Written by: Hayley Swinson | Photography provided by Karen Kane
Sitting in the control room of Karen Kane’s shared Wilmington studio, watching her adjust the bright zig-zags of sound bytes jumping across the computer screen, it’s hard to imagine anyone not taking her seriously—least of all herself. But the beginning of her career in music production was not straightforward. Very few women were in the business, and most were relegated to administrative or managerial roles. At eighteen, Karen, fresh from Woodstock ’69, was not setting out to be a pioneer when she took a job at 6 West Recording in New York City. Nor did she envision a decades-long career in the business. To Karen, taking that job was a way to be around what she loved. “All I cared about,” she said, “was the mid- to late-60s music.”
Her idols were Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens, and Neil Young. She loved the way Led Zeppelin recorded their albums live in unusual settings like churches. “The techniques were different than most records,” she said. “They were just innovative.” She went on to say, “When I hear the old stuff…it all affects me…and now I understand why and how.” She also touts Roy Thomas Baker, producer of Queen, calling his albums “absolutely stunning.”
As a young studio manager at well-known Intermedia Sound in Boston, Karen convinced her boss to “fire [her] in the management world and rehire [her] as an apprentice engineer.” After a year, she was working as a first engineer. She found her niche among the progressive folk singers who “wanted to hire a woman in a traditionally male job.” She was still learning, but she was doing her own sessions with her own clientele. Life was good.
But then the unthinkable happened. Intermedia Sound was sold. The new owner came in and cleaned house. Karen was back to square one. Who was going to hire a female sound engineer in 1977? “[If Intermedia had not sold] I think my story would be totally a different story,” Karen said. “But we know how things that don’t feel good at the time sometimes are the best things.” After three offers for studio management positions, but none for sound engineer, Karen made a decision that would affect the rest of her career: she decided to go freelance.
Decades later, in her three-room shared studio next to Airlie Gardens, Karen lamented the loss of Audio Genesis, a local professional music studio run by Tommy Brothers that shut down a few years ago. The event echoed her experience with Intermedia. “It was the studio I was most connected to in Wilmington…I was heartbroken,” she said. By then, however, she’d engineered and/or produced over 200 full-length albums and worked on hundreds of live sound shows. But just as she had to adjust in Boston, she had to adjust in Wilmington. She started teaching part-time at UNCW as the Recording Technology Instructor, and she moved into her current studio space.
Teaching was not new to her, though. In the 1990s, she was hired to teach music production at Harris Institute for the Arts in Toronto, Canada, where she’d lived since 1992. “At that school, I learned how to be a teacher,” she said. “And I enjoyed it immensely.” When she moved to Wilmington in 2002, she began offering classes at Audio Genesis, integrating them into her freelance schedule.
Over the years, not only did Karen’s musical and technical skillset grow, so did her marketing and networking skills. She said her successful freelance career was largely due to her ability to get along with others. “It’s all about personality,” she said, offering advice to those looking to break into the industry. “If you’re a get-up-and-go, friendly person with a lot of enthusiasm, you’ll get further in the music industry than having a certificate from any [specific] audio school.” She does caution that it’s important to have attended an audio school, however, and that knowing how to play an instrument is key. “Learn as much as you can about music theory,” she advises.
For freelancers, she recommends some basic marketing techniques in addition to networking. “[I took an ad out] in Musician’s Magazine that said ‘unbiased advice about recording studios in Boston’,” she said. “I became really well known for that, and I was one of the first successful freelance engineers—male or female—in Boston.”
Years later, she rebuilt her career and network following a move to Canada. “I took the skills that I had learned about how to promote a freelance business and went to Toronto and did the same thing: I took out ads, and I got to know the whole music community,” Karen said. Her work was well-received and highly regarded; three albums she engineered were nominated for Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammy).
But in the beginning, Karen hesitated to call herself a producer. “The engineer,” she explained, “is responsible for all things technical, and the producer is responsible for all things musical…That was the goal years ago, to learn how to be a producer.”Decades and dozens of albums later, she experienced her crowning moment as a producer. “2011. I produced an album in Toronto,” Karen began. “We spent a week at a live-in recording studio in the country in Ontario…and I had a career-changing, life-changing week…It was the quality of the studio, quality of the musicians, and the quality of the song-writing. It took me to a new level of producing…that really transformed my whole take on myself.” The album was “Glimmer in the Dark” by Anna Gutmanis, and Karen cited it as her greatest creative work to date.
Her crowning achievement came only two years later. In her studio, Karen retrieved a small gold statue. “Carolina Music Awards, 2013, Producer of the Year,” she said, grinning. And she’s been nominated every year since. Karen had another great opportunity last February. She was asked to do a live recording at the Wilson Center for Ann Wilson of the band HEART for an upcoming film about her tour.
As for the future, Karen is excited to continue teaching at the university and producing with her company, Karen Kane Music Productions. Of course, she still has lofty goals. “The biggest dream of anybody doing this work is to have a number one hit,” she said, laughing. “I’m proud of so much I’ve done over the years; I’ve done thousands and thousands of studio hours, and I have over 200 albums…If I could have a number one hit…that would just be icing on the cake.”