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Ken Caillat was a talented young engineer with a real love for sound when he was roped in to work on Fleetwood Mac’s album Rumours. One year of hard work later, the album was ready and there was no looking back for the band or Ken.
The GRAMMY award-winning engineer and producer has worked with some of the biggest names in music over the years and he also shares his knowledge and experience with upcoming artists as the founder and CEO of artist-development company ArtistMax.
Ken sat down with us recently to look back on his legendary career. Read on for his stories from the Fleetwood Mac sessions, how his meeting with Paul McCartney went, and how one piece of advice from Ken set the path of his daughter Colbie Caillat’s career.
We had one year to work on Rumours and it didn't seem like that much time, but it gave us the opportunity to really sit back and work on the songs. I know it gave Lindsey Buckingham a lot of time to work out new parts–he kept fitting in pieces and layering them and adding more colors and it was his genius, really, that did it. We could have done it a lot faster but he wanted to work on all that extra performance–he really thought about his music so the extra time was great.
Fleetwood Mac were in the unique situation of having their previous album still climbing the charts for eight months at the same time as we were recording–we started recording in January and their previous album peaked on the charts in August–so while the previous record was climbing the charts, they had nothing to do but make more music. Of course, back then they didn't have something like TikTok where you create a 1-second riff and you can make a lot of money out of it, but I always say that nobody is that smart to make a record like Rumours in three weeks; you can’t do it quickly when you're creating it all from scratch, unless you do a lot of pre-production and planning. I just recommend taking more time and figuring out a way to afford that.
One of the keys to the sound of the record was the backing vocals. A lot of times when groups start to sing background parts, they're not really that trained and if you break it down and listen to it, sometimes they're crossing each other's notes, sometimes they're not doing a third, they're doing a fifth, and things like that. Lindsey would sit at the piano and figure out the notes for everyone’s parts–he’d play the notes for the band and go, “ Here are all the notes you're going to sing.” The harmonies they had would always have a counterpoint vocal melody and they would often answer a question; like in You Make Loving Fun, at the end, they move into these long sustaining notes for the backgrounds. If you ask anybody what they think about when they think about Fleetwood Mac, one of the things will probably be that they have amazing background vocals.
I figured that if we were going to do backgrounds through the whole song, I had to find tracks for them because I had already filled up my 24-track with music and we had to start grabbing a track here, an open track there. I had to be clever about it, so sometimes I had the background vocals and I would bounce them so I had two faders that might be like 40 vocals, which were all backgrounds. I think about it now and think we must have planned that but we didn't, we just kept going, and figured it out. I chuckle because it's like, “Wow, I didn't know it but we were really good!”
We used a lot of tricks, like with the Hammond B3 and the Leslie speaker–we would put vocals and guitars through it, while the speaker was spinning, and what that did is it added a lot of color in the background, very much like the Beatles did, I guess. It’s like ear candy! We also made a drum loop on the song Dreams. Mick Fleetwood was playing this drum part and somebody decided, “Let's make it as hypnotic as possible.” So we had Mick play one part that was very straight and cut eight bars of that out. That was about 240 inches long, and we created a loop, put it back on a tape machine, hit play and the loop would just keep going round and round, playing the same drum beat. Now the tape machine didn't like to play a tape loop, it wants to have tension, so we had the road crew stretch the loops tight against the tape head so the machine would play this loop for 4 minutes straight. Now we had this monotonous drum loop to which Mick added some cymbals and then we recorded that back to another tape and added more effects throughout the song. It was just one of those things–suddenly we're doing a drum loop and we had to figure out how to do it. That’s what was fun about every single day–I loved making the sounds and I loved working on that record. 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 got asked to work on a Joni Mitchell project at Wally Heider Studios where I was kind of the popular engineer–more of a rock or pop engineer. Wally Heider's had a recording truck so I went out with my crew to do a Joni Mitchell tour that lasted two or three months. When I met her producer, Henry Lewy, on the first day, he said, “You know, I'm going to play producer, why don't you play engineer? You do the whole thing and I'll just make sure I like it.”
So we listened to the band, had the charts, and I chose my favorite microphones for live that were somewhat of a cross between studio microphones and good live microphones. The biggest thing I did is, I had a really good crew and I said, “Guys, the important thing to do on a live album is get a good audience capture.” So we went to every stadium and looked at where we could put microphones that would not pick up too much of the P.A. system, but still get the hall sound. I remember we had to go to a hardware store, get a heavy-duty cable and run it across from two light poles and hang our $2,000 microphone on the cable–we got great mic placement for the audience. I don't remember exactly which mics we had, but I'm sure it was a tube mic like a Neumann SM2 Stereo Tube Mic.
