how challenging that is to get those full band performances.
KA: I’m prone to clutter and tangling and it can be a challenge. I’ve thought about getting a bigger space. But for me, it’s a good tradeoff because I enjoy being able to just get up and work on something. (I put pants on.) But in general I like living in my space. So yeah, it can be a challenge, but people get used to it and obey certain traffic rules. Like only one person can go through the hallway at a time. Actually, it works alright. Doing it with ten people all at once can be pushing it, but where there’s a will there’s a way.
The HUB: Can you talk about how you go about getting a great drum sound? What are your miking tricks?
KA: I do a kind of a Glyn Johns overhead—I use two AKG C414s—not the gold ones—the metal gray ones—they’re the ones that are not good for vocals; they’re real neutral. I have one hovering above the snare and rack tom and one standing between the floor tom and the ride cymbal, both pointing at the snare. Lately I’ve tried using a Neumann TLM 103 for that purpose, but I think I’m going to go back to the AKGs because if you’ve got a cymbal-heavy drummer they’re too bright. That’s really the key—having a guy who doesn’t splash the cymbals too hard. Even a guy like John Bonham hit his cymbals real lightly. Hit the drums hard, the cymbals light. You can’t get a good drum sound if the drummer’s not playing right. They need to hit the snare with some testicular fortitude. [laughter]
The HUB: So it’s about playing dynamics then?
KA: Yeah. Lately on snare I’ve been using a Sennheiser 441 because I like the tone it gets. It’s big and round. It’s also pretty good at rejecting the hi-hat. I have a hi-hat mic, but I rarely use it because it gets into everything. It gets into overdubs!
The HUB: Do you mic the resonant head on the snare?
KA: I record both heads. I’ve got a Shure SM57 stuck under the snare pointing up. But I hardly ever use it. I have it there just in case. It’s like the hi-hat mics. I have a couple of cheap mics—M-Audio Pulsars I think they’re called occasionally on the ride cymbal. I also have used a couple of Granelli G5790s on the snare—they’re 57s angled with a kink in them. They’re very neat. I use them or the 421s.
On the tom mics I will use some close miking to give them body. I’ve done some records where I’ve just had those two overheads, the kick and the snare and that’s all I used. And it sounds really good. If you want a little more impact in the toms, I sometimes use a 421 on the rack tom and I also like them on harmonica and guitar amps, and I love them on bass amps. I also use them on the bottom rotor of my Hammond organ. Most of the time I’ll use a 57 or one of those Sennheiser E604s clip-on mics. I’ve also been using AKG D112 on the floor tom—I really like that.
I also use a Beyer M 88 TG inside the kick. I’ve tried a couple of different mics outside the kick—I have an old Electro-Voice RE666, which is a damned good mic. Sometimes I’ll use a condenser; I’ve used a Neumann TLM 103 outside the kick and I kind of like that sound too. It’s more natural sounding and sometimes you need it for more isolation if someone wants a lot of click—that’s something I don’t want too much of—I always want tone.
The HUB: Are there any specific guitar amps and cabs you tend to return to over and over again?
KA: I’ve got just about every Fender amp they’ve ever made. I have a ‘64 Deluxe Reverb with a JBL speaker that just sounds incredible. For a multitude of tones just stick a 57 in front of it and it sounds great. That’s my default amp. I have smaller tweed amps too. I don’t really have that many new amps. But for big, dirty rock sounds I have a Marshall Class 5 that just sounds huge. It’s 5 watts with a 10-inch speaker and you put it on a record and it sounds bigger than my 1971 Marshall Super Lead.
The HUB: It gives you the sense of a big backline?
KA: Yes. You add that stadium reverb and you’re good to go.
The HUB: Do you have any particular boxes you find useful in getting good bass sounds?
KA: My favorite box for bass is an Ampeg B-15. Small tube amps like that—it’s just 30 watts—it’s where I get most of my bass tone. I also love the Avalon DI that I also run—that’s a great unit. In addition to the Ampeg bass amp I’ll run it through a Waves or LA2A plug-in in Pro Tools. I also really like to use the Universal Audio Pultec simulation with midrange EQ boosted around 2-300 [herz] for the definition of the note. And I’ll run that through one of the Studer tape simulator plug-ins cranked up pretty good. That gets a damned good bass sound.
