Heart of Steel: Interviews

Industry Profile – Producer Kevin Beamish

Interviewed by Keith McDonald

CrusaderKevin Beamish may not be a household name. But if you have any REO Speedwagon, Y&T or Saxon albums you may find his name on the credits for the album. He’s the person who produces the albums that you love to play so much. It’s not an easy job. You have to deal with deadlines, egos and budget restraints, not an easy thing to do. But in the end you sometimes get a finished product that turns into a masterpiece that lives on forever. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kevin who gave me some insight into the world of a producer.

 

How did you get started in the music business? How did you learn to work in a recording studio?

I was classically trained as a child on clarinet and woodwind instruments, growing up in the New York City and New Jersey areas. At age twelve my family moved to California and I took up the guitar. Inspired by the Beatles and English Invasion bands of the 1960’s I played in several bands during high school in Modesto (CA), one of which, The Weathervane, was good enough to be signed to a small label in Los Angeles, where at age 16, my band recorded a single that was released regionally in central California. This was my first time in a recording studio and I was hooked for life. It was all I ever wanted to do and from then on became my focus, and luckily for me I can say I was blessed to be able to spend my whole career making music in studios.

Modesto was 75 miles East of San Francisco, so all during my high school years in the mid ‘60’s I would go up to the Bay area every weekend I could to check out the music scene that was flourishing there, with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and many more. It was in San Francisco that I got a musical education seeing Jimi Hendrix (several times), Cream, Led Zeppelin, Santana, etc. I recall vividly one particular show in 1967 that was the last performance of Janis Joplin with her band Big Brother & The Holding Company. Middle on the bill was a new SF band that had just released their first album – Santana. And third was a band making their first West Coast tour – CTA (Chicago Transit Authority), later shortened to Chicago. The whole scene twisted my head around and galvanized my desire to someday work in the music business.

I enrolled at the University of California Berkeley, where I studied Math and Music Theory and continued to play in bands. After graduating in 1973, I moved to Los Angeles with $60 in my pocket and all I owned in my car to try to get in the music business. At that time there were about 250 studios in LA. I wrote a letter to each and every one of them and got two responses: one was not interested, and the other from Crystal Recording Studio, which asked me to come in for an interview. Although I had a college degree in Mathematics with a minor in Music Theory, I had no real studio – engineering experience, and at that time there was no organized education like Full Sail SAE, or LA Recording Workshop. Nonetheless, Crystal hired me as a trainee. I would work 40 hours answering phones and cleaning toilets, but would actually spend every other waking hour learning studio engineering “by fire” – bringing in friend’s bands and recording them on weekends or off hours. In the ‘70’s, Crystal Studio was one of the very cool independent studios in Hollywood. The first album done there was Jackson Browne’s “Saturate Before Using”, then James Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim”. Stevie Wonder did three albums there, including “Inner Visions”, “Talking Book”, and “Songs in The Key of Life”.. From middle ’73 t0 1978, the majority of the work that we did there was R&B stuff. Motown Records had moved from Detroit to LA, but they hadn’t built a studio yet. I received a wonderful education in musical soul, as it was a Motown factory going through there, with Diana Ross, Jackson 5, Temptations, and the Miracles.

In 1975 I engineered and mixed the Miracles’ “Love Machine (Part 1)”, which was a huge international hit and was Number 1 in just about every country that had a pop chart. On the strength of that hit, I commanded production credit on the Miracles’ next two releases, “The Power of Music” (1976), and “Love Crazy” (1977). It was always a situation where I wasn’t just a technical engineer – I was a creative, musical one. It was just a matter of opportunity meeting circumstance to tie things together.

In 1977 I left Crystal to try my luck as an independent engineer/producer. On of my first projects as an independent was Eric Carmen’s “Boats Against The Current”. I hooked up with the English producer Gus Dudgeon, who had produced all the Elton John records. He became a good friend of mine and we worked together for a couple of years. (Unfortunately, Gus was killed in July of this year in a car crash in England).

The turning point in my young production career came in 1979, when I hooked up with the rock band REO Speedwagon, producing, engineering, and mixing four albums with them, including 1981’s “Hi Infidelity” which sold over 15 million records worldwide, and spawned two Number 1 singles, “Keep On Loving You” and “Take It On The Run”. I had made the transition to producer/engineer as opposed to the other way around.

In the eighties I produced notable albums such as Jefferson Starship’s “Winds of Change” (1982), Saxon’s “Crusader” (1984), and Y&T’s “Contagious” and “Summertime Girls” (1987). I started doing heavier rock like Keel, Leatherwolf, D’Molls, and into the nineties with Contraband and Michael Schenker Group.

