Nathaniel Kunkel close-up

I met Nathaniel Kunkel several years ago at an audio conference and was impressed by how self assured and outspoken he was for his young age. He’s been depending on UAD-1 for years, so he couldn’t wait to try UAD-2 with his Pro Tools rig. In fact, he couldn’t even wait for the official Pro Tools support offered in the forthcoming UAD 5.2 software release, due in mid-December. Like a few other die-hard UAD/Pro Tools users, he learned that UAD-2 is already completely stable for mixing within limited Pro Tools settings [the buffer must be set to 1024 and RTAS buffers should = 6 –Ed.] Nathaniel is a hell of a nice guy, with a lot to say.

I wanted to talk about your childhood and your background, because it's so interesting. You're father's a famous musician ...

My dad is Russ Kunkel, who's a drummer, and a producer as well. And my mother is Leah Kunkel, who is a singer and a songwriter. My dad performed with people like James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, and Jimmy Buffet —

Crosby, Stills and Nash?

Crosby, Stills and Nash. Bill Withers — the list goes on and on. I'll be listening to music once in a while, and I'll look at a record credit and go, "Man, my dad played on this? I had no idea my dad played on this." Just amazing. He played on so many things. I was really inundated with music my entire life. There was always music being played in the house. I used to go to my dad's shows and go out on the road. I was on the stage for a lot of the stuff, and I got to hang out in the recording studios and fall asleep under the console. I was just always around this.

You told me you were on the Jackson Browne Running on Empty tour.

Yeah, I was. I remember being out on that tour as well. Being at Tanglewood where all those photographs were taken, and all of that.

As a little kid, did you want to be a musician?

As a little kid I was really interested in doing lights. There was a guy named Alan Owen who used to work for Showco, God rest his soul. He was really cool, really sweet to me when I was on the road, and I thought what he did was really cool. Obviously the younger you are, the more impressive flashing lights are. [Laughs.] Audio is maybe a little bit more of a sophisticated version of that for me. So initially I was interested in lighting, and then I met George Massenburg when I was between 13 and 15, something like that. I remember watching him — walking in the studio and watching him work, and thinking, "My goodness, this is something I really want to do. I could really do this, I love this." I became really interested in audio at that moment. George was actually the person that really got me into it at the very beginning. Then it became a passion that was just insatiable for me.

Did you apprentice with him?

Yes, I did. I ended up working with him for almost a decade.

"The thing that I feel no one's really talking about is that this [the UAD-2] is a paradigm shift."

How old were you when you started?

I was in high school. I was spending my summers in Los Angeles working at The Complex for Greg Ladanyi and George Massenburg. I wasn't specifically working for George at the time. I was really more working for the recording studio. I didn't work for George until after I graduated from high school, and I had left The Complex. I was working for Jackson Browne at the time — Ed Wong, who was Jackson Browne's chief engineer, gave me a gig at Jackson's studio Groove Masters. They were really instrumental in my mentoring as well. Jackson is just one of the greatest people in the world, and Ed Wong is a wonderful human being as well as a brilliant engineer. So working there, I learned a lot from them. In the middle of my second year or so working for Jackson, I got a call from George, who was at Skywalker Ranch working on a Little Feat record. He was in need of an assistant, and asked me if I wanted the job. So I went to Skywalker Ranch, and we did a Little Feat record, it was called Representing the Mambo. That was the beginning of — I guess it was almost a ten-year working relationship. I worked with George and Peter Asher kind of exclusively for several years. It wasn't until Lyle Lovett's I Love Everybody that I really recorded solo, away from George. That was the beginning of my solo career.

I remember at a surround conference, where you were arguing with George on a panel —

I always do that.

I was so surprised. I learned afterwards that he had been somewhat of a mentor to you, so I was surprised that you argued with him. But I find your self-confidence really amazing. Were you always like that, even when you were a teenager, or is it something that has developed?

It evolved. That was a product of George being both a brilliant teacher and of a differing opinion. George is without question — in addition to being one of my greatest friends — one of the most brilliant human beings I've ever met. When we worked together, he really demanded that I didn’t come to him until I was absolutely sure of what I was talking about or what my question was. So if I come to him, and I'm absolutely sure of what I'm talking about, and I really think he's wrong, now what do I do? Right? All that's left to do is to hash it out until you get to the bottom of it. He demanded it.

Obviously, if you were present at the surround conference, you know that it's all with love. It's also our love of engineering, and the requirement that we ask every question that there is to be asked. You have to ask every question, or you haven't really done your job as an engineer. As a real — in the classical sense — engineer. It’s up to us to figure out how to make the sound better. George invented the parametric equalizer because he did not agree that existing designs were sufficient. Talk about asking every question …

He really taught me how to listen, how to think, and how to qualify what my opinion is. To really understand the mechanics of what made up the sounds; what made the sounds be things that we liked, what made the sounds be things that we didn't like, and how what we liked changed, depending on what type of music you were working on or what your objective was. He also really taught me how to decipher, how to figure things out.

