Nick Sullivan in his recording studio, The Keep

Grammy-nominated audio engineer Nick Sullivan on Denver’s music scene, taking risks, and running a recording business

September 25, 2019

Nick Sullivan (BA ’04) has found success in an extremely tough industry. The audio engineer and producer earned two Grammy nominations for his work on Los Lobos’ 2010 album Tin Can Trust and in 2018 was named one of Denver’s best audio engineers by Westword.

In 2013, he and business partner Jeff Kanan (BS ’99, MBA ’14) founded The Keep Recording and Consonance Publishing, now one of the busiest commercial recording studios and music publishing operations in Denver. Working at their studio on South Broadway, the collaborators have hosted an eclectic mix of musical and voiceover talents, such as Stefan Lessard of Dave Matthews Band, former Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabakuro, Brad Corrigan of the band Dispatch, comedian Lewis Black, and Senator Michael Bennet.

A singer and musician himself, Sullivan got his start in the music industry playing in the blues rock ‘n’ roll band American Relay and also played bass in post-rock instrumental band Peña. Find out how he reached the top of his game in sound engineering.  

1. What brought you to Denver?

“I came to Denver in 2001 after trying out Fort Collins for a year. Having grown up in a small town, I realized that I needed to live in a bigger city. I found the Music & Entertainment Industry Studies program at CU Denver via jazz musician Ron Miles. Since graduating in 2004, I have navigated a career in music [that’s evolved] from performing, to live sound engineering, and then to producing albums. A lot of my career has developed from the relationships I built as a student in the Music Industry Studies program.”

2. What’s been your strategy for building a successful career?

“I think loving what you do is paramount. Focusing on core business fundamentals has led to the success of the studio over the long term—specifically, keeping overhead and expenditures as low as possible in an industry that can get very expensive very quickly. Beyond running the business, it’s all about the craft of engineering, which for me includes recording, mixing, mastering, and making sure my clients are having a world-class experience. All while having fun, of course.”

3.  Do you feel like you’ve arrived, or are there more mountains to climb in your career?

“Oh, so many more mountains to climb! I’m always trying to learn more about the music industry in order to compete and to maintain a career. You can’t stay complacent in an industry like this that is constantly changing. The latest part of the journey has been learning the music publishing side of things, which has proven to be a great new stream of revenue for our business. It’s really changed what our future business model looks like. The lessons I’ve learned are to always take strategic risks and to never stay complacent.”

4. What’s the coolest band you’ve worked with in the studio?

“I don’t know if I can single out one band at the top of the coolness meter, but I’ve been having a blast on some recent projects, including a rock band called Denloc from Colima, Mexico. I produced and engineered the album and became close friends with the band, despite the language barrier. That album came out great, and I’m really proud of it. Another band that was especially amazing to work with was a funk-rock band called Log, which has a band member who plays percussion on grinders, gears, vuvuzela, sheet metal, axels, chains, and all kinds of weirdness. The album is so cool and unique to listen to. I’m also looking forward to producing and engineering an album with the rock band Redamancy, which is a group of CU Denver graduates.”

5. What gets you out of bed in the morning?

“First, it’s Corvus Coffee Roasters. Then, it’s turning knobs and being creative with some amazing and talented musicians and recording artists. I am so fortunate to love clocking in every day. That, and cashing checks, which the music publishing side of our business is allowing more often. I’m becoming a big fan of the post office.”

6. What was your favorite spot to DJ in Denver?

“That feels like so long ago, but it was for sure Mezcal with DJ K-Nee back in like 2004. We played Latin downtempo music on Sunday nights. We had a modest run, and it was a ton of good, tequila-fueled times.”

7. Did you play in bands while you were in college?

“Yes, I started both of my bands while at CU Denver, and I very much miss those days. American Relay was formed from [replying to a want-ad] that my eventual bandmate Alex Hebert had posted on campus, and we had a good run. We were on tour for a couple of years, and I learned how difficult it is to be an artist in a touring band. That’s what ultimately led me to transition from being a performer to focusing on audio engineering and music producing, which I’ve been fortunate enough to build a career in for going on 15 years, now. I still have goals to put more music out in the future and to perform again, but the obligations of running the business take precedence, currently.”

8. Any other musicians in your family?

“My parents actually met in a church choir in Grand Junction, so more on the singing side than the instrument side. I had some great influences from family friends while growing up in Steamboat Springs, too. Just living in a ski town with so many transplants and tourists exposed me to some great music I would never have known about.”

9. Which Beatle are you?

“That’s an impossible question to answer, but how about I aspire to have George’s spirituality, John’s scream, and Paul’s bass playing? Can’t find anything in particular about Ringo that I aspire to, but I’ll stick up for his drumming any day. Let’s not forget George Martin too—I wish I had his ears!”

10. What are the most underrated and most overrated albums in recent memory?

“Most underrated: Corsicana Lemonade by White Denim. Most Overrated: Anthem of the Peaceful Army by Greta Van Fleet.”

11. Digital or analog?

“Digital, for sure, in these modern times. While I have enjoyed making records on analog tape machines and consoles, the industry doesn’t support the cost of recording that way anymore. Additionally, the digital work flow is vastly more efficient than analog. I’m not sure digital will ever be completely analog-sounding, but the technology has closed the gap to the point where most listeners can’t tell, and I can honestly say I don’t miss calibrating tape machines and maintaining large format consoles which are always in a state of degradation.”

12. How has Denver’s music scene changed since you opened your studio?

“It’s come a long way on the recording side of things, and I think that the city is producing higher quality work than ever before. But the rising cost of living makes it more challenging for artists to survive. Denver has seen some sky-rocketing housing prices lately, which also means rehearsal spaces are evaporating, too. That being said, I can’t say I’ve seen a dip in the number of bands playing shows and making records. It’s still a vibrant scene made up of bands who love playing shows in the many clubs that Denver is fortunate to have, and I have always appreciated that.”

13. What lesson(s) did you have to learn the hard way?

“Running your own business creates the opportunity for all kinds of lessons to be learned, and they still keep coming. When we expanded into music publishing, it was a big leap for us, as we had never really worked on the administrative side of the music industry before. When you take risks, sometimes the fun part is that you figure out how to make it work. Once we got comfortable with how the music publishing industry worked, it allowed for our music production skills to be extremely valuable in that space.”

14. Fill in the blanks: “I love ______; I wish ______; I wonder ______.”

“I love El Tejado’s huevos rancheros. I wish more people voted. I wonder if Rage Against the Machine will ever put out another album.”

Recording equipment, The Keep Recording in Denver