Kim Rosen built up her mastering skills and reputation at West West Side Music, before branching off in 2009 to set up her own Knack Mastering in Ringwood, NJ. Since going out on her own, she' s worked with Title Fight, Sarah Jaffe, Jeff Bridges, Braid, The Barr Brothers, Bettye LaVette, Basko Believes, a vinyl remaster for Superdrag's Headtrip in Every Key and even a Johnny Cash remake of " Bitter Tears".
What led you to be a mastering engineer?
I was young. I didn't have any kind of college going on. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. I had a lot of music in my youth — [mainly] musicals and performing and a lot of show tunes.
What kind of instruments did you play?
I didn't. I sang and I tap danced for twelve years. There was a lot of music in my family, and I always loved it. When I got around the age where my peers were already graduating from college and I had done essentially nothing, I thought it would be a good time to figure out a profession. I knew nothing about audio engineering, but I was interested in it. I started thinking about going to Berklee [College of Music].
You'd have to major in an instrument as well.
I didn't even get as far as applying. At around the same time, someone I knew from my hometown, Northampton, MA, was asking what I was up to. I told him I wanted to get into the music industry, and he put me in touch with Alan Douches [Tape Op #31]. Alan was looking for an intern and preferred someone who he could train from the ground up. I was excited for the opportunity and moved to NJ. I went in there knowing nothing. Alan wrote down step-by-step instructions for what to do in Pro Tools, how to sequence and prepare files and everything. I started catching on to the production side of things really fast.
What were the hardest learning curves for you?
Going in and deciding what I wanted to do. There was an engineer [Jesse Cannon] there at night doing some tracking and mixing. I didn't go in knowing I wanted to master; I just wanted to be involved in whatever was happening at the studio. I remember assisting a session with Jesse, and it was this crazy young band. I remember thinking, "I can't deal with this." I didn't want to hang with a bunch of guys and babysit or micromanage them. I spent a lot of time at night listening in the mastering room and doing production work, bouncing projects down and finalizing things. I loved listening to all different kinds of music. That's when I started getting into mastering. Within a year and a half I was taking on my own projects.
So when projects came through the door, would it be like, "Do you want to work with a new person, or work with Alan?"
There was so much volume going through that studio, so there was a lot of opportunity. Bands would come in with a few songs, and they trusted Alan when he told them I could master. I'd work the day shift doing production, then Alan would leave and I'd stay all night doing masters. At first it wasn't much, but it got to be a lot and I'd be there until one or two in the morning mastering. That's what you do. You go in on the weekends. That's the best way to learn, by working as much as possible. You learn the most when you're getting in there and making mistakes.
When I'm hiring a mastering engineer I want somebody who's already made a thousand of those mistakes.
You're always learning. Every project I work on, even today, is different. New technology, new ideas. People who don't have much experience can sometimes approach music in a very abstract way that nobody else ever thought of before. Back then all I had were my ears. My goal then was the same as now: make the recording sound better without screwing anything up. You've just got to use your ears. That's the big hurdle, knowing how to listen.
How would you help someone improve his or her listening skills?
It would be to listen to a lot of different kinds of music, even music that's not to your taste. I remember the first time I recognized reverb or delay on a snare. It had always been there, but I'd never actually recognized it in something I'd heard a thousand times before. I really don't think I could explain to someone how to listen better. My best advice would be to listen in the same place, in the same environment, a lot. Then you're getting the same feedback every single time, and you can start to make sense and interpret.
What kind of advice did Alan give you?
I try to remember what I was taught, but there was no real instruction. I just watched and absorbed, and then came up with my own way of doing it. In the early days I'd have a really hard time. I'd get a less than stellar mix, and I didn't know how to get it where I wanted it. I would ask if Alan could master it and let me watch him. He'd work on it and then I'd go back to it at night, do my own thing, and try to match what he did. It's a lot about knowing how far you can take something. Much of the time you're limited by what you're given. Being able to say, "Okay, this is it. I'm done," and not spending three more hours mastering is key. You have to know when it's really as good as it can get.
You've got to stop somewhere.
In those early days, I probably spent longer than I needed to; but that's something you learn with time.
Did Alan QC [Quality Control] your work initially?
Yep, just about everything I did, in the beginning. I remember the first time I mastered something on my own. I think it was a single for a friend of mine who was an electronic dance music producer. He sent me this EDM track, just one song. I mastered a couple of versions of it, and I must have spent three or four hours on it. I was totally zoned in. I gave it to my friend; he loved it and thought it was awesome. I remember leaving the project up and open for Alan to listen to, because he wanted to hear it. I was nervous about what he might say. I came in the next day for work late in the afternoon. He called me into the control room and handed me a glass of wine. He said, "Cheers to your first successful mastering session!" Then he gave me a pair of Sennheiser headphones, which I've had ever since. HD 580s. Good reference.
