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Meet Will Kennedy

Today we’d like to introduce you to Will Kennedy.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My journey to both Los Angeles and a career in recording music has taken a long and winding path! I grew up in a very small farming town in Western New York State called Newfane. It’s about 45 minutes north of Buffalo, and half-an-hour east of Niagara Falls. Right on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. It’s mostly known for apples, berries, corn, cabbage, fishing, and (when I was growing up) the nearby headquarters of GM’s radiator division. Hardly the place you’d expect to grow up to work in the music business.

Neither of my parents were musicians of any kind, but they were fans of music. Dad loved jazz, blues, and bluegrass. Mom was into classical music. She was the one who insisted that I join the school band over my VERY strong objections. I was a shy kid, and I wanted nothing to do with making a fool of myself learning a new skill in front of a group of people. But (as mothers so often are) she was right! By the time I got to high school, I had fallen in LOVE with it. One more domino had yet to fall in place.

FM radio in the Buffalo area during the late 1980’s was pretty much classic rock or top 40. There wasn’t a wide audience for the cool underground stuff except on the local college stations. And we lived too far away to pick up their low-powered signals. So it was that in the summer before my junior year of high school an exchange student from France introduced me to a world of music, I had no idea existed. Her favorite band was The Cure, and she loaned me some cassettes. After she went back to France I found myself flipping through the radio dial to see if any nearby station played their music, expecting to be disappointed. Then I found CFNY, a legendary station out of Toronto – which was only about 30 miles from my hometown across the lake. Known at the time as “The Spirit Of Radio,” (and the subject of the famous Rush of the same title), it was one of the original commercial “alternative” music stations in North America. I wouldn’t hear the same song for days on end, and the variety was amazing. Suddenly a whole new world was opening up, and so it was that I found myself attending the first Lollapalooza tour in August of 1991. Which aside from being a mind-blowing concert, was the moment I realized that somehow, someway, I was going to figure out how to make working in THAT world of music what I did with my life.

All I knew about making a living in music was playing in a symphony orchestra, or teaching it in schools. I didn’t want to do either of those things, but without a clear path forward, I found myself spending a miserable freshman year of college as a political science major in Boulder, Colorado. The following year I thought I’d take a safe step in the direction of my dream as a music education major at SUNY Fredonia (south of Buffalo). Still deeply unhappy, I dropped out of college for two years, joined one band, started another, and eventually moved to Boston, MA where I took a tour of Berklee College Of Music. A place that would introduce me to the art of recording, allow me to fall in love with it, and where I graduated in 1999 with a degree in Music Production and Engineering.

What I wanted to do upon graduating was move to New York City and get a job in one of the great studios there. As I’ve learned over the years, there are very few straight-line career paths in this business. New York is an expensive place, I had very little money. Because I’d taken seven years to get through college, I was 25 when I graduated. In no mood to move back in with a parent, work a minimum wage job, and bide my time saving money. So it was that I found myself working as a junior technician at Ocean Way Nashville. An absolutely gorgeous studio on Music Row. But almost as soon as I started there, I knew it wasn’t going to be for me. It quickly became apparent that at that time, there was no way to make a real living in the Nashville music business without spending a large amount of time working on pop-country or contemporary Christian music. Which is perfectly reasonable, but just not my scene. I figured if I’d sacrificed so much, there was no point in not taking the shot I wanted. So after about six months, I packed my bags and headed for New York.

I blanketed the town with resumés, and much to my surprise got a number of interviews fairly quickly. I ended up landing at the venerable Right Track Recording in midtown, just outside of Time’s Square. Another incredible stroke of luck. Managed at the time by Barry Bongiovi, frequented by legendary artists and producers alike. It was a dream gig. It was grueling, I often worked over 100 hours a week (as does anyone working in the recording business), I slept at the studio on many occasions, and I made minimum wage. But I was following my dream…

…until I got sick.

I developed a chronic illness which – if left untreated – could be life-threatening. It quickly became clear that my job/lifestyle and my health were no longer compatible. It was heartbreaking but faced with that choice I really had no options. I quit the studio, did some temp office work around Manhattan, worked briefly as an audiobook editor for a friend’s company, and then landed a job supervising the audio/visual department for the undergraduate school at Harvard. Back to Boston, I went where the promise of a decent paying job, reasonable hours, and health benefits awaited. That’s where I spent the next four and a half years.

It was a great job, and Boston is a great town. But as I regained my health and learned how to manage my condition, the itch to record kept growing stronger and stronger. Finally at the end of 2004, just after I’d turned 30, I decided I needed to take one more shot at working in upper echelons of the recording business. By that time, all of the music that excited me was being made in Los Angeles. So with the support of my then-girlfriend/now-wife, we packed up our life in Boston and moved to Los Angeles in February of 2005.

