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.