That word, “conversation”, and it’s importance, came up a lot during my August 10th phone call with producer, recording engineer, and creator of the One Mic Series, Mr. John Cuniberti. How the unspoken conversation affects the performers, how that translates to a recording, and the process that John uses is as simplistic as a single microphone, but as complex as any multi-track recording technique. The musical conversation and where it leads truly is a wonder, once you grasp it’s significance.
When I spoke to Nashville recording artist Boo Ray about his One Mic Series sessions, his descriptions of the recordings and respect for John Cuniberti’s work piqued my interest. With everyone using multiple microphones, Digital Audio Workspaces, and multi track recordings, I was completely in awe that he initially sets up the instruments with a tape measure and runs everything through a single stereo ribbon microphone, the AEA R88. There are no multi tracks, no retakes, and no dub overs. Just one mic, a room, and some seriously talented artists.
What follows is a master class in the art of recording and touches on a number of subjects that are as important as the music and the artist them selves. His understanding of the process and evolution of recording is what makes him so good at what he does.
First, I wanted Mr. Cuniberti’s explanation of how his process of recording may be similar to how the origins of recorded music were done decades ago with just one mic.
“Originally when recordings were first being made, yeah in fact, it was usually just 1 microphone and the performers would stand around the mic and get a balance in the room. You know before the art of recording people were playing live performances and there was no world of audio recording, just the world of live performances. Performers were accustomed to and skilled at balancing them selves in a room performing and singing. Instruments were developed and designed just for that purpose…even when you get into the 30’s and big bands started performing together with horns and drums, you know one of the problems were that the acoustic guitars weren’t loud enough.
“The fact that what happened was that when the art of recording began, they took that same scenario, they put up one mic the band would set up with the balances they normally would and would be recorded direct to some kind of recording device, vinyl or some kind of acetate. But, when we got into multi track recording more mics would be used and we got into that world of 2 tracks, then 4 tracks, then 8 tracks, and what are we up to now?
“So the idea that a band would come into the studio and balance them selves in a room. Not unlike at a rehearsal or a night club, that whole way of recording ended with multi track recording. I mean a band would walk in they throw mics on every thing, they would often times, and still do, isolate everyone, so they can have control over all the elements of the recording.
“And what happened was that we gave something up, and what we gave up was the conversation that the musicians have among them selves in the room when they are listening to each other and responding to each other.
“When you get into the art of recording, were making records, and that’s a very different occupation and result than a live performance…you can do both, but there is a safety net that is in place that if an individual in the band spoils a section or misses a beat it can be repaired right there on the spot. We can do that with analog recordings, multi track analog, you can punch in a section… this has been going on for a long time. The digital age has just sort of made it easier. Not only to get a lot of tracks recorded simultaneously but also gave us all the tools to repair and fix pretty much anything, but it came with a compromise.
“The compromise is that now you have bands that it may be their first recording, they may have very little recording experience, they come into a room and immediately the engineers are isolating everything and putting microphones on everything and assuring the band if they make mistakes or they cant get through it, we can fix it later. So It produces a psychological effect in the room where, are people really at their best, are people really bringing their a game, are people really well rehearsed before they show up to the studio? I would argue that in many cases, they are not.
“They are so accustomed to having their mediocre performances repaired that, or handed over to someone else to make them sound like they are competent. it’s just become an entire way of making records. There’s a whole generation of people that are in studios that have never been in a room with their band mates trying to balance them selves and listen to each other in this conversation. And I use this word conversation because if you have 2 people talking to each other, if both people are talking and no one is listening its not going to be a very good conversation. when people willing to listen and react, then you have a creative result.
“If you’re a guitar player and going in on Saturday to do all your guitar parts on a previously recorded track no one on that track will be hearing you and reacting to it. It’s your job now to listen to everybody else and react to them. And that produces a very different result than a band in a room balancing them selves and being forced to listen to each other and react to each other.
“The one mic process that I’m developing, in the modern world, is a way to get back to the thing that we gave up. That’s a very long and convoluted answer to your question so I apologize.”
I laugh off the notion that the mind blowing knowledge he just dropped was in any way convoluted and mention how refreshing it was to hear him explain what it was about that kind of music that I liked. Live albums like The Allman Brothets At Filmore East or B.B. Kings Live at the Regal just feel like they are jumping out of the speakers because of that conversation between the artists and are, in my opinion, prime examples of John’s philosophy.
