Keith Lewis is Qmillion, a musician, engineer, producer, composer, and mixer based in L.A. He’s been busier than ever during the last decade with Robert Glasper (and his Experiment and Trio combos), as well as many related artists and projects. Qmillion’s mixes and tracking always sound amazing to me, so I had to drop a line and learn about his past, and how he thinks about the art of recording.
You grew up in Minneapolis?
Yeah, I did. I went to the University of Minnesota. I left Minneapolis in ‘92.
You were working with Jesse Johnson, doing production, engineering, and performing.
Exactly. For me, learning how to play music and the curiosity of electronics, like taking apart my dad’s stereos, happened at the same time. I remember borrowing one of the little, flat cassette recorders. We’d tape off the speakers at home from the radio if one of my favorite songs came on. Then we’d hook that up to my dad’s system so we could hear it; just experimenting.
Did you go to school for recording or music?
I was at the university for computer science, and I was working at Honeywell’s undersea division. I had a scholarship there. When I got into Jesse’s band, playing keyboards, I gave it all up. My dad was furious! I was like, “School was the fallback for music. This tour is right here, right now.”
Did that lead to studio work with Jesse?
Yeah. On his albums he did most of the music by himself, but every once in a while he would have somebody come in and do parts that weren’t his forte. He had me come in and play string pads. He’s crazy on the keyboards. For his style, he’s sick with it. He didn’t need me to do any of that. But I would come in and do other parts. That’s when our relationship started to grow in the studio. He had a big [Soundcraft] TS24 48-channel board with two [tape] machines, but in a room that wasn’t that big. There wasn’t always an engineer. I was learning, and sometimes when it was time to mix a record he’d have an engineer come in and mix
and I’d watch them. Then we started writing music together.
And producing other artists, right?
Yeah. Our biggest song was “Nights Like This” for After 7. That moment that song ended up having in the movie, The Five Heartbeats, is still priceless.
We also had songs in White Men Can’t Jump. It was a pretty good run.
What led to moving to L.A.?
In Minneapolis it was three camps. It was Jesse’s camp, Prince’s camp, and it was Terry and Jimmy’s camp [Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis]. I worked with Terry and Jimmy when I worked with The Time with Jesse.
But if I went there, it would cut off the Jesse thing. And if I went with Prince… People weren’t collaborating back then the way they are now. Everything was secretive. Everything was competitive. It’s a whole new era now that we’re into. It’s amazing how it’s changed.
Were you looking for a different environment?
Yeah. Music was changing at the time, and the Minneapolis sound wasn’t a thing no more. Some of the records me and Jesse were doing were hip-hop records, but it was a combination of hip-hop and R&B hooks, which is now the standard. Back then people asked, “Why is there singing on it? This isn’t underground.”
It’d be hard for someone to understand if they hadn’t lived through that era!
Right. Now every rapper sings. I came to L.A. so I could do my own thing and not be in somebody else’s camp. Me and Jesse are still cool; I talked to him last week. I needed to stretch out to make my own thing happen. There were enough people in Minneapolis doing what they were doing, but the business was out here.
What was some of the early L.A. work you took on?
When I first came out, I was working with Oliver Leiber. Because he was from Minneapolis, and he had worked with Paula [Abdul], Ta Mara & the Seen, and so on. I started a couple records with him, and both of those records got dropped. I produced “Grazin’ in the Grass” for George Howard, then I signed a publishing deal with Interscope, and I started shopping songs. I produced half of Shello [The Homegirl] for Giant Records; the other half was produced by DJ Quik. I was doing a lot of hip-hop. Underground rappers; nothing that popped super huge. Then I started working with Billy Preston.
Right! How did that come about?
Well, that meeting came from Oliver. I had met Billy a year or two before we started working together. Oliver used to have this jam session; everybody was coming through. One day Oliver had Billy come. Billy remembered me and hit me up. He had an album he was trying to do, and it was all inside of his keyboard. I helped him take it from there.
You ended up playing shows with him, right?
Yeah. I still trip on that. Honestly, when I was a kid, my dad had his records. His music was so amazing. It was a dream come true working with him. So much talent and so born for music.
How much touring did you do with Billy over the years?