A lot of people like compression on the bass, but I prefer saturation to compression. It clips off the waveform. Compressors are just so unruly.
Soak up the vibe and enjoy some tidbits from 2014’s Wee Willie Walker sessions at Greaseland.
The HUB: You’ve worked with a lot of top flight harp players—Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin, John Németh—how much of getting a great harp sound is the engineer as opposed to what the harp player can get out of his gear himself?
KA: Harp players are pretty particular about their tone. Most of them have more sad than happy stories about getting their tone in the studio—not my studio. I’ve worked with Kim Wilson—he’s one of the first guys I recorded, and I worked with Musselwhite Billy Boy Arnold and Mark Hummel on the Remembering Little Walter album. Usually harp players use what’s basically a guitar amp. What I like to ideally do is if the harp player is also the singer, logic dictates that he can’t sing and play harp at the same time. So I’ll put the harp amp in the same room as the vocal mic. We’re talking about tracking live here. So I’ll put a mic—John Németh and I really like a Sennheiser MD421 on the harp amp. I also like the Royer R-121 on it. I also use Cascade mics—they make good ribbon mics that are pretty cheap. Sometimes I’ll take one of their Fat Head mics and put it right up on the speaker. The proximity effect will give you low end. That something harp players love—they always say, ‘Can you add more bass to it?’
The HUB: They’re going for that big, fat Little Walter sound.
KA: Exactly. I also put the vocal mic in the room. My default mic is the tube condenser Mojave Audio MA-200. That vocal mic will pick up both the ambient room sound of the harp amp and the actual acoustic sound of the harmonica. So you’ll get these three sounds combined: the proximity effect off the amp combined with the room sound and the acoustic harp sound that adds a lot of sheen and definition to what could otherwise be a pretty muddy sound.
The HUB: Do you ever go direct into the board when recording harmonica?
KA: Yes, I have. That’s a funny thing. Rick Estrin, the main guy I play with, he’s got a big collection of amps—tens of thousands of dollars worth of them. He was here and we wanted to record a harp part and we didn’t have a harp amp. And we plugged in direct and we used the Digiesign Eleven—its just a killer amp simulator plug-in. I think we had it on the Bassman setting with a virtual 112 Deluxe tweed cabinet and he got an amazing harp sound just going direct into my interface. It was so good that I had one guy come to me later saying he wanted to use my studio because of that one song. ‘I want you tell me what you did to get that harp sound with Rick.’ This guy had a bunch of amps with him! We went direct and he couldn’t believe it.
The HUB: I guess that’ll blow the minds of some purists!
KA: Oh yeah! I don’t always like to disclose this information because I get a kick out of lying to people. I just tell ‘em, ‘Yeah, that’s a 1966 Fender Pro.’ [Laughs] In addition, sometimes I’ll take a direct of the harmonica mic because if the amped sound’s not great I can always put the direct sound through the Eleven.
The HUB: Sounds like a good backup strategy.
KA: Yeah. Every time I don’t take a DI of the guitar or harp or the bass I tend to regret it.
The HUB: What do you use for monitoring?
KA: My control room is half of a garage and it has some pretty rockin’ room modes and crazy frequencies going on so I have a pair of these JBL LSR4328Ps. They come with a mic and they can make your room sound neutral. At least in my engineering position. Whoever’s behind me might get pounded by bass.
The HUB: So you find they’re reliable with all the wayward acoustics going on in your garage?
KA: Yeah, I’ve learned to work around it.
The HUB: Sometimes great sounds come out of happy accidents and really off-the-wall tactics like Link Wray slitting his speaker cones to get more fuzz on his guitar tone. Have you had any experiments or incidents like that?
KA: I‘ve definitely had good experiences with accidentally leaving mics on and getting a huge sound that way. One of the biggest harp tones I ever got was with Aki Kumar. He was playing acoustic harmonica on one song through one mic and then he switched to an amplifier right after that and I left several mics on that I didn’t think needed to be on. And it got the hugest tone ever! I have a room with a grand piano and a Hammond organ set up and I can record both at the same time, but ideally, I do one at a time. But I leave all the mics on at all times because there could be something there that’s just gold.