Getting into the nuts and bolts of his process I ask about mastering once the track is recorder and the complete set up of what we see on Nathaniel Kohfield’s beautiful 4k video’s, which John will also expand on shortly.
“I’m using one stereo ribbon mucrophone, AEA R88 and that goes to the microphone preamplifier…a melinia hv3c…and is captures on high resolution digital..(Nathaniel Kohfields’s amazing cinematography). Now that recording is a stereo mix of the event in the room, that stereo recording is not unlike any stereo mix that one would end up with in a multi-track stereo mix down recording, it is subject to mastering just like you would any stereo mix.”
When I mention the measuring tape set up that Boo Ray had mentioned, John expands on the process. “The reason why I use a measuring tape is for panning mostly because the panning has to be done, if I want a guitar on the right and on the left, they have to be equal distances from the microphone, and that’s assuming they are set up at the exact same volume. You know if I want them both those guitars at the same level, on a mixer I just move the faders up and down…if i want them to sound the same or similar, then I would go out and adjust the amplifier to get that sound, I can’t do it any other way I can’t do it in post production. So I have come up with a formula of where guitar amplifiers, and drums, and bass and vocals need to be around this one microphone so I start off the sessions laying it out with a tape measure but ultimately I have to adjust the volumes of everything.”
“The rooms that these recordings that this has been done in play a huge roll in the effect, you know in a multi track environment the microphones are put pretty damn close to the amplifiers and the singers and the drums. So you’re eliminating the effect of the room in the recording, depending on the room you will have some effect but it’s very minimal. and that comes back to the 70 style recording… you just close mic everything and add delays and reverb later to try and make it sound like their all in the same room again. In my scenario I don’t get to or have to do that because the sound of the room is playing such a huge roll in in.
“A real dead room, that is absorbing a lot of high frequencies is not particularly friendly to an acoustic guitar that is 5-6 feet away. A room that’s really uneven in the sense that one room is really bassy and the other part is really bright and noisy, that is not going to give you a balances drum sound when the mic is 8′ away. So I learned early on in developing this process that the rooms I do this in are critical and will determine if how successful or successful at all is the recording. There are huge compromises. that I’m making in order to get the conversation, to record this band in one take with everyone at their best because they don’t get to fix everything.”
I ask if the famous rooms are better or more difficult for his process versus new studios.
“Yes and no. At muscle shoals, it’s a very dead late 60’s-70’s sounding room. In other words it was designed to kill all ambience, essentially, close mic everything, and then add reverb and delay later to make it sound like everyone is in the same room. I mean yes, some of the overhead mics like the drums are picking up some of the ambience of the drum booth, but that’s not what those records were about. They were about the individual performers, the style of music, and the incredible singing and song writing that was being done in those rooms. The room was basically, it allowed them to have complete control with the recordings after the fact. For me it was fairly straight forward because the room didn’t produce any nasty effects I couldn’t fix.
“Now sun studios in Memphis was the complete opposite of that, that room is very live, it has a tile floor, it has acoustic tile that is less than 1/8” thick on the walls and is a very live room. So the recordings that I did at Sun sound completely different than the ones I did at Muscle Shoals. Now, I was ok with that because the records that came out of Sun studio were recorded with 1, 2, 3, maybe 4 microphones at the most and most of them were ribbon microphones that are bi directional and really flooded those microphones with the sound of the room and the musicians in that room. I knew that going in and I was ok with that because I really wanted the sound of the room…that’s why I chose acts that I thought could preform in those rooms that would be, that would work.
“There are certain genres of music I wouldn’t want that over abundance of ambience in the recording. With a band like Boo Ray , which has an old school retro sound, and certainly with the Eskimo Brothers that are rockabilly band, or Cedric Burnside that plays an acoustic guitar and sings the blues.
“You know that was where muddy waters made some of his historic records, just like that. They did it with a ribbon microphone mono to a tape recorder. I did it with a stereo ribbon microphone and recorded it to digital, I did a modern recording but I used the same approach.”
Since he brought up the performers, I asked how he decided on the artists that he chose.
“Well the criteria that I used is I’m looking for incredible songwriters and singers. They have to be able to delivery a really wonderful timeless song to me so songwriting is probably #1. You know I’m a child of the 60’s and grew up listening to the greatest singers and songwriters of our time, so I’m very strict about that criteria. They have to be able to preform live, everyone that I considered or vetted I had to see some kind of live video of them on stage preforming. I needed to know that they could get through an entire song well, and needed to see what they are like on camera. How people come off and how they look is important in a video medium.
