Music Producer Profile: David Kahne Leads On

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HELL’S KITCHEN, MANHATTAN: Modern music can get shaped by the most unassuming of influencers. David Kahne is one such source: often unseen, but always very well heard.

A talk with David Kahne awaits.

Spend some time with him, and it’s clear that he always puts sound first. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there when Kahne hears a song that he loves – wholly absorbed, the music literally moves him.

After being an artist on Capitol Records a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, Kahne stayed interested in the studio. He became a producer/engineer for the legendary 415 Records new wave label in San Francisco, then a VP of A&R for Columbia Records and Warner Bros.

Along the way, Kahne’s scientific instincts established him in some circles as an indispensable producer. In addition to a GRAMMY win for producing Tony Bennett’s 1995 MTV: Unplugged album, Kahne’s production credits range from Fishbone, Sublime, Sir Paul McCartney, The Strokes, Sean Lennon, and Linkin Park, to current collaborators such as Ingrid Michaelson, Regina Spektor, James McCartney, Jay Brannan, and The Dirty Pearls. If that’s not enough, Kahne is beginning a production of a ballet version of Peter Pan that he wrote, and he’s just wrapped scores on three films.

One way he does it is by working out of a personal audio wonderland he’s established at Avatar Studios. A resident of New York City since 1990, and bi-coastal until 4 years ago, Kahne was led from the Golden State by his muses to become a full-time NYC dweller. Now Kahne is feeding off of the Big Apple’s energy as he moves music forward.

Why is NYC your home base now? And how did you settle on Avatar as your HQ?
I liked the vibe and the creative feeling of it here. I’ll give you a great example; I write ballet music — I recently wrote a ballet of Peter Pan in MIDI – and I found a choreographer in Brooklyn. 90 dance companies use her space, and it’s part of a thing that makes that sense of DIY seem stronger here.

I sometimes feel like the LA scene is more about chasing the industry – although there are so many talented musicians there – and I like the environment of NYC. Walking, biking, the way the clubs are…It’s more saturated here in the city.

How does that translate with the artists you’re working with here in NYC?

Turning to the keys.

When I was head of A&R at Columbia, there were 212 artists on the roster. I asked somebody over there recently how many artists they currently have signed onto the roster, and they said it was in the fifties. So that’s a hundred-something records not being made, artists not being supported. Those artists are still making music, but now they’re trying to turn their own thing.

People I work with like Regina Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson, Jay Brannan, these are amazing artists — Jay books himself, he manages himself, and he saves money for his album budget. It’s hard. You’re spending more and more time promoting yourself, and less time making music. But I think that that’s the way it’s going to be for more and more artists.

Back in the day, there was a general feeling that a song could change the world. And that created an environment for big rosters and lots of sales, and more artists being able to have careers spanning decades. I think that bubble has burst.

I feel like we’re all entrepreneurs now, more than ever. The means of distribution and collection change almost faster than we can adapt to them, and there’s not a settled system for monetizing the music. So it’s harder to build a business.

I also think it’s interesting that we’re back to the way it was in the ‘50’s, a singles market. The publishers started record companies then, and they have a lead on the power now, especially when you talk about the synch fees. Synch seems like the new radio for lots of new artists.

It’s very difficult for a major label to build up an artist around touring. It takes a long time to do that, and for the most part, I don’t think the numbers work. Gotta get radio.

A self-contained artist would most often have a very hard time with all the test marketing that goes on, and all the changes that are made to the music to meet the market expectation. If the market were “people who are looking for something new, different, etc…” it would be a different music world. But that market is very individualized, and spread out and you have to reach it in a different way. That’s my opinion, anyway.

Shifting gears, how do you see yourself today? As a producer? Mixer? Engineer? Composer? All of the above? How do you balance all those roles?
Yes, all of the above. Because of the economics of things now, I’m mixing. I think my favorite parts of the process — arranging and programming — are sort of blended together, and that’s one reason I like working on the ballet so much. It’s all orchestral, and when you’re scoring something you’re actually mixing something while you’re writing the arrangement.

With my MADI system in my room here at Avatar, I mix as I go. I have all this outboard gear and it’s all accessible through real time via the MADI. When I call Cubase up to continue a session or do an overdub, I call all my hardware up at the same moment.

I have the entire Vienna library on one dedicated computer. It runs through Ethernet with zero latency – it’s mind-blowing. I used to be able to load four complex instruments on Cubase, now with this 64-bit computer running Windows 7 I can load 31! Another computer runs only Hollywood Strings, which is a fantastic library, but it’s all solid state drives. Some of these Hollywood Strings loads are 18,000 samples and streaming. Without solid state drives, you can’t even load the complex instruments. It’s worth getting the drives.

Listening in.

It’s crazy, but it’s fascinating technology. Again, with the DIY thing, you’re getting to the place where you’re going to have the ability to create whole orchestrations, to the point where nobody’s going to be able to tell it’s not a real symphony orchestra playing.

Looking at your setup and how many up-to-date components you have – hardware and virtual – it’s clear that you’re constantly introducing new software and hardware into your system. How do you keep up such a breakneck pace?
Every time I see a new plugin, I buy it! I bought buy plug-ins like Geist or Trigger the first day they come out. I’m quite the early adopter. I went full 64bit and Windows 7 the moment it was possible. I’m spending probably 15% of my time keeping my gear running and checking out new software.

I don’t need any new hardware. Sometimes I think about having a console, and then I tell myself I’m insane, what am I talking about? I have friends that are still on consoles, and they sometimes feel behind the curve, because it takes time to get up to speed on the computer, and trust your software.

Hardware compressors are my favorite thing. I’ve got a Fairchild, and two Federals over there. Someone told me about the Elysia Mpressor when it came out, and I freaked when I got it. It’s so powerful – with the gain control, you can get tremendous compression without harshness. You can get it to pump and suck, and now the software version is identical to the hardware unit, as far as I can tell.

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  • Rosemary Neece

    I remember seeing David’s set up in his apt. kitchen in LA in the late 1980’s. What a talented and amazingly gifted man. Great to see him and read about his accomplishments. I was impressed with him when he used to play his guitar for me in El Paso, Texas,1966. Congratulations to a career well lived. Rosemary Neece, Mill Creek, WA

  • Michael Campbell

    I remember David Kahne from the 70’s , Sacramento, Ca. His ability to bring music to life and make you enjoy playing impressed me. Yes, Mister Kahne, I finally figured it out. You were always on me telling me to learn my notes, instead of just being able to play the bass by ear. And I still like playing ‘Scorpio’ by Dennis Coffey….you’re the best!!

    My best to you,
    Michael Campbell

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