Behind The Glass: An Interview With Producer/Engineer Kevin Killen
Sharing insights into the industry and thoughts for aspiring engineers...

January 28, 2014, by Howard Massey


Sometimes a little humility—combined with tenacity—can go a long way.

Consider the career of engineer/producer Kevin Killen, who was willing to start at the bottom rung of the ladder not once, not twice, but three times before he finally broke through to the pinnacle of his profession, manning the board for the likes of U2, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Jewel, Lindsey Buckingham, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, and Paula Cole.

Rewind the tape to 1979, when a young Killen began working as an assistant engineer at a small demo studio in his hometown of Dublin, Ireland.

After six months of doing jingles and low-budget sessions for local artists, he worked his way up to engineer, and then moved on to the more prestigious Windmill Lane studios—despite the fact that he had to return to assisting.

There he met an up-and-coming Irish band called U2, working with producer Steve Lillywhite on their War album before engineering their 1984 release The Unforgettable Fire (with producer Brian Eno).

Later that same year he made the fateful—and gutsy—decision to relocate to New York, even though he knew hardly anyone in the Big Apple and had to essentially start from scratch, working as an assistant engineer once again.

It wasn’t long before Killen’s perseverance and self-confidence began paying dividends big time, garnering him production duties with the ’80s techno-pop band Mr. Mister and the first of a long series of engineering and co-production gigs with Elvis Costello.

We met up with Killen at New York’s famed Avatar studios. Articulate and thoughtful, Killen shared his philosophical approach towards making lasting records, focusing on both aesthetic and technical considerations.

How do you see the rise of the home studio as having had an impact on your career?

The way the industry has been going the past couple of years, I’ve been forced to be creative in stretching a budget and finding ways to make a $100,000 record sound like a $500,000 record.

Like a lot of people now, I’ll go in and track at a recognized studio for two or three weeks, and then for the vast majority of overdubs I’ll go to somebody’s house or a low-budget room with Pro Tools LE and a couple of reasonable-sounding microphones and mic pres—I’ve got a couple of friends who literally have little studios in their bedrooms. Then I’ll go back into a big room to mix.

If you’re on a limited budget, do you think it’s more important to have a good mic, or a good mic preamp?

In the home studio, it seems to me that the most critical thing is the chain from the micro-phone into the recording media, followed by the monitoring system.

A good mic pre. It will make a not-so-good sounding microphone sparkle a little bit more while a bad mic pre will diminish its response. Fortunately, there are many good mic pres out there that are affordable for the home recordist on a budget.

Do you tend to favor the straight-wire approach in a mic pre, or do you look for one that imparts a little character or color to the signal?

It depends upon the project. For home recordings, a mic pre that has less coloration is probably the one that I would advise using, if you’re trying to accurately represent what you’re hearing.

But if you’re trying to take a sound and morph it into something else, then the chain of processing doesn’t really matter because you’re going to seriously alter the sound anyway.

If you want to get an accurate representation, then you need to spend the time listening to the musician and moving the microphone around.

What if the microphone itself isn’t that great—perhaps because you’ve spent most of your budget on the mic preamp?

Wouldn’t you then want to use a preamp that enhances the sound of that not-so-great mic, as opposed to one that delivers the sound in an uncolored way?

No, I still think the straight-wire approach is the way to go. That brings to mind a project I did with producer Pat Leonard in Los Angeles; the artist was a classically trained pianist. We had a nine-foot Bosendorfer [piano] and a seven-foot Yamaha with the MIDI module.

We miked the Bosendorfer with a pair of B&Ks, but the Yamaha was miked up with a pair of [Shure SM] 57s, running through a pair of Neve mic pres. We were looking for the distinction between a very elegant piano sound and one that would really suit a pop recording, with a lot of elements surrounding the piano, so we didn’t want it to be all that broad-sounding.

So I do think the mic pre is the critical element, along with the placement of the mics and the touch of the player, and of course the quality of the instrument itself. It’s a combination of events that really articulate the sound.

Was the Yamaha piano miked in a standard stereo configuration?

Yes, just standard stereo, one 57 picking up the treble strings and the other picking up the bass strings, about a foot and a half apart.

No real trickery involved; again, I took the time to listen to what it sounded like in the room. Interestingly, on Elvis Costello’s North, I used an [AKG] C24 on the piano, just right down the middle of the soundboard, but I spotted a couple of [Neumann] KM 86s on the outside to see if I could add a little width to it.