The adventure began all over again. Being 30, with nearly two years of experience in the recording business, and now 4+ years running a department of over 35 employees meant nothing as I cast around for a studio gig in L.A. I’d hoped to avoid going back to the bottom of the ladder as a minimum wage runner at a big recording studio, but I knew it was a possibility, and ultimately through a strange twist of events that’s the door that opened for me. Because I knew how to operate and maintain tape machines, I was hired by The Village Recorder as part of a rotating team that would digitally archive the entire Ray Charles and Tangerine Record Label tape library. So my first real gig here was sitting in the old Ray Charles Enterprises studio, making digital copies of analog tapes most people have never heard, and will never hear. Pretty incredible. I even got to attend the re-dedication of the local West Adams post office as “Ray Charles Station.”

I left The Village in early 2006 and spent some of that summer helping to wire up a studio in Chatsworth. It was a thankless job, that led to me having to hold key items I was building hostage in order to get paid. Just one of those learning experiences in life I figured at the time. So imagine my surprise that November when the other unfortunate tech on the summer job contacted me out of the blue. He asked if I was available to do another wiring job. A producer friend of his was rehabbing an old studio in North Hollywood. I was trying to get my recording career moving, and I wasn’t interested in doing more tech work, but I needed the money.

Sometimes you don’t recognize your big opportunities while they’re happening, and that was the case for me. Because this was certainly. The “friend” this tech was referring to was named David Bianco. It wasn’t a name I recognized, but I agreed to meet with him about the gig. He turned out to be one of the friendliest people you could hope to meet, so I checked out his credits. David, as it turned out, had been the producer, or mixer for about 6 of my favorite records, and a bunch of legendary albums besides. I agreed to wire his studio for half price if he agreed to tell me stories about working on those records. He’d go on to hire me as his assistant engineer at the newly opened Dave’s Room studio in January of 2007 and become a close friend.

In March of that year, my girlfriend and I were getting married in Vermont. We were in the middle of an album at Dave’s Room, and David said he’d need to bring in someone else to finish it out with him. Standard practice. But that he needed to “find me a gig” when I got back to town. NOT standard practice. But David was not your standard guy. So it was in April 2007 that through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Matt Wallace. Matt wasn’t very far removed from the huge success of Maroon 5’s “Songs About Jane” and was incredibly busy. He needed somebody to record overdubs at his studio, and I happily agreed. THAT was the beginning of nearly four years of constant work. After about six months, Matt asked me to become one of his main engineers and eventually had me mix some of the indie albums he was producing. Like David, Matt became an incredible mentor and good friend. We still work on projects together once or twice a year.

Sometime in late 2009, I was asked if I’d like to partner up in a small recording space in Pacoima. The rent was unbelievable, the space was decent, and the Great Recession had eaten into a lot of the work Matt and I were doing together. I figured it was a good time to make a move to establish myself in my own right. I started splitting time between recording sessions during the day, and installation work in the new space at night. That was the beginning of Studio P (for Pacoima), which is still my home base today. Though now I am its sole occupant. Over the years, I’ve been able to fill it with some incredible custom equipment built by longtime friend Josh Florian from JCF Audio in North Hollywood. He and I worked together to restore a gorgeous 1973 Ampex 440B reel-to-reel tape machine. Among the more interesting additional equipment a vintage 1963 Vox AC30 guitar amplifier, and a Noble And Cooley drumkit owned by Jerome Dillon while he was the drummer for Nine Inch Nails. The first paying client at Studio P was “Weird Al” Yankovic, and over the years I’ve worked on projects for U2, O.A.R, OneRepublic, Blitz Vega (featuring Andy Rourke from The Smiths), Disney, Lucasfilm, and many more in that space. Most recently, I mixed a song for Disney’s “Zombies 2” Soundtrack that just passed 57 million views on YouTube.

My 15 years (so far) in Los Angeles have been an incredible experience. It’s not always easy, but there has NEVER been a single day I’ve regretted leaving my steady Harvard gig for a rollercoaster life in the music business. I’ve met some of the most amazing, beautiful, talented, and thoughtful souls. The artists, musicians, and fellow recording professionals I’m lucky enough to call friends are truly the finest people I could have hoped to meet. As I think about what I have accomplished and hope to accomplish in the future, I now think about one moment in particular.

David Bianco passed away in June of 2018. His memorial that summer was an incredible gathering of hundreds of people who were all touched by David’s kindness, talent, and generosity at some point in their lives. He would often joke that all of his assistants became more successful than he did. When I looked around that room, I couldn’t imagine how.

