Floyd (Complete Crewing, Chicago Labor and Production Services): Tell me about your first job in the business. How did you get it and what was it?
Floyd: Tell me how you got into the business.
Ken: That’s a long story, [laughs]
I was always into electronics from the time I was born. I like to say I was born with a soldering iron in my hand. That being said, my first thing in the sound business I guess might have been when my father took me to the fellowship hall at our church and he said, “I’m going to put in this Bogen amplifier and we’ll use it for all of the assemblies in the fellowship hall.”
Floyd: And what was your first job?
Ken: In the 10th grade of high school, I happened to be in the TV studio room one day and the manager of a band came to the TV room and said, “Hey, do you guys have any facilities to mix down an 8‑track tape? (8‑track as in one-inch tape) “We recorded this tape in A&R studios in New York City, and we’d like to mix it down and make it into an advertisement for the concert that we’re going to do at your school.”
I knew a guy a couple of years older who had a studio in his house, and he would let me hang out and help so I was like, “No, we don’t have that stuff here, but I know a place where we can do that if you really want to do it.” He was just blown away, so that led to a long relationship with that band that was basically the basis of my career.
I also worked for a couple of bands managed by John Scher, and one was Pierce-Arrow. We opened for the Doobie Brothers one day. It was fantastic. I was like, “Holy shit, this sound system is so much better than anything else I’ve ever used when opening for all these other bands. Wow, what is this sound system? Who is it from? If I ever get a chance to, I need to use this sound company.”
Sometime later, I’m back working for the band from high school. They said, “Our first album’s coming out. We need to do a showcase in Hollywood, California. Put together a sound system and make it happen.”
I was like, “Great. OK.” I call my friends at the sound company that had provided that sound system for the Doobie Brothers. That was a company called A-1 Audio located in Hollywood, California. I said, “That’s perfect. Let’s put a sound system together and do this little showcase at RCA Recording Studios in Hollywood.”
We did that. And the owner of A-1 Audio was very impressed with me and we kept in touch.
Another year goes by. I call Al Siniscal at A-1 in California. His office said, “You know what? He’s not here right now. He’s actually in Atlantic City, New Jersey. You’re in New Jersey, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “He’s in Atlantic City working on getting a new sound person for the casino there. You should call him.”
I was like, “Casino? They have casinos in Atlantic City?” The first sound guy that Al had put in there wasn’t working out as well as he had hoped so they had to let him go.
Sure enough, I go to Atlantic City and I get the job. That was a life-changing job because, all of a sudden now, I’m making many times what I was making before and I’m working for artists like Frank Sinatra and Donna Summer and all these adult contemporary artists instead of the rock bands that I had been working for.
Floyd: When people think of Ken Newman, what do you think that you’re best known for these days?
Ken: At A-1 Audio, if you could get a gig working for Barry Manilow, that was the best you could do. For many years I was thinking, “I really need to hook up with Barry Manilow and work for him, because he’s the big name. He’s the big time when it comes to doing audio.”
And eventually, I started with Barry Manilow in 1992. I came on as system tech because that was all that was available, and when Paul Dalen was ready to move on, the gig was offered to me.
Having worked for him since 1992, people probably think that’s all I’ve ever done, but in the ’90s, he didn’t work every single month of every single year, so I had time to do other gigs.
I worked with Chris Isaak for a while, then Anita Baker, Julio Iglesias, Stevie Nicks, Burt Bacharach, and Sergio Mendes. It’s all about being open to the possibilities, and having friends who will recommend you. Right place at the right time also helps.
Then I took some time away from touring around 2001 and worked for Video Applications (now called WorldStage) mixing large corporate general sessions for about ten years, with time off to mix Barry after 9/11 when there were no corporate gigs.
In 2011, when my wife suddenly passed away, it changed my life again, because one of the reasons
I was interested in staying home, or working for a company like that, instead of working for singers, was that I liked to be home with my wife.
Then Barry Manilow’s people called me and said, “Hey, we’re leaving Vegas. We’re going to go back on the road. Spot weekends here and there. Not a tour, just weekends.” I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it! I’ve got time, we can do some shows!”
I went back with him in the beginning of 2012 after not having been with him since 2001 or something. It was like I never left, and same old, same old, only we were both a lot older.
Floyd: What do you consider your greatest strength or specialty? Things that people keep coming back to you for.
Ken: Honesty and integrity.
Here’s an example from many years ago. When I first started working for Paul Anka, I may not have been the best sound guy that he ever had, but he knew early on that I wasn’t going to lie to him about making a mistake or some shortcoming that I had as a person.
One of the early shows we did, he had certain effects and things that I had to do in the show. He had a bad show in Atlantic City. He gets us all into the dressing room and starts reaming all of us in every department.
“What happened with the lights? What happened with this? What happened with the band? What happened with trumpets? What about you? What happened with that effect in “Times of your life?” I said I screwed up. He was shocked. Nobody ever admitted fault before. He was just, “OK, next, moving on.”
