Kenneth Williams ...
"I was just on the road with Chaka Khan covering for an associate," Kenneth Williams is saying from his home in LA, a conversation starter he drops absolutely without pretense. He made time to chat with us before leaving for a short tour with Erykah Badu and upcoming dates with Childish Gambino for his PHAROS event in Joshua Tree to support his current release, "Awaken, My Love!" The world class sound engineer has a star-studded resume, having worked with an award-winning range of artists from a variety of musical styles and cultures. Kenneth's choice of microphones includes a vast array from Audix microphones, from the entire D series on drums, to OM7s on lead vocals for Raphael Saadiq and backing vocals for Erykah Badu, which he chooses for their sonic quality and reliability. We checked in with him to ask about his experience with Audix, share some stories from the road, and give some advice for engineers starting out in the business.
Born in Chicago, Williams came to the music industry first as a songwriter for GRAMMY® winner Norman Brown and later also played guitar on Brown's recordings. "I was in the 36th Army band as a guitarist and vocalist," he explains, "and we would come out to Southern California doing recruiting missions. I'd heard about Musician's Institute while I was out here, so when I got out of the service I enrolled there and lived in a motor home on the streets of Hollywood for a few years while working and attending school there. I was fortunate to meet and become friends with Steve Scoville, Production Manager at MI, and Steve led me into audio engineering, even though I didn't think about it that way-I was simply doing what I needed to do to write and record my songs."
He says he considers himself lucky, thankful for the opportunities that have come his way. "There are many people that can do what I do, but they'll never get a chance simply because it's not in the cards for them, for whatever reason. So I don't take it for granted. I understand that I did have to work to get to this place, and there are even greater things coming."
When asked what advice Kenneth would give to FOH engineers new to the game, he says to get a good grounding in all the basics, especially gain structure. But the main part, he adds, is to genuinely love what you do, and to embrace the flexibility of the live setting. "I love the spontaneity of a band being able to do whatever they want to do, and not being restricted by playing to track and time-code. That's the thing I love about Erykah [Badu]...everything you hear on stage is live and happening in the moment. The performance tonight is not going to be the same as the performance tomorrow night. If you get into a certain head space, and everybody connects, that's going to be a whole different kind of vibe; almost a spiritual thing."
Audix Microphones [AM]: How did you get your start as an engineer?
Kenneth Williams [KW]: I'm a musician, vocalist and writer, as well as an engineer. I met Norman Brown at Musician's Institute while I was a student there through a mutual friend, Kenneth O'Neil, and he suggested that Norman and I get together and write, which we did. In some of our demos, you can hear my RV generator in the background! I contributed a song to Norman's debut album on the MoJazz label Better Days Ahead. He and I wrote "Sweet Taste." Norman called me one evening and asked me to go out on tour with him. My reply was, "And do what? You don't need a guitarist, so what would I do?" He said, "I love what you do in the studio and I know you'd learn the live side of things as well." So I thought about it for a while and decided I'd give it a try, and I haven't looked back since.
AM: What groups have you worked with?
KW: Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino, Hiatus Kiyote, Raphael Saadiq, Destiny's Child, LL Cool J, Jon B, Najee, Earth, Wind & Fire, Teena Marie, and quite a few others as well.
AM: How did you hear about Audix?
KW: I met Cliff Castle and Phil Garfinkel while I was working with an artist over at Hollywood Records by the name of Sheila Nichols and they suggested I try some of the Audix mics, which I did. Quite a few of them have since become staples in my go-to bag like the OM7, D6 and SCX25As. Raphael Saadiq told me he loved the OM7, which I used on his lead vocal while mixing him. As a matter of fact, all the mics used in the live recording of Raphael Saadiq's "All the Hits at the House of Blues" were Audix microphones with one exception.
AM: What Audix microphones are you using currently? For what applications?
KW: I've just gone out on tour with Childish Gambino (Donald Glover of Atlanta, Community, Girls, and currently, he just landed the role of Lando Calrissian on the upcoming installment in the Star Wars franchise. I use the D6 on kick, OM7s for the band vocals and, just recently, the M1255B on as the overhead choir mic for the six-vocalist choir. I also use the OM7s as individual mics, and D2s, D3s, and D4s for the toms, as well.
AM: What was the impetus for switching from the microphones you were using previously?
KW: The reason was the sonic quality of the mics themselves, as well as the personal attention I was given by the Audix team. I've known them now for a while and it's been a pleasure. They're large enough to get the job done, but caring enough to pay attention to the needs of the engineer.
AM: Any noticeable results?
KW: Yes, I'm able to get higher gain levels with the OM7s; what I hear is true to the sound source. The D2s and D4s sound great on the toms and a large portion of the time (especially on one-offs) I have to "run and gun," and it's important that I know I have a reliable, consistent point of reference with the mics I use. The M1255B did exactly what Audix said it would do and for me added that little "thang" I needed for the choir vocals. You can hear them on the hidden track of the vinyl release of "Awaken, My Love!" that I mixed for the record.
AM: What are your favorite features of the microphones you're using?
KW: The mics sound good without being overly colored and are very durable.
AM: Have the Audix microphones helped solve any particular challenges for you?
KW: Absolutely! It fixes the gain before feedback issue that sometimes arises with soft singers, and I love how the SCX25As sound on acoustic piano, which we used on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno when I was an engineer there.
AM: Do you have any good Audix anecdotes?
KW: Well, during the recording of Raphael Saadiq's All the Hits at the House of Blues, there was a segment where Raphael brings D'Angelo up to do a couple of numbers that Saadiq wrote with him. What I didn't know was that D'Angelo gets very excited during his show and literally destroys EVERYTHING on stage! I was mixing and D'Angelo starts to knock over and kick drums, amps, his Fender Rhodes and then grabs the OM7 he's singing on, my OM7, and slams it as hard as he can into the stage! Needless to say, no mic can take that kind of abuse, and I'm told that when they were mixing the album you could hear me yell out a couple of choice expletives, which they left on the record!
AM: Any special tips to share on how to use the microphones?
KW: Respectfully, with regards to the previous story! But seriously, if you have good mic placement, the rest is left up to your ears and sonic taste. I'm always confident when I encounter Audix microphones on a one-off or touring situation because I know I'm getting a reliable, sonically well-balanced microphone up to the task of giving me what I need to make a great sounding mix.
Photos: © Edie Meadows-Williams