(Left-right: Ken Floyd, Gabe Damast and Zedd)
From playing drums in a hardcore band and working as a front of house engineer to being a guitar tech, special effects director, tour manager and lighting programmer, Ken Floyd has held almost every conceivable touring role. During the last five years, however, he has been a core member of Team Zedd, the “camp” that supports GRAMMY® Award-winning DJ, musician and producer, Zedd. While touring often takes Ken to the far corners of the world, he always looks forward to returning home to laidback Huntington Beach, California.
Zedd recently hosted “Welcome!,” a benefit for the ACLU at Staples Center in Los Angeles, featuring fellow artists that included Skrillex, Imagine Dragons, Macklemore and others. The event was also the concert debut of the new HARMAN Professional Solutions JBL Professional VTX A12 line array. Shortly after the event, I had an opportunity to speak with Ken about his fascinating career and multifaceted role with Zedd.
[MM] Is it unusual for DJs like Zedd to tour with front of house engineers?
[Ken] Most electronic artists do not take front of house engineers with them. It’s pretty rare and mostly just the top-tier DJs. Skrillex has a big team, including a front of house engineer. Calvin Harris, Deadmau5, Armin van Buuren and a small handful of others also carry front of house engineers, but not a large faction.
What’s cool about Zedd is that he’s not just a DJ. He also plays lots of instruments—drums, piano and synthesizers. It’s not the same thing all the time, so I’m not always just mixing left-right on a mixer. It definitely makes it more fun and interesting. For the most part, working as a front of house engineer for a DJ, you don’t have to mix the entire time, so a lot of us wear multiple hats.
[MM] What are the different roles you handle for Team Zedd?
[Ken] When we do shows, I’m the tour manager, production manager, front of house audio engineer and special effects director. It’s a lot of hats, but thankfully, touring with a DJ is fairly flexible, so I can get help when I need it. It’s tough at times, but I wear those hats because I can, and because we keep a really tight crew. Our core camp, including Zedd, is only six people.
[MM] Do you help shape the sound at a DJ show like you might a band performance?
[Ken] Not with Zedd. He shapes the mix, because he’s the one controlling the dynamics and everything else. He actually controls the gain throughout the show, which is something not all DJs do. He’ll gain it up on a drop, which makes it more exciting for the audience. When a show is consistent throughout and not dynamic, it can be less interesting, so I like that he does that for the crowd.
[MM] During a DJ set, if you’re both controlling the gain, Zedd from the stage and you from the front of house position, how do you find a balance?
[Ken] If Zedd is gaining up too much, I need to counteract him and ride the fader or attenuate the head amp, depending on which is appropriate. Typically, if that happens, I’ll give him notes about how the sound reacts when he gains it up or if it starts to distort at a certain point, so he can ease up a little at the next show.
[MM] Do you go out onto the floor during the set to get a feel for how the audience is responding?
[Ken] I like to, but it’s rare that I can and usually only at club dates in places like Las Vegas and Miami. At festivals and headline shows, I’m operating the entire time, so there isn’t much of an opportunity to wander around and see how people are reacting, which is a big deal with electronic music. Because the music never stops, people need to be excited and engaged the entire time, which is completely different than rock music. Rock gives you little breaks here and there, and classical music usually has an intermission. It’s a very different vibe at an electronic music show.
[MM] Is the goal of the show to get people into that excited, engaged space?
[Ken] It’s not only about getting them there, but also about keeping them there. That’s the hard part for a DJ and what changes all the time. When you go to a rock concert, the band has a set list and has figured out the entire show ahead of time. It doesn’t stray, regardless of the crowd’s reaction. An artist who is DJing live, though, has the ability to completely rearrange their set or not even have a preplanned set and just go on how the crowd is reacting.
Zedd reads the crowd the entire time he’s playing, and depending on their response to certain types of songs, he absolutely changes the set.
[MM] What clues does he look for in the audience’s reactions?
[Ken] For the most part, it’s the reaction of them dancing and having their arms up in the air. It’s how they sing along to songs and react in the lulls. It’s whether everyone is facing into the crowd or not. Those are the cues Zedd takes and digests to figure out what to play next. He has to decide what he’s going to play in 20 minutes and what he’s going to end with—and, all of that can change throughout a 90-minute show.
[MM] You mentioned that your front of house work is more fun and interesting when Zedd’s show includes a band. Does that happen often?
[Ken] My role changes a lot depending on the venue and what Zedd is doing. At most festivals, we do a DJ set. But, when we do TV appearances, it’s completely different. Usually Zedd plays piano or synthesizers and sometimes DJs on top of it.
