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Qualified By Experience
Ken McKim is truly a member of the most endangered species in the world of professional audio recording, with a knowledge and database of audio electronics that transcends decades. Ken has been the head tech for some of the most influential studios of the recording era, having worked at RPM, Sigma Sound, Allaire and Bearsville Studios. I've known Ken for over a dozen years and until this interview never knew the depth and scope of the work he has done. For most of this time Ken also has had his own tech repair business going, known to many studios in NYC and beyond as Trouble Report. It's through Trouble Report that I first met Ken when I wanted to restore an old Flickinger console I owned. Inside his building Ken was busy with his new line of tube direct boxes and tube compressors, for yet another company he had started called Retrospec. In a recent trip to Trouble Report I brought down a rare Melcor AE-20 mic pre/EQ that I needed Ken to wire. I'd been searching the web the last six months trying to find a schematic to bring with me. No luck. Within two minutes of the modules being on the bench Ken turns around, opens a file cabinet and pulls out the exact spec sheet I'd been looking for. I couldn't believe my eyes.
I recently discovered you play pedal steel.
I played guitar first, then steel. It wasn't until I heard this John Sebastian song called "Rainbow All Over Your Blues" that Buddy Emmons played steel on. I said, "All right, that's it for me." Him and this other steel player named Curley Chalker had put out an album at that same time. He was like Buddy Emmons on acid. That's how the steel came about. I was also the guy that always took care of the band PA equipment. We were gigging as full time as anybody at the time and someone had to handle this end of it on the road.
Is that what led you to the technical side of the business?
I guess, in a way. Eventually I moved to NYC and started doing some recording dates and from that I was asked to do some production work. I found this studio being built at the time that would trade recording time for physical labor. I was doing everything - laying blocks and whatever needed to be done. I convinced the owner, Robert Mason, I could do electrical wiring 'cause I'd wired my parents barn up in upstate NY. [laughs] So all the while I'm working, the equipment is just sitting there with all the manuals. I started reading them. It took a year to build the studio and by the end he wanted me to wire everything. So I did. As a result of this I became the chief technical engineer for the studio. This was RPM Sound Studios in Manhattan. We had a MCI [console] in there at first, but quickly went to a Neve 8068, so I was able to learn using some of the best equipment. When I first started there I still wanted to be a record producer and I got to see what the other producers were doing at the time. They always seemed to be on the phone haggling with the record companies, and the musicians were just hanging out. I thought I might not really want to be a producer after all. I looked around and not many people were doing the technical side of the business, so I thought this might be the way to go instead. It turned out to be the right way for me.
Are you an electrical engineer?
No I am not. I did recognize the need for a proper foundation enough that I picked up books on the subject. My shift at RPM started at 4 a.m. every day, so every morning I would read these technical books and take the tests in them. That gave me the foundation I needed. I like to say I have Rupert Neve's QBE, "Qualified By Experience" degree. This business really runs off two different things, one being "acquired knowledge", where you run past the same problems so many times you know several ways to fix it, the other being "detective work", where you have to hunt down this unknown, find the problem and deal with it. Schools really can't teach what you are going to run across in this business - it really is just being in the trenches and having to figure it out. Theory is one thing, but application is altogether different. I know I'm going to get flack for that statement!
At what point did you go to work for Sigma Sound Studios?
I worked at RPM for about three and a half years and I heard there was an opening coming up over there. Gerry Block had just fired the entire maintenance staff - six people. When I went there Jerry actually gave me this test - he drew an op-amp and asked, "What do you think that is? How can it be used?" I guess I answered it right as he hired me and one other guy. RPM had been this single-room facility and Sigma was four rooms with two sessions per day in each room, and now only two technicians to service the facility. The saving grace was that they had house engineers there and they would try to cover any of the technical flaws that might be going on. We all worked together as a team. I did that for a little over a year and a half and then the interview for Bearsville came up.
That's when you went to work for Bearsville?
Yes, a guy named Griff McRee was the studio manager at the time and put the word on the street they were desperate for a maintenance engineer. I jumped at the chance.
