I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Madigan who, for nearly seven years, has been the front of house engineer (and studio mixer) for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, Crosby, Stills and Nash (CSN), as they tour as a threesome and in various solo and duo iterations. Known for more than four decades of exquisite harmonies rooted in iconic songs such as “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “For What It’s Worth,” “Woodstock” and “Teach Your Children,” CSN’s songs resonate with generations of music fans.
With just a few days between North American and European tours with Graham Nash, Kevin agreed to an interview along the canals near his Venice Beach home. In his soft Irish lilt he generously shared stories of the road and from his own career journey.
[MM] How did you first approach being CSN’s FOH engineer, and how do you meet the expectations of an audience who initially heard the band on vinyl in the 60s and 70s?
[Kevin] The CSN audience is really attached to those songs, and how they sound is almost hardwired into people. They know just how they want to hear those beautiful harmonies and that rich, lush music. So, right from the start, I was very careful to respect that. I was already very familiar with the songs. Knowing that a lot of the audience has been around as long as CSN, I had to consider the sound levels. I didn’t want the mix to be lackluster but had to be careful not to get too loud either—it’s not an audience that craves loud music. There are, of course, rock songs in the set, but there’s always the harmony of their vocals. It’s a delicate balance to try to get it right for everybody attending their show. But that’s the job.
[MM] Is your goal to emulate the familiar sound of the albums?
[Kevin] The goal is to give the audience what they expect, but a bit more than just replaying a record. It has to have a dynamic live impact, and we’re very lucky because their band can do that, and play so well, that sometimes I feel it’s my job just to make sure nothing goes wrong technically. You want the audience to have a sense that they’ve been at a show—at an event. It needs to be an emotional experience, but a relatable experience.
[MM] How did you begin working with CSN?
[Kevin] Dave Shadoan at Sound Image put me in touch with CSN. I met with Stanley Johnston, who has been CSN’s studio engineer and producer for a long, long time, Rance Caldwell, who has been at monitors for almost as long as CSN has been around, and with Stephen Stills, and they asked me to join as their FOH Engineer. Stanley has been involved with them for maybe 40 years and has a tremendous understanding of the music. I was really honored. He came out on the road with us for a couple weeks in the very beginning, which was great. Initially, he’d mix the vocals and I’d mix the band, which gave me such a head start, because he literally knew every nuance of every song they ever played. Luckily, we approach mixing in much the same way and just had a great time working together. We’ve been great friends since then.
[MM] Do you find vocals more challenging than the instruments to mix?
[Kevin] CSN’s vocal harmonies are extremely dynamic. It’s the communication of those harmonies and the lyrical content that’s at the heart of their sound. Getting that right and getting the feel right is the driving force behind the whole show. They’re good performers, but even slight movement in the vocal balances can throw it off, and it takes quite a bit of riding the faders to keep everything in place. It’s kind of three fingers on CSN faders for me all the time—with my other hand mixing everything else. Things change pretty quickly within verses or choruses of a song, and you have to work quickly on the vocals to maintain that balance. There’s also a great backing band that’s really solid night after night; their fantastic techs and the guys from Sound Image, who all do a ton of work in the background, all contributing to success of the show.
Of course, it’s vital to have a sound system that delivers those gorgeous vocal harmonies with the beauty and clarity of how they’re being performed on stage. We use the JBL VTX system and Crown I-Tech HD amplifiers supplied by Sound Image. I want a system to sound like a really good set of big studio main monitors, but with a lot more impact, and VTX gives us that. I think we were the first tour to take out the VTX V20 and S25s, and I spent time with Paul Bauman over at JBL in Northridge listening to the new speakers and working on the different configurations to be used on the tour. I was impressed from the first time I heard them. The definition was striking—just what I was looking for.
[MM] Touring with CSN takes you to a wide range of venues. Has the VTX system been easily scalable?
[Kevin] On the CSN tours, we can go from a large-scale audience to a few thousand, and finding the right system to carry, one that covers every possible situation for us without any problems, is one of the main reasons for using the VTX system. We knew it was the right thing for wherever we went. We could fly it very easily and quickly, it’s lightweight and versatile enough for single-point hangs in theaters, doesn’t take up too much space and can also work very well for amphitheaters/sheds. One of the things I really liked was the possibility of integrating the subs into a flown array. We use that quite a bit in theaters with long balconies to effectively split the array into two hangs, covering the balcony and floor with the added benefit of having really well-timed aligned subs. It has more than enough horsepower to do what we need and cover the distances we need it to. Plus, the sound is fantastic, and that’s the bottom line.
[MM] Serving as both a recording engineer and live mixer for CSN, do you have a preference between the two roles?
[Kevin] Absolutely. Mixing live, there’s a more instant magic and feeling. It’s participating in something that’s right in the moment. You can have a lot of fun and do really incredible work in a studio, but it can sometimes take a long time to arrive there. Of course, when the musicians are great and they’re all playing well together, recording and mixing is a joy. Things can come together in one or two takes, and that’s fantastic, but I love how live is right there, right then and you can immediately feel the audience’s reaction. There’s nothing like it.
[MM] Have you always been so passionate about music?
[Kevin] I grew up in Longford, a small town in the middle of Ireland and had a great start in my musical exposure at home from a young age with music by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, AC/DC. My own first album was Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf; someone bought for me about age 5 or 6. I still have it. I also tortured guitars myself for a while. While living in Dublin, I started doing local gigs, working for sound companies and mixing. I went off to college for a while to study acoustics and electronics, and ended up working for a few years in the corporate world with a few different acoustic consultancies. I was involved with a lot of diverse projects, like venue and recording studio design as well as residential and industrial developments, but far more tedious was noise measurement, the bread and butter of that industry, technical report writing, and sometimes, litigation. Before long, I decided I really wanted to get back into music—and back into mixing gigs.
[MM] Where did you study acoustics and electronics? Has that education been beneficial in your pro audio work?
[Kevin] I went to Cambridge from 1999 to 2002 and loved learning about the technical aspects of acoustics and music. Acoustics and sound fascinated me. Engineering mathematics, less so in the beginning, but I had a great professor who actually turned my understanding of that subject around. What I learned there, and in my later related work, have been invaluable; the technical knowledge has enabled me to solve acoustical issues both in the studio and on tour.
[MM] In the years before CSN, what other artists did you tour with?
[Kevin] Early on in Ireland, I worked with lots of local and international bands and artists in the local venues, clubs and festivals there. But there have been other artists I’ve worked with, and still do, for extended periods of time. I had a great time traveling the world doing all sorts of concerts with the band Eels, starting with a very cool and very successful tour with a string quartet. I also spent quite a bit of time touring internationally with my Scottish pals in Mogwai, Lucinda Williams, Phil Lesh, Ray LaMontagne, Mastodon and Smashing Pumpkins, all of which I loved.
[MM] Reflecting on where you are in your career, did those tours provide a foundation for working with CSN?
[Kevin] Yes, but actually, it has been the variety of things. Just being involved in so many types of music, never saying “no” to anything—from orchestral to pop, rock and everything in between—prepares you to take on different kinds of music. I think it also relates to music that I listen to—I try not to limit what I listen to; I like such a broad range of music. Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that you have to love music and love listening to all different types of music; then you can adapt to anything you want.
Many thanks to Kevin for sharing his insights on working with Crosby, Stills and Nash, both on the road and in the studio! Are you a front of house or studio engineer? How do you start the process when working with a new artist? Share your experience in the comments.