It’s not every day that you get to sit down for a chat with someone who has worked with some of the most iconic recording artists of all time. The person we’re talking about is GRAMMY award-winning engineer/producer Ken Caillat and the artists we’re talking about are Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, and Herbie Hancock, just to name a few. 

We gave Ken the 20 Questions treatment recently and came away with some great stories and insights from a historic career. Read on to learn about his creative process, his go-to gear, his memories from the Fleetwood Mac Rumours sessions and his advice for aspiring producers and engineers.

1. What has been your most recent favorite music experience and what made it special?

Recently, Joni Mitchell made an amazing comeback–she surprised everyone with a performance at the Newport Folk Festival. She sang in more of a tenor voice throughout the whole show, she had stories, she had harmonies and she was just brilliant. I wasn’t at the show but we had worked with Joni last year, mixing several of her projects in Dolby Atmos, so after she performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the record company asked us to mix the music into Dolby Atmos. We had a chance to work on that for a couple of weeks and it was like having Joni in the room with us.

2. Can you tell us a little bit about your current studio setup?

To build our Atmos room, I had to leave where I was last year and move a few miles away; there was a film company that had a warehouse with a loading dock that they weren't using so we built a studio inside a studio in the loading dock area. We have about a 25-foot by 18-foot wide space and it's really sounding great. We encountered some challenges with making the room sound proper the whole time, but some great acoustic engineers came in, did sound measurements and this room just sounds perfect now.

The input of the recording studio is capable of vocals, piano and artist performance, and the output can do stereo, Dolby Atmos, and Sony 360 immersive–it’s top-of-the-line. We have Pro Tools, which supports 96k; a full array of KRK speakers for the Dolby Atmos system–we have 15 speakers and two subwoofers; also, Heritage Audio sent us a replica of a 1076 mic pre, which is beautiful gear that we're really thrilled with.

3. What drew you to the Heritage Audio HA73EQX2 ELITE preamp that you recently purchased?

I was at the NAMM show recently, and my friend and audiophile, the engineer Marc Nelson, introduced me to this company that makes the Heritage 73 and it's beautiful; I fell in love with it and it’s now the mainstay of the input section of our studios. It’s funny because it makes me feel like I'm young again. It makes me feel like I'm working on an old Neve console–back when I did Rumours and Tusk I worked on consoles, and the Heritage Audio gear sounded like that. It sounds so smooth and warm on the bottom end; I'm having a lot of fun.

4. Let’s go back to the beginning – what made you want to start making records?

That’s easy, I fell in love with the guitar and I wrote songs so I thought, in some other world, I could become a rock star–I didn't really think it through. Then I moved to Los Angeles to get a job in a recording studio and the first band I worked with was Crosby, Stills and Nash; I was an assistant engineer, and they just had me go in there and help them. I found out that these guys were really, really good and I loved the whole process of making music and thought, “I'm just going to stay here and do that and not write any more songs”, which, I don't know–it’s probably okay. 

So I started making records because of Crosby, Stills and Nash and all the other musicians I worked with then as an engineer–I worked with The Fifth Dimension and Brasil ’66, a band called War, and Paul McCartney came in there early on. I happened to have a great job at a great place called Wally Heider Studios. They did live albums primarily and I was thinking that I didn't want to work with a place that did live albums because I'd rather be in a place that makes records, but I realized that the only people who make live albums are generally the big acts. Right off the bat, I was working with Creedence Clearwater Revival and so many other great bands live–that's how I got the job with Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood Mac had a live concert and suddenly I was the mix engineer for their live album. It was a great thing for a young engineer–I had only been there six months maybe–and I was already working with these amazing bands.

5. What was your favorite part of the creative process while working on Rumours?

I loved making the sounds, I loved being an engineer; I loved choosing the right microphone for the right instruments and choosing how to position the microphone on the instrument. And it wasn't just that–I actually took instruments and made them sound so much better; it's what I loved to do and nobody else liked to do it, so I would take a guitar, for instance, and I’d try to make things happen, make it shimmer a little bit more, for example. Lindsey Buckingham would hear it and go, “Oh my God, that sounds so good!” and he would let me spend as much time as I wanted making his guitar sound good. 