Off and on for about five years, playing bass. Then the last year I started playing keyboards – the horn parts and such – with him. We did the Montreux Jazz Festival and a bunch of dates in Spain, about a couple years before he passed.
Is that how you met [drummer] Chris Dave back then?
No, I met Chris when I was working with Mint Condition. He was 19. My brother’s in Mint Condition [Keri Lewis]. I mixed some of their records and ended up going on the road to mix front-of-house in the States and when they did a Toni Braxton tour in Europe. That’s how me and Chris got tight. Chris is the one who brought me in to Robert Glasper. It really all started with Robert Glasper. That launched the whole mixing thing for me. I was doing it, but I wasn’t working with everybody I’m working with right now.
What was your role initially with Robert Glasper?
Me and Chris had been doing music together. Some of it’s still coming out. He was like, “Yo, I’m doing this record with Rob. I think I can convince him to fly you out.” These aren’t big budgets, but they had to fly me to New York because that’s where they were cutting the record [in 2009]. They were doing Double Booked. Half of it was the [The Robert Glasper] Trio, and half of it was the [The Robert Glasper] Experiment. He was like, “You’ve gotta do the Experiment.” It ended up being the greatest thing ever for me. Chris was looking out for himself; he knew his drums were going to sound killer! They hadn’t sounded like that yet for him. We did the Double Booked side, and things started picking up. Robert had hit onto the thing; people were starting to hear where he was going with it.
There’s this intersection of hip-hop, R&B, and jazz, and sometimes live instruments, that don’t sound like live instruments.
To be adept at that on the engineering end is different.
That’s true. I feel it’s a carryover from doing a lot of hip-hop before I hooked up with Rob and them; trying to treat instruments to sound like samples and the way hip-hop sounds. Sounds that have been mastered, then sampled and crunched. Then they get compressed again, and then that record gets mixed and mastered. That’s my philosophy with some of these sounds. I’m going to beat it up a whole bunch of times, and then it’s going to sound like a drum machine in a way, but it’s going to play like Chris because he’s playing it. It’s not programmed, but it’s gonna smack. It’s gonna hit you.
What are some of the techniques you use for that?
I didn’t go to school for it. Somebody asked me one time, “Are you a big fan of parallel processing? I’m doing a thesis on this.” I said, “I dunno what you’re talking about! I don’t do that.” But then I started reading in magazines and learning, and I realized that’s what I’d been doing. I call it my “crunch channel,” where I’m going to beat it up and put way too much processing on. Chris will be mad because it doesn’t sound like drums anymore. Then I’m going to make it uglier, and then he’s going to love it, and we’re going to blend it with the original sound; that’s parallel processing. I go extreme with the channel that I’m blending in. There are no manuals for it; I just experiment. I listen to other samples too. I’ll think, “Hmm, that sound sounds like it’s got a lot of room in it, but it’s compressed too.” I try to replicate what I hear on other samples, and on big records that are hip-hop that are machines. Once that came along, peoples’ ears became attuned to it. The drums have to hit hard, otherwise it feels soft.
I get that with rock mixes too.
Totally. Those go all the way. They’ll use triggers. That’s gotta be all the way.
Some of the coolest sounds you’re getting use quite a bit of mids and low-mid information on the kick drum. A chunky thud, but not too much where it starts to sound shitty. How do you keep that in check?
When it’s a project that I record, I have the balance and the benefit. I use three mics on the kick. Each mic I use for its own thing; the head mic is for the head sound. I’m going to roll off that low low on the head, right?
Because it rings out and hangs there.
And I don’t want it to phase at all and interfere with the low that I’m going to get from the sub. Then the third one I use is an [AKG C]414. That’s going to capture fatness, but still some of the air and some of the room. I use each one for its own thing and try not to let them overlap too much.
Exactly. I pay attention to make sure that they’re in phase with each other. It’s something that I get better at every time. I get recordings to mix all the time where the snare is completely out of phase. They don’t check it; they don’t hear it. They don’t understand why it doesn’t have that smack.
It’s fighting itself.
Exactly! Then room sound, too. Some of these records have been recorded in these huge-ass rooms. Then, when we [Robert Glasper Experiment] did Black Radio, that wasn’t a huge room. I feel the rooms color where it ends up; it’s a big part of the sound.
