After years spent working on vocal tracks for numerous pop artists and prominent film soundtracks at British Grove, Joe Kearns went freelance in 2015. Colby Ramsey speaks to the producer and mix engineer about his already fruitful career and his new London studio space.
How did you initially start out in this business?
After graduating from Huddersfield Uni, I got my first job at British Grove Studios in west London as a runner/assistant. A friend of mine called Rich Cooper, who has gone on to become a brilliant producer, worked there at the time and enabled me to get my foot in the door.
British Grove is a big studio but it has a family feel. You get thrown in the deep end quite quickly there and you’re not just waiting for someone to quit to get your big break, which may be the case at some of the other big studios and institutes. It was just me and Rich as the two assistants for the first couple of years so a lot of the work came straight to us. It’s definitely a great place to learn and the equipment there is amazing.
There’s also a lot of variety in the work, so it’s great for someone new who is unsure about what they want to specialise in as the opportunities come thick and fast. It was a great education for me to observe some of the top producers and engineers at work there.
So when did you receive your ‘big break’ and how do you think you have you managed to get so far at such a young age?
Getting my foot in the door at British Grove in the first place was great, but my big break came after I had been working there for five or six years when Ellie Goulding booked in. I ended up engineering the session and we’ve worked together ever since – I just happened to be the guy there on the day and it turned into a fantastic opportunity because I do production, mixing and sometimes even writing with her now.
I have British Grove to thank for getting me started in the industry but I have also been super determined and very career driven. I find I’m quite good at keeping in touch with clients and their management after a job. The networking side is sometimes overlooked I think by engineers and mixers – some people forget that it is still a human industry and that you need to keep good relationships going, as well as doing a good job.
You’ve worked with some big names in pop recently. Do you have any particular highlights?
I pretty much do pop music exclusively now. I like working with Ellie because she does things a little bit left of centre so it’s more experimental and interesting. I’ve also enjoyed doing a lot of mixing and vocal production for Little Mix and have more recently been working with Hurts on their next album. I really enjoyed working with Kasabian on Velociraptor and 48:13 too.
Could you tell us about the setup at your own studio? Do you have more freedom now you are working freelance?
Now I’m working freelance it’s up to me how much work I take on, which is great but it’s also quite daunting as you have to really keep yourself occupied and stay proactive. When you’re in-house there’s a list of things that need to be done for someone else. In that respect, it’s nice being part of a bigger team, but when you’ve got an idea it’s sometimes a bit nerve-wracking to show it to a group when it’s not yet fully realised.
My setup is very humble. It’s based around a Pro Tools HD system and is basically a small programming mix room. There’s some nice pres and a few bits of outboard here but I tend to not use those so much as the workflow’s 98% in the box for me. It all comes down to convenience because of how you need to be with recalls – when you’re on three or four projects at once and you need to be bouncing between mixes and productions, there isn’t time to be recalling stuff so having everything there in front of you makes the process much easier.
I use a [Avid] D-Command as a main control surface and for monitoring I use ProAc Studio 100s, which I really like. With regard to plug-ins, Soundtoys is my favourite in terms of making things sound fun. My go-to EQ for everything is the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 and the Valhalla reverb is a favourite of mine as well. I also like the new Waves Andrew Scheps 1073 EQ. The top end on it is really good and it sounds really musical and smooth.
How important is it to be versatile in terms of the type of work you are able to take on?
I did some film scoring work while I was at British Grove but haven’t done much since leaving – the versatility in my CV as it were stems from there. Since going freelance I’ve specialised a lot more in the pop vocal work. I do enjoy being varied though because it keeps projects fresh and interesting. I got married recently so since coming back from my honeymoon I’ve had a bit of free time to concentrate more on writing, which I really like doing, especially with people who have the same kind of ideas and who you can get on a level with. From a technical standpoint, I like all different aspects of the job and the whole process. For example I enjoy the solidarity of mixing alone without someone on your shoulder, when it’s just you and the music but equally I love being in a room with two or three other writers working on a new track. I try to keep my diary full with a variety of sessions to keep it interesting.
Any interesting future projects coming up that you can tell us about?
Very recently I’ve been working with Ellie and a guy called Chris Ketley on a classical piece for Victim Support UK, which is a great charity and was a really fun project to work on. Also I’ve just finished vocal producing five tracks for the new Little Mix album Glory Days, which was released last week.
Picture: Joe Kearns (right) in the studio with Ellie Goulding