We had the pleasure of talking with Kim as a part of our ongoing 20 Questions series in which we interview top engineers and producers about their careers and day-to-day lives. Continue below to learn more about how Kim got started in the industry, find out what song defines her mastering work, and get details on the tube amplifier she created with her husband.
1. When did you first discover your love for music?
Music is part of all of my earliest memories as a child. I was way into dance and theater and there was always a radio or record player on. I had the good fortune of my extended family members exposing me to pretty diverse music.
My paternal grandmother was a huge Willie Nelson fan. There’s a wonderful story of me pulling myself up to stand and dancing to “On The Road Again” before I could even walk. My maternal grandmother loved big band music like Glen Miller Orchestra. I’m pretty sure I knew all the words to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” at the age of five. My grandfather loved Whitney Houston, my father Van Halen and Journey, my uncles and aunts were into Steely Dan and Talking Heads, while my mom loved Eric Clapton and Basia. Still to this day, I think about my family when I hear their favorite music.
My parents divorced when I was six. Music became a way of coping throughout my life, and of “being with” the people I missed. That thing to cheer me up when I was sad or the thing that let me wallow in my sadness, which sometimes is just what you need. Music, in my life, has been about deep feelings. Over the years, as I’ve developed as an engineer, I’ve learned the sound of a recording can have as much emotional impact as the song itself.
2. How did you get started in the world of audio?
I was unfocused and kind of lost in my late teens/early 20s. I took a few classes at a community college, but had no real direction. I always did well and had an interest in science, but didn’t have any real conviction. All my peers were graduating and I felt like a bum because I hadn’t accomplished anything (except for a righteous amount of partying). I started thinking about the music business and what happens in the studio, more specifically. I really had no idea about the industry or what opportunities there could be.
I was working at a deli in my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. An acquaintance of mine, Stu Getz, heard from my mother that I was interested in audio and put me in touch with his friend Alan Douches. Alan had a studio in New Jersey and just so happened to be looking for an assistant. We met and he offered me the position. I had absolutely ZERO experience and I think he liked it that way. As he put it, he “wouldn’t have to un-teach me everything I learned in audio school.”
I packed my stuff, moved to New Jersey, and started learning about mastering and working production for his studio, West West Side Music. I was twenty-two years old. It was a brand new world! I instantly knew this was a great place to be. Alan was very busy, booked four weeks in advance… It was exciting. Lots of metal, punk, and hardcore. Within two years, I was mastering lower budget, off-hours projects. Some cool records that I’m still really proud of.
I worked in the office doing billing and scheduling, re-organized old projects, tapes. I started a new backup system. I did whatever needed to be done. Cleaned the toilets, kept things stocked. I’d work all day doing the production and assistant work for Alan, and then I’d start my shift mastering around 6 PM. There were a lot of late nights. I loved it. Those years of late nights prepared me for the work I do today.
3. If you had to name a few of your favorite sounding records, what would they be?
This is such a complicated answer. There are albums that I love the sound of for nostalgic reasons. Then there are albums I love because I identify them as “great sounding” albums. I guess you could say pre-and-post mastering engineering ears. I have at a minimum 50 albums that run through my head when I hear this question. Which ones do I pick? Thriller, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, OK Computer, 1984, Graceland, Hourglass, Nick of Time, Random Access Memories. There’s so many that I’m leaving out.
4. What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without?
My D.W. Fearn VT-7 compressor. It was one of the first pieces of analog gear I invested in when I started my own studio. I originally attempted mastering in the box, but I just couldn’t get projects sounding the way I wanted them to. From the very first project I used the VT-7 on, I was hooked. It touches every single project I work on. It really helps everything sound “finished” to my ears.
5. Any other compressors that you really love?
My D.W. Fearn VT-7 is a cornerstone of my chain. I’m hardly using it for compression and more for gain staging. I often reach for my Pendulum Audio 6386 for louder more rocking records that need more energy and glue.
6. What about EQ? Do you have a favorite?
I just got a pair of Pultec EQM-1S3s. They are blowing my mind every day!
7. Are there any pieces of gear you consider “dream equipment?" Maybe something you’d love to have, but just haven’t pulled the trigger on?
I’ve been thinking about getting new Lavry Gold A/D to audition in my space. I worked with them at West West Side, but it’s been a long time. I’m currently using their Blues. I’ve never really been one to want new gear all the time. There’s something important you learn when you dig deep into the gear you have to get to the result you want. Using things in the right combination, in just the right way. Finding a trick that you hadn’t tried before.
I think it’s important to have a steady hand on your mastering chain. Changing things frequently keeps you in a state of learning instead of discovery. Those things sound like they’re the same, but they’re very different. In the end, the magic comes from the person turning the knobs, and knowing which knobs to turn, not necessarily the gear itself.
8. What about the mastering process keeps you inspired?
Working with clients and building relationships. New clients, returning clients… I am constantly humbled when someone finds their way to me. It’s an honor and a privilege to be chosen to work on an artist’s music. I can’t begin to express how wonderful it feels to look back on the thousands of projects I’ve had the pleasure to work on and feel totally fulfilled with the sound and body of work.
