Audeze talks with Pianist and Engineer Vikram Shankar

January 07, 2021

Audeze talks with Pianist and Engineer Vikram Shankar

American pianist, keyboardist and producer Vikram Shankar is one of the rising stars in the world of progressive, metal, and art rock, informed equally by his classical music heritage and his deep passion for the worlds of rock, metal, jazz, and beyond. In addition to his work with multinational progressive metal legends Redemption, and his idiosyncratic progressive rock trio Lux Terminus, Shankar's cinematic duo Silent Skies has received rave reviews from press for its subtle, delicate, and emotionally sophisticated approach to piano-driven music. 


Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

There are a few "watershed moments" in my career that I look back upon with particular pride. My Lux Terminus record from 2018 is one in which I truly allowed all facets of my musical persona to shine through, and progressive rock, metal, jazz fusion, cinematic music, and EDM coexist in this wonderfully wacky sonic world - in addition to being able to write a piece of music for my favorite vocalist in the world, Anneke van Giersbergen, to sing!

Also, the Silent Skies album Satellites from late 2020 is one that I have written and recorded with one of my longtime musical heroes, Tom Englund (of the band Evergrey), and the level of emotional outpouring he and I put into the record seems to be matched only by the level of emotional engagement on the part of the fans, which is probably the most rewarding feeling an artist can ever have.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I have two lives as a musician, so to speak. The first as as a creator in my own projects - whether it's being one half of an equal partnership (Silent Skies), the creative figurehead (Lux Terminus), or one of a collective (Redemption, Threads of Fate), I'm interested in finding ways to express myself and explore facets of my musicality within these universes. 

Secondly, as a producer and sessions keyboardist, I'm interested in helping other musicians identify their own musical identity, articulate their vision, and bring it to fruition as well as I possibly can. I really enjoy being a team player and working with other people's creativity, as I believe most of us can create our best efforts by working together. My secret third life is my private solo material, which is completely and perhaps selfishly devoted to self expression, but that often takes a back seat to the other two and I wouldn't have it any other way.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

Music has always been my language of choice - take music away and expressing myself becomes infinitely more difficult! I found my way to the piano before elementary school and studied classical piano seriously for a decade - classical music was in fact the only type of music I listened to until perhaps my early teens, at which point I experienced a musical explosion - The Doors, Pink Floyd, RUSH, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Dream Theater - all of a sudden I realized that the possibilities were endless, and that all the academia I had internalized didn't fly in the face of the exciting energy of rock and metal music but could in fact be used to make that music-making more potent and powerful. Since then I've tried to devour every type of music I can get my hands on, and never let preconceived notions of artists or genres hold me back. Music is music, and there is no wrong way to speak the universal language!

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

From my younger years through today, the impact of certain musicians has had an impact I can't understate: John Coltrane, Jordan Rudess, Olafur Arnalds, Devin Townsend, and Anathema come to mind. There are of course more but ultimately, like many artists, I'm constantly absorbing new influences that each guide my path forwards. The aforementioned however truly showed me what is possible in music, aesthetically, artistically, technically, and emotionally. Of course, my tutelage is a big part of that - my classical piano instructor, Dr. Sean Schulze (Cleveland Institute of Music - he gave me the piano facility and musical sensibility that I have taken advantage of to the present day), David Kay (my high school jazz instructor, who helped me dive into the deep end of jazz performance), and the faculty at Oberlin Conservatory, who helped me find and refine my voice and above all else gave me the tools and facility to express myself. 

Beyond that, the most foundational moment in my musical life occurred when Tom Englund reached out to me to start the Silent Skies project in 2017. That moment not only lead to one of my most successful records to date, and one of my most treasured friendships, but that connection lead me to the band Redemption, as well as other production work. Ultimately so much of this business is about relationships, and that relationship changed my professional life just as much as it did my personal life.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I think every musician has experienced moments when they feel their career isn't going their way, and for a period of time in recent history I found myself simultaneously teetering on the verge of burnout and professional boredom. I felt that I wasn't getting the gigs I wanted, and the gigs I was getting were bleeding me dry artistically. In this time I seriously contemplated quitting the world of professional music entirely! Imagine my sheepish surprise when in a matter of weeks, more fulfilling gigs began flooding my inbox. 

