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...