Another incident: I was recording with this guy Kyle Jester and he was playing through this old amp of mine—a ‘61 Fender Vibrolux. It’s a 110 little tweed amp. The song had a swampy groove to it and something happened where the tremolo on the amp somehow activated itself during a take of the song and it was perfect. It was just right for the song and it was a complete malfunction.
The HUB: For the musician who’s just getting started putting together a project studio on a very limited budget, what would you recommend as essential gear?
KA: If you’re just getting started, I guess get an [Avid] Mbox to get your feet wet. But gear is utterly worthless without some skill to back it with. So start real small. If you want to record a band, there’s those Presonus interfaces they’re pretty cheap and they sound fine. Start with something like that and a bunch of 57s and maybe some MXL mics. MXL makes stuff that’s fine when you’re on a tight budget. It’s not till you refine your skill and your ear that you need a $5,000 mic—otherwise it’s kind of wasted on you. You can get up and running with a full band recording for a thousand bucks plus a computer. It’s a great time to be doing it.
For me, some luck was involved. I’m renting a house in San Jose, in the “Deep South Bay” as I like to call it and it just happens to sound pretty good. You need to experiment, have fun and learn everything you can about it. This should probably go without saying: If you’re not learning everything you can, you’re probably not that interested in it.
The HUB: Good point. I think that goes back to the top of the conversation: To have a big set of ears and be willing to go back and listen critically to the sources is perhaps the single most important component in becoming a great engineer and producer.
KA: You’ve got to be able to draw from a variety of stuff. A lot of times you’ll be working with an artist whose only reference is a famous record. They’ll say they want a kick drum sound like “Natural Mystic” by Bob Marley. They’re not going to be able to tell you in terms an engineer will understand, but if you know the records, you’ll know what that sound is. Sometimes a singer will say, ‘Put some echo on my voice’ when what they really mean is reverb. You just need to understand a little about their background and have as a broad a palette as possible to draw from. More than being an engineer, I listen to music.
The HUB: I loved what you had to say earlier about the studio being another musical instrument.
KA: I don’t know if you heard about the controversy about Robert Johnson—if his recordings were actually sped up—because they’re in weird keys and his voice is very intense and high.
The HUB: I actually have some MP3s of those recordings slowed down…
KA: …And he sounds like a normal dude.
The HUB: It changes the whole vibe subtly yet significantly.
KA: To me that’s a great testament to the ingenuity of the engineer. He just goes, ‘Let’s make this sound more exciting by speeding it up.’ And it worked. They’re classics. Studio trickery is a musical instrument.
The HUB: And that goes back to the idea that the performance is crucial. Those tracks were cut in a San Antonio hotel room—there was no studio involved.
KA: Yeah, with one mic. But evidently there was some engineering going on there. I’ve mixed a lot of live CDs. I did one for John Németh that did really well for him, and I’ve just done one with Rick Estrin and The Nightcats . When I mix a live CD my goal is to make it feel as exciting as when you were there. Sometimes you have to do a little extra to bring out the excitement you know was there during the live performance. It's not just about getting definition in the kick drum—it’s about making the listener excited. If I’m excited, then I know they’ll be excited.
The HUB: Do you tend to use ambient mics in a live setting?
KA: That depends on how many fixes I’ve done! [laughs] If they’re good ambient mics I’ll definitely use them. I’ve used them on lots of live CDs. I work with Byron Binns who does a great job recording live. I believe he uses an Alesis HD24. He’s good at the grunt work of setting up for a live recording. I do it myself too if I have to, but it’s lovely leaving it up to him. His most expensive mics are the ambient mics. I think they’re Audio-Technica AT4047 large diaphragm condensers. He uses those Audio-Technicas on either side of the stage pointed towards the audience and that gets a gorgeous ambient sound. I take those and compress them a bit to add some excitement with an LA76. Those are a big help. For the official record though, there was no tweaking whatsoever. [laughs].
Take a first-hand (and potentially nausea-inducing) look at Kid’s Greaseland studio curated by the man himself. It’s jammed with cool gear and has an ambience tailor-made for cranking out soul-drenched records.