I recently mixed a few of her albums in Dolby Atmos–we did Court and Spark, Miles of Aisles, and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. I grew up on Court and Spark–I think I went on many a date, listening to Joni. We got asked by Warner Bros. to mix Court and Spark in Dolby Atmos and I think it is a fantastic example of high-quality spatial audio. Not all music is great for Dolby Atmos mixes, sometimes it just doesn't lend itself to that, but Joni has a lot of movement and interplay between all the instruments so it creates a soundscape and a soundstage within the room. There’s this ethereal quality about her music–you feel there's music over there, music over here, music back here and you feel like you're a part of it.
From about the time she was ten years old, Colbie was singing around the house, doing a lot of vocal gymnastics and we were afraid that she was going to hurt her vocal cords so we called a friend, a vocal coach named Michele Gruska, and had her give Colbie vocal lessons for a few years. I realized that to complete the picture that had started with the vocal lessons, she had to start writing her own songs. So I said to her, “Colbie, you need to write your own music, and to do that, you're going to need to play an instrument. I promise you, if you learn to play an instrument, when your fingers touch the strings or the keys or whatever it is, your heart will reach out through your fingers and you will make music. It will be beautiful and you'll be in control of your life.” The first day she got a guitar lesson, she came home and wrote a song with three chords. After she started writing her own songs, we started recording them, and her friend took one of her songs and put it up on MySpace. Millions of people began sharing her music and suddenly Colbie had a manager and then three months later she had a recording contract, and three months after that she was picked up by a limousine and she’s off to Europe to open for the Goo Goo Dolls!
I remember the part in her big hit Bubbly where she says, “Will you count me in?” She had actually said that at the beginning of the song and we thought it was so cute but instead of putting it at the start of the song, we decided to put it in before the vocal started because we knew if it was right at the beginning the radio stations would cut it off. I remember little kids calling and leaving us messages saying, “Will you count me in?” [Laughs]
Bubbly was written almost by accident. We had moved to a new house and Colbie said, “You know, I'm not writing songs.” And I said, “Well, you're always going out. Why don't you just stay home for a weekend and write a song?” One of her friends had taken her guitar and left it on an open tuning–they hadn’t put it back to standard tuning–and she went off to write a song, hit that first chord you hear on Bubbly, and went, “Wow, this is kind of interesting.” So because of somebody else leaving her guitar in a different tuning, she wrote that particular song. That's what a musician is all about, they hear something and they find something in their heart and an emotion that they want to express.
Paul McCartney was recording his Venus and Mars album at Studio One in Wally Heider Studios and my friends were working the session so I would come down and watch. They decided to add strings on one of their songs so they called me and said, “While we’re down in Studio One, would you do the string session in Studio Four?” I agreed but I was kind of scared because I hadn’t done a lot of string recording. I set up the whole thing that morning and they said, “When Paul's ready, he'll come down to see you.” I was all nervous but I set up all the mics anyway. I close-mic’d the strings so I could get it to sound really edgy; I had some distant mics too, but I remember I was going for bite and I wanted to hear the rosin on the strings.
Afterwards, Sid Sharp, the conductor said, “I love these strings–the sound you captured is the way we hear when we play”, and that was what I had intended to do. Paul came down when it was time to do the session; I was so scared and he came up to me and said, “Hello, my name is Paul McCartney.” And I went, “Yeah, I know.” [Laughs] I wonder if I could think of anything less clever than that. I didn’t say, “big fan”, I didn’t say anything, I just said, “Yeah, I know.” But anyway, we had a great time, he loved the sound and I got to shake Paul McCartney's hand.
The engineer Claus Trelby and I recorded Herbie Hancock with the London Philharmonic but it almost didn't happen. We had a digital tape recorder that was very unhappy with the 220 volts of England; I remember Claus couldn't get the recorder to come on. I was yelling “Claus! Claus!” and we heard the presenter say, “I now present Herbie Hancock!” And I was like, “Claus, go, go, go!” and he finally got it going–he did something and it kicked in. I thought we weren't going to make it–that would have been the first recording I ever failed! But we made it; I remember we were in a little truck outside the Royal Albert Hall, and I was yelling, “Claus! Go now!” [Laughs]