It’s an overcast Sunday in Los Angeles. When I arrive at Chalice Recording Studios in Hollywood for an interview with David “Yungin” Kim, a multi-platinum (Stoney, Grateful, Heartbreak on a Full Moon), GRAMMY-winning (To Pimp A Butterfly) audio engineer, it’s quiet. As I walk through the dimly-lit halls of the studio, I learn we’re the only two people in the entire building. Gold and platinum plaques adorn the walls. It’s surreal to imagine the hustle and bustle of various A-list artists traversing these same halls on any other given day.
Over the past decade, the 31-year-old Kim, born in Seoul, Korea, and raised in Koreatown, Los Angeles, cultivated his craft at Chalice, engineering for Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Ariana Grande, DJ Khaled, and Future, among others. Once we step into Studio “E+”—his personal workspace and one of seven total studio rooms—I spot two massive speakers, each the size of my torso. Gears and gadgets line every nook and cranny of the room; his setup looks like the command center of a spaceship.
Audio engineering is a meticulous craft rooted in patience: punching in, line-by-line, for a three-minute song or merging eight different takes of the same line means staring at a computer screen for hours upon hours. With so many contemporary rappers (and fans) gravitating towards infectious melodies and ad libs instead of lyricism, the people behind the boards—the ones who tinker with decibels and frequencies to optimize vocal textures for our listening pleasure—are now more important than ever.
Every artist has a particular vision when creating a song or project, and it’s the engineer's responsibility to translate these intangibles from thoughts into a final product. Whether that involves being a vocal coach, finding the proper placement of a bridge, or even arranging the beat, an engineer is the anchor of the music-making process. Your favorite rapper would sound like hot garbage if it weren’t for their engineers.
In 2010, David Kim graduated at the top of his class from Musicians Institute, located in Hollywood, but he reflects on his formal music education with ambivalence. “It wasn't completely necessary, but it got my foot in the door,” he explains. “You can’t even get an internship [at Chalice] if you don’t have the equivalent of an engineering certificate.”
Kim admits learning the science behind sound, wavelengths, and acoustics gave him an edge over self-trained engineers. But while he was more than ready to make a career out of his passion, he didn't fully understand what he’d have to sacrifice to get there.
“For a whole year, I applied [to Chalice] every two months, and it was either no response or no vacancies,” he says. Instead of giving up, though, Kim took a different approach.
“I searched Chalice Recording Studios on Facebook, saw a list of employees and messaged a couple of them,” he continues. “One of them replied and recommended me the next time there was an opening. Shout out to Josh [Sellers], he’s still over here. I see him every couple of days.”
Kim started as an unpaid intern working eight-hour shifts for the first six months: picking up cigarette butts and trash in the parking lot, buffing the floors, cleaning the restrooms, maintaining the kitchen, and running errands for clients. Rather than going home to unwind after his shift, Kim would hang around in the studio after-hours, watching engineers work their magic on the boards and soaking up game whenever he got the chance.
“I got here on Monday and I’d sleep [on the couch] until Friday night or Saturday,” he says of his weekly routine—which included cleaning up human feces in the alley behind Chalice. When I react with disgust, Kim speaks with a nonchalance that comes with humility and perspective: “I don’t remember the hard times. I just remember I had to do it, and you appreciate everything a little more. It’s a lesson in gratitude.”
Management was planning to promote another intern, but lucky for Kim, a studio tech named Mikey Schroffel convinced them otherwise. Instead of letting him go, the two split a part-time runner position, which eventually became full-time work.
“I wanted to quit over a hundred times—maybe even a thousand times,” Kim admits, with subtle disbelief in his tone. “Dawg, I was like, ‘Why am I still here?’ I’m still picking up fucking trash and refilling the fridge and cleaning the bathrooms.”
To supplement his meager minimum wage income, Kim brought referrals and friends to Chalice for cheap recording sessions after his shift, staying up until 2 or 3 AM every single night. Rather than toiling away in obscurity, he chose to embrace the silver lining.
“After I clocked out, that was my time to improve,” he says. “It’s not the nine to five that’s so important, it’s what you do after it and how much you value the rest of your life. That’s what helped me thug through it for four years.”
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Our conversation takes on a lighter note as Kim shares an amusing story with a cosmic twist of fate. One day, in 2014, Diddy held a writing camp at Chalice with several superstar writers and producers. In Studio “G” is Kim’s favorite producer, Hit-Boy, who requests an order from Chick-fil-A. “I was already a huge fan, so I wanted to get his attention,” he says. “And the only way I thought of was to bring back the food as fast as I can.”
A casual exchange between the two would follow, ending with Kim informing Hit-Boy of his plans to someday work together.
Shortly thereafter, the opportunity to move up at Chalice arrived. When an assistant engineer called in sick, Kim was tasked with helping the tenured engineers with menial chores during their sessions with major artists. But even a promotion didn't land without a new set of challenges.
“As an assistant, if the session goes eight hours and all they’re doing is writing, you have nothing to do,” he says. “You’re sitting in the back of the room twiddling your thumbs for eight fucking hours 'cause it’s unprofessional to bring a laptop and be on your own shit. And that shit drove me crazy.”
Kim worked through his frustration to ensure an active learning experience. “I learned a lot of micing and recording techniques and hotkeys,” he continues. “Anytime I saw the engineer do something I didn’t know, if there was a moment, I would ask ‘em how they did it.”
Then in late 2016, after building his resume and reputation, Kim received a call from an unknown number. It was Hit-Boy’s manager. He asked Kim to come over to the producer’s home studio. God bless Chick-fil-A.
“[Hit-Boy] kept asking me to come through,” he recalls. “It took like a year or two until he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and that was the moment I left Chalice and went [to work] full time for Hit-Boy.”
At present, Kim is working with Hit-Boy on Mondays and Tuesdays, dedicating the rest of the week to freelance projects. Earlier this year, Kim put in 90 hours per week, in an attempt to prove to himself that he belongs, but once the calendar turned to April, he broke down.
“It got to where I don’t have time to breathe, bro. I never see my wife, I never see my friends, I can never do any of the things I enjoy outside of music. And I got a glimpse of what it would be like if I took on every opportunity—just to either pay the bills or keep my discography going or credits going. I was just doing everything thrown at me. Life has a way of humbling you every time you feel you’re successful.” —David Kim
During this strenuous period of self-reflection, Kim experienced what he refers to as “one of the defining moments of his life.” One of his clients asked him: Who would you work with if you could work with anybody? After shuffling through a mental checklist, Kim arrived at hometown hero Nipsey Hussle. A few months later, he found himself in Hit-Boy’s studio recording two verses on Nipsey's final song, “Racks in the Middle.”
“I got the rough mix sounding dope and [Nipsey] was fucking with it,” Kim begins. “I got up like, ‘I know you have Ali mix your shit, but can I get the first pass? If you don’t like the mix, then it’s free. Give me a chance to mix this [record].’”
If you listen to the final version of “Racks in the Middle,” you can hear why Nipsey trusted Kim to engineer his vocals. “That was the first time I asked a big artist to let me mix their shit, but I felt like I needed to,” he says. “He gave me the opportunity when he didn’t have to. It just speaks volumes to what kind of person he was. He wanted to see everybody win.”
David Kim's ascent from unpaid intern to multi-platinum, GRAMMY-winning engineer is a remarkable achievement, but that journey required patience and time.
“Taking all the steps I had to take to be where I’m at in music,” he says, “it gave me the confidence to do anything.”