Canadian Musician* contributor Jeff Gunn recently caught up with engineer Blake Harden (Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, SZA) for the latest installment of his “A Conversation with…” series.
Do you know anyone who has packed up everything they owned, drove across a continent, and made a fresh start in pursuit of their musical dreams? One day about five years ago, engineer and producer Blake Harden made such a journey. After working in the Atlanta music scene for years, he set off in search of bigger opportunities in L.A., and the risk has paid off.
He has engineered sessions with some of the music industry’s biggest names including Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Diddy, and SZA, to name a few. He recently received a Grammy for his engineering credits on Kendrick’s DAMN. and most recently recorded tracks for the hugely successful Black Panther soundtrack.
I took the opportunity to ask Harden some questions about his journey and the role of engineers in a rapidly evolving musical landscape.
JG: How did you break into the L.A. recording scene?
BH: Super-long story made short, I came prepared to meet the opportunity. I surrounded myself with successful people. I said “yes” to any session I could. I actively went out and networked. And, most importantly, I kept a positive mindset. I had no other choice. My wife, Panayota, began working almost as soon as we moved here, and that was our primary income while I finished her album and looked for new work. It took nine months to get the first call from a big studio. It was at Chalice, and it came from a referral from a friend who couldn’t do the session. That really started the ball rolling. A couple months later, based on a referral through my manager, I got a call from Windmark Recording in Santa Monica. The first few sessions went well, they kept on calling, and I kept on saying “yes,” no matter what. They are really the ones that gave me the opportunity to work with most of the great artists that I’ve been working with the past couple of years. It’s such a blessing. They are literally one of the best studios in L.A. I owe a lot to Z, Shalik, Rachel, and the whole amazing staff!
JG: How has the recording process changed from when you started until now?
BH: The process is just getting faster. As digital capabilities increase, demand increases and turnaround times decrease. I just saw a post today from an engineer exclaiming he’s going on vacation after a lot of hard work on a big album, and that the album will be released before he returns from said vacation! I started engineering around the, dare I say it, end of the producers’ hardware synth and sequencer era and emergence of the soft synth era. I learned the MPCs and some keyboard modules because I was constantly tracking in beats. Depending on DAW capabilities, it might take you a while, and it is preferable if you know what you’re doing because everything could get effed in one fell swoop. A lot of care and time had to be put in doing this – still light years faster than tracking bands. Now, most stems are delivered quickly, at high quality, on-grid and arranged. As fast as the singer can spit the words out, we can have a new beat loaded and ready to go. Often times, the song is also mixed entirely inside the DAW, saving time and money by enabling a lot more work to get done for the same day rate. Time doesn’t even have to be spent on recall; everything is instant. This has also affected expectations. We have come a long way from rewinding tape. Songs are made up and final versions recorded simultaneously. A major part of the job is to instantaneously fulfill orders and interpret the ideas of the artist or producer – basically read their minds – and have some cool effect ideas on-deck as fast as they can think of them. All of this while tracking at light speed. Everything is a click of the button and sessions can get very intense when a high-paced recording rhythm is created. Many artists like to record sitting right next to me in the control room. It’s sometimes preferable because most control rooms sound better than a vocal booth and we can communicate very quickly; however, for some, the booth provides a private space, and it helps them get into their groove and out of their head. No matter how much the processes change, my goal remains the same: to maintain a positive vibe and capture the source correctly.
JG: What makes a great engineer?
BH: A great assistant. The great engineer must first want to be the best intern and then the best assistant engineer. I got that from John Jaret Holmes when I was an intern. Routinely, a great engineer is a solver of problems, and not just those related to passing audio from source to tape. A great engineer keeps the session going no matter what. If something has to be done, it is humanly possible, and semi-realistic, the engineer is the one who figures out how, gets it done, or delegates appropriately. Usually the great assistant is delegated. The great assistant is constantly scanning and making sure that all bases are covered so that the engineer can focus on great engineering. There are a few great assistants responsible for saving my life more than a handful of times, and mark my words, they are gonna be some great engineers one day. From fixing a garbage disposal to calibrating a tape machine to training a great assistant, a great engineer thinks ahead and keeps the train on the tracks at all times. The first step to becoming one is you must maintain the desire to be, and the ability to allow yourself to be, “great,” for and with the artist/producer/writer or whoever you work for/with. “Great” is determined by others, and is different for everyone. You can be great for one client and terrible for another.
JG: What makes a great studio?
