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Music Production

A Hot Time in Havana: Recording in Cuba’s Areito Studios

By Steve Harvey. The signature sound of Areito’s Estudio 101 infuses the grooves of Daptone Records’ first Spanish-language release, Orquesta Akokán.

Havana, Cuba—Anyone who has listened to 1997’s eponymous Buena Vista Social Club album will likely have been captivated by the energy and vibrancy that the room at EGREM’s Areito Studios in Havana adds to the recordings. Twenty years later, the signature sound of Areito’s Estudio 101 infuses the grooves of Daptone Records’ first Spanish-language release, Orquesta Akokán.

“This studio has a virtue. Even if you have many musicians, the acoustics of the space define every session,” says EGREM engineer José Raul Varona Cancino through a translator. “This space was not a recording studio originally, so at a first glance you might think it wouldn’t have good acoustics, but the builders made such a good job of it that it works, and it sounds great.”

Musician, engineer and Panart Records founder Ramón Sabat converted the former 1920s colonial house into a recording studio in the ’40s, which makes it one of the oldest continuously working facilities in the world. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, his label was nationalized and renamed EGREM (Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales) and the studios became Areito (“fiesta,” in the language of the indigenous Caribbean Taíno people).

The building’s structure and its wooden floors and ceiling are unchanged, says Varona. The wood-paneled walls have bass traps, but contrary to modern studio design preferences, they are parallel. The only change has been the addition of several iso booths, which were not used on this session, he says.

As he tells it, this was just another day at the office where he has worked for a decade on projects by the likes of Juan De Marco Gonzalez, Los Van Van, Simone, Pablo FG and Eliado Ochoa, as well as with musicians from North America and Japan. “I know the space; I know where to position the instruments to get a better sound,” he says. “I didn’t use any special or new techniques.”

Orquesta Akokán is a 16-piece outfit of Cuban and American musicians assembled and led by Cuban vocalist José “Pepito” Gómez, now a New Jersey resident. The album, scheduled for release on March 30, was produced by New York-based Chulo Records’ Jacob Plasse (who also played the guitar-like tres on the album) and arranged by Latin music aficionado and jazz pianist Mike Eckroth, also based in New York.

The original plan was to use tape, says Varona. “We ended up using Pro Tools since the console blew during one of the rolling blackouts that occur frequently in Havana.”

Varona collaborated with Chris Connors, a producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist who works out of a project studio, Concrete Sound, in Brooklyn. EGREM has a collection of high-end microphones, but “there isn’t much outboard gear at Estudios Areito,” says Connors. The control room houses an Amek Mozart RN mixing console (featuring Rupert Neve-designed circuitry) and a couple of newer Rupert Neve preamps, he says, “but with those players, in that room, we had all the vibe we needed.”

“We did this in three days of recording, the last day recording vocals,” reports Varona, using Focusrite preamps. “[Pepito’s] voice sounded wonderful in the room. The space helped to give it depth since he sings bright and loud, like a trumpet.” The guiro was also overdubbed, he says.   

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“Before we started recording, we did a day of rehearsal where Chris and I listened and placed the mics where we thought they sounded best,” he continues.

They monitored through Behringer speakers. “They are really flat and don’t emphasize the highs, mediums or lows. Whatever you hear is translated to the recording,” Varona explains.

The project evokes Cuban music of the ’50s and ’60s from artists like Antonio Arcaño, Pérez Prado, Beny Moré, Arsenio Rodríguez and Cachao. Recordings at Areito at that time used only two ambiance mics for a full band and singer, says Varona, rather than a mic on each instrument and voice. The concept behind Orquesta Akokán, where the musicians recorded live as an ensemble, was to emulate that same spirit, he says.

Connors recalls, “On the first day of tracking, we set up all the musicians in a circle around our main microphone, an omnidirectional vintage Neumann U87. The Cuban engineers—José Raul and Roberto—and I spent a fair amount of time moving the mic and the musicians to get the right blend. Because the trumpets and percussion were so loud, they were farthest from the mic. As a result, they sound a bit more distant than the other instruments on the U87. But to me, that’s a crucial part of the sound of the album, hearing those trumpets activate the room.”

“If the musicians play well and know what to do and are aware of what’s needed from them, I don’t have to do much—just set up microphones. It’s not complicated,” laughs Varona.   

“Technically, we might not have the best conditions,” he adds, “and the version of Pro Tools that we use isn’t the most current one, but what I consider the most important part is the studio. This studio is special. It has a really interesting sound that you cannot find anywhere else in the world or in modern studios. The acoustics of this space are the most important and beautiful thing.”   

Connors continues, “Once we had the U87 sounding good, we set up spot mics on all the instruments. For horns, we used Neumann FET U47s, one per pair of players. We had to work the mic placement from song to song to make sure the players were balancing correctly on their shared mics.”

The timbre of the piano posed a challenge: “The Steinway grand piano at the studio had more bite and attack than any I’ve ever heard, especially in the high register. We tried some conventional miking with Neumann condensers but ended up relying mainly on one Sennheiser MD 421. It was just detailed enough to hear the nuances of the piano and just blunt enough to withstand those piercing high notes,” says Connors.

Vocals were also tricky, he says. “Pepito has a bright, loud voice. We tried a few options but ended up using an Electro-Voice RE20 and a FET 47, blending them to get the right sound.”

As for the acoustic bass, says Connors, “I placed an RE20 on the bridge and baffled it off to get some separation from the louder instruments.”

On percussion, “We used RE20s and MD 421s. They didn’t have a lot of microphone options at the studio, but luckily the mics they had were perfect for this type of recording,” says Connors.  

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“Recording live with percussion is a bit more complicated,” says Varona, “since percussion has its own dynamic. But then again, if you listen to ’50s and ’60s recordings, there wasn’t a way for you to control that other than what the musician did. That’s why you need a good musician. In my opinion, 60 to 70 percent of the recording depends on the musicians more than my work.”

“One of the main challenges with recording a band like this is getting the cowbell sounding right,” says Connors. “The players need to be able to hear it to keep time correctly, so it can’t be too far away. But it’s super loud and bleeds onto all the other mics in the room. Thankfully, the player was a total pro and managed his volume at all times, balancing to the rest of the band.”

The cowbell level was still an issue during the mix process because it’s almost impossible to turn it down, says Connors, who mixed the album at Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn. “Cutting the close mic causes it to sound distant, so we had to dial in the EQ and compression to make the bell blend in with the rest of the ensemble.”

As Varona notes, top-flight musicians make the engineer’s job easier. “The musicians are professionals; to me, they are the best in Havana in that they understand the process. You hand them a sheet and they know what you want from them. They’ve studied different styles—mambo, cha cha cha—and they can read and play whatever is needed from them. They know the music; they are great musicians.”

Daptone Records •