Sometimes a rough-and-ready engineering approach can bring the emotion out of a song better than when you strive for the ultimate technical perfection," says Kevin Killen. The Dublin-born engineer/producer has convincingly demonstrated his hypothesis on records like Elvis Costello's Spike, Bryan Ferry's Bête Noire, Roy Orbison's Mystery Girl, Peter Gabriel's So, U2's output from War through Rattle & Hum, and albums by such significant others as Kate Bush, Howard Jones and T-Bone Burnett.
"As an engineer, I try to work really really fast. I never spend a lot of time getting sounds because I find it a destructive way of working. I prefer to keep moving, get an overall picture and then alter things wherever I feel it's appropriate. And I think that when you're used to that, it's easier to get involved on the production side. You quickly get things sounding the way you want and then you can concentrate on the musicality of what's going on in the studio."
Not that Killen negates the value of good engineering — as even a casual listen to any of the above albums will prove. His own grounding in the discipline includes two years on the staff at Dublin's first 24-track facility, Lombard Sound, and four years at the SSL studio that has become the city's pride, Windmill Lane.
"Working in Ireland is a bit like working in the classical field. Because of all the traditional Irish music that's recorded there, you get a lot of experience recording acoustic instruments. Also, when I started working at Lombard in 1979 the whole punk thing had happened in England, so there was a huge explosion of bands. There were lots of opportunities to learn." U2, of course, was one of the young new bands that put Dublin and Windmill Lane on the map during the early '80s. Killen had grown up on the same street as U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr.
"We lived not 400 yards apart, so we knew one another quite well. When the band realized I was working at the studio, they asked for me to work on War. We already had an established relationship, so it was easier for me to take some chances and really get involved in the album. When I was asked, I would always express my opinion — even if it wasn't one that everyone would see as being constructive. Sometimes that kind of honesty works to people's advantage."
Kevin's tendency to get emotionally involved ultimately led him into co-production, starting with Mr. Mister's Go On LP. By this time he'd gone independent as well. His move to producer's chores, he feels, was expedited by his engineering philosophy.
Producer/artist T-Bone Burnett found plenty to like in Killen and his engineering outlook. Killen worked on T-Bone's own record, The Talking Animals, and the two collaborated on discs for Roy Orbison, Sam Phillips and, of course, Elvis Costello.
"T-Bone doesn't mind somebody like me coming in and definitely taking the bull by the horns," Killen notes with approval. "He wants me to get involved in the music, even if I'm just being hired as a mixer."
On Elvis Costello's Spike, though, Kevin did much more than mix. His participation merited a full co-production credit. In Costello, Killen met someone whose attitude toward the studio is even more rough-and-ready than his own.
"One of the first things I learned about Elvis is that he has a distaste for reverb. He doesn't like his tracks to sound really wet. Before we even started he said he wanted a close, intimate feel — especially on songs like "God's Comic," "Tramp the Dirt Down" and "Any King's Shilling." On other songs, the request was for something different. But I think, overall, that album was recorded in quite a traditional way.
"Elvis works incredibly fast — faster than me. He'll walk into the studio, pick up his guitar and say, 'Okay, let's go.' He won't even want to take two minutes to tune the guitar. So a lot of times we were rushing around. The tape machine would be in 'record' all of the time. I think we had "Tramp the Dirt Down" in two or three takes and "Any King's Shilling" in about four or five. There was no time to agonize over things, so I used my instinct a lot. When you come from that acoustic background, you know when something sounds good, or when it sounds accurate for the instrument."
Many of Spike's edgy lead vocals were also flung down fast. "That wasn't the original idea," Kevin explains. "But when we put down all the basic ideas for the songs, Elvis would usually go in and sing a vocal. And the musicians started playing to the way he phrased those vocals. So when we eventually came to see if we could upgrade the vocals, the new takes just didn't have the same emotion. Therefore a lot of those rough vocals ended up becoming the masters. We might just fix a word or phrase, but essentially all those vocals were first takes. They weren't labored at all. He's the kind of performer who can deliver. It made T-Bone's job and my job somewhat easier."
From an engineering standpoint, though, Ida vocals were more challenging: "Elvis said his prior engineer told him he had the most unrecordable voice in the history of the music industry. There is a certain rasp in his voice, when he sings out, that will cut your head off from 10 yards away."
Killen admits that recording with relatively "high-tech" artists like Gabriel and Kate Bush involves a different discipline. "Working with Peter or Kate, the albums definitely grow over a period of time. They have a much longer period of fruition, from inception to completion. Somebody like U2, I don't know if they've ever spent more than four months recording an album, whereas Peter or Kate take at least a year. So with them, you get into that thing where every day is not as crucial. It gives you more room to experiment, but obviously it also allows you to put off making the important decisions, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing.
"Peter always ends up involving a lot of musicians in the recording process, and all the musicians play on every, song. So you and up with a situation where every song has multiple slave reels and you end up having to compile performances back to the master tape. As a result, you get some bizarre combinations. One song on So has Stewart Copeland playing high-hat and Manu Katché playing cymbals on a track where Jerry Marotta is the main drummer"
Apart from So, Killen has worked with Gabriel on the live "Biko" single released in 1987, and he's recently finished cutting some live tracks in Greece with the artist — tracks that should eventually emerge as the audio portion of a long-form video. Killen's intuitive, spontaneous approach to engineering makes him ideally suited for live recording, which he's done for U2 and Peter Gabriel. Another thing he's known for is his mixing skills, although he has (pardon the phrase) mixed feelings about this aspect of his reputation.
"It's nice to be known in the industry as someone who can mix, but my preference is for doing whole projects from start to finish. The thing about mixing is you're in and out in two or three weeks — you come in and you're the hired gun. But there's no chance to really get to know the artists and what they're about. So you can miss the whole point elide album."
Killen suggests that current pop might be less bland if more personal involvement went into the record-making process. As it is, engineers are often called in to mix music they have no particular affinity for. Or worse, "people are asked to mix projects because the songs aren't that great, and the only way to make them seem great is to overwhelm the listener with sonic beauty. The industry has gotten so much into the sonic end of things that it overlooks the importance of great music and great performances."
They may have little in common stylistically, but Killen finds that clients like Costello, Bush, Gabriel and U2 do share one trait: "Most of them am very normal people. This is the surprising thing. They've got great sensibility about them. They're very sensitive to other people and to world events — to life in general. They've all got an uncanny knack for knowing what other people are feeling, for expressing themselves both verbally and through their music. But they really are very normal people when you strip away the glamor that the industry would like to veil them in. And from that normality, I think, comes their strength."