Kevin Johnson, chief engineer/producer
Beacon Street Digital Recording Music Studios
V E R S A I L L E S , K E N T U C K Y
Beacon Street Digital Recording Music Studios Control Room A
(March, 2004) - The skills and talents of Kevin Johnson were apparent from my first visit to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour in October 2001. Johnson is the chief engineer/producer at Beacon Street Digital Recording Music Studio in Versailles, Kentucky. He's also the audio engineer for WoodSongs.
Music has always been an important aspect of my life, yet I've often wondered how many people really appreciate the expertise that goes on behind the scenes in the music industry. Whether it's rock, country, roots, jazz, blues, or even classical music, what happens during a recording can make a big difference in terms of an artist's success.
I've always considered The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album to be an engineering masterpiece. Having been recorded with a simple four track recorder during the sixties, it set a new standard in terms of studio production. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was another example of a project that raised the bar in terms of engineering and production.
I visited Beacon Street Digital Recording Studio in Versailles Kentucky during December of 2002. Beacon Street has the largest "live room" in the state of Kentucky and through their imaginative use of square footage Beacon Street offers unlimited versatility and opportunity for the client. Much attention was given to detail and flexibility. The studio hosts a very impressive, sophisticated design, yet studio personnel create a friendly, casual atmosphere.
During my visit, Kevin was reediting the audio tracks of a video segment while also adding live narrative to a portion of the existing audio. His clients wanted the live voice over to achieve a level of authenticity once it was edited into existing tracks containing event sounds, crowd noises, and announcers. The clients sat comfortably at a large conference table as they interacted with Kevin in the editing room.
To add realism to the new edit Kevin chose an older microphone for the narrator in the recording room. The microphone used by the client dated back to mics used by reporters during the Vietnam war. The desired effect was exceptional as the live recording's edit fit nicely into the older recorded audio tracks.
- Mark D McKinley [Mark's Online Music Source]
mogswebsite.com: Would you offer some insight - who you are - your musical background - why you got into the recording business?
Kevin Johnson: I'm a recording engineer/mastering engineer/live sound engineer/producer/ arranger/musician/acoustic consultant/studio owner/trash taker outer/light bulb changer/etc., etc.
My musical background is like almost every non classical musician in the world. One day a special record was heard and that was it. I was hooked, started trying to play various instruments and was off to bar land to become a rock star. What else? :)
How did I get into the biz? High school rock band buys a (big time here), Fostex FOUR track to do demos with to get better gigs. Pretty smart young fellows. Then realize no one knows anything about recording. But wait! Kevin hooks up the PA and Kevin fixes our cables when they break and Kevin handles all the tech stuff for the band, let's get him to do it. And so the Fostex was handed to me with a cheerful "you can do this" ... and here we are.
mogswebsite.com: What event offered the first glimpse that you were destined to be in the recording industry?
Kevin Johnson: Working out in the real world. Really! I worked as a tech in a repair department at a major medical facility. We repaired everything in the hospital from pencil erasers to heart-lung machines. As government involvement grew the red tape began to pile up to mountainous proportions. I figured out one day that I spent fifteen dollars and change worth of the hospitals time filling out the necessary forms to order a forty-five cent part. And that was typical. Being young and not yet jaded into accepting such crap, I had to get outta there! I was running a recording studio part time on the side anyway so one day I came back from lunch and told my boss that in two weeks I would be a full time recording engineer. Not quite as glamorous a story as "dude, I saw the stones play in a forty seater and that was it man" but it is how I got there. :)
mogswebsite.com: Have the needs of your clients changed over the years?
Kevin Johnson: Not really. Clients have always needed one thing: a quality product, period. And I have never had the type of facility to sit still. When new technologies emerge, I watch them, closely. And when I feel they're ready to serve in a full service commercial recording environment and add to the products worth, it's buy time. So I usually have the cutting edge stuff before the client knows they need it.
Clients want a clean, warm, friendly, comfortable environment. They don't want a facility that is so high tech you're afraid to move around. And they don't want pizza boxes stacked up in the corner either. They appreciate the little things. Like a clean, punchy, buzz free cue system with individual mixes. And to be made to feel welcome. Remember, it's their product, not yours.
mogswebsite.com: What do you consider the biggest threat per replacing the human touch when it comes to quality engineering in the digital age?
Kevin Johnson: People who over edit their records just because they can. It is too easy to Pro Tools the life out of music. People don't play perfectly in tune and on the exact top of the beat all the time. Real music played by the greatest musicians in the world has movement and colorful intonation, shouldn't yours?
