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Everything from Prince to Disney to Van Halen: A Discussion With Sunset Sound's Craig Hubler

The general manager of the legendary studio dishes on history, working with legends, and recording techniques.

by Joseph Yanick
Jun 24 2015, 7:30pm

Since the onset of digital audio, the ability for cheaper, faster, and even portable audio recording has become a reality. You no longer need thousands of dollars to get your band into a studio in order to cut a demo, all you need is a Macbook; hell, an iPhone could suffice. While this has certainly led to a democratization of media, allowing more voices to enter the mix, it has also led to a complete saturation of the market.

Further, the quality on these bedroom, garage, and/or basement recordings is suspect. But, you can’t really blame the bands, because most people don’t have the money to throw into recording. When even small labels in the 70s and 80s were willing to invest in the recording, today, bands are mostly left to foot the bill. “We’ve noticed that sessions at professional studios are generally unaffordable for many emerging artists,” the Global Music Marketing Director at Converse, Jed Lewis tells us, continuing, “In turn, we’ve seen many emerging music artists turn to home studios and bedroom recording as an alternative… that’s one of the reasons we started Converse Rubber Tracks – not only is it a way for us to say “thank you” to the music communities who have helped shape the brand over the years, but also to provide newer artists access to key resources they may not be able to afford.”

Rubber Tracks’ latest project sees 12 studios opening their doors to artists that may have otherwise been denied access. For many, it really will be their only chance. But, getting in isn’t everything. No, they also have to come prepared, according to Sunset Sound General manager Craig Hubler, For Hubler, recording in a studio means being open to the advice of the studio technicians, and with a lurid, 50-plus year history – including clients ranging from Disney, The Rolling Stones, and Prince –, why shouldn’t they. Founded in the “heart of Hollywood” in 1962, the studio has championed the use of quality vintage/analog gear. In an age where most of their competitors have trashed their old gear in search of the digital revolution’s many promises, Sunset Sound’s ideology persists. In order to better understand the nuanced differences between analog and digital and to learn what bands really have to benefit from Sunset Sound, we caught up with Hubler.

Want to record at Sunset Sound? I mean, DOY. TODAY MAY BE YOUR LAST CHANCE, courtesy of Converse Rubber Tracks. Hurry... the clock is ticking!

Noisey: As the general manager, what are your main responsibilities at Sunset Sound?
Craig Hubler:
Overseeing all aspects of the studio operations: Bookings/scheduling, technical and physical maintenance, accounting/billing, client & vendor relations, personnel management, and hiring/recruitment.

At what point did you become interested in the world of audio recording, engineering, and production?
I bought my first tape recorder when I was 10 years old (nearly 50 years ago) from the local drugstore. A small monophonic reel-to-reel recorder that used 3” reels of tape. I used its microphone to record the audio of my favorite television programs by putting the mic up against the TV speaker; Mono, of course. It was a VCR without the video part! I was always fascinated with the science of magnetic recording, whether for sound or video or data. It was never specifically music. The content didn’t really interest me; how and why the tape and machine made that recording possible was my primary interest. As they say, from there one thing led to another and…here I am.

Often, when I read about studios, there is the conception that the buildings themselves somehow contain an aura or spirit. What are your thoughts about this?
I’m not a superstitious person, too grounded in science. But many client artists, producers, and engineers definitely feel a vibe when they are here, particularly as it relates to the specter of the greats that preceded them. I don’t dispute it, if that’s what they perceive.

What do you think Sunset’s legacy is? Why have people chosen the studio in the past and why do they continue to choose Sunset today?
Our emphasis has always been on the quality or purity of the sounds being recorded, providing the tools and maintenance/technical support that allows our clients to achieve their desired results. To that end, we are vintage analog audio aficionados. We do change with the times, but that root philosophy of sonic purism has been our hallmark and reputation.

Can you share with us some juicy stories of working in the studio?
There are so many…but I’m saving them for “the book!”