I think the courage to persist through the "downs" in the professional cycle of a creative is crucial - but perhaps in retrospect I would like to have done what I do now, which is diversify my professional activities more. These days, if I experience a burnout or overload, or something isn't stimulating me professionally, I have varieties of other endeavors to focus my energies on, and I can return to the project at hand when I feel myself mentally ready. The ability to take space and step back from a project, I find, is vital to longevity in this business!

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

These days the vast majority of my work is "in the box" in the software world, mainly for recall purposes and ease of revisions, but also because the possibilities of working in the box is so immense. I find myself getting a lot of mileage out of tools from Spitfire Audio, Cinesamples, and East West for orchestral work, Arturia, u-he, Native Instruments, and Heavyocity (and of course a boatload more virtual instruments) for synthesis work, and Neural DSP, GetGood Drums, and SubMission Audio for the more rock/metal side of things. The majority of my mixes could be accomplished simply with suites from Fabfilter, Soundtoys and certain plugins from Plugin Alliance, especially Brainworx - those people are absolutely out of this world with what they can accomplish in the software domain! I work in Logic Pro, and have for many years, sometimes using Mainstage as a live performance solution (when I'm not solely using Korg synths for performance, which is a solution I often adopt for the intangibly organic feeling of using and interacting with one physical instrument on stage).

Outside of the box, I find myself using the Korg Prologue analog synth, the Korg Kronos (as my primary controller and live instrument), and either a Kiesel Zeus seven-string electric guitar or the classic Fender Stratocaster/Telecaster vibe. Of course, there's nothing like the real thing as far as piano work is concerned - for the Silent Skies album, we recorded using a beautiful full-size Steinway grand piano outside of Gothenburg, Sweden, and for home sessions I use the same Boston grand piano that I grew up learning to play piano on, with the magic of Earthworks microphones helping capture the details the way they need to be captured. Nothing makes me more inspired than picking up a new tool - even something as relatively prosaic as a new EQ plugin - and putting it to the test. Many a new track of mine has been created through messing around with new toys!

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

I think the biggest thing I would recommend to anyone is to have the courage to approach music with a completely open mind, both as a professional and as a listener. As a listener, be open to different styles of music - consider what makes a style click for people, even if it isn't your favorite style of music in the world. Allow yourself to incorporate different elements into your vocabulary, and allow yourself to follow your muse regardless of what seems like the flavor of the day. 

As a professional, don't be afraid of the deep end, and don't be afraid of doing gigs that may seem like an odd professional choice. Sometimes, you may do a project that seems irrelevant to the path you're trying to forge for yourself, but you end up meeting someone through that project, or impress someone who hears the project, and all of a sudden you're exposed to a set of ears who would have never discovered your talent otherwise! Putting yourself out there, giving every project your best, and being open to new experiences are the most important things any professional artist can do in my opinion.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

Headphones are a fairly crucial part of my working life, and the ability to listen to music in a variety of contexts is vital. I have a setup in my studio that is driven by Adam Audio monitors, and I spend a great deal of time working with those, but I frequently use headphones to reference tracks as I mix. I find them particularly useful for identifying problems, be it "notching" problematic frequencies or editing audio tracks, as well as anything that involves particularly analytical detailed listening (especially stereo/spatial analysis). I also use headphones for tracking when I'm not tracking in-the-box, and I value tracking using headphones with a flat-reliable frequency signature - especially as tracking, sound design, and preliminary pre-mixing often are simultaneous activities as I work on building soundscapes. There's also nothing quite like that feeling of receiving the final masters of a project you worked on, putting on the headphones, dimming the lights, and being able to really enjoy the product of your labor with objective and receptive ears!

My first impressions of the LCD1 headphones are extremely positive! I put them to the test on several mixes over the last few days, and I was struck by the ease with which I was able to identify problems and efficiently solve them, especially when notching frequencies and editing audio. The number one thing I look for in any piece of new gear is how it expedites my workflow, and I found that the LCD1s helped me reach the stage of "finished, problem-free mix that translates on all systems" faster than any headphones I've used before. Very, very impressed!