Then there are times like when Zedd was on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” with a full band. We had a drummer, two guitar players—Mike Einziger from Incubus and Anton’s [Zedd’s] brother Arkadi. Zedd played synthesizers and piano, and we had two different singers, so the performance had a very traditional live mixing process and was super fun to do.
Mixing a band is more exciting for me than a DJ show, because it means I have a multitude of inputs to work with. With all the instruments, it stays interesting throughout the entire show. Mixing a DJ is different, because it’s just a left-right coming through. Although, if we have special guests, things change up a bit.
[MM] It sounds like you need to be very adaptable.
[Ken] It’s true. Working with electronic music is an adjustment, but fairly easy for a front of house engineer. The biggest adjustment is that electronic artists are super loud, because there’s usually no live vocal. Unless Zedd has special guests, it’s only him yelling into a microphone. As a mixer, you’re almost always limited by the vocals and how loud you can gain them up. But, with electronic music, the PA is really the limit.
[MM] How do you ensure that the audience can hear Zedd during a DJ set?
[Ken] I had to work out how to keep him above the music. We tried a series of compressors and finally found a solution by using a sidechain compressor. When Zedd talks into the mic, it attenuates the volume of the music down, so the audience can hear him. The sidechain is going at all times, because he leaves the mic open on the desk. It brings the music down about 4–6 dB, depending on how loud he’s talking. It’s a great tool and works really well. A lot of DJs will ride the music themselves, but the sidechain does that work for Zedd, which is much more convenient.
[MM] There must be a lot of sound from the audience at the DJ shows. How do you manage the balance between what’s coming from them and from Zedd?
[Ken] Especially for electronic shows, the SPL is so important. Everyone in electronic music has figured out that they need a PA with plenty of headroom. Typically, we’ll drive it around 105–106 dB, which is pretty loud and easily gets over the sound of the audience.
[MM] What kinds of venues do you perform at on Zedd’s tours?
[Ken] We’ve played everything from a private home at SXSW to huge festivals, like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Tomorrowland in Belgium and Summer Sonic in Japan. We also do a lot of headline shows as well, everywhere from Staples Center to Madison Square Garden to the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila. We have figured out, though, that one of the best types of venues for our music is just a big long flat room, like a convention hall. The crowd loves being on the ground with everyone together.
[MM] Is it more complicated to set up your PA in that kind of space?
[Ken] It’s actually easier to set up a PA in big long rectangle than an arena. In an arena, you have to pitch and splay the boxes, so the sound hits every part of the room. In a flat rectangle, you just have to throw it far and, if necessary, set up delays, so the sound hits the back of the crowd.
[MM] What kind of gear do you travel with?
[Ken] It depends on the venue. If we’re doing a nightclub, we just carry a midi controller and whatever our video controller needs in terms of controllers and his laptop. A lot of DJs literally just carry USB sticks, and that’s all the gear they have with them. But, on our headline tour, we carried about six trucks worth of gear with 40 people and four busses. It really depends on the type of show that we’re doing.
Because of my experience using JBL VerTec and VTX line arrays for rock and metal music, since day one, we have had JBL products on our rider. I really enjoyed using the JBL VTX A12 at the “Welcome!” event. It has a really warm, full sound, but bright at the same time. It was very powerful and had tons of headroom!
[MM] How did you find your way from rock and metal to Zedd?
[Ken] I started playing drums in the seventh grade and later played in a band called Eighteen Visions. In 2007, we broke up kind of abruptly. Trying to decide what to do next, I called our tour manager. He asked if I was interested in working with other bands and told me that Buckcherry was looking for a guitar tech. That was something my father had taught me, along with playing drums.
The band took a chance on me and gave me the job. It worked out really well, and I learned a lot. Buckcherry is a super professional act, and it was like touring boot camp for me. After that, I worked for a few friends’ bands—a band called Saosin and another called Atreyu—which is how I met Tim Smith, who used to manage hardcore and rock bands and was managing Zedd.
I started with Zedd about five years ago and have been with him since. It’s a great camp to work for. The whole team is super excited, because Zedd is exciting to work with. He’s smart and young and totally gets it. The production is collaboration between all of us, but Zedd is very hands-on and definitely directs the show. He’s an electronic music producer, but isn’t completely boxed into that category. He comes from a background of rock, jazz and classical music, and knows music so well that it has been inspiring to work with him.
Many thanks to Ken for sharing his insights on being part of Team Zedd! Are you a front of house engineer who works with DJs? Share your experience in the comments.