[laughs] Well, I guess we will all have to invest in that. How has the studio evolved? I read that, where the studio used to be booked up exclusively by labels, the booking of time directly by bands/management has increased. What effect has this had on the environment of the studio?
No matter who pays the bill, we still cater to the artists, producers, and engineers as we always have. That will never change. And, I may add, we treat all of our customers equally, be it major mega-artists and their producers/engineers or a walk-in musician. The unknown of today could be the superstar of tomorrow, and we want them to remember the positive experience they had with us. It’s just good business.

With this Converse Rubber Tracks project, the studio is being opened up to a fresh band, eager to make a name for themselves. Certainly the chance to record at Sunset gives them this opportunity. In your opinion, what do you think these bands need to know before entering into the studio?
Be prepared, be rehearsed. And be open to alternative ideas and input regarding your musical performance.

How selective is Sunset in deciding which projects they are willing to record? Do you believe that everything you record is a reflection of the studio and its legacy?
We welcome anyone who wants to use our facility, we don’t screen the customers. All genres have been recorded here over these 50+ years. We have our share of big hits and astonishing duds, the full spectrum. We can’t and don’t control what is recorded here Hopefully the good far outweighs the not so good, and we come out ahead in the eyes of the public!

Sunset has had the honor of working with a diverse range of impressive artists. Can you share with us some of the albums and bands that you are most proud to have been associated with?
A number of the classics from The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elton John, Van Halen, and Prince. Many hundreds of artists have recorded here. It’s mind-boggling! We are proud to have been associated with each and every one of them.

On your website your history of tracked artists ends in the 90s. Who are some of the important artists that continue to choose Sunset in this last decade-plus? Conversely, who are some of the notable newer artists that have found the studio?
Prince still comes back from time to time, as recently as 3 years ago. More current/newer artists have been the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Jason Mraz, Paramore, John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Young the Giant, Slipknot, The Black Keys, Metallica, The Dixie Chicks, Motorhead, and many others. Artists come and go, but our backbone is the myriad of producers and engineers that return time and again, even over 2-3 decades.

I’ve heard in past interviews that analog is still an important facet to the studio. There is a lot of hearsay about the benefits of analog, some of which is certainly true but some of it very much overstated. Do you believe that artists still benefit from analog recordings?
Digital has come a long way, particularly in the last few years, and now challenges analog in terms of sonic quality, but there is a warmth and distortion value to analog tape that defies perfect digital capture and proves itself more suitable than digital to certain genres of music.

How common is it, today, for recording studios to continue to offer analog recording?
We still do a fair amount of it, for tracking and mixing. Just this week we have two different projects recording or mixing to analog. We have an upcoming project in July in Studio 3 that is pure analog top to bottom, for nearly the entire month! A while ago we did a big mixing session on a new project that used (2) 24-track Studer analog machines, 2 sets of Dolby SR racks, Lynx synchronizers, and an analog 2-track mix machine. We are one of the few studios still left that have multiple 24 track analog machines and a bevy of 2-track tape recorders.

As digital continues to grow, is this changing? Is there a fathomable time where digital recording would be definitely an improvement over analog?
I have laughingly yearned for 128-bit / 512 kHz sampling to come out so we can toss out the analog world for good, but the processing power for that level would require a Cray supercomputer. Maybe the NSA or NOAA have a spare one we can use!

Do you believe that analog recording requires more from a band, such as tighter performances or staying on key? It seems that it is less giving to “enhancements” or fixes, etc.
You can only razor-blade edit tape so many times or ways so the musicianship has got to be much tighter and focused with every pass/take. There’s virtually no “fixing it in the box.” Preserving as much of the original linear performance is always the best approach, as that special magic “feeling” is imbued in each take. You just can’t beat a bunch of musicians playing together live in a studio. Back in the analog heyday, one producer’s favorite comment during rhythm tracking dates was “that (take) was perfect…do it again!” And then they just picked the best take, and it was in the can! Next tune, please!

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