John Cuniberti is a well renowned music producer and engineer whose career began as a 70's rock musician in the San Francisco Bay area. To help pay the bills John joined a touring sound reinforcement company in 1976. He worked his way up to the position of mixing monitors for Stevie Wonder. In the early 80's John was managing HydeStreet Studios in San Francisco by day and recording the Dead Kennedys and many other alternative bands by night. In the 90's, John received both platinum and gold records for producing and engineering six Joe Satriani records. John is also responsible for designing the first commercially available re-amping device called the Reamp. John’s latest work is that of the OneMic series where he is recording artists in one take around one stereo microphone with outstanding results. We found this fascinating so we put a call in to him over in the USA for a chat...
What was the motivation behind your latest work in the Onemic series? Is it a reaction to hugely produced music in this modern age?
“It started out as an engineering experiment just to see if it could be done. That is, to record electric guitars, bass, drums and singers, maybe with or without acoustic instruments, around a stereo mic. Since I started in the late 70’s it’s always been multi-track, overdubs and mixing. I started on a 4 track and worked my way right up through the analogue period, even locking up a pair of 24 track machines in the late 90’s. Now digital recordings offer unlimited tracks and all the problems that come with that. You could say I’ve been through it all, so it’s kind of a way of setting that aside and going back to the roots of 1930’s recordings where the orchestra or small band would gather around the mic and cut direct to lacquer. When I listened to my first OneMic experiment I couldn't believe how good it sounded and I started dreaming of all the possibilities of doing more with other acts. In the beginning I didn’t think about hiring a cinematographer to shoot 10 of these videos but I ended up doing just that. During my first experimental recording I made a video on my cellphone and I thought ‘Well, I need to document this because no one will believe that I did this with one mic.” I just walked around the guys during a take and then at home synced the audio to the video. Later that night I put it on Facebook and received 15,000 views in a few days.
What treatment of the room was required to achieve the results you are after?
“I took the bands to a studio that I was quite familiar with called 25th Street Recording in Oakland California. The room is fairly big, complementary to the process and well treated. If there was anywhere I was going to pull this off, it was going to be there. Recording in this fashion the sound of a room is really going to have a lot to say. I was after reasonably even frequency response and a natural sound without too many overtones or some of the problems you find in badly designed performance spaces and recording studios.”
How did you decide on the stereo mic to use and the signal path (converters, pre's etc)?
“The microphone I am using is the AEA R88 which is a stereo ribbon microphone. When I read about this microphone it sparked my curiosity as it is stereo yet bidirectional so I can have two stereo fields to work in. So I contacted AEA and said ‘Hey, I want to do this experiment where I want to try to record a rock band around your microphone, can you loan me one?’ They said that they’d love for me to do it and sent me one and also asked for me to send them the results. I used a Millenia HV3 preamp as I wanted nice clean gain. I did not want to do any EQ in the recording chain as I wanted to capture exactly what the microphone was hearing. The other reason I used the Millenia was that it has stepped gain so that when you set the gain evenly on both sides you're guaranteeing that the stereo mic is L&R calibrated. If you use a variable gain mic pre you may notice it’s a little bit left or right heavy and you’re not going to know if that’s because the gain isn't set even on the mic pre, or the singer isn’t dead center on the mic. I recorded to Pro Tools at 96K / 24 bit with a Burl B2 converter. That’s what you hear - 1 microphone, 1 pre amp, 1 converter direct to digital. Because we were shooting to video I had to sample rate convert it to 48K later during the sync process.
Is there a process for mic placement depending on the act you are recording or is the mic always in the same room, position and this applies to the gear and artists in the room also?
“The nature of a ribbon mic being bidirectional gives the advantage of having a stereo field of 90 degrees in front of the mic and another stereo field to work in on the backside of the mic. The 90 degree fields on the sides of the microphone are what I call ‘the dead zone’ as you can’t really record anything in there like an acoustic instrument or singer because it would be out of phase and cancel out. Staying within the two 90 degree arcs front and back is key here. Normally we would have 2 electric guitars panned left and right so what I did was place the amplifiers on 4 foot stools hard left and right and back about 7 to 10 feet as it’s important that the amps be as closely in line with the microphone as if they, or anything for that matter, are too low to the ground then the ribbon at the bottom will be more sensitive to that than the one at the top creating an unbalanced capture. Essentially it’s important to get all of the musicians, amplifiers etc in the the centre line of the microphone. I measured the amps out with a tape measure, pointed them at the microphone and had the guitarists play their parts to ensure they would be even and not too loud to overpower the singer. The singer is placed dead centre on the opposite side and singing directly into the mic. I could also add other singers or instruments behind the singer if I chose to.”
“I had all of the artists put on headphones so they could hear what we were actually recording. This enabled them to make their own subtle adjustments during the recording, such as leaning in a bit closer or, if singing a background part, to lean back a little. They started to adapt their performance to the process fairly quickly. Some took off their headphones once we had a good balance for the video.
Any particular output processing or 'mastering' that is done to the final stereo recording?
“In some cases I add reverb in the mastering process. I also do a mid-side processing treatment on the reverb send where I bring down the sides and force the middle into the reverb so that it really has more vocal in it than room ambience. I don’t want to add any reverb to the room, just the vocal performance alone. The recording is also treated like any stereo mastering. There will be EQ, compression and/or limiting applied. I don’t do any editing or comping. It’s one complete take that is altered synced to the one take video. I don’t think for one minute that this OneMic process would ever replace the way we make records currently but I encourage all engineers to try it at least once because there’s a lot to gain from it. I really see it as added value, another way for artists to express their art and to use the medium however they want.”