What I did for every song on Rumours was, I made every instrument sound its most unique and fitting for that song. I loved creating the sound and that's actually how they ended up promoting me to producer because the sounds I was making were changing the trajectory of the songs themselves; I was having an effect on the production of the songs by the engineering that I was doing. And I want to credit my co-engineer, Richard Dashut, and the band–I couldn't have done it without them. Right after Rumours, I tried doing the exact same thing to another band and it sounded good but there was no hit record. So I realized that part of being a good producer is knowing who to produce.

6. Is there anything about what it took to engineer those sessions that the average music fan might be surprised to learn?

Yeah, you know, you watch television recreations of bands and there's not much technical work that goes on but real engineers take time making the instruments sound as good as possible. Even before that, the musician actually thinks a lot about what instrument they want to play. For example, Fleetwood Mac had plenty of guitars–they had Fender Strats, Gibsons, they had Gretsch guitars, and when Lindsey wanted to start on a song, he’d play a part and I might say to him, “What do you have that has more of a bite to the picking?” And he would be like, “We could try the Dobro”, which was a great idea. As an engineer, you need to learn how to make an instrument sound good and understand how that affects the musician.

When we were doing Rumours, I had these things that I would do with the tone controls on the console. As a group, with all of these musicians in the studio, I would make the piano and guitar sound a certain way and the band would then be playing their parts according to what they were hearing and I would print the sound–we bought into the whole sound and we froze it in time. If you listen to the Rumours multitracks, you can actually put them all up, you don't have to do much and it sounds just like the record, which was so much easier for us because every time we would go back to it, we didn't have to get inspired again–we were already starting from the point where everyone was inspired. 

7. What’s the weirdest thing you've ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session? 

I was recording Lindsey whose guitar had an interesting sound to it, but we weren’t able to amplify it so I took a towel, and slid it under the strings of his guitar and when he hit the strings, the sound would be more muted instead of ringing out. There’s less sound now, and I can amp it up and compress it and I know it’s counterintuitive… I remember when I first did that, Lindsey looked at me like I was crazy, saying “What are you putting dampening material under my strings for?” But as soon as he heard it, it was like, “You're a genius!” [Laughs]

We might do the same thing on a piano; just put towels down on a piano so it mutes it and then you just focus on certain areas. I mean, you can do it on anything–I did a vocal one time and it called for a small little voice. The producer in there wanted to just turn the volume down, so what you had was a big voice, just lower in volume. I said, “No, let’s make it a small voice” and we had the person stand way back from the microphone so it changes the perspective on his vocal–he’s actually a little voice and it fits so much better instead of trying to manipulate this large voice into a background that was already tight.

How about that time we recorded chairs? For the song Second Hand News, Lindsey got drumsticks and played on a Naugahyde folding chair. We EQ’d it so you were getting more lows than highs–you take that lower boom and bring it right down to the lower volume of the mix so it's just the same volume as part of the kick drum and part of the bass and you can't really hear it, but you’re supposed to feel it.

8. Which mics do you use most often?

Dynamic mics have a proximity effect so when a person gets close to a dynamic mic, in addition to having a tendency to pop, it'll build up a little bit of an exaggerated bottom end. Condensers are nice for electric stuff, having a lot of excitement and high frequencies. So I usually go to one extreme or the other–I might put a dynamic on a snare drum because I want the hit of the sound but I also might use a condenser, like a 251, so I've got the crack to the top and the boom through the bottom.

I have this trick with vocals where I would take a Shure SM57 and put a pop filter around it, with a rubber band around the pop filter so it holds it in place. Then I would take the pop filter, and slide it up so the end of the filter would be close to the head of the capsule, with the rubber band holding it there. When the vocalist sang, their lips would be so close, they’d be touching the pad and this added a throaty bottom end that people said sounded amazing.