9. What’s your favorite local restaurant? Do you have a go-to meal?
A cheeseburger with the works. Sweet potato fries. I’m always on the hunt for a great one. The top spot currently belongs to Shake Shack. Someday I’ll get to HUSK in Nashville. I hear their burger is dreamy.
10. Who makes the best cup of coffee in NJ?
Me and my trusty Nespresso machine!
11. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not working on records?
We have three kids. Need I go on? A 23-year-old, an 11-year-old, and an eight-year-old. I am currently a part-time virtual school coordinator. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. However, I am grateful to have the flexibility of my studio being attached to my home. I’m there for my younger kids when they need me, even if it means working a late-night to stay on top of my schedule. I’ll work on a weekend if it’s imperative, but I’ve always been good with taking the weekend pause from work to really connect with my family. It’s super important to my mental health.
I like cooking (ribs are a summer favorite) and baking. Quarantine has really got me into making some killer homemade bagels and éclairs. I also like fixing things; I’ve repaired my fridge, oven, and washing machine more than a few times. No matter what I’m doing there’s always, always music playing.
12. You also have started Whitestone Audio, which makes the P331 tube amplifier. How did that come about?
After going out on my own and researching gear to add to my new room, I realized just how expensive the way I worked was going to be! I like using analog gear for the natural sound of its circuit, and its gain sections. Layering these subtle textures is key to the way I approach mastering.
So, my husband Dave had an idea for a custom piece of gear that could give me a lot of tonal options for gain staging and textures without having to purchase a whole room full of gear. We worked with a very talented electrical engineer to help us develop the features and sound that we envisioned.
When our good friend Gil Griffith, who owns Waves Distro, heard about the unit, he insisted we make it available to the masses. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but after five years we brought our first product to market in 2018.
13. Something else you do in your spare time is work with the Recording Academy. Can you tell us what it’s like to be a part of that?
I’m in my second term as a governor for the NY Chapter. It’s been a huge learning experience. They are making great strides to ensure the members represent the diversity in our music industry. There is still a lot of work to do. But as new generations become creators, they can and should take a seat at the table so all artists get the recognition they deserve. As a full time working engineer, sometimes it’s hard to balance the minimal commitment of time to be involved, but it’s worth it to invest in the future of music creators.
14. What’s an album you’ve had on repeat in 2020?
Emily King, Scenery.
15. What’s the last good book you read?
I’m not much of a reader. I have a hard time putting down a good book, which leads to me procrastinating on other important tasks in a severely neglectful way. The last books I read are Kim Gordon's Girl In A Band and Jeff Tweedy's Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back.
16. What’s a favorite movie of yours?
Either The Big Lebowski or Interstellar.
17. Do you have a particular engineer that you look up to? Maybe one that you use as a role model?
I will always revere my mentor, Alan Douches. Without that start, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now. I can’t count the times I’ve turned over an album– I love to see the same names. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Greg Calbi is one engineer whose work I’ve always felt drawn to. Also, in every interview of his I had seen while coming up, I’d identify with his approach and the way he explained his method. Watching those interviews helped me feel confident that I was on the right path. It all came full circle when I finally had the opportunity to meet and hang out with Greg. There’s nothing more centering than discovering your role model is not only a gifted engineer, but a humble and generous human. Greg and his wife Dana are now friends. They’re both awesome humans.
18. What’s a piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to get into the industry today?
There are no shortcuts. The time it takes to gain experience cannot be rushed. Technical knowledge is important, but it’s not a replacement for the most important skills, listening, and feeling. Intuition is a powerful thing when used intentionally. Sometimes what is technically “correct” can get in the way of a magical sounding album or song.
19. What would be your dream client to work with? Any artist or band you’d love to do work for?
Steve Winwood, Dave Matthews Band, and HER.
20. If you had to use one song or album as an example of your work, what would it be and why?
I guess I’ll have to say Bonnie Raitt’s Dig in Deep album. More specifically Track Two, which is a cover of the INXS song “Need You Tonight.” If I remember correctly, the low end was a little bit of a challenge to get just right with the octave bass effect. I was being SUPER conservative with my approach. I mean… This is a Bonnie Raitt album. It’s going to live on in her discography for all eternity. I can’t fuck it up. To say I was stressed out and full of self-doubt would be an understatement. I actually started smoking again when I was working on it.
When I sent in my first go at it, the feedback from Bonnie was three words: “Needs more sack.” Knowing exactly what that means as it relates to a specific recording is part of your job as a mastering engineer. That’s where the experience comes in. That next revision better deliver more sack! They were happy with version two, and the album went on to be my first Grammy® nomination for Best Engineered Album Non-Classical. Incredible.
The reason I selected this record as an example of my work is because the mixes were perfect. PERFECT. I’ve always felt my job as a mastering engineer is to deliver a master that sounds better than what was supplied to me, however subtly. How can I make a mix sound three percent better without having any part of it sound three percent worse? That’s how I approach the job, and it’s different for every project.
I’ve often heard people talk about how easy it must be to master a perfect mix. I think it’s harder! Almost everything you try makes a perfect mix sound worse. I absolutely have to work harder at finding the perfect chain, just the right combination of gear and settings that takes a perfect mix to a higher level without leaving fingerprints behind. I think that record is a great example of this.
If you want to hear some of Kim Rosen's mastering work, including the aforementioned Bonnie Raitt track, check out this selection of songs from her discography below.