If you could only take 2 mics to a desert island which would you choose?
“Wow, that’s really a hard question! I think that one of them would definitely have to be a stereo multi pattern condenser microphone like an AKG c24 where I had the option of recording in cardioid bidirectional and omnidirectional, XY, MS or, like I do with the R88, in a Blumlein array. The second mic I would want would be a ribbon microphone, probably an RCA44 or something like that.”
Tell us about when you made the first commercially available Reamp box...
“The Reamp transforms a +4 line level signal to match what would be typically be coming out of say a Fender Stratocaster guitar which is down to around -50 or more. The gain must be dropped without compromise to the frequency response which must be as flat as possible. That was the two criteria to making a successful Reamp box. It also had to have a ground lift, it had to be sturdy, have really high quality connections and a custom wound transformer for the job as there was really not anything around at the time off the shelf that would get the job done. You have to remember that when I made the Reamp it was in 1993. This was before the digital age and so it was all about taking the output signal of an analog multi track recorder or recording console and dropping that hot +4 line level down enough to make a guitar amplifier or stomp box think that there’s actually a guitar plugged into it and not a tape recorder.” In 2011 I sold the Reamp business to Radial Engineering in Canada who still sell my original design.
Having worked with a wide range of artists over the years, what is important to you when agreeing to a project and what do you look for in an artist/require them to be able to do?
“Maybe it’s my age but I’m really fussy about songwriting. I have to be moved by it, or at least relate to it. The song has to be well crafted and the singer must make it believable. That’s my number one criteria. Usually about this time of year I put an offer out on social media to take on a couple of bands. I invite them to come in and record a couple of songs to a multi track analog machine. I’ll spend a couple of days with them recording, mixing and mastering—just like the way that records were made in the 60’s. You’d be surprised that some bands are just not ready for it when they think they are. I’m pretty selective about the acts that I work with. I do a preliminary interview with them to see if this is something that’s even doable for them as you have to remember that we’re dealing now with a generation of recording artists who have always recorded on multi channel, and who have always had the opportunity to overdub, fix, repair or edit their music. Going back to the Onemic, I hand select the bands I want to work with because it’s really important that they’re on the same page as me and each other and not thinking that they’ll be back in a few days to overdub or edit a part. In every session I’ve had to sit down with at least 1 member of each band and say ‘Hey, you really need to play your part how you want to play it here as it’s the one chance. If you want more reverb, you need to add it yourself with the amp or a pedal as this is your only opportunity’. There are certain acts that rely heavily upon production and if you were to put them around one stereo microphone, it simply wouldn't work. It’s a process that’s not for everyone!”
Being the 30th anniversary of Joe Satriani’s “Surfing With The Alien” what sticks out in your mind from the recording sessions and how do they or the techniques used then compare to your latest album together in “Shockwave Supernova”?
“The process now is completely different. When we did Surfing With The Alien Joe had not really put together a band yet that he could trust to come into the studio and play the parts that he had imagined in his head. At the time he didn't have the resources to hire players to come in to do that. We were pretty much left to our own devices which was to use drum machines that we could program. Joe needed to play bass as well as all of the guitar parts and for me to somehow make it all sound like a band. All of the drums were a hybrid of machines with real cymbals since none of the machines in the 80’s could produce convincing cymbal sounds as the technology just wasn't there yet. In the 80’s drum machines were the thing, I mean many records coming out of your country (England) had drum machines on them, right? Then it was the accepted way to do it, we would probably never do it like that now. Fast forward 30 years and now Joe has the resources to bring people in, or in Joe’s words ‘to bring something to the party’ which translates as ‘Here’s my songs, my ideas, you guys take it and run with it.” That’s where we’re at now and the main differences between the two records.”
As a producer and studio boffin of many years, what would your advice be to our Music Production and Sound Engineering students? Anything you think they should focus on to make the most of their studies and set them up for a career in the music industry?
“It’s a limitless universe that they are entering and there are no rules. It’s up to them to find ways to produce music that move them and with the hope that it’ll move other people. They can do that anyway they want, on any instrument, people singing or not singing. They should not get into bad habits of doing the same thing over and over or hearing other people's records and wanting to do the same. When Joe brought me into the studio 30 years ago and said ‘We have limitations’ it was those limitations, using that drum machine, small budget, no band that produced that record, probably the biggest record he’s had. Now there is essentially no limitations to what we do but now there’s a danger of making the same record over and over again. Sometimes limitations are a gift in disguise.”
“I think some people spend too much time with all the digital options and putting off decisions until later. If you don't have the options, then you can find that creativity in another way and usually that’s more genuine. I think that trying 18 different plugins on a recording that you made a week ago is putting too much emphasis on the things that aren’t all that important. I would rather spend all day working with a guitar player coming up with something that really serves the song. Then, when it comes time to mix, I just have to push the fader. Because we have already done the hard work in getting the right sound, part, expression and performance for the right song, the mix happens very fast. If you don’t do the hard work upfront, you’re gonna need 300 tracks, 500 plugins and 5 years! It’s really important that you sit down with the band, go over their arrangements, talk to them one on one to get them all on same page. Just about every time I met a band for the first time they are not in agreement on the what kind of record they are making. So, the best thing a producer can do is to have, at times, that very uncomfortable conversation with them, because they may not be ready to make a record.
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