9. Do you have a go-to vocal chain or is it different every time?

Well, it all depends–I can make any mic sound really good. With that pop filter trick I was just telling you about, I could make an SM57 sound better than U 47 FET–it just depends what you're looking for. I usually use a tube mic for vocals, but I might blend it with a dynamic. For Colbie Caillat, we used a CMV-563, which is an old Neumann tube mic and it's beautiful; I think John Shanks uses it too.

10. Which EQs and compressors do you reach for most often?

For EQs, I usually use whatever is on the console, and now with Pro Tools, I use the Waves EQ plug-in. I try not to get too fancy and just usually use a 7-band EQ and I can really shape what I want with that. I see a lot of engineers using exotic plug-ins but I tend to go with simple ones–the 1176, the LA-2A; I used to use the real hardware that those items are modeled on and they sound different than the plug-ins.

11. What is the least expensive piece of gear you've ever used on a record?

The Sony ECM-50, a Shure SM57, a Beyerdynamic M 88... Engineers shouldn't listen with their wallets. [Laughs] I used the Sennheiser 441 on Stevie Nicks’ vocal. The first day with her, I set up a bunch of microphones and had her sing into each one. As soon as she got to the 441, she went, “This is it, this is the one!” And that was a million-dollar idea because she knew it was going to sound so good so she sang better and I didn't have to convince her into liking any other microphones–she was already sold on that one. She was in love with the 441, and that's a pretty cheap microphone.

12. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?

I think I sit down a lot more than I used to! [Laughs] I liked everyone being in the studio together, we used to create together and that doesn't happen as much; we’ve learned to operate under budget constraints. I don't know if anything else has changed that much–I guess I know better where the harmonies have to be put in; it's important to have certain instruments carry the melody. I learned a long time ago about frequencies; I look at frequencies almost like colors–there's the blue portion that goes along the ground, which is the bass and sustaining instruments and then there’s the step up higher, which starts to be yellow etc. There needs to be a balance–each frequency has got to be respectful of the other.

13. You’ve worked with so many amazing artists–what are some moments that stand out for you from those sessions?

Recording for the song Tusk at Dodger Stadium was pretty amazing–that was over 40 years ago now. We went to Dodger Stadium to record the marching band and add it to the music we already had, and I actually invited my wife there, on our first date! [Smiles] I said, “Hey, do you want to come to Dodger Stadium while we record Fleetwood Mac?” So I have a picture of her and me there, and she's so young and happy and trying to stay cool. That was an amazing time!

Another was when I recorded Songbird with Christine McVie, which was a two-part thing: I recorded her initially at the end of a session, playing just a standard piano in a room, and when playing it back to the band the next day I just kind of muttered, “I can't get a sound here, we need to go to a huge auditorium and get that ambience.” The band went, “What did you say? That's a good idea, Ken, let's do it!” So we went down to an auditorium in Berkeley that did orchestral music and had orchestral shelves that projected the sound out into the hall. We put up all these microphones and spent the whole day recording Christine playing a 9-foot Steinway in this beautiful hall and that kind of shaped history.

It was a really touching moment for me–I put four dozen roses on the piano, I had the spotlight lighting them up and Christine came into the room and said, “I'm going to cry.” We worked for about 12 hours that day to get one 3-minute song recorded. We had to solve a lot of problems on the spot and I always tell people, “You’ve got to do the best you can at all times, because you never know when you're going to be a part of history.”

I mean, here I am–I did this and it became this iconic music to so many people and you never know when you're going to be a part of that. I'm a serious guy when it comes to music, you just have to set an example for other people. I see a lot of people, they’ll turn a knob by just one click, and I’m going, “What are you doing? Turn it all the way if you want to see what it does, don't be afraid of it, learn to see what it does.” I mean, I look at myself when I do these interviews and realize that I know a lot of stuff that I don't even know I know–it's just how things are. Don't be afraid of participating in somebody else's music.

14. What is your philosophy on producing?

When you're creating, you’re trying to bring everybody together and you have got to make people feel comfortable. A lot of times, you get groups of different people, some of whom might be nervous and I guess a producer has really got to be the leader. 