In 1994 my house in the Woodland Hills suburb of Los Angeles was destroyed by the Northridge earthquake, so I moved with my wife and kids to Nashville, where I started mixing records for big-time country music stars. In the past 7 years I have mixed more that 35 number one singles that have sold tens of millions of records with many of the biggest stars of country such as Clint Black, Reba McEntire, Brook and Dunn, Kenny Chesney, etc.

 

How did On The Green Productions start? Do you have any artists/projects that you would like to plug?

I was mixing so many country music albums that I felt it necessary to form On The Green Productions (1995) as an outlet to find and develop new talent in the rock and pop field, and to guard against burning out solely mixing acts which I did not produce.

I have signed, developed, and produced albums on several new artists, but two really stick out as very special :

FACEPLANT is a heavy rap-rock band from Houston that is funky like Red Hot Chili Peppers, artsy like 311, and heavy as Korn or Limp Bizkit.

BRIAN BENNETT is an incredible singer/songwriter from Southern California currently living in Nashville. He’s pure pop like a modern version of Richard Marx.

 

What are the different responsibilities of a Producer, Engineer and Mixer?

A producer is responsible for the overall outcome of the record. He would pick the songs, hire the musicians and be the one to ensure that the best possible performance of the artist is captured. He would have the additional burden of watching the recording budget to make sure that costs were kept from exceeding the budget. But being a producer really is a creative position similar to what a Director is to a film.

An engineer is responsible for getting the music recorded to tape or hard disk. He would be involved with choosing a studio for the project. Setting up the microphones, getting the cool sounds and making sure it all gets recorded properly complicated, important, and not easy to do under the pressure of time and money, artists egos, and dealing with inevitable problems that occur.

A mixer is responsible for the final and overall sound of the record. Similar to a Master Chef, who chooses how much and what mixture of ingredients goes into his great meal, a mixer uses the different instruments in differing amounts to balance his cake, adding sugar (reverb) and spice (chorus, delays, etc) to finalize the sound. This is the top of the food chain in the engineering field. All great engineers are not necessarily good mixers, because mixing requires the ability to do two totally opposite actions simultaneously. He must be able to hyper-focus when necessary – to be able to concentrate solely on the bass drum pattern or what the rhythm guitar is doing while the whole band is playing - while at the same time being able to hear the overall sound of the mix and to coin a phrase, to be able to “see the chorus for the trees’.

 

What percentage does a producer make?

A producer makes from 3 to 4 points on an album, with some high profile producers able to command 5 points. One point is one percent of the retail-selling prices of the CD. Of course if there are multiple producers or co-producers on the record, the points will be divided.

Collecting royalties from major record companies is usually not a problem. I have had problems collecting from smaller independent labels, but the ever-existing problem is ensuring that you are being paid on all records sold – like in film, there are many ways to hide money and sales.

 

What has been your most successful album / heavy rock album to date?

REO Speedwagon’s “Hi Infidelity” (1981) sold 15 million albums.

Saxon’s “Crusader” (1984) sold 2 million Y&T’s “Summertime Girls” was number one rock single in 1987

 

What advise do you have for aspiring producer/engineer?

Be as musical as you are technical (Engineer) Don’t wait around for your phone to ring. Go find the next big band and get completely involved with them early in their career. (Producer/Engineer) Be trustworthy at all times – to be successful you must have the trust of your artist. Always do your best – never settle for less than 100% - never, ever give up and always remember: “Quality has no fear of time.”

 

What advise do you have for up and coming band/artist?

Be original. Don’t copy any other band. Set your goals high and never, ever give up. Find a good producer or engineer to help you develop your music. Make sure to have integrity and honesty in all your dealings. Look at your band from a business point of view and act accordingly without ego getting in the way. I know of many cool talented bands that will never make it because of ego problems, bad attitudes, or lack of serious motivation.

 

Do you feel that you have to baby-sit some of the artists?

Each artist, each band, each project is unique and different. Being a producer is a job requiring the wearing of many hats. At the same time, the producer needs to be the artist’s trusted confidant, yet be a motivator, and many times a psychologist, to get through the very difficult game of making something beautiful literally out of air. Artists tend to be insecure and egotistical, but both of these traits needs to be left outside the studio door, or the result will be disappointing. In my career I’ve worked with some difficult artists, but I choose to let this be a challenge to make myself a better motivator than I thought I was. I have had to baby – sit artists through hard times and difficult situations borne of the creative process, but again I choose to let these times make me a better friend and a stronger person.

 

What’s the future for you?

I can honestly say that although I’ve been making records for almost 30 years, every day when I wake up I can’t wait to get to the studio. It’s the only job I’ve ever known, and I feel blessed that I’ve been able to spend my life doing what I love and loving what I do. I feel that I learn something new every day in whatever small way, and I’m convinced that I’m a better mixer and producer now than I was then – I truly think I continue to improve every day. My future is my past – continue to do creative work in the Big Leagues, try as hard as I can, and never, ever give up.

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