I think that sets a good precedent. That’s my thing, is that I’m not going to bullshit the performer, or the person I’m working for, and tell them something because it’s the easy way out for me.
Floyd: What else do you do to establish trust with an artist?
Ken: Give them a good recording of the show, because after all, that’s the only thing they can go by.
Floyd: Or what the guitar player’s girlfriend says.
Ken: [laughs] That’s what I was going to say. They can go by somebody in the audience. They can talk about what his girlfriend said, or they can go by the recording. The recording is never going to perfectly capture what you did, but it gives them an idea. As Barry Manilow always says, “It’s the only thing I have to go by, so I’m going to critique you based on that”. The point is to make that recording as representative as you can.
Floyd: How do you go about learning an artist’s priorities and finding a way to give them the sound they’re hearing in their head?
Ken: Barry Manilow is the exception to the rule, I think. I’ll tell you what he does. That makes it real easy. He spends most of his time during rehearsal and sound check standing next to me in the audience.
He doesn’t sing from there. He just listens to the band. Since his thing is music, in life what he is all about is music, he’s listening very closely to what each person is playing, and what their sounds are, and how I’m blending those sounds together and so forth.
He’s listening differently than I am, let’s say. I’m listening to the technical part of it. Is it working? Is it too this? Is it too that? He makes no bones about it, that this is the way I want it to sound.
He asks me for changes. I get it that he wants certain things loud all the time, or some things bright all the time, that kind of thing.
For instance, working for Chris Isaak was the opposite. He would ask me if I was OK during sound check. He would, from the stage, say, “Are you all right?” The road manager always said the console could be on fire, speakers could have smoke coming out of them, and you’d still say you’re OK no matter what. When Chris says, “Are you OK?” you say yes.
His one comment about the sound, he said to me one day something like, “When you do the sound, I always know that they’re definitely going hear me.” I guess I tended to push the lead vocal more than other sound guys did. He was sure that his lead vocal was going to be heard when I was doing the sound, and I think he liked that.
Everybody that I’ve worked for has made comments about the sound. Good sound is different to everybody, but there are some basics that we learn over the years that we know. For example, the audience wants to hear the vocals. If the audience can’t hear the vocals, it’s an unsuccessful show. It’s just not good.
At the same time, they want to be excited by the music, but not overwhelmed by the music. You have to try to feel it out, and know that you’re doing “good sound.”
Every performer seems to have a different way of dealing with it, but you get those little messages from time to time at some point, and take those messages as their priorities so that you don’t do that again, and you focus on what they do like.
Floyd: That’s how they build trust with you by not having to talk to you.
Ken: Right. If we ever get it to the point where they don’t have any comments, that’s great and you know that you’ve succeeded. No news is good news, kind of. If the only thing they ever tell you is, “Man, it sounded great tonight,” that’s great.
Barry Manilow knows that I’m my worst critic. He only gives me notes that are musical notes, such as the second chorus of such and such a song, really need to focus on that keyboard part, or whatever. It’s real detail kind of things.
He’ll give us notes like crazy about that kind of stuff, but overall, he knows that I’m going to do everything I can to make it sound the way he wants it to sound.
Floyd: What do you like most and least about working in this industry?
Ken: The thing I like the most is when the music is good, and the audience is happy, that’s the best. That’s such a high. There’s nothing like it.
When I am part of the show by mixing the sound for the show, and I feel that applause, and that excitement, people screaming and stuff, it’s great. I don’t even think the performer feels that as much as I feel it, because I’m right in the middle of it. I’m in the audience. It’s so great.
The worst…taking showers in locker rooms on a bus and truck kind of tour.
It’s just the low point of the day.
Floyd: What advice would you give someone starting out who wants your job?
Ken: I’ve often been asked that. The same story that everybody always says is the answer. Find the thing that you most have a passion for. For example, I started by recording bands, and realized it’s boring. I don’t want to work in the studio. I don’t want to go to work recording.
I really like the live thing. There’s no rewind button in live sound. We don’t have to do everything twice. Here, we have other challenges. The point is, find your little niche. Find the thing that you love the most, and stick with that.
Learn everything you can about it so that you excel at it. There’s so much more that goes along with that. Knowing how to speak to people about what you’re trying to do with the technical stuff.
Don’t be a dweeb about it so they can’t understand what you’re talking about, and so many other things that people need to know when they are getting started so that they are successful. There’s a lot to know.
Floyd: What do you look for in a PA?
Ken: First of all, it needs to be quick and easy to fly, because we typically fly our sound systems. Let’s just say quick and easy to set up. That’s the first, basic premise. If it sounds the same from venue to venue, that’s that much better. If the sound system covers the entire venue evenly, that is the main thing.
Some of these newer sound systems like the Martin MLA system cover the entire venue, from a left and right cluster! It’s pretty impressive what they can do with these systems these days.
The MLA is what we’ve been using with Barry Manilow over the last couple of years because he’s interested in making sure that everything he says and does, and everything the band says and does is heard by everybody in the audience.