I remember, in the early days of Rumours, Christine said to me, “How was I playing? Did you like that part better than the take before?” And I said, “I wasn’t really listening, I was working on the drums or something.” She goes, “No, you need to listen to what I'm doing because you're sitting in the center of the speakers and you need to listen to how all the pieces are fitting together. Am I playing too high? Am I getting in the way of everybody else? I want you to start paying attention to that.” And I’m thinking, “Okay, that’s a little unfair, but it’s true”. So that was basically teaching me to be a producer–you have to sit back and take it all in.

There are times when the producer is working with much better musicians than themselves, but the producer is still the center of everything and their job is to listen to everything and say, “Okay, I can tell you're only listening to yourself; you're not hearing the fact that you're stepping on this keyboard part, so if you could just dial that back a little bit or go down a step…”, and now they’ve made room for this other instrument; it’s a little bit like being a traffic cop, I guess.

15. Imagine a world where hybrid studios don't exist–if you had to choose in-the-box or completely analog, which would you choose and why?

Analog. I like the sound of digital but there's something you get out of analog–you get spontaneity and creativity whereas in-the-box tends to be one person doing more of the creative. If I was working with my daughter, for instance, I might say to her, “You and I will go into the studio, why don't you try different harmonies, and later we'll pick some good ones and build something out of that.

In-the-box is a good tool for editing though. With all the Fleetwood Mac music I produced, for example, I can now look at it on a screen, see where all these instruments line up, and how it all interacted together, which I could never see before–I had to hear it. So it gives you the ability to see things and then you can cut and paste and edit things out. I spend most of my time in the box, I guess; it's when you can get along with the music. When I’m mixing, I always turn it down low and try to find the heart and soul of the music–is it the drums? Is it the bass? The keyboard? The vocals? And I'll try to push that up on the faders…this is the key to the whole song so you’ve got to make sure you don’t lose it.

16. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?

Can't Buy a Thrill by Steely Dan–I was listening to that as a beginning engineer around 1972-73 and it was just brilliant, there was such a focus to the music. That was my beginning and then Joni Mitchell was great later on with Miles of Aisles and Court and Spark.

17. What’s one record you wish that you had worked on?

Sgt. Pepper’s! Rubber Soul would also have been fun; any of those things would have been really great. I would love to have been there in the Beatles’ recording sessions, because they really had it hard–sometimes they only had four tracks. When you’re recording on such limited tracks, it’s completely challenging; that would have been so much fun.

18. What new music have you been listening to lately?

I've been listening to country more now because my daughter has shifted into country music. She's doing really well, she's happy and I'm just so proud of her.

19. Is there a "dream artist" that you'd like to work with someday? What would you do differently than their previous records?

John Lennon. I mean, he'd probably be uncontrollable to work with but he’d certainly be fun. I don't know if I have anybody, really. 

20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?

You’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of the artist and help the artist find their best self; you bring that out and the artist goes, “Wow! I didn't know I had it in me.” I think of that first day that you work with an artist and you're asking them to get the vocal performance of a lifetime. How do they get their head in the right space to do that? You have to understand that they're sensitive and in many ways, they're nervous because they are in there having to expose themselves, performance-wise, to a stranger. 

I think about Stevie–on Dreams she did this one vocal take and she was just so inspired that there was a part of that take that she could never repeat later. We tried maybe 25 times to go back and re-record it but there was one part that she could just never do better than she had already done the first time. I don't know what that says, but it shows you there's something about people–they get so inspired and are so moved, it’s beautiful. As a producer, you need to realize that you're in that position of creating something from a performance. Lindsey's guitar solo on Go Your Own Way has survived 45 years now! You never know, as a producer, you might be creating that or helping to bring that out of somebody now, like I loved to bring that out of Lindsey. It's the little things that become important and a musician relies on their producer and engineer.

Chris BolithoIf you’re interested in any of the gear mentioned in this blog, contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.