The way you’re tracking, there’s likely to be sound bleed.
Yeah. The great part is that with Rob and them; everything they do, there is no overdubbing. There’s almost never even a second take. He’s a magician of getting the vibe. It took me a minute to get used to those sessions. Rob is all about capturing a moment. That moment’s going to be fed by the vibe he sets. He sets that vibe by having all his friends come through to the session. It’s there, because they’re giving him energy and he’s giving them energy. It’s all evident in the recording. It’s all there. I prefer to work with it quiet, and to be able to hear, but often I can’t because there are 20 people in the room. It’s about the vibe. The vibe’s going to show up on the record, and we’re going to work out all the other things later.
Is part of that always being in record mode? I would imagine you’d be scared to death to miss something.
Yes. They got used to it when they first started working with me. They would say, “Did you get that?” “Of course!” I worked with people like Billy and Jesse. These guys are brilliant. Everything they’re playing is magic, so if you don’t have the red light on, you’ve failed! “You didn’t capture that moment. You had one job!” [laughs]
Are you going down early and setting up for these sessions?
Yeah. They’re part of that too. Rob will be like, “Oh, yeah; let me set up here.” Usually it depends on whatever room we’re in and where the drums have got to go. Are the drums isolated? Are any in the room? We build it around that. Then we’re good about getting sounds. Me and Chris can go, and it’s faster and faster every time, but nobody’s rushing anything. Once the sound is good, then they’re going to hang out some more so that the vibe is there, and then they’re going to play. You never want to have to worry about any of that once they’re recording. I definitely do as much prep before they come, and then we prep together sound-wise before we are going to do takes.
You know that scenario where you’re getting rushed; people run in and start playing ideas and you don’t even have enough mics up yet.
Oh, yeah. I’m there at least two hours before they come. They can’t touch anything that’s not mic’d. I know for sure by the time they get in that the red light is on and it’s going to be a close approximation to how the sound should be. Again, it’s magic. Some of the songs they end up with are like, “Man, I had this idea on my way over here on the train. Check this out!” Rob walks in, sits down at the piano, and starts playing. He’s teaching Derrick [Hodge, bass] the changes. Then he goes, “Oh, wait. You changed that a little bit. What did I just do?” We rewind the tape, because it’s going. You can’t miss that.
With the Black Radio albums and all the guest vocals and rap performers, are they coming down and doing those live with the band?
On Black Radio there were probably over half the people in the studio. As far as the features, We had Lupe [Fiasco], Ledisi, Lalah [Hathaway], and Stokley [Williams, vocals and percussion]. Erykah [Badu] and MeShell [Ndegeocello] did theirs in their own spots. Then Black Radio 2 was somewhat of a mix, but a lot of people came through. Macy [Gray], Faith [Evans], and Common came through. On the upcoming one [Black Radio 3], all the cats were there. It’s crazy. Herbie Hancock’s there at the same time.
What about Fuck Yo Feelings?
Yeah. The Fuck Yo Feelings album was probably the most unique, in the sense that they’re all spontaneous, but that one was completely spontaneous. They didn’t bring songs in. That whole album is a two-day jam session. Some of those lyrics got written that day. SiR [Sir Darryl Farris], Yebba, and Affion [Crockett] were there. The rest of it got added later, but all the music is from those two days of them vibing.
Afterwards was there a sorting out and editing period, where tracks were cut down to size or restructured?
After it was all done we’d listen back, but it’s usually all in one long session. I’m not going to break it apart or anything until it’s mix time. That’s how you make sure you don’t miss anything. Just use one [Pro Tools] session; leave it open and leave it recording. Thank god that disk space is way better than it used to be back in the day.
You’ll have a day’s worth of a jam?
That day is really a couple hours. In that couple of hours, they might have played an hour straight through of that jam session. Then they might do another one. One of them they vibed, and did five different vibes. Chris would play a different beat and then they would jump in, or Rob would start something up and Chris would jump in, or Herbie did something. It’s completely spontaneous. I feel that’s a big part of what people are responding to. The dynamic that happens is so synergistic. It’s way bigger than anybody on their own.