He even told me that he heard such great comments about this new MLA sound system that he’s like, “You can’t change to a different sound system. You have to keep using MLA because I get such great comments about the sound from even the cheap seats way up in the extremes of the venue.”
Floyd: What are you mixing on these days? What’s your console?
Ken: For Barry Manilow I use a DiGiCo SD-5, and for corporates I usually prefer a Yamaha CL5. But other than Barry Manilow, it’s whatever somebody puts in front of me.
Rarely do I have to say, “Oh, I don’t have enough anything for whatever somebody asks me to do” with my SD-5. It just has a ton of resources.
Floyd: If you had to pick some of your favorite people that you’ve mixed so far, who would that be?
Ken: The main thing I love about working for Barry Manilow is he’s the best that I’ve ever worked for in terms of communicating what he’s looking for. He will make sure we understand what he’s talking about. He speaks in the terms that I can understand.
It’s one of those situations where we clicked. He’s from New York. I’m from New Jersey. It works. I’m not sure that I’m the best sound guy he’s ever had. I’m sure I’m not, in fact, but we work well together.
He always does a great show, whether he’s got challenges or not. He’s the consummate professional when it comes to entertaining his audience.
I had a lot of fun with Chris Isaak. Like I said, he wasn’t very hands-on in terms of telling me what to do. It was very fun to just do my thing. Somebody gave me a list of echo times, repeat times, for his songs. It was song titles and then how many milliseconds of delay for the repeat because he’d almost always use a repeat on his vocal to get his sound.
That was about all the direction I ever got with him. I really had a great time doing that because it was just, “Make it sound great. Make it sound great everywhere we go,” and I love doing that. Chris Isaak was one of the highlights of doing sound. In terms of nice people, he was super nice.
Different people have different levels of nice. Even Anita Baker, who’s known for being a real pain to work for, was super nice in many ways.
You try to make the best of every situation. Even working for Paul Anka, who was not known as the warmest guy, I got in sync with his reality, and tried to do my best to keep him happy. I try to have fun with every job that I do, even if it’s not the most fun music ever.
Floyd: And do you have a story to share with us?
Ken: I’m not sure how funny this is, but I found it funny. I don’t know if we can get it across in writing how funny it was at the time.
Rewind to 1983. I just moved to California because I got the gig working for Shirley MacLaine. She did a nightclub show where she sang and danced for an hour and a half, and did a really entertaining show for many years.
It was really fun to mix an orchestra, and really great arrangements, with a really great musical director and musicians.
She didn’t work all the time, so I was at the A-1 Audio Shop in Hollywood one day, and a friend of mine said, “Hey, Engelbert’s looking for a monitor guy. You should go do monitors for Engelbert. You can do it for at least a week. You’ll probably get fired, like everybody gets fired, but do it for a week, take your money and run, and that’ll be it.”
Long story short, I worked for Engelbert. I go do monitors for him. The first gig goes really well. We’re at the Front Row in Cleveland, and he’s loving it. He’s talking to me after the show every night telling me how great it sounds.
He’s giving me all those priorities for him, “Oh, I like it when my voice is nice and rich. I like this, and I like that,” all these things.
Then we go to the next venue, Atlantic City, and we pull in there. We set up, and he comes to do the sound check. It’s a much different venue than the previous venue, because it’s a proscenium venue and the previous venue was in the round.
He comes in for a sound check. He sings a note or something, and says, “Holy shit, that’s horrible. Fire this guy.” I am violently fired off the Engelbert show in front of all my buddies in Atlantic City, even though I had kept him very happy at the first gig.
Fast-forward a few months later. I’m in Vegas. I’m working for Shirley MacLaine again, right? It comes to the part of the show when she would usually introduce whatever celebrities might be in the audience, which often happened. She says, “Oh, this guy, he’s a crooner, and the girls really love him, and blah, blah, blah.”
I was like, “I think she’s talking about Engelbert.” [laughs] Sure enough, Engelbert’s in the audience at the show that I’m mixing the sound for, right? I’m like, “OK, what am I going to do? He fired me. He hates me. I’ll go up to the dressing room. I’ll be nice, and I’ll say hi.”
So, I go up to the dressing room after the show, and there he is. He’s talking to our musical director, Jack French, and he had just finished asking Jack, “Who’s your sound guy?” Jack motions to me, he says, “Oh, there he is now. It’s Ken Newman.”
Ah, the look on Engelbert’s face. If I had a picture, oh man. If I could’ve taken a picture of his face with the jaw dropping open, “What!” He was like, “Wow, that’s really great.” [laughs]
It was just one of those moments where you go, “Yeah!” Because I felt like he fired me because I wasn’t doing what was right at that moment, but in the end, he realized that yes, this guy isn’t such a bad sound guy after all.
I ended up working for him many, many times after that and for many years after that. I worked for him because I said, “We should work together sometime.” I mixed front of house, I mixed monitors, I did different things for Engelbert, but that moment of him saying, “Who’s your sound guy?” and there I was, it was just precious. There’s nothing like that.