“The one mic recording are 50% the audio and the other 50% is video and they go hand in hand, I’ve never separated the two. I know a lot of people like to listen to the audio…but I’ve always thought of it as bringing people into a room to witness this performance, this intimate performance of these artists in this room together having this conversation. That’s why I wanted one camera, because I want the perspective of one person in the room walking around a little bit during the performance having this conversation in the room. I didn’t want a multi camera, quick edit fancy Hollywood style production because it takes you away from that.
“Because I’ve grown up for the last 40 years in recording studios I’ve had the humbling privilege of being in the room while these beautiful pieces of art are created and its’ a very intimate and special experience that only producers and recording engineers get. I wanted to bring people into the studio and actually witness what I witness over and over again. There’s been so many times I made recordings where I said I wish I could have video taped that because it’s magic and I wanted to share that with the world.
“When I would go and ask established recording artists, who are on record labels, if they want to do this, they were frightened off by the process. They are used to having this control over everything after the fact, turning it over to their producers and mastering engineer and mix engineers and you know indulging in minutia for 6 months before they release the record. So most of these weren’t interested.
“It was the young kids that had nothing to lose who believe in them selves who have maybe have made multi-track digital recordings and after 6 months couldn’t recognize them and hated them and don’t want to listen to them any more because the essence that got them in the room with these other people to make this music had been taken away from them. They go in the studio and it gets recorded on multi-track and some engineer comes in and manipulated the crap out of it and produces their own vision of what this band is supposed to sound like and basically stealing the essence of who the artist is in the process. It’s heart breaking and it’s frustrating for the artist.
“So when I go to them and go you get to control everything you get to balance yourself, we get to actually see and hear what it is that you do and why you do it. And that’s an incredible gift to give them, but You know it all sounds great on paper and, In my mind it’s a gift a beautiful gift to give to somebody but the fact is that it doesn’t matter what I think, if I make those recording and the artist hate them and I just think they are really cool then it’s at the end of the day for not. he fact is that every artist that I’ve done this with has come back to me and told me that they loved the results. and that is what has kept me doing this and trying to refine the process.”
I mentioned that on a recent trip to Chicago, I had stopped off at the famous Chess Records and spoke with Jacqueline Dixon, Willie Dixon’s daughter, who now runs the Blues Heaven Foundation. She’s working to re equip the studio and make it functional again. I wanted to know if John had other locations mapped out to continue with the One Mic Series.
“Oh certainly there are the iconic studios, and there are a handful of them in Los Angeles, there is of course Abby road, there is Avatar in NY, there are a whole list of recording studios I would like to do this in partly, because it really does showcase the room doesn’t it? I mean, you’re really going to hear the room and the videos show the room. So I’m killing a couple of birds with one stone.
“I mean in a way a lot of people might want to watch the videos because they get to go into these rooms and see these rooms in action. There a lot of videos that are pouring out of Abbey road we’ve seen them all, and they all highly produced they are all multi camera, but you never really get the feel in the sense of what it was like when the Beatles were recording.
“They have all the production value you know theater lighting and fancy camera work going on but trust me you’ve seen the pictures of The Beatles in those rooms and it looks like a warehouse space, there’s just shit everywhere and that’s what it’s like when you’re making these records. So they go into these rooms and they turn them into theaters and I’ve always kind of thought that was weird.”
I mention the camera work that he employs in his videos and how that worked out with his recording. It was extremely well done and as a musician my self, the videographer always seemed in the right spot and capturing what I look for when I watch a performance such as this.
“Well that’s another thing that was very difficult to accomplish because, the videographer, the cinematographer has to have skill at lighting, camera work, and has to be a musician. He has to be at the right place during the arrangements of the songs, I mean he has to be able to move with the music, and quite honestly is was difficult to find somebody who really new how to operate a camera on a steady cam. light a room. and have intimate knowledge of the music. So Nathaniel Kohfield who is the cinematographer in all my videos is skilled in all three things and that is a very, very, very unique qualification.”
As we moved on to the finished product as a whole and I humbly and respectfully petitioned/requested/planted a seed about the series being put on Vinyl or some kind of Vinyl/Blue Ray package. Would John be interested in working with a company and put this out in a physical format?