You’ve been mixing for a lot of different artists. I listened to Mykal Kilgore’s Man Born Black. That’s a completely different world, with more overdubs and very controlled.
Totally. Jamison Ross produced that project. We worked on a couple of records. It’s a different approach to get this type of music. He’s a master at it. They had their arrangements down. They’re not going into the studio without that worked out. It’s a different thing. I’m astounded that he got Grammy-nominated, because it’s so well-deserved. The album was nice. They tracked it to tape at The Parlor [Recording Studio] in New Orleans. We did [Robert Glasper Experiment’s] ArtScience there. It’s an awesome studio.
Do you find yourself switching gears for different projects?
Totally. I’m searching for the same feeling for every project, but I’m always switching gears. I hardly ever use templates. The only template that I use is based on where my outputs are for my Neve and SSL gear. I don’t have it set up where every song is going to have this or that. So many projects are different. That’s where I learn, man. They all have their challenges, and they all have their sounds. Again, I’m all going for that same feeling though. “How do I get that with what I’m presented?”
With mixing, are you using outboard gear?
Oh, yeah; I’m using a lot now. I have the Rupert Neve Designs 5060 Centerpiece. That was a huge gamechanger for me.
Yeah, for summing.
I’m a Neve person. I see you’ve got that 5088 console. It’s the same guts as my 5060, technically. We’re blessed to have started when we started. We’re used to analog. Neve to me is the epitome of getting that sound. I also have a rack of SSL EQs, the black ones and the G series. I have everything going through the Burl [Audio B2] Bomber. I’ve got outboard effects too. I’ve been using the SSL Fusion when I want more of that kind of sound to it.
I was wondering, “Why doesn’t my work sound like these other mixes? It doesn’t sound as big.” It was two reasons. One was that I still hadn’t super mastered my whole gain structure in the digital world. Coming from analog, we mix hot. We mix hot, and then we pull the whole master down, right? And you’re good. It’s okay, because you’re driving the board. But it doesn’t work in digital. Over time I got better and better at controlling that. Then being able to sum it out to analog, and having the headroom that I need; it opened up.
How are mix recalls working for you when you set it up this way?
I’ve gotten better every time. Again, I’m learning all the time. In the SSL, you can store settings. I would take pictures of the Neve, where I’ve got it set. Now I’ve found the sweet spot in the Neve where I leave it set. Recalls are simple for that part. Then I’ll take a picture of the EQs on the SSL and write in the notes in Pro Tools; what my levels were on the Burl and info like that.
Right. It’s not the old days where we were taking down mix notes and settings for an hour.
Yeah, like every channel and everything; no. I use EQ on the analog as the finishing. “I need this to pop out a little bit,” and I pop that EQ in with that last little bit. Being done analog, it hits me different than it does in the box.
Do you have a chain that ends up on your final left-right mix bus when you’re printing mixes?
I’m coming out of the Neve and going into the Burl [converter]. They have the insert on there, so I have the SSL on the insert. Most of my other chain on the stereo bus is inside the box. I’ll use some Manley [UAD Massive Passive EQ], as well as the UAD [Brainworx] bx_Masterdesk. I’ve been using Youlean [Loudness Meter 2] to see where my LUFS [Loudness Unit Full Scale] are, to keep that down. I’ve been getting better at trying to not mix so hot and loud.
Leave a little room for mastering?
I’ve been blessed because Chris Athens does 90 percent of what I put out. We’ve never talked about it, but I’m sure he’s appreciating that I’m getting better. I send it to Chris, and he does his thing on it and he never hurts it. It always sounds better. It should never sound worse. I like to trust people who I’ve worked with; I know it’s going to come out how it’s supposed to come out.
I love the Robert Glasper Fuck Yo Feelings (Instrumental) version I found on Tidal.
Did you get left on your own to have fun with that one?
I would love to give you a cooler answer than this, but it’s honestly just the instrumental version. I hit mute on the board on the vocal channel. What’s cool is that all of what’s already happening gets to shine. It sounds like I did more than I did, but I just muted the vocals.
That’s too fucking funny. I thought it was like Mad Professor or Scientist [Tape Op #136] where they deconstruct the mixes.
