is a music producer, engineer, and mixer. His work has been recognized by multiple awards and nominations, and he has worked with a range of recording artists including Shakira, Peter Gabriel, U2, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, Jewel, Bon Jovi and Shawn Colvin. Kevin will share experiences as the audio engineer behind Peter Gabriel's legendary So album, taking us behind the scenes to the recording processes of hit songs Sledgehammer and In Your Eyes.
#PWYM Live Interview - Kevin Killen
Link to Ethan Hein's transcript digest of our Kevin Killen/Jerry Marotta interview.
Links to Kevin's major interviews relevant to So
Kevin's description of the recording processes behind So
1999 Interview in Mix Magazine
Kevin replying to a thread on Gearslutz
Audio interview on Input Output podcast
Shared by Kevin Killen via email on May 12, 2014
while looking for those photo's I discovered a text document I had created prior to the 25th anniversary release of the album. I have included it below . Perhaps this can be utilized to provide some context and to help facilitate the Q&A.
Please let me know your thoughts,
Clearly Peter and Dan wanted to make the best record they could at that moment with the hope that it would have a broad appeal while staying true to their musical beliefs.
I joined the album two months into the process. Dave Bascombe had done the initial tracking with the band. Peter had his original demos of the songs which consisted of a Linn 9000 drum pattern and a Prophet 5 or Yamaha CP70 chord progression. Peter and Dan began to discuss possible arrangement and structural ideas prior to the musicians arriving. Once the players were present for tracking they all discussed other possible changes. Every idea was encouraged as both Dan and Peter were truly interested in delving into any tangent that may create a unique musical arrangement. The vibe was truly collaborative but with Dan and Peter guiding the process.
Peter had his own studio located 7 miles outside of Bath, England. It was a residential setting utilizing an old converted farmhouse for living / accommodation / office space. The studio was located in an rectangular cow shed which had some acoustic treatment. The control room overlooked the valley , the recording space was behind the control room, separated by a vestibule that doubled as a technical shop. There were no direct sight lines between the two rooms. The control was equipped with an SSL 4000 E series board - 56 input and the tape machines were two Studer A80's. One of them was a standard issue , while the second had the standard chassis, transport and deck but all of the audio cards were customized by a local engineer, Colin Broad. There was a reasonable amount of outboard processing equipment in the control room including AMS, Quantec, Delta Labs, MXR, LA2A & Decca compressors, an EMT Plate ,1/4 inch and 1/2 tape machines. We also had a PA system in the recording space that we used as an echo chamber. Peter had an assortment of keyboards in the control room: Prophet 5, Yamaha CP70, Emulator and a Fairlight. There were also a number of guitars and percussion instruments readily available.
Peter wanted to utilize both tape machines during the tracking phase, the A machine being the stock Studer, the B machine being the modified version so an Adam Smith synchronizer was installed days before the tracking began. As Dan later recalled in conversations the demo's were played back on the B machine while the band recorded their parts to the A machine. A rough mix of the demo parts was recorded simultaneously to the A machine to allow for quick reference on playback. As each reel of tape was completed it was swapped over onto the B machine while a virgin reel was placed on the A machine. This allowed everybody to quickly check prior performances , parts and sounds. This process might be repeated 5 or six times depending on the number of passes required before a master backing track was selected. A similar process was followed for each song.
Because Dan and Peter were keen to keep the momentum going during the tracking , rarely was reel 1 of a song synchronized with reel 6 or seven , the assumption being that all reels were compliant. Sometime after tracking Dan, David and Peter discovered that this was not the case and that a technical issue was clearly evident. Dave Bascombe was leaving the project to work with "Tears for Fears" and Dan reached out and invited me to engineer the remainder of the project. I travelled from NYC to England on the assumption that I was going to help complete the project - a 4 to 6 week commitment. Because it was late Spring I packed only summer clothes . I was met at Heathrow Airport by Peter's assistant, David Stallbaumer and during our drive to the studio he speculated that I would be on this project for the next 10 months!
Immediately I observed a great rapport between Peter and Dan, both have a wicked sense of humor and a great understanding of groove and melody. Dan and i had worked the previous year on U2's "Unforgettable Fire" album so it was no surprise to see instruments and effects ready to go should a musical idea present itself. Dan is meticulous in documenting sounds and setups and I quickly familiarized myself with the whole arrangement. There were also construction hard hats , free weights, a Polaroid camera and the French game "Boules" to alleviate tension!
As I settled into the project, Dan outlined my role. During the day we would be recording new parts and performances on the existing backing tracks. During the after hours I would be responsible for devising and executing a system to retrieve parts and performances from slave reels that no loner synchronized with the master reels. Keeping the project on track while maintaining a creative vibe was essential, therefore a communal spirit was omnipresent. To address the synchronizer issue, we had to understand what had occurred during the tracking.
There were two separate but concurrent technical issues that threatened to derail some of the performances. The first revolved around the Adam Smith synchronizer that linked the two machines. The stock Studer had an FM card and the modified Studer had a DC card - the synchronizer setup assumed they were both FM cards, so there were incorrect pulses being sent from the Adam Smith to the second machine. The second involved the tension of the reels on both Studer's. Because the tension required the utilization of capstan & pinch roller system , the tension on the first and last three minutes of each reel of tape was not entirely solid. The two issues compounded to make the master and slave reels drift away from each other and it was an inconsistent amount from slave reel to slave reel. We had all of these wonderful performances spread out over the various takes and therefore we created a list of parts & performances that we wanted to corral back to the master. The process of getting stuff back from the slave reels to the master reel involved lining up the 2-inches or the half inch machine and flying between them manually, bit by bit. In July we got an AMS sampler with 14 seconds of sampling capability, so we could actually sample four or five measures of music and fly it in that way. This is what we used to "loop" in Stewart Copeland's drum performance on "Big Time".