That seems like a really valuable way to start off your career.
Yeah. He's got a really great, and well-deserved, reputation. There were a lot of different genres of music going through; but he always had, and still has, his finger on the pulse of metal. I'll always be extremely grateful to Alan for giving me the opportunity to find, and now actually do, what I love every day.
How long did you work at West West Side Music?
Seven years. 2002 through 2009.
What prompted moving and opening your own place?
It was all of a sudden. In hindsight, it was time to go out and do my own thing. But it was scary. There's a lot financially to invest in your own mastering room. I figured I'd start out mastering in the box. I got a lot of encouragement from my clients telling me that I could do things that way. There are plenty of people who can master in the box and are great with plug-ins, but I wasn't able to do what I wanted at all. I broke out the credit cards, scoured eBay, and built my chain little by little. It doesn't take much. Good converters and the right pieces, put together the right way.
You built a building on your property right behind your home?
Well, at first it was in my living room. I'd wake up, and there it was. It went great, and the business was growing, so I figured, "Let's build a room." It's attached to the side of the house. It's a great room. It has windows!
Do you have many attended sessions?
No. But that seems to be the trend these days. People used to love it. It used to be that you had to bring the tapes in. Now there's no bringing anything. It's instant. It's always last minute. Mixing or tracking "took too long." The label wants it in a few days, or a few hours. It's not even scheduled ahead of time. It's all unattended. In my opinion, it's better for the client to listen in their own environment anyway. There aren't many people who can go into a mastering room they've never been in, know what they're hearing, and be able to make good judgment calls. Some people can, but for most people it's not what they're used to. I'd rather have the client listen on their car stereo, or home stereo; wherever they're used to listening to. They'll make better calls on what I'm doing, and they'll be happier with the final product. That's the goal.
What kind of monitors are you using?
I have ProAc 140 Mk2s. I love them. I also use the little Pelonis [Sound Model] 42s for referencing. I started off with Alon 1s, which are an older speaker. They worked for about a year or so, but I really needed to take a step up. I went and listened to the 140s, and they were it. Just perfect. I listened to the more expensive ProAcs as well. They sounded good, but I felt some kind of connection with these speakers. Speakers are a really personal thing. The most important thing is that you're intimately familiar with whatever you use.
What are some of the key pieces in your rack?
I have a Fearn VT-7 [compressor], which is the cornerstone. I have an Avalon AD 2055, the non- mastering version of their parametric EQ. It's a pretty soft EQ, but there's something about how it works with the Fearn that's really nice. I also have a Pendulum PL-2 [peak limiter], and a pair of Lil FrEQs from Empirical Labs. Converters make a huge difference. I have Lavry Blues. Then there's the Metric Halo interface that's kind of the central nervous system. It handles my routing and monitor control duties. There's always a wish list, but I don't really equate lots of gear with doing better work. It might enable me to work more efficiently. If I want to patch something out, I currently patch it out behind the desk. I can bypass the Avalon, but I can't bypass the Fearn. So if I really want it out, which I rarely ever do, I physically patch it out. But, for me, there's something about everything that goes through my chain that works for me. I also have a TC PowerCore 6000 [DSP processor]. It's great, but I use it very little. It's nice to have if I need M/S [Mid/Side processing].
When my clients are asking me to recommend a mastering person, they ask who might like their band. I feel like it doesn't really matter.
It doesn't matter, but it does. Even if it's not something that you'd listen to on your off time, it needs to be something that you vibe with or something that you can find some kind of a connection with. I might not listen to hardcore or punk rock all the time, but I can certainly connect with it when I work on it. [I'm able] to find that energy and rawness of a live performance. Knowing that I've worked on music like theirs before might be enough to make them confident that I'll know what to do.
Craig: Is there a style that you feel like you're really well suited for?
I'm well suited for really great mixes! That's what makes me happy and gets me going on a session; mixes that sound like I don't want to do anything! Even when I don't want to do much, those are the moments that really push me as a mastering engineer; to find a way to do something while doing nothing. Early in my career, I'd always thought how easy it must be to work on a nearly perfect mix. I've found it's just a different challenge. How do you elevate that sound without messing up the mix, the imaging, and the dynamics? There are people on the other side that send tracks to mastering and want it to sound different. They want to get that feeling like, "Oh, my gosh. They just made it into a completely different record." I'm not about that, unless I'm specifically asked to do it. I assume the mix comes in as it was intended to be.
When I send something to mastering, I've got it really close. I just want them to double-check and assemble it.
Sometimes I'll go to changing the settings on my converters. There are settings on my Lavry Blues: analog saturation and digital saturation. You can turn that on or off so it clips them more, and then I can bring in my PL-2 to keep it from clipping. Things like that don't involve adding EQ or compression, but it's still having an effect and doing something good. A lot of times, that's what I'll play with on those occasions when I don't want to do much, but I want to do something to elevate it in some way.
