Kenny Lewis

While the spirit of folk is still alive and well, its sound has seen better days. With the success of pop country music in recent years (an overtly glossy second cousin twice removed, oftentimes mistaken as the sister to the brother of folk — namely, traditional country music) anxious producers have scrambled to spit shine out every blemish that would, in older days, be considered integral to the quality of folk music. This has effectively turned some of the genre’s best written albums into unnecessarily polished, overproduced husks of songs.
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Which is exactly why Rich Schroder’s new album, Your Kind Words, is such a relief. Channeling the classic musicians that inspired him in his youth — from Bob Dylan to Arlo Guthrie — Schroder teamed up with veteran engineer Kenny Lewis to use some new techniques to get that old, soulful sound. And luckily for us, Mr. Lewis found some free time to chat us up, reminding us in the meantime that some people do, indeed, still listen to AM radio.

EQ: Aside from, of course, Rich’s vocals, the mix is centered around the acoustic guitar. This makes sense given the style of music, but what was your approach in tracking the guitar knowing that it was going to sit so prominently in the mix?

Kenny Lewis: When it was just a single pass, like the majority of the guitar tracks on the album, I used mid-side (M-S) and stereo mikings, with a couple of [Sennheiser] 451s close miked to get a bigger guitar sound. You have to watch your phasing really closely but this works out the best, unless you are doing multiple passes, though; that sort of miking setup tends to get a sound that’s too big and poofy.

Anyhow, the M-S mics were placed about 2 to 3 feet from the guitar, and the stereo mics were placed up and down instead of left and right. One 451 was pointed directly at the bridge, and the second was just past the 12th fret.

EQ: How did you begin the mix? Did you do the old standard of starting from the drum tracks, or did you start with the more central components?

KL: I’m pretty old school in that I just start with the drums, though the vocals were, and always are, very important — so I spend a lot of time making sure they’re fitting where they need to. Most people don’t understand music, they understand English, and so the vocal has to sit in the mix so that it’s very clear.

I was also very concerned about the phase of the record, making sure I knew how the record is going to sound in mono if it gets played like that. More and more engineers seem to not care about that these days. I’ve worked with a lot of Christian bands, and many of them get AM radio play, so I’ve really learned to worry about how tracks sound in mono.

EQ: So you always mix with mono in mind?

KL: I think you need to keep it in mind.

EQ: You mention the clarity of the vocals as being the most integral aspect of a record for most listeners. How did you track Rich’s vocals to really get the most out of his performance?

KL: The vocal chain was a [Neumann] U87 into the Groove Tubes VIPRE then into an API 560 EQ and finally, into the [Teletronix] LA-2A. Rich worked with his vocal coach in the studio, making sure the performance was right, and mostly just leaving me to just make sure it sounded good.

EQ: How much compression did you rely on when mixing his vocals?

KL: When I mix, I can ride the compressor pretty heavily, but when I’m tracking I try to make sure that I leave my options open. With vocals, though, I’m usually sure I know what I want, and the LA-2A is a pretty gentle compressor, so it’s pretty hard to mess it up.

EQ: But not so much that you track vocals with compression, right?

KL: No, because if down the line a label wants to buy the record and remix it, you’ve already forced them to work with your effects — and a lot of times that could be a deal breaker. It’s becoming more and more common for labels to come in and just buy whole records, so. . . .

EQ: So you approached tracking this record with that mindset?

KL: Yes, but it’s interesting: The original thought process was that Rich’s record was going to be just guitar and vocals, so we went into recording this with just him and his guitar. But when it was done we decided to move it into something a little more mainstream. So we cut bass and drums — the other elements — as a secondary session almost.

EQ: What about the drums?

KL: I miked the top and bottom heads of all the toms, did a top, side, and bottom three mic technique on the snare, and did the standard stereo pair overhead deal. I used my Radio Shack special on the kick, with the “four button trick” on the 1176. [Editor’s note: This refers to the classic technique of engaging all four ratio buttons on an 1176, causing the unit to distort and max out, also known as “the British mode”.] I find it helps the stereo image quite a bit. My room is small, so we had to get a little creative. I have a [Lexicon] 480L that we used for a reverb unit, and that helped to simulate the sound of bigger drum room.

EQ: And on the rhythm section note, the bass sound is really warm.

KL: I used an Avalon DI, which I dumped directly into the LA-2A. That’s usually what I do, and often I’ll mic it, but for Rich, I just ran the DI. What I did on this record during mixing is split the bass into two channels, using a SansAmp on one channel for more of an amp tone. So, it’s almost like bi-amping the bass.

EQ: That’s a cool approach.

KL: This album was really one of those times when you see more production, bit by bit, creep in, and all of a sudden you have a full band . . . and that’s when you stand back and thank God you cut everything to a click [laughs].