Key to Keys: Dave Kutch, Mastering

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Dave Kutch, the intrepid mastering engineer who setup a temporary mastering suite in the live room at The Oven to master Alicia Keys’ As I Am, has done it all again for her new record, The Element of Freedom.

Dave Kutch at his mastering desk setup in The Oven's live room.

Dave Kutch at his mastering desk setup in The Oven's live room.

Since As I Am, Kutch has opened his own NYC facility, The Mastering Palace, where he’s mastered records by John Legend, Al Green, Daniel Merriweather, Joe Perry and Erykah Badu, among many others.

To work with Keys this time around, he left his main studio intact and prepped a secondary rig to cart out to The Oven. It’d be daunting for any mastering engineer to work so outside of his element, but Kutch fears not. “You have to trust your ears,” he says, embracing the challenge of listening in new environments.

Here, Kutch takes us behind the scenes into the final stage of production on The Element of Freedom.

The way you mastered As I Am, moving in-house here at The Oven, obviously worked well, since you’re doing it again. When you first got the call, what was the concept for your workflow? Why come out and set up here, when mastering is all about your room?

I said yes to this the first time for As I Am, because I love coming out of my box. I knew this was going to be a big album, so I came out and knew that the live room would be the best place to do this. Sony Mastering had just closed and I’d bought all my gear and was about to set up The Mastering Palace.
The reasons to do it like this, all under one roof, are a combination of convenience and security. The idea was, “Let’s make the records the way we used to make records. Budget isn’t entirely an issue, so let’s do stuff entirely out of the box, like we read about engineers doing the 1970’s and ‘80’s – left of center.” Left of center was, “Let’s mix upstairs, master downstairs, and when it’s done take your stuff and leave.”

Let’s talk about your first time using this process, for As I Am: How did the mastering process change once you were here, working on location?

I knew I’d be working mostly on midfield and near-field speakers. I had two recording studios where we could listen to what we were doing, and four cars in the driveway, so we could listen in our cars.

At the end of the day, we would all sit and listen. When we had a collection of songs, we’d go on a long drive to dinner in Ann’s Range Rover, set the EQ to flat, and Manny and I would take mixing and mastering notes. Then we’d come back here at 11 PM after dinner, recall the mixes and work until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.

Dave Kutch and Manny Marroquin

Dave Kutch and Manny Marroquin

So you were mixing and mastering almost at the same time. How would things actually get finalized?

Once Alicia approved the mix, I would get it and approach it as if I it was final mastering. Then we’d go, “Hmm, it could have used a little of this. Can this be achieved in mastering? Or can Manny pull up the stems and it be addressed that way?” Then I’d go back and do the final mastering.

But we had the freedom and the time to do three or four EQs per song. “Superwoman,” on As I Am, started on 1”, then I transferred it to Digidesign Pro Tools to apply a plug-in, then transferred out of Pro Tools back to 1”. Then, I mastered off the 1” because there was a particular sound I was going for. The joke around the studio was that “Superwoman” kicked my ass. I spent a full day getting the sound I wanted for that song.

Fast forward to this album, The Element of Freedom, I didn’t have the luxury of as long a time frame. I may do one EQ, but other times we’d do three or four EQs, and Alicia would pick out the vibe she was looking for on that song, and I’d go with that.
Ann has overseen the project on a technical/engineering level from beginning to end. They literally tracked drums in here (the live room where the mastering gear is residing) the other night. We pushed things back and said, “Let’s do drums.” Ann is Alicia’s recording engineer. She is the glue that holds this whole process together.

Stylistically, how would you say things are different on Freedom from As I Am?

The last album went with a Motown/Chess Records vibe. I feel this one is hinting at ‘80’s Prince with a modern R&B twist. One of Ann’s biggest contributions is that she collects all kinds of sounds for Alicia to experiment with. On this record and on “As I Am”, she brought in as many old classic keyboards and LinnDrum machines, as possible. She has this huge collection of guitars, Hoffner basses, and a laundry list of classic guitar amps. Alicia would find a software synth in Pro Tools — say a Jupiter 8 pops up — Ann’s like, “Let’s get a real Jupiter 8.”

(l-r) Erik Madrid, Dave Kutch and Stuart White

(l-r) Erik Madrid, Dave Kutch and Stuart White

How are you personally approaching the mastering this time around?

My job is putting the icing on their cake. I work a lot with Manny, his mixes always have very special vibe. He always manages to bring his level of personality to the mixes he works on. I fall in line with that, and make it a little more open — not squash it, not flatten it, not ruin his vision, just give it a little splash of color.

The last time the 1” was an added element, but this time it’s not here. Our deadline has prohibited us the extra time to dabble with the 1” tape. Everything else is the same (in my mastering signal path), just in a different location. This is my duplicate mastering rig so it’s my normal signal chain.

The only thing I added was the new Dangerous Bax EQ. I stole it from Bob and Chris on the last day of AES (October ’09). I had the prototype to this one three or four months ago, just loose knobs and no detent. The final version is great. I fell in love with the 60 Hz punch. It’s tight and doesn’t get sloppy. It’s a fun new toy that adds a totally new color I to my box of crayons.

Is 60 Hz a troublesome frequency?

Never troublesome, but 80 Hz is where you get that tight punch. 60 Hz is where you get that old classic foot feeling, and below 35 Hz is where the slop comes in. Depending on your EQ, that 60 Hz can be nice and thick and fun, or thick and mushy. With the Bax the bottom end gets thick and tight. I used it a lot on this record.

What’s your approach to mastering that makes you right for what’s going on at The Oven?

You have to have the right blend of personality, talent and work ethic to fit in with artists like this. Not just Alicia but also Ann, Manny, Tony, and Kerry. They are all artists. It’s a building full of extremely talented people with artistic personalities and we all have to have a similar vision of what the music should sound like.

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  • Heart

    Thank you ever so much Dave Kutch! Your responses make the reader “Feel” and comprehend what you are talking about, without having any expert knowledge of
    mastering techniques! Through your comments especially, it seems as though I
    was right there with you going through the entire process. It is a rare privilege to see the music (mastering process) through your eyes/ears. Understandably, I can see how your particular skill set was such a valuable
    asset to the making of both “As I Am” and “The Element of Freedom”.
    You mentioned several times the expression.. “Out of the Box” Which in itself denotes the very idea “Freedom”… Clearly a crucial element to the process
    of making the sound come to life!

    *They should nickname you “Clutch/Klutch” because you really know how to “Shift gears” and come through for you clients… No matter what! 😉

  • Heart

    Thank you ever so much Dave Kutch! Your responses make the reader “Feel” and comprehend what you are talking about, without having any expert knowledge of
    mastering techniques! Through your comments especially, it seems as though I
    was right there with you going through the entire process. It is a rare privilege to see the music (mastering process) through your eyes/ears. Understandably, I can see how your particular skill set was such a valuable
    asset to the making of both “As I Am” and “The Element of Freedom”.
    You mentioned several times the expression.. “Out of the Box” Which in itself denotes the very idea “Freedom”… Clearly a crucial element to the process
    of making the sound come to life!

    *They should nickname you “Clutch/Klutch” because you really know how to “Shift gears” and come through for you clients… No matter what! 😉