On some songs they really helped, and on some songs they didn’t. So you pick and choose, depending on what kind of sonic landscape you’re trying to create.

You cut your teeth recording a lot of jingles. A lot of recording engineers say that they found the experience of doing jingles invaluable because it taught them to work quickly.

In a two- or three-hour jingle session, you may cut three or four different spots; plus you overdub them with voiceovers and additional information, mix down, edit, and copy, and they’re out the door with a whole neat package.

In comparison, making a record seems like a long drawn-out process that takes weeks or months, but as an engineer you still need to be able to work fast when the artist is ready to record. If you broke down how much time during those weeks the creative juices are actually flowing in terms of performances, it’s really a very small amount of time.

But you’re waiting for time to happen, and you’re trying to do everything you can to manipulate the environment so that when the artist feels they are ready, they can just fold into it and you’re recording. All the rest is just setting up for that moment.

It’s probably easier with home recording, because you’re in a very comfortable environment. Even for a lot of seasoned musicians, just the notion that they’re in a studio environment gives them red-light fever: “Okay, we’re putting it under the microscope.” Musicians often comment, “It was much easier in rehearsal,” and they’re right, it is easier because you’re not thinking about it.

I was just reading the other day about [famed jazz producer] Rudy Van Gelder’s first studio in Hackensack New Jersey, which was in his father’s house—the original home studio.

He’s quoted as saying that the reason a lot of the seminal Blue Note recordings were so great was because people just felt so comfortable in that studio—he even had home furniture there. The musicians would think, “We’re not recording,” but here were all of these classic recordings being created.

If a classic recording that stands the test of time can actually come out of a home studio, what is the role of the professional studio?

To provide the technical backup and a level of excellence that’s hard to match in a home studio.

In most top-line studios, the sound is just so superior, and if you have a problem there’s somebody there to fix it immediately.

You’re not questioning the wiring or the tape alignment, and usually the room you’re listening in is a more critical environment when you’re trying to make final decisions, especially during mixdown.

Any time I’ve spent weeks or months doing a home recording, I’ve always felt an enormous benefit as soon as I’ve come into a professional room to mix.

It’s not that I’ve been dissatisfied with what I’ve recorded; I just feel that the sound I visualize in my head can be more readily achieved in a professional studio when I get to the mixdown stage.

It seems that one of the popular myths of home recording today is that because the technology allows so many ways to manipulate or “fix” a signal, that it’s less important to start with a quality recording.

It is a myth. Why spend the time to fix something that’s basically subpar? Why not just get it right? If you think about a record as an emotional context in which a performance resides, then you should be willing to accept certain imperfections as long as it tells a story when it comes out of the speaker.

All of these elements combine to make the listener feel removed, or engaged. Personally, I’d much rather have somebody be engaged and accept the warts. If you try to fix it and you find that it’s better technically but not better emotionally, I’d sooner go with the more emotional performance.

I find that this kind of philosophy is common in engineers who come from having to record a lot of real musicians over a long period of time, and in different genres of music.

Many of the young engineers who are coming up are technologically savvy and are into the manipulation of sound, and they do amazing work—it’s really fascinating to see what they do with audio—but I couldn’t even remotely try and replicate it. Even though some of it’s not my aesthetic, I can certainly listen to it and go, “That sure as hell is cool.”

But it’s also unreal, and there’s no way they can recreate it live onstage. Of course, nobody says you should have to be able to do that—it is a different medium, after all.

If the performance is great, that’s the thing that’s going to come across, time and time again. As far as the notion of constantly correcting something, there’s a consequence to every correction. It might sound perfect—whatever your version of “perfect” means to you—but you’re going to remove a tangible ingredient.

The question with new technology is, how much do you leave and how much do you correct? It depends on the artist.

If you’re working with someone who has gotten away with masking their inabilities and you’re using technology to correct their imperfections, then it makes the job more difficult. Ideally, you want to go in, set the microphone, get a sound, hit Record, and get a wonderful reading of what they’re trying to do.

Of course, we all know that’s not necessarily the case—and you can only hide behind the technology for so long. Maybe that’s part of the reason why some new artists have an initial success with their first album release, but then when they go on the road, they can’t even come close to replicating those performances.

People see through that. Personally I feel cheated when an artist cannot deliver a credible performance onstage. As the saying goes: “In time. In tune. With feeling.” Is that too much to ask?

When you produce records, you engineer as well, which seems like quite a tall order.

