Nestled in a wooded area in New Jersey’s beautiful Skylands country, sits a lone engineer, mastering her way through the latest tracks from legendary artists like Bonnie Raitt to current Grammy nominated Blues album by Bettye LaVette. At the helm is mastering engineer Kim Rosen.
Kim began her professional career as a staff member at a very well known New Jersey studio, but in late 2009, she decided to “dive head first” as she puts it and set up her own studio in Ringwood. Since then she has been successfully building upon her client base with acclaimed credits with musicians from all genres and styles.
Mastering engineers like Kim are the unsung heroes of the recording industry. An average listener may not be tuned into this final step of the equation but it is vital piece which takes a disciplined ear and years of experience to… ahem “master.”
YDKJ had the opportunity to interview Kim about her successful career and find out what is it like to work on high profile acts in her New Jersey studio.
When did you know you wanted to become an engineer and what was the defining moment to start Knack Mastering?
It was 2002 and I hadn’t committed to any sort of college. I always had a love for music and I was curious about the recording industry, but I was working at a deli in my hometown of Northampton, MA without much of an idea what I was going to do with my life. It was there that I made a connection that lead me to an internship at a mastering studio in Tenafly. I moved to NJ with blind faith and started out doing anything that needed to be done at the studio. Cleaning the toilets, answering the phones, taking lunch orders…you name it. In exchange, I was given the opportunity to sit in on mastering sessions and begin learning what it was all about. A fly on the wall kind of thing. This really is the traditional and most valuable way young aspiring audio engineers have learned the craft. It’s been this way for decades and it’s really unfortunate that these types of opportunities, these apprenticeships are becoming more and more rare with the way the industry has been headed…but I digress. From there I was trained to work production, which entailed more of the technical side of mastering…the sequencing of tracks, track IDs, entering CD text information and that sort of thing. I would spend hours and hours at night by myself finalizing projects in the mastering room and listening to all sorts of different music. When I was given the opportunity to try my hand at actually mastering a project, I quickly realized I had a good ear for it and becoming better at it became a passion. I worked as a staff mastering engineer at that studio from 2004 until starting Knack Mastering in 2009.
The defining moment to start Knack was really a sink or swim situation. I was suddenly let go from my studio job after seven years…three months after having my first child and had to make some fast decisions on what to do next. I spent the last seven years of my life learning and developing a real passion for mastering audio. I was pretty overwhelmed. Do I try to find another studio to work at? This seemed like an unlikely option. Do I start my own room? I had made some good contacts throughout my early career and was semi-confident I could get some of the clients I had worked with to continue trusting me with their projects…but what about the gear? I had been used to working with some great analog and digital equipment and that stuff isn’t inexpensive. I got encouragement from one of the engineers I had worked with that I could startup in-the-box, mastering with good plugins and no outboard equipment. So I gave it a shot. I invested in a high-end digital setup and essentially turned my living room into a mastering room. I was getting some decent projects but quickly realized I just wasn’t 100% happy with the work I was doing. I was used to a certain workflow and analog gear was an essential part of how I approached mastering. I took the next leap of faith and used credit cards to invest in some important pieces of analog gear and a good digital/analog audio converters. That was really the moment I started to really define my “sound” and intent as an engineer.
As the business grew I continued to invest back into the business and in 2012 built a dedicated mastering room off the side of my house. It was designed by world-renowned acoustician Chris Pelonis and is where I spend a lot of my life listening to music. It’s awesome.
Having your studio in the Skylands area of New Jersey, are you inspired by the natural surroundings and do you think it has an affect on your mastering style?
Maybe it does. I know I’m certainly relaxed out here (usually). It helps to be able to go outside and give my ears a break and appreciate my surroundings. It’s also nice to be relatively close to New York City. I can get in there when I need to but have the opportunity to feel far away from the hustle and bustle. I made sure when we were working on the design of the mastering room that there’d be windows overlooking the lake we live near. So I definitely took my surroundings into consideration. There is something comforting about having a view of the water.
You have such a diverse list of credits both stylistically and genre specific. Does this make the mastering process more challenging?
I approach every project the same way regardless of genre. The most important job of a mastering engineer is being the first set of objective ears on a project. The artist and production team have spent sometimes months working on an album and are so close to it. When it comes to me, I get to hear it for the first time…on a very high quality full range monitor system and in a room designed for great acoustics. It’s then my job to blend the technical with the artistic without doing anything to harm the initial intent of the artist and the recording. Easy…right? LOL.
On the artistic end an example might be something like helping a rock or punk rock album sound as energetic and exciting as possible. On an acoustic folk album it may be making sure it doesn’t lose any of the beautiful space and depth that was captured in the recording while still ensuring it stands up commercially. On the technical side I need to make sure the recording is going to sound good on a wide range of different listening systems and environments and the actual masters will not cause any issues or delays for tight production schedules.
Beyond the technical knowledge, my personal taste in music is very broad. I have an extensive sonic history in my mind to refer to when making a judgement call on how I want to hear something in mastering. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and my ears above all.
Amazing records are coming through your studio. Not only world renowned artists but critically acclaim acts like The Barr Brothers, Aimee Mann and Ted Leo to name a few. What is it like to work on these great records?
It is so exciting. So many times when I first hear the mixes, they take my breath away. I am lucky to be able to work with some amazingly talented engineers and artists who really value great audio. However, my favorite quote is “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. I’ve worked long and hard to develop the technical and listening skills that have made it possible for me to work on records like these.
Throughout my career I’ve been presented with opportunities to work on a project that would be “the biggest project I ever worked on”. I’d have this voice in my head that said “holy shit…I can’t do this, who do I think I am?…Am I going to ruin this record?”…LOL. Then I would calm down and say to myself “All I can do, is what I do”. Trust your instincts and the client will like it or they won’t. I really feel blessed that I’ve been able to continue working on these incredible records with artists and producers who do trust my instincts and like what I do.
There’s almost a mystery and or mystic when it comes to mastering sound. Why is it so vital for records and artists to go through this final stage?
As I said earlier, it’s the first objective set of ears on the project and the last opportunity to give your recording that final polish before sending it out into the world. It takes an album full of songs and makes sure they flow and fit together as the artist intended. In addition to making subtle sonic changes we also help prepare your final master for a variety of playback formats. We know how to ensure your album sounds its best on Vinyl, iTunes, Spotify, CD or any other format needed and that the final files are created and delivered properly and without error. There is both a very artistic and a very technical side to mastering. Balancing it all is the fun part!
Without naming all of them can you give an estimate of how many New Jersey artist you have worked on over the years?
I work with clients from all over the country and even across the world… but I’d say I must have mastered at least 300 artists from the NJ area over the years, if I were to guess. Sometimes you end up working with NJ artists in a roundabout way. For instance, I do some work for Side One Dummy Records out of Los Angeles and have worked on releases for Brian Fallon and the Horrible Crowes. So, Jersey to LA and back to Jersey!
Is technology hurting or helping the future of mastering audio?
In some ways it helps and in some ways I think it hurts. I feel too many people get hung up on the technical stuff and forget to just use their ears and connect with the music.
I pick the tools that work for me. I mostly rely on my analog gear to get the sound I’m looking for but there are some things that digital does better than analog. So technology is great for professionals who understand that these are simply tools to help achieve specific sonic and artistic goals.
Where I feel technology has the potential to hurt is building a mindset in some to think the computer is there to “do it for them.” Pick a preset and you’re done. Audio engineering is an art form, and like anything else the truly great recordings in our world are created by engineers who’ve devoted their lives to the art. The technology is simply the tool that enables the artist to communicate their vision. The ear is more important than the gear.
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