Regal Hearing: Q&A with Dave Kutch of the Mastering Palace

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The next time you’re on a stroll uptown, keep your eyes open for a firehouse on West 121st Street — then open up your ears. Put those senses together, and they’ll reveal something unexpected inside.

The first surprise is that this classic building transformed 10 years ago into The Mastering Palace, a prolific two-room facility spearheaded by six-time GRAMMY nominated engineer Dave Kutch. Then comes the second source of wonder, which is the ambitious music that arrives at your eardrums there – an array of original artists that are blazing trails in rap, pop, rock and genres that seem to elude description.

But that doesn’t mean Kutch’s clients are all far out on the indie fringe. Many of them are adventurous stars with a penchant for platinum including Beyoncé, Jill Scott, Miley Cyrus, Solange, Chance the Rapper, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, Rae Sremmurd, Die Antwoord and Fifth Harmony. His colleagues at The Mastering Palace also sport clients who score big while taking chances, including Tatsayu Sato (A Tribe Called Quest, Danny Brown, A$AP Mob), and Mark Santangelo (Metallica, Slipknot).

How do you get to do what Kutch has done for a decade straight? Hanging up his own shingle came after years of hard work, graduating from an assistant engineer at Tiki Recording Studios and The Hit Factory, to mastering at Masterdisk and Sony Studios. His big break came courtesy of Alicia Keys’ engineer Ann Mincieli (founder/owner of Jungle City) and producer Kerry Brothers, who got Kutch onboard to master Keys’ 2007 As I Am in innovative fashion, working onsite at Keys’ Oven Studios on Long Island.

Turns out, not only had Kutch honed an expert touch for mastering at that time, but also a fierce independent streak that meant taking a big chance. Ten years later it appears that the risk of establishing The Mastering Palace has paid off — not just for Kutch, but for the risky artists that depend on his team to perfect their own musical dreams.

Studio 1 at The Mastering Palace, designed by Martin Pilchner, is an enlightened part of Harlem.

Dave, many of the projects that you’re working on are decidedly up-to-the-minute. What would you say makes the music that you’re mastering “modern”?

The more progressive artists are disregarding both radio and genre format, as well as traditional song structure. They’re doing something completely different — still maintaining melody, but changing the way songs are put together.

What do you think is allowing them to do that now?

I don’t think they were ever not allowed to do that before. But Chance the Rapper, the ASAP crew, the Odd Future crew, they’ve gotten bored of the norm and done their own thing. Obviously, it landed. They found an audience that wanted that thing: music that was new and different.

What are you hearing in the work of the next wave of artists, from a sonic standpoint?

It’s a combo – it ranges from great to not-great. They might have a talented mixing engineer, but maybe they didn’t have a great tracking engineer recording their vocals. Regardless of how good a mixing engineer may be, if you give them vocals that are recorded poorly and distorted, there’s not much you can do.

That’s a common thread: vocal quality has suffered. It’s a shame, because if someone is a strong vocalist, that’s the hardest thing to record. Often they’re recording on their own, and there’s things you can’t do at home.

How does your job change when you’re mastering for your platinum clients — elite artists like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, John Legend?

These are people that have an engineer who’s with them the moment they want to create something from scratch. And not just any engineer, but someone who’s been with them for a while, who’s made a lot of records — someone with incredible skills and talent, who’s been with them since the original jump. That makes a big difference.

Chance the Rapper’s GRAMMY-winning mixtape “Coloring Book” was finished at The Mastering Palace.

Your discography includes one of last year’s breakout hits, the GRAMMY-winning Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. What were your impressions when you first heard that mixtape?

It’s not what I was expecting! I had been a fan of Chance’s on all his features with other artists, but I had no idea the direction where his first album was going to go. It was awesome.

How would you characterize the experience you have when you hear something new and different?

It’s the “a ha!” moment. It takes you back to when you were a kid and the first time you heard Metallica, Guns & Roses, Rage Against the Machine, Nas. That moment excites me, not just as a mastering engineer, but as a music fan.

That’s why we’re all here. We all want to be rock stars, and we want to be involved in the creation of music. But when you hear something different that no one’s done before, that’s exciting.

Why do you think that this spread of projects, from late-breaking sounds to totally establishes stars, are finding their way to The Mastering Palace?

It’s what mastering has always been — they want that second opinion. They’ve been working on their album for months and months, and now they want someone with unbiased ears to go over it, give it what it needs, don’t give it what it doesn’t need, and polish their creation before it goes out to the world. Get that last hair perfectly in place. But that’s the same for artists working in traditional genres.

Mastering is also there to protect the artist’s work from the record company. We may not be able to give it to the record company just yet, until the artist says, “Yes, you can send it to the rest of the world.” I tell my staff all the time, “Mastering engineers are midwives between the artist and the record company.” They’re giving birth, and the record company wants what they’ve been paying for.

There’s a deadline, but the artist doesn’t care about that, they’ll give it up when it’s done. And the mastering engineer’s the person in between that, that final tug of war.

How A Mastering Studio Grows

How has The Mastering Palace evolved since you moved into your current home a decade ago?

It started with just me and one studio manager, and we got more and more work. That led to Tatsuya Sato joining as an additional engineer, and then the schedule kept getting busier and busier so I added another engineer, Mark Santangelo, as well as a second room designed by Martin Pilchner of Pilchner-Schoustal in 2014.

(l-r) Dave Kutch, Tatsuya “Tats” Sato, Kevin-Peterson, Kara H. G. Coleman, and Mark Santangelo

From there, as a business owner I tried to make workflows more efficient. I added a server, for example, so people can work from anywhere off the server instead of moving around additional drives.

We also just added something else, which is a Neumann VMS-70 lathe. I went through great lengths to get it — that’s a whole other story in itself. Mark was cutting vinyl at Sony, and I learned from Herb Powers, one of the greatest. The Neumann will be online very soon.

How have the mastering suites themselves changed over that time?

Just what you use, and how you use it. At the end of the day it’s about a good engineer in a good room with good monitoring. The toys in between are dashes of color that you like to add.

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