It is a tall order, because it’s always good to have another set of ears in the room. It’s easy to convince yourself that something is working when you know instinctively it’s not—you just want to move the process along.

And then, in the cold, harsh light of day you come back and say, “What was I thinking??” Whereas if you had another set of trusted ears around, you might say, “Okay, we need to try something else here.”

When you’re starting a project, do you have an end goal that you’re working towards sonically?

It depends. If the artist has an identifiable sound that they just wish to expand upon, then I have an idea of what I think it can sound like at the end, so I’ll try and move towards that.

But I’m also willing to go with the flow, because the best-laid plans don’t necessarily materialize, so you’ve got to be flexible.

Sometimes it takes you a couple of songs to really identify the strength of the collective group of people in the room.

All of a sudden you go, “Okay, this is what these people really do exceptionally well,” and then you hone the sound towards that.

I still try to make it different enough from song to song so it doesn’t sound like I just repeated the same trick, but also sounding familiar enough that it feels cohesive from top to bottom.

I’ll try different drums, different drum kits; maybe instead of using a full-size drum kit, I’ll use a smaller-sized kit. Things like starting out with one sound in the verses and expanding on it in the choruses, or vice versa.

And so much of it is dependent on the lyrics. If it’s a lyrically intensive song, then I think so much of it is about space and not about the constant musical backing.

So you’re saying you actually shape the music to fit the lyrical content.

Oh, yeah. I love the musical backdrop, but I usually start my mix by pushing up the vocal fader so I’m building from that perspective.

At some point I’ll turn the voice off for a couple of minutes and listen to the musical balance, but I’m always thinking in terms of telling a story. The voice is the thing that’s leading the story; the other elements are supporting components.

What criteria do you use to determine whether you want to work with a new artist?

Good songs, the ability to perform, and a strong personality. I’m looking for somebody who’s got a vision and a passion.

I don’t want it to be so considered-sounding that they think, “I can be a musician and an artist because I’m smart and I’m technically able to do these things and my level of musicianship is high enough.”

I want people who are really passionate about music, because that’s what ultimately comes across. There are some artists out there who are really good, who may be very competent musicians, but they don’t have the desire to be incredibly successful.

Some producers try to avoid working with strong-willed artists, preferring instead to work with people who are willing to be shaped and molded.

Ultimately the artists who are most successful are the ones who are most driven. That doesn’t mean you have to butt heads with them; they can be incredibly affable people, even if that desire burns within them.

I distinctly remember working with U2 and thinking that the whole band was so driven, but it didn’t seem overt. They just wanted to be the best band in the world. They didn’t have to step over a lot of people to achieve it, either—they just let their music do it for them.

I was fortunate enough to do the first Paula Cole record and she had that same passion. She had the drive to want to succeed—same with most of the artists I’ve been fortunate to work with. Some have been more successful than others, but they all had that passion.

Often, an artist has a successful debut album working with an established producer and then they decide they can take over the production themselves on the second album and fall short.

Well, producing a record is not just about making the musical decisions. There are so many other things, from choosing the right musicians to choosing the right studio. Then there are all the intangibles, like figuring out how to work the budget.

You need to understand how all the decisions you’re making on a day-to-day basis affect the bottom line, and how that’s going to impact on how you finish the record.

Knowing how to coax the best performances out of people, having the ability to step back, keeping the overall vision. Some artists have that vision themselves, of course—Prince is a great example—but it’s a tough job.

Coming from where I sit, I think the best records are made in the collaborative process. Most artists will tell you that their record turned out sonically different and probably much better than they ever imagined because of that interaction of the collective in the room.

Some-times it happens by accident, sometimes it happens by design, but who cares as long as the net result is a compelling piece of music?

Perhaps it’s that lack of collaborative process that is the biggest negative about home recording.

Unfortunately, the same is true for musicians as it is for engineers—in a home studio they not only don’t get to work with one another, they don’t get to work with other people that might be floating around in a professional studio complex.

People that you admire are suddenly in the room next to you and you think, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I had so-and-so come in and play on a track?” Those kinds of accidents can be wonderful things.

People doing all their own recording and mixing at home tend to work in isolation. They even try to do their own mastering—you give someone a [Waves] L1 and they think they’re a mastering engineer!

I would never even remotely think I was a mastering engineer; I don’t know anything about mastering, other than that I have a good sense of who the great mastering engineers are.