BH: The vibe. The staff and how disciplined, accurate, and resourceful they are. The little things they do to make their visitors feel welcome, secure, and most of all, the freedom to act like rock stars. We don’t take pics, we don’t get autographs, and we try not to fan out. We are there for the client, allowing them to get into their vibe and capture their art. Next, I suppose security and history of being secure – aka files leaked, being robbed, and any other thing that doesn’t keep the business under the radar of the media and police. A proven track record and history of greatness can be very important. When you’re standing where Waylon Jennings used to stand during the “Outlaws” sessions, or using the same mics, in the same rooms that Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, and Bruce Swedien created in, it’s very inspiring. Everyone is positive of the capabilities of the studio and there is no doubt that major hits can and do come out of this gear. A great studio keeps begetting greatness.
JG: Name some engineers that have inspired your own practice.
BH: There are so many. It’s mainly all the guys I learned from and got to assist in ATL. I got a little bit, or in some cases, a lot, from each of them. John Jaret Holmes, Sean Grove, Zack Odom and Kenneth Mount (ZK Productions), Wyatt Oates, Ryan Hobbs, Paul Diaz, Dan Hannon, Exit, Sam Thomas, Carlton Lynn, all the guys under Milk Money Consulting before I was [laughs], and many more. Ian Cross, especially Ian because he showed me what it looked like to engineer an album from zero to Grammy winner, with Usher’s Raymond V. Raymond. My vocal recording and overall understanding of engineering at the top level went up exponentially after assisting him on that album. All of my engineering peers and friends inspire me constantly. MixedByAli, Matt Testa, Zach Steele, Matt Hayes, Alex Tumay, Shane Smith, Nathan Alford, Jason Schwartzman, Damien Lewis, Shaan Singh, Jimmy Cash, and everyone else out here trying their hardest to do what they love, and taking it to the highest level for the world to enjoy. I think we inspire each other. I suppose there is some friendly competition, but the people in the engineering community as a whole root for each other and help each other out all of the time.
JG: What have been some of the highlights of working with Kendrick Lamar?
BH: Honestly, the whole thing is a highlight. Every session, every song, every release, every article, Billboard chart, and award. Everything. It’s a situation that I’ve been visualizing for a long time and I’m extremely grateful any time I get to work with any of the TDE artists. They’re all amazing. I consider it a reward for working so hard all of these years. Working on music that makes me remember why I started makes me want to work harder.
JG: What are the challenges of working as an engineer given that so many artists have home studios and write, record, and produce?
BH: It’s really become commonplace that most people in music have a home setup. I don’t think engineers are losing any work or anything like that. The only real challenge is having to deal with some of the recordings when the performance is “too good” to recut. Often times, home recordings, without an engineer, are cut in “rock star mode” and have distortions, bleed, or have drastic proximity effect variations that can’t be removed or fixed. That’s not the artist’s fault; their job is to be a rock star. It’s the engineer’s fault. They have to be masked or just lived with, often impacting the sound quality of the overall song. It adds hours onto the post-production or mixing, and can literally place a ceiling on how far the song can go commercially. I do like it, however, when an artist is serious about their craft and is able to record themselves. Often times, if they are proficient with the DAW, they will get in a groove themselves, or work in tandem with the engineer, and the product will turn out exponentially better than if they relied solely on the engineer. Case in point, Travis Scott’s “Drugs You Should Try It.” We made that song virtually from beginning to end in one night starting at midnight. It was also the first time we’d ever worked together. I’d record the vocals and he’d chop up the beat and do crazy effects. I’d gain stage and do some effects and he’d chop more stuff up and do more effects. I’d gain stage again and so on until we were done. The mix from that session is the one that ended up coming out. It’s all about providing space and allowing creativity to come out. We basically produced, recorded, and mixed all at the same time. They can’t all come out like that but the ones that do are always special.
JG: What advice do you have for up and coming engineers who want to make it in the music industry?
BH: Only focus on Plan A. Don’t even make an alternative. Make a decision to be great. Position yourself in a studio where you have the ability to learn as much as you can and don’t leave until you know as much as you can about everything in that studio. Say yes to every session offered. Don’t get caught up working in a genre or section of the audio industry that isn’t included in your goals and dreams of being an engineer. Anything is possible. Don’t settle. The industry is very small. Any bridges you burn can very easily get ahead of you and block your path in the future.
Follow Blake Harden on Instagram.
Jeff Gunn is a Canadian Musician contributor, Juno-nominated songwriter/producer, author of the Hidden Sounds Guitar Series, and musical director/guitarist for Emmanuel Jal. Follow him on Instagram & Twitter and visit www.jeffgunn.ca.
Photos by Brian Parker.