In the meantime we were still recording on the master takes and I created a new slave reel to ensure open tracks and sync. Musically all of the songs were incomplete and the arrangements were longer than what appeared on the final release. Because Peter likes to write lyrics over an extended period of time , it was not unusually to try a lot of new parts only to have them discarded as lyrics coalesced. During this time David Rhodes, Tony Levin and Manu Katche all returned to replace or add new parts to the existing versions. By the time August rolled around it was abundantly clear that this project was going to take more than 6 weeks! Some of the songs really began to take shape , "Sledgehammer " "Red Rain", " Don't Give Up" while "Big Time ", "Sixty One ( in Your Eyes)" and "Hear That Voice Again" provided daily challenges. There was also a song titled "Courage" which had a great melody and groove but Peter could never find a lyric that he was satisfied with , so ultimately it never saw the light of day.
At the same time we were experimenting with the arrangements by editing new structures together on half inch. Various iterations were adopted and discarded until there was a consensus . We knew that eventually we would have to edit the multi-tracks , but cutting into the timecode stripe on track 24 would render the master and slave reels associated with the song "un-syncable". Mike Large (Peter's right hand person at Real World ) worked for SSL at that time and would come down to do maintenance. He is super smart and funny and it was always a treat to have him in the studio. He loves a challenge and once we explained our "sync" issues he took it upon himself to research the Adam Smith manual. He discovered that there was an option , buried deep in the preferences that allowed the synchronizer to essentially soft lock over a multi- track edit , without the slave machine stopping , fast forwarding and rewinding until it recognized the next whole timecode frame to sync to. While this preference allowed the machines to stay synced, in truth there was a slight deviation between the two machines. Unless you had something that was rhythmically based coming off the slave machine , one could utilize this to execute the necessary edits without any obvious musical hiccups !
I wanted to jettison the whole idea of a synchronizer and I lobbied hard for adopting the Mitsubishi X850 - a 32 track digital machine I had used in NYC. In my mind it would preserve the analog quality of the original recordings , which in some instances was diminishing due to the excessive number of times the tapes were being played over the heads and provide us with a reliable format. With the current setup , one had 22 tracks per analog reel, track 24 was exclusively assigned for the time code track while track 23 was left intentionally blank to avoid any crosstalk between it and track 24. Peter and Dan were leaving for New York in early September to record horns, piano and some keyboards at the Power Station. My task prior to their trip was to create new digital masters of all of the songs.
To do that meant committing to the agreed multitrack edits on each master and associated slave reels. Utilizing the sync preference that Mike had discovered i set about the task. In some instances it required two to four edits on the master which had to be identically reproduced on each slave reel per song. Once completed I locked the master and the 32 track machine and transferred to the Mitsubishi. I would repeat the same procedure for each slave reel. Then I made new slave reels for Peter and Dan to record to in New York. When they returned from NY , the new and brilliant parts were transferred to the 32 track. Ironically there were certain percussion elements that Peter preferred from the analog reels so we still needed to sync , but at least we had a more reliable system in place .
As we moved into the final portion of the record Peter settled on the majority of the lyrics . Two of the songs underwent significant changes , "in Your Eyes" and "Mercy Street". Peter explored a new atmospheric and sparser approach to the verses of "in Your Eyes" allowing the pre-chorus and chorus more drama. The working title for "Mercy Street" was "Forro" - a Brazilian title - (translation - For All ). I was executing a task on the 32 track that required the vari-speed to be enabled , the result being that the machine was running 10% below nominal pitch. The next song on the reel was "Forro" and as it started all three of us instantly recognized the unusual timbre of the percussion instruments, particularly the triangles. It immediately inspired a fruitful exploration of the track over the next couple of hours and this became the new master version of the song!
By October we were ready to invite Virgin and Geffen Records for a preview of the album. We also welcomed Dave Bottrill to the team. David worked for Dan at his Grant Avenue studio in Hamilton, Ontario. Dave was a vital participant from this point forward, his endless work ethic and musicality were a real boost at this stage. We were still some months away from completion but we had amassed some excellent rough mixes for the playback. Their reaction was so positive that we based all future work on those rough mixes. This was facilitated by the recall feature on the SSL and our extensive notes. From that point forward we never worked on a part without recalling that preferred balance! Kate Bush came a number of occasions to record her spine chilling performance on "Don't Give Up" . We tended to record all of the vocal parts in the control room , sometimes using a combination of headphones and speakers. it was a more intimate and supportive atmosphere for the performer and that usually translated onto the tape. The same was true for guitar, bass and keyboards.
When we got to the mixing stage of the album , there were still minor overdubs to add and further edits to try. Dan had the genius idea to start "Hear That Voice Again" with the chorus and that in turn inspired a slightly different approach to mix. This arrangement was completed by editing the half inch master, so if we decided to do a recall of the mix, then all of the edits had to be executed again! Most of the mixing was completed in February 1986 and then we sequenced and mastered the album with Ian Cooper at The Townhouse Studios in London. I returned to Bath to complete some B-sides for singles and experiment with some 12' inch remixes for extended plays . I finally left Bath in early March, almost 10 months to the day of my arrival!
Personally it was a life changing experience. Dan was gracious to invite me into the project and the challenges it presented allowed me to grow exponentially as a person and engineer. Peter was incredibly generous both as a person and performer and he made me feel welcome from the the first day. We were a competitive group which manifested itself in our daily games of Boules and runs to Solisbury Hill with David Rhodes, PG and myself. There was exceptional humor, compassion and enough creative tension to help maximize our contributions. I cannot imagine my life or career without that experience and the friendships that ensued.