I learn every time I go into a mastering suite—watching the incredible clarity they get out of a recording just by making a tiny adjustment. It’s amazing, but they spend years training to do that, so why not take advantage of all that accumulated experience?

You’re known for not putting decisions off, for not giving yourself tons of options to deal with at the end of a project.

Absolutely. It’s a very simple philosophy: trust your instincts, decide on a course of action, and follow through on it. If that means printing a particular effect, don’t be afraid to make that decision.

You always have the option of saving the session in various different ways—one with a printed effect on a particular instrument, and another with just the raw data, so that if you decide at a later point that there’s something wrong, you can rebalance.

But there is something special that happens when you make a decision. For those of us who had to work on 16-track or 24-track analog, when you only had a certain number of tracks, you didn’t use 16 tracks on drums or even 8 tracks—you used 4 or 6 tracks.

So you committed to that sound early on, and that became the basis and foundation from which all your other judgements were made.

By the time you got to mix, you felt that the record was already pretty much done—you just pushed the faders up. It wasn’t that you were trying to achieve the sound [in the mix]—you’d already established the sound beforehand.

So at that point you were just trying to correct some minor imperfections that you perceived. There’s nothing wrong with making a commitment to the sound; that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, after all.

Why put it off until later? You might lose the sound—you might be monitoring through a particular delay or reverb but when you come back the next day it doesn’t sound the same anymore, and that affects how you view the performance.

Just print it. If you don’t like it at a later point, just erase it. But if you at least print it, there will be no question as to what it was. That’s definitely still my philosophy.

But if you print every effect you try, you’ll end up with lots and lots of tracks, hence lots of decisions to make at mix time.

I don’t necessarily print the effects separately, though. Let’s say I’m recording a guitar and the musician has some effects of his or her own and I add some more effects to make a nice stereo spread. I would then print it as a single stereo track, rather than doing individual tracks for each effect.

If I feel—and if the musician agrees—that’s a great sound and that’s what we want to hear every time we come into the control room, then I’m going to commit to it.

I find a lot of artists are reticent about doing that: “Oh, let’s make the decision later on.” No, I say let’s make the decision now, so that your future decisions are based upon something that you’re actually going to use, as opposed to something you think you may want to use.

You make those decisions and then the mix doesn’t take five days to do; the basic mix should be done in about five or six hours. With the overall tone and shape of the recording already set, you can take the luxury of time to step back and get into the details.

What advice can you give the young reader who wants to be the next Kevin Killen?

Well, corny as it sounds, I would just say follow your dreams, wherever they take you. My dream was to take what I learned in Dublin and to see if it would work on a bigger stage.

I was heartened by the fact that it seemed to, and I take incredible comfort from the knowledge that I’ve worked on some great records, but it was pure luck. Yes, I had the aptitude and I had the talent, but it was also being in the right place at the right time.

So it’s about not giving up, and like so many things in this business, it’s also about your personality. There are a lot of people out there who are incredibly gifted, but their personalities don’t necessarily lend themselves to being embraced by a lot of people.

You just have to keep remembering that the person that you met today who you think is of no consequence could be somebody of consequence tomorrow.

That doesn’t mean you have to brown-nose them all the time; it just means you have to treat them as you want to be treated. Ultimately, if you’re good enough, you’ll get there.

The final piece of advice is to respect your hearing. Be safety conscious when you go to shows and monitor at reasonable levels. Remember that your mix has to sound good at any level. Do not be afraid to protect your most valuable commodity.

Suggested Listening:
Peter Gabriel: So, Geffen, 1986

U2: War, Island, 1983; The Unforgettable Fire, Island, 1984; Rattle and Hum, Island, 1988

Elvis Costello: Spike, Warner Bros., 1989; The Juliet Letters, Warner Bros., 1993; Kojak Variety, Warner Bros., 1995; North, Deutsche Grammophon, 2003

Shakira: Oral Fixation, Volume One, 2005; Oral Fixation, Volume Two, Epic, 2005

Shawn Colvin: Steady On, 1989

Paula Cole: Harbinger, Imago, 1994

To acquire “Behind The Glass: Volume II” from Backbeat Books, click over to NOTE: ProSoundWeb readers can enter promotional code NY9 when checking out to receive an additional 20% off the retail price plus free shipping (offer valid to U.S. residents, applies only to media mail shipping, additional charges may apply for expedited mailing services).

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Behind The Glass: An Interview With Producer/Engineer Kevin Killen