“If a record label came to me and wanted to issue a vinyl record of these recordings, I would be interested and co-operative. If someone wanted to produce blu-ray or dvd’s of the entire or selected handful of these videos, I would be interested in licencing that.
“You know, my feeling is that the more people are exposed to it the more it may inspire other people to do it.” I think that there could be a market for it, and the fact that all the songs, you know there are 40 of them now, 40 videos, and there is a fairly wide swath of genre of music involved here. So in other words there is something for everyone. If somebody wanted to cherry pick the more profound in the audio sense, and I know what they are, I could produce a 10 song audio file disc that I think would be quite compelling to listen to.” (I implore anyone with record label/blu-ray distribution connections to spread the word on this little piece of information)
As I neared the end of my list of questions I referenced a Facebook post that he’d put up and I asked if he thought that music would eventually get to the point that artists wouldn’t need the big labels and would financially gain more of the profits off of their hard work and the music that they create.
“The good news is that anyone can be a record company, anyone can have world wide distribution. A bunch of guys can get together a garage band and within a week can have world wide distribution. Someone in Finland and someone in Australia could be sitting down and listening to this bands music. That’s a pretty incredible statement. That’s the good news.
“The bad news is that the high tech industry just followed the patters on the old label industry. You know where they devalued the product to a point that they became in control of the cash flow, and that is continuing now. If you ask who is making the money, and were talking billions of dollars here, so where are all of these billions of dollars going? It’s going to the middle man. Even a shitty record deals in the 1980’s is 100 times better than what people are receiving now for the same amount of popularity, and I don’t want to get into the weeds with the numbers but what has to happen is that the distributors will have to cut deals with the artists with directly, who are the creators, and get rid of the middle man.
“Right now record companies are taking as much from their artists and they did back in the day when they had to produce vinyl albums, give them tour support, and handle 100 % of the publicity which probably included a million dollar video. Now they are taking the same amount of money and what are they doing? What does Pandora actually do? What does Spotify actually do? They are distributors, how are they helping you?
“Ok so you got some people high up who know people who can persuade someone at Spotify to push your song in their playlist, well, back in the day it was called payola, now it’s called something else but, its the same thing. Major labels have influence over the Spotify playlist and if you’re on that playlist, you’re making hundreds of thousands a month, and if your not on that play list you’re not. People are listening to your music and you’re not received a dime for it, or literally receiving a dime for it. And the whole thing is f’d up and corrupted and its because the high tech industry followed the old model of the record label.
“Eventually the recording artists are going to get very savvy and start saying, I don’t need Universal records anymore and are going to go right to Spotify and cut a recording contract with them and when Spotify and the other distributors start doing that, it’s going to be a lot better for the recording artists.
“What I was mentioning on Facebook was that the artists that are popular are the ones getting screwed. The ones that do have millions of people listening to their music are getting nothing for it, that’s a huge problem and it’s basically thievery and it’s incredibly unfair and it doesn’t help produce more art, it doesn’t encourage more art. If people can’t pay their bills how can they develop their art. Some people are so incredibly talented that they can make it happen, and it’s just the way that money is distributed right now is inequitable and that needs to change.”
I closed this interview out by stating that as an album reviewer for Ink19.com, I receive a digital download from the artist to review. In my own small way, I try and help out the artist by first, giving the best review I can, and secondly by purchasing the album from their website. I feel like the product they create is deeply personal and my duty is to reciprocate by financially supporting them to carry on their musical creativity.
“Sure I mean if you enjoy someones art and there is an opportunity for you to support them in any small way I think really you are kind of obligated to do that. I get invited to see artists and they put me on the guest list and you know, no, I’ll pay the 10 bucks to get in.”
Speaking to Mr. John Cuniberti was truly a highlight of my interviewing projects thus far. Our conversation really opened up my understanding of why I love so much of the music that I do and, the importance of keeping that conversation open and continually evolving. I hope you, the reader, will spend some time with the One Mic Series and go out and support all the artists that took part in the project.
(I pulled a number of photographs from various artists pages and from the One Mic Series Facebook page. I believe these photographs to be stills, or photos, by Nathaniel Kohfields but, cannot verify that as of yet. They are not labeled with a photographer but if the photographers of the photos I used contact me with their info, I will happily add their names to their photographs.)