Now if you're suggesting I talk about gear like mic modeling technologies and such, no threat, just new tools. So it says I'm using a 57 make it sound like a C12. Does it? Sort of. And I mean sort of. Put up the real thing and A/B. No comparison, but it is a new tool with a different texture and is therefore useful to the artist who paints with millions of colors instead of red and blue.
mogswebsite.com: What advice would you offer to an aspiring artist one month before their first recording session?
Kevin Johnson: Rehearsal rehearsal rehearsal. The better prepared you are by knowing your parts in your sleep, the less time you'll spend laying them down and therefore the less money spent. Many clients ask me why I'm always teaching them how to save money in the studio, isn't that counterproductive to your bottom line? No, I have clients that are on their third, fourth, tenth project with me. They know I'll watch their budget and their timeline. If I just wanted to make today's deposit from my clients, I'd use project pricing, confusing rate schedules, lie about my background and the people I've worked with, run my clients/students through as fast as possible, and laugh all the way to the bank. But I don't just want your money today, I want your money for a long time to come, therefore I do everything I can to help the client, and trust me, they know it and appreciate it. To get back on track here, other things you can do to prepare for your upcoming session is to make sure your gear is in top working order free of electronic buzzes, hums, etc., and physical buzzes, rattles, and the like. You can track this stuff down on your own time for free, or you can pay me studio time to track it down and fix it for you.
mogswebsite.com: An acoustic modern jazz trio books time at the studio -- musicians walk in carrying an upright bass, an empty water-cooler bottle for percussion -- piano player sits at the studio grand -- how would you determine the type of mics used for their recording?
Kevin Johnson: By listening to them play acoustically in the room (this is no rock band) and then use the mics I feel will best capture and authenticate their unique approach to their music. Remember, it's their sound they're after, not mine.
mogswebsite.com: You're a major player in folk singer Michael Johnathon's WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour -- what influenced your decision to get involved with the project?
Kevin Johnson: Michael [Johnathon] came to me over five years ago and said let's chat, I have an idea. We met after sessions one day at Denny's (see the music business can be glorious), and he laid out this idea for our radio show. He asked me if I would be interested in being his partner and handling all technical aspects of the show. We talked about the ground breaking "not done before" technical aspects of the show, the market for the show, how we would go about pulling this off, and here we are. It's five years later and we are on over 435 radio stations worldwide. We have a current weekly listening audience of over 750,000 folks. In June we go on TV into 12 million homes via Blue Highways Television and the Dish Network. We get up every Monday, ask ourselves how this happened :) and go do it again.
mogswebsite.com: Has the challenge and demands of engineering a weekly live radio broadcast proved rewarding to you in the studio?
Kevin Johnson: My studio experiences have benefited the show in terms of micing the artists. I have discovered a few strange instruments on the show that I have then had to mic in the studio but that has also worked in reverse. It's definitely intertwined in both directions.
mogswebsite.com: On occasion, you exhibit a quick wit and keen sense of humor ... would you share an instance where that provided a trump card during a recording session?
Kevin Johnson: That helps in every recording session. People like to laugh and have fun. Nothing puts people more at ease than humor. We now have a comedian as part of the warm up at WoodSongs for instance and the audience loves it. Never make fun, just have fun.
mogswebsite.com: Judge Ray Corn is certainly a nice addition with his dry wit and refined sense of timing.
A good ear for music verses a genuine feel for the project -- which is more important from a producer's point of view?
Kevin Johnson: You must have both or you should look for another job. The two are paramount and equally important. The project will suffer greatly if either is missing. You must also be a good fit for the client or you're the wrong guy for the project. Discernment on both the part of you and the client is important here.
mogswebsite.com: If you could offer only one nugget of advice to an up and coming engineer that demonstrated real promise -- what would it be?
Kevin Johnson: It sounds corny and simple but it's true: You have to have the natural knack for this (read real talent), treat everyone fairly and with respect, and do everything you can to do the best job you can. With those things in place, you will likely be successful in this business (that does not necessarily mean wealthy). Always, no matter how old or experienced you are, go through life with your ears open. You learn more that way. :)
One more thing: I have a motto that I work by and I'd like to share it with your readers ... "Although unfortunately there are a lot of them, there is no room for a-holes in this business ... don't be one".
mogswebsite.com: Those are very wise words to live by ... such should be our motto ... applied to any career one's involved in.
(C) 2004 Mark's Online Music Source
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