Was it a new facility at the time?
It had been up and running for a while. It was a two-room facility but only the smaller of the rooms was up and running. Later John Holbrook made a deal with Albert [Grossman] and took over the big space. He put in a production company and started doing records.
Is that where you met Mark McKenna [Allaire Studios general manager]?
Yes. Mark was first hired as an assistant for Bearsville Studios and then went on to become an engineer at A&M Records in L.A., and eventually returned to Bearsville to become the studio manager.
Did you only maintain gear or were you asked to build some of the equipment?
Mostly maintenance, but we would build things like monitoring sections and logic systems for the consoles - mostly modifications of equipment that existed already.
Any strange or unusual requests you were asked to construct in the studio?
Actually the Retrospec equipment grew out of requests like this. It was at Bearsville that I had a client say he heard about this tube direct box - it was so new you couldn't even find one anywhere. It was the Demeter unit that had just come out. So I pulled out an old Navy book on tube circuit design, found a unity gain balanced line driver that used no transformer (which was good because I didn't have one that day), and I told the client to give me a couple of hours. I spent the rest of the day working on this thing. It looked really awful, but I finished it by the end of the day - just an ugly black box. It worked - they loved it and used it on the rest of the album. However the Navy design was way too cumbersome, so I started reworking it and replacing things, and after about six months I got a circuit that I actually liked that worked well. I stuck with the transformerless concept because without it, the only coloration would be the character lent by the tubes themselves. I thought that might be good and it certainly was unique.
So that led you to build the Juice Box. But what about the Squeeze Box?
The tube compressor really was just a shot. "Wouldn't it be cool to have a tube compressor to go along with it, so a guitarist could run into this box on stage?" At the time there wasn't anything like it. King Crimson was coming into Bearsville and Tony Levin was the first to try it. I just crammed this design into another ugly black box. He used it for the album they were doing at the time, and after a few months I was looking for the box and realized that Tony took it with him when they left the studio. He was using it on the road as part of his rig. I ran into him about a year later and asked what he thought about it and he loved it. So I started building the tube compressor as well. Tony still has the original one.
When did you start Retrospec?
In 1996 I was trying to do Bearsville, Trouble Report, and get Retrospec running. So I left Bearsville and did Retrospec full time, and that's where I learned about the term "undercapitalization".
Advertising alone must have cost a fortune.
Trade shows were the real demise. Every show was like five to six grand, plus the time being out of the office/workshop really cost on top of that. I know I'll never get rid of my Juice Box - not just the sound alone, but I love its build design - all tubes no transformers. Authentic old school!
When we first met, you had the Rolling Stones' remote truck parked outside your place. How did you end up with that in your driveway?
The Luke Brothers [Eddie and Victor] had bought it and John Siket (who was working) with them contacted me. They had several Helios consoles and I worked on one for them. From that the Luke brothers asked me if I wanted to work on the Helios console in the Rolling Stones remote truck. I was at a trade show when they brought it over. They just parked it out on the street in front of my building and left it there.
So you worked on one of the most famous Helios consoles in the world. What did you do?
It was there for a year and I barely just scratched the surface. I got it up and running, but it really needed to be stripped down and totally reworked. It passed signal, but once you moved it all the relays went out of whack.
And now you're working on another famous console?
One of Sir George Martin's commissioned Neve consoles for his Air Montserrat, actually.
I thought that console was lost when the volcano blew?
It's funny, most people think that, but here it is. Allaire bought this to replace the SSL in their main studio.
As Ken and I stand in the five car garage at Allaire, the console is sitting there almost stripped down to its frame. I'm told that every one of its 2200 switches will get replaced, every component of each module will be gone through, the patchbay will be completely rebuilt and a slew of other operations will be performed before the console comes back on line again. Such is life when you play in the big arena of professional recording studios. I know what Ken will be doing for the next year. I just hope it doesn't slow down getting that Melcor box of mine wired anytime soon, or the DIs done in my Electrodyne tube mic pres or fixing that envelope follower power supply. Damn, why can't there be a few clones of Ken out there?