What are some of the things that would be good advice for people building a studio?
Hire your acoustician early in the process. We didn't enlist the help of an acoustician until after we'd planned on the location of the room and the size. We did a lot of research... but if you're building a studio or a room, and you're able to connect with somebody to help you design the inside, do that before you build the room and put in the studs. Figure out where the doors are, where the windows are, and what kind of floor you'll use. Because it's [my workspace] attached to the house, there's a door that goes into the house, and there's also a door that goes from the studio to the outside. We naturally put them in places that made sense to us. When we handed it over to Chris Pelonis, who helped us design it, he asked, "Can you move the door?" We said, "No, we can't." We could have just moved the door when we were building and put it farther back in the room. Once we said no, he was like, "Okay. I'll just work with what I've got." We're just about done with the treatments and putting everything in. I'm in the room and doing good work. That's a testament to really knowing your space. One thing I get from a lot of clients who do things themselves is way too much low-end. To me, that's a flag that they're doing things in a space where they're just not hearing it. Your biggest budget should be on your room acoustics.
How do you deal with revisions?
The good thing is how I start a project... I start with one or two songs. I go through revisions with those initial tracks, until the client is happy. Sometimes there will be no revisions on the initial mastering. Sometimes there will be, and then I have a better idea about how they're expecting the project to sound. If there's one round of changes, I do it for free. Anything beyond that gets billed hourly. I can't remember any time that it's added more than an hour of extra time. I always process two pairs of tracks. When I'm recording in, I process my mastering, and then I process a set of tracks without any final peak limiting. If they want a small EQ change on some track, I'll bring up the track that's not peak limited and make that change in the box. Then I'm done. If they want a broader change across the board, such as having everything a little bit louder, then I'll recall my settings and do it that way.
How do you deal with the business of running this, plus dealing with the clients and the work coming in...
It's all me! That is what working at the studio really prepared me for. I wore so many hats there and was so busy. I'd be there at 9 or 10 in the morning doing production work, office work, billing, scheduling... everything. Now I'm turning a corner where I really need help. Answering emails the right way can take a big chunk out of your day! I don't tend to have problems with billing. The way I have it set up for the majority of clients is, "Here's your invoice; when you pay me, I'll give you your full sequence for review." But that's also a hard thing to wrap my head around. Like most mastering engineers, I'm kind of a control freak. I'd rather know that I'm the one doing it, and that it won't have to get redone because something got screwed up.
Craig: What do you think about mastering shootouts?
I love them! All I can do is what I do. If you send me a track, and say that you're sending it to other mastering engineers, I'm going to master it the same way as if you hadn't told me that.
Craig: Do you charge?
No. I'll do a free test master for new clients. There are plenty of people that don't like that; but if you've never worked with me, that's the best way for me to show you what I can do. Yes, it's better to do the whole album. I get it. But I can master one track for you, sure! I've gone up against engineers at some well- known mastering facilities and gotten the gig.
That's a good sign
Sometimes you don't get the gig. Sometimes you're not the right fit. I want the client to be happy with the master. There are plenty of great engineers out there.
Do you give them the full track?
Yeah. I've thought about doing just the first 45 seconds, but it's almost more work. I don't care. If you're going to try to pull one over on me and send each track to a different engineer to get your album mastered, more power to you. Karma will suck for you, and that's okay.
Are you in touch with any other mastering engineers you talk shop with?
Yeah, JJ Golden [at Golden Mastering] who does mastering and cutting, is such a nice guy. Jeff Lipton [Tape Op #34] at Peerless is a friend, along with Maria Rice who works there. She's awesome. Cameron Henry here at Welcome to 1979 has been a huge help for me as I refine the way I master for vinyl. So much knowledge about the vinyl format has been lost over the years, so with the recent resurgence you really need to know how to do it right. Cameron knows what he's doing, and what it takes to make sure something sounds fantastic on vinyl. I know a few engineers, but really nobody that I talk with on a regular basis. We're kind of in our caves and we do our work. That's why coming out here [to Welcome to 1979's Recording Summit] is really nice. You get to see other engineers — not just mastering engineers — and make connections.
Last year you got to meet Ryan Freeland here. Is that what led to working with him?
It happened because of this summit last year. I was on a panel, and Ryan was the engineer you were going to interview. He was checking out the summit website ahead of time, checked out my stuff, and emailed me. He said that he'd be interested to hear some of my mastering on his mixes and sent me a test master. He was like, "All right, your mastering is better than mine. I'd love to send you some projects." That was it! The bread and butter of what I do, and the most enjoyable part of my work, are the relationships with the engineers that I work with on a repeat basis.