Study Hall

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

Sharing insights into the industry and thoughts for aspiring engineers...

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.

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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.”

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