This business doesn’t promise us wealth, fame, or stability. But if half as many people have such kind things to say about me when I’m gone, I’ll know I’ve done something right. So I keep trying to do the thing I love every day with as much enthusiasm as I did the day I started, but with the skill and experience I’ve gained working on so many tremendous recording projects over two-plus decades in the studio.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My goodness no. From the moment I realized I wanted to make music my life, life made it a challenge!

Growing up in a small town with no role models in the business and no access to it for a start. Being told by people with the best of intentions that my only options were playing in a symphony orchestra or a general business (wedding) band, or teaching in a school. Thinking I could treat college as a place where I’d learn my “fallback” career, and slowly coming to terms with the fact that, for me, there was no fallback. This is what I had to do, and it would keep pulling me back no matter how hard I tried to walk away.

Having to quit what felt like my dream gig at Right Track in New York City was one of the hardest moments I’ve ever had to face. I felt as if I was letting myself down and proving everyone who ever doubted me correct. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I learned what my priorities had to be if I was ever going to be successful at ANYTHING in life. You can’t chase your dreams if you’re too sick to get out of bed. But you CAN learn how to prioritize your health and follow your heart.

Starting essentially from scratch at age 30 was humbling. It kept me grounded and made me understand just how much I wanted to do this work. I might have had some experience, and that experience no doubt helped me move forward faster than I could have at age 21, but I had to prove myself all over again here by doing – not by telling. There was only one way to accomplish that, and it wasn’t glamourous.

At that point in my life, I’d tried to walk away from music in college, and again while working at Harvard. It was a powerful lesson. The heart wants what it wants, and denying it is futile. That knowledge is what had kept me going during the toughest times since moving to Los Angeles, and it keeps me going now during possibly the most challenging time of any of our lives.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am a record producer, mixer, and recording engineer.

As a producer, I work with artists and record labels to help craft their vision for their music in the studio. That can mean choosing which songs will go on an album, creating the right “vibe” to get the best performance out of a musician in the studio, helping with songwriting/arrangement, playing an instrument, booking studio time, hiring engineers, hiring session musicians, budgeting, being a creative sounding board for ideas, or sometimes just a therapist!

As a recording engineer, I handle all of the technical details of a recording session. Operating the equipment (the engineer is the person at the console in all the photos), placing microphones, making sure everything sounds great, and gets committed to whatever medium we’re recording to (hard drive, tape, etc.).

Mixing is an extension of the recording engineer job. Modern recording is done in a “multi-track” format. The easiest way to explain that is to imagine that for each microphone, there’s a corresponding recorded file. That means there can sometimes be hundreds of audio files that need to playback at the same time for a single song. BUT the medium we most often listen to music in is only two tracks (stereo) The mixing engineer’s job is to take those hundreds of files (tracks) and mix them together to create the stereo recording we all listen to. Often the recording engineer and the mixing engineer are different people so that there’s a fresh creative perspective at that point in the process, but the producer is still overseeing all of it.

Each of these parts of the process has a huge impact on what the final sound of a recording will be. Sometimes I only do one of them on a given project, sometimes I do all three. It depends on the needs of my client.

I’d have to say that what I’m most proud of is the quality of work I’m able to do on a regular basis. Nothing makes me happier than to see someone light up when they hear their music coming back out of the speakers, and knowing we nailed their vision. A close second would be that I’m not a “one-trick pony.” I’ve got an incredibly varied list of credits from orchestral music to jazz to electronic music, rock, and pop. I’ve worked on hit records, and records you may never have heard of, and I’m equally proud of them regardless of their commercial success. Ultimately it’s about trying to make something great – something we can all be proud of. I think that attitude and variety give me a unique musical perspective on every project that comes through my door.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I’ve had this very discussion a number of times over the past couple of years with people across the music business. It’s interesting. Certainly, I’ve been lucky along the way. Landing early jobs at great recording studios, meeting the people who would become my mentors, and friends in the business. But that luck is also a function of hard work. I never would have landed the jobs if I didn’t have the skills to do them. Those mentors never would have given me a second look if I hadn’t shown them I could do the work. That hard work and constant skill development is what assures you a long career.

Having a hit record is a different story, and is much more like hitting the lottery! The more projects you work on, the better your chances. Because what’s hot today may not be tomorrow, and predicting those changes in popular culture has proven impossible no matter how much data we crunch! So my approach is to do the work that makes us happy, do it the best way we know how (which can often include making decisions guided by popular opinion depending on the project), and make sure we’re all proud of the work. That’s all we can control. Once it leaves the studio, we’ve done everything we can, and it’s up to the public.

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