Hell, yeah. I try to incorporate that into the mixes already. I’m not going to make it the whole meal, because what these guys are playing is the meal. But, yeah. I’m always doing little sounds – sneaking it in. I do reggae music too. I have a reggae and dancehall label [Unseen Lab]. That whole dub sensibility; I’m all for it. I love the experimentation.
The list you sent me of your Grammy nominations for 2020 was crazy.
Well, I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I also worked with Ledisi, but the one she got nominated for isn’t the one that I mixed. I was hoping Derrick [Hodge] would have gotten in there. His record [Color Of Noize] sounded different, because we had two drummers playing at the same time. The songwriting is crazy. Him, Rob [Glasper], and Chris [Dave]; these guys are my brother’s brothers. We’ve been working together for more than ten years now. It’s amazing to work with your friends. It’s ridiculous that they happen to be some of the most incredible musicians on the planet.
I bet that association’s led to other work.
I ain’t going to front. Honestly, it launched my whole mixing career; and at the perfect time. I still put music in film and TV but I’m not going to score one of these placements every day. When the mixing thing popped with Rob, and people would hit me up, the first thing I’d tell them is, “Man, I’m glad you even know that I did it.” Credits aren’t everywhere.
Absolutely. It drives me crazy.
It’s half of our pay. Hopefully we’re blessed enough to work on something that someone’s going to listen to and go, “Who did this?” You want them to be able to find out. But again, man, I’m not complaining. The fact that I’m even working with these people on these records is a blessing.
Through the pandemic we’ve both done a lot of remote mixing. Have you done any attended tracking sessions?
Yeah. Rob has a new setup at his place. I did a session over at Mark Ronson’s [Tape Op #105] with Yebba for Rob’s record. I’ve done a couple of vocal sessions here.
That’s your own studio, Flying Dread?
Yeah. This is where I mix everything and have a closet that’s sounded out for the vocals. I built a production room next to it where I have all the keyboards, my Moog, and organ. That’s just for production.
Is this a commercial space?
No, it’s based in a home in L.A.
Has it taken over your life?
Man, there’s nothing else but music and my family. That’s it, man! I’m blessed. I have my daughter and my granddaughter here.
It gives you time to be around them.
Yeah, I’m here! Especially now. My granddaughter’s doing homeschool. They come in and hear music I’m mixing, and they tell me what they like.
Is it isolated enough from the living area that you’re not booming through the house?
Yeah. I’m lucky. The upstairs is where the bedrooms are and the studio, and then downstairs is the living area. Nobody’s above me, so nobody’s complaining. There are apartments further away, but I never beat the sub[woofer] that long, or that loud for too long. I’m going to turn it up, and crank it up for a minute to make sure I’ve got the low lows right; but that’s not going to be all day.
On what you’re working on, the low end management is important.
Oh, it’s huge. Everything is bassy, man. Kicks are huge, basses are huge, and I’m finding the room for each to co-exist. I turn off everything and listen to the sub on its own.
I do that all the time. “What’s down there?”
Right? It helps you focus in on what’s cracking. It helps me. “Okay, the bass is beating against the kick right here. I need to balance it different. Let’s clean that up.”
It’s also good to know that the low end is rhythmic. That can get masked by rumbly sounds.
Yeah, totally! A lot times I didn’t realize I had to gate something.
What’s in the future? Are there records coming out next year?
Yeah. Rob’s still working on Black Radio 3. We’re about 70 percent done on that. That has some amazing “dream artist” features on it. I’ve been working with Reuben James and James Vickery. Both of these guys are super U.K. soul singers. Reuben used to play keyboards with Sam Smith. Joni Mitchell flies him over to do jam sessions at her house. He’s a beast. I mixed Jahi Sundance’s new EP. Kenneth Whalum just got signed to Secretly Canadian [Records] and dropped the new single to his forthcoming album that we recorded at United [Recording]. And, finally, we’ve got a new dancehall record out with E-Dee. It’s got Wayne Wonder on it, Future Fambo, I-Octane, and Glen Washington. And [Robert Glasper’s “supergroup”] R+R=Now drops their live album [R+R=NOW Live], recorded at the Blue Note Jazz Club.