Ken “Pooch” Van Druten has always been driven to excel, no matter the endeavor.
“I think it started with my parents instilling in me that you’ve got to be the best at what you do,” says the veteran Dallas-based mix engineer who’s worked with some of the biggest touring acts in the world over a career that’s coming up on 30 years.
At front of house, it’s a list that includes (among many) Linkin Park, KISS, Guns N’ Roses, Justin Bieber, Kid Rock and Beastie Boys, while at monitors, the roster contains the likes of Eminem, Pantera, Slayer and Whitney Houston. I spoke with him late last year while he was out with Jay-Z, and he quickly expressed one of his primary concerns: making sure the audience gets their money’s worth at every show.
“I think a lot about concert costs,” he explains. “Say that a couple decides to see a show. They’ve saved all year for tickets. Maybe they’re paying for a babysitter. There’s parking, dinner, and they bought the good seats, which are ridiculously expensive. It better damn well sound good.”
Van Druten references a concert he attended as a youngster in the 1980s: “I saved all summer, mowing lawns, for a 15-dollar ticket to go see that band and it sounded horrible. I was mad, so I’m never going to do that to anybody, or try not to anyway.”
As a result, he tends to be really hard on himself when he feels he hasn’t delivered. “There are probably 10 shows in my career that I’ve walked away from and thought, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing.’ But if I’m only beating myself up over one little thing, I still know the audience had a good time.”
Finding The Path
Growing up in Lafayette, CA, Van Druten studied piano and then flute, but switched to guitar after realizing that flute players “rarely get the girls.” Soon he became the Swiss Army Knife of the school jazz band. “I was playing saxophone and our drummer moved away, so the teacher was like, ‘Ken, why don’t you learn drums?’ The next thing you know I was playing jazz drums.”
Being a self-described “problem child,” he did time at multiple boarding schools, eventually finding his niche at Southern California performing arts school Elliot-Pope Preparatory. His first inkling that he preferred engineering to performing was in high school after winning studio time at a battle of the bands contest and finding himself more interested in what the recording engineer was doing than what the band was doing.
While he went on to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston on scholarship as an electric bass player, he decided to switch from playing to engineering and has never looked back.
“I was a pretty intense player,” he says, but knowing there were many better players out there and the chances of playing bass for a living were slim, he decided to pursue a Bachelor’s in music production and engineering. “Literally two weeks after I got to Berklee, I went over to Newbury Studios, begged the owner for a job and said I’d work 16-hour days emptying garbage cans if he wanted. I’m sure he’d heard that before, but he decided to go with me.”
By the time he earned his degree, he’d become Newbury’s head engineer and, after graduating in 1992, with a solid reputation as an engineer, moved to Los Angeles to work at Paramount Recording Studios in Hollywood.
He went on to receive three Grammy nominations but insists that many early opportunities, such as engineering the Tony! Toni! Toné! double-platinum Sons of Soul album, came about strictly by chance: “I got that job was because they [the band] had gone to Trinidad to record, spent their recording budget and didn’t record anything. So the label put them in the cheapest studio in town with the cheapest engineer, which was me.”
Van Druten had no desire to mix live at that point, and the possibility wasn’t even on his radar until, during a demo session with Warrant, singer Jani Lane said the band had fired their live engineer. An opening date for Ratt was looming the next night, and Van Druten was asked to handle it.
“I told them, ‘I don’t know anything about live sound, dude. I’ve never even mixed a show,'” he says. “And the reply was along the lines of, ‘It’ll be fine. You’re killing these demos.’ So the next night I mixed the band at the LA Forum in front of 10,000 people.”
The attraction to the live world, initially in the form of instant gratification, was immediate. “Remember, this was before Pro Tools,” he notes. “Sometimes we’d spend two days on a guitar solo, and I was a bit dissatisfied being locked in a room for 16 hours a day, so I went for it and never looked back.”
Van Druten mixed front of house for a variety of metal bands, but soon the Grunge wave hit and groups like Warrant began losing popularity. “I followed Warrant into the ground,” he says. “There was a moment in 1994 – I was driving a van with the band and crew in it and a U-Haul on the back from Florida to San Francisco. Somewhere in the middle of Texas I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ But I loved those guys and worked with them for years.”
For a while he found front of house work to be scarce and started taking tech gigs. However, a two-year stint mixing monitors for Whitney Houston from 1997 to 1999 soon led to front of house work, starting with the 1999 KISS reunion/farewell tour, which, he says, was the catalyst for getting even more work.
Since then he’s mixed a highly diverse group of artists, yet while his approach to mixing changes from artist to artist, the way he prepares for every tour remains constant.
“Whenever I’m offered work – well, except for the Jay-Z gig because I got called literally the night before the dress rehearsal – I study the artist’s catalog intensively,” he explains. “The equipment we have now allows for record-quality mixes with impact. That’s what people expect.
“When I started, if the vocal could be heard, we were high-fiving,” he adds, laughing. “So my job is to try to reproduce every nuance of the record. There are some changes I make; with a legacy rock act I’m not going to mix at 104 dB because that audience doesn’t want it to be ridiculously loud, whereas at a hip hop show, they expect the sub information to knock your socks off.”