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

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

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.

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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

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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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