It sounds like your education was much better than anything you could have got at a recording school.

There's no question about it. I also feel very lucky because it was the end of an era in terms of the time spent on a record project. We really got to spend time listening, and learning. There just isn't that kind of time anymore. It's also not as much of a team. When there were larger mechanical infrastructures to manipulate during the record-making process, you really needed to have a high level of technical conversancy with your crew. That has really evaporated as you're looking at one guy sitting in front of a terminal running a console and the computer and effects and blah, blah, blah. There's nothing to document. There's no more required synergy from the engineering staff on a project. Often there is synergy, but it's not as required as it used to be. It used to be you couldn't pull a record off without it.

I feel very fortunate that I was involved in the end of that time period where that was the only way to make a record. All the records I made at the beginning of my career were — I guess laborious [laughs] is really the best word for it. But in a lot of ways, that's how you learn. It's listening to George EQ a vocal for five years. You hear him push up a fader, you hear him EQ it, and you hear him do that over and over and over and over again, and sooner or later — it isn't about studying it for one day. It isn't about documenting it that one time. It's about feeling the way that that occurs over time, then assimilating it. I don't know how you would assimilate that same type of listening skill and troubleshooting skill in the context of an audio environment with the current business models the way they are. There just isn't the time.

Can we assume that you learned on tape, splicing tape, and analog outboard gear?

Yep.

At what point did you embrace digital technology?

I embraced digital technology from the very beginning, because I was working for George Massenburg. The first time I walked into a studio with George, he was running a Mitsubishi X850. We knew how to use analog, we dealt with analog, I knew how to align analog, I had worked on many analog projects in a row, but digital was something that we were conversant with — or at least I was conversant with.

Nate Kunkel leaning on a monitor
Nathaniel Kunkel

Tell me the concept behind Studio Without Walls.

I think the most important thing when you're creating music with an artist is the environment that the artist is in when they're creating. Studio Without Walls is about being able to bring the studio to whatever environment you want.

What's your setup, and how do you make it transportable?

Everything is in racks. It's not much different from what the back line of a concert would be. It's a bunch of 22-space racks with multipin interconnects, and L5-20 power connectors, a power distribution box, road cases, trunks, and speaker boxes.

What kind of gear are you running?

One of the recording systems is based around Pro Tools. I have the large Pro Tools system, with a couple of UAD cards and an expansion chassis. A Lynx Aurora converter, a Brainstorm DCD 8 clock. I've also got some outboard gear. Some GML microphone preamplifiers and compressors, TC Electronics M6000. Lots of JBL monitoring. I have a Digidesign Icon mixing surface. I also have another 22-space rack that has a Tascam X48, and a bunch of Mackie Onyx 800R mic pre/converters in it. I'll use that when I'm doing location recordings if my footprint needs to be really, really small. So the concept of Studio Without Walls is flexibility. Technically, it's all about flexibility. If you go back to the main idea of it — which is bring the studio to the artist, wherever they want to be — sometimes they need a complete recording studio. Sometimes that requires an Icon, 48 channels of microphone preamplifier and headphone systems for ten musicians, and everything you could ever possibly need. And sometimes it means bringing a Digi 002 and a laptop up to their studio apartment in Malibu, because they want to cut vocals looking out their bedroom window. So it really is all about flexibility. The connectors, the patch bays and the entire architecture of the studio are designed around being extremely scalable.

What are some of the most significant projects you've worked on recently?

We recorded The Police at Dodger Stadium. We recorded and mixed Diana Ross' last record. Mixed Lyle Lovett's last three albums. We did a location recording and mix for a Sting DVD that won an Emmy for outstanding sound mixing. The last B.B. King album. Lots of stuff. I have been really lucky to have the chance of working with such amazing artists.

Do you have a home studio really tricked out for mixing? Do you prefer to mix there?

I have yet to find a room that I set up in a home of mine, or in a home of someone else's, that I can't dial in to be just diggin' mixing in. I love mixing in my environment. With the JBL LSR speakers, my gear, and my own power and wiring infrastructure — I can pretty much mix anywhere. Obviously, mixing in a 6 x 5 room is not optimum. But if I have some reasonable square footage, and a fairly tight room, yeah, I really love mixing in my own facility.

Do you use commercial studios?

Yeah. I love commercial studios.

What are your favorites?

If I had budgets, I'd be at Conway, or Ocean Way, 24/7. I think Jon Brion is the luckiest guy in the world. Don't get me wrong, I love mixing at home, but gosh, to be in a major recording facility — that's all I'm aspiring to build. To have a chief engineer like Bruce Marian working in your room every day? My God. Where do I sign? I'd give anything for that. But my problem is, I just don't have those kinds of budgets any more. They're just not there.

Very few people do.

The reason I have such a nice home studio, and why I really worked on it so much, was because I just couldn't afford commercial studios, and I appreciate them so much. So when I decided to build one, it was portable, because I couldn't afford to build a real studio in the house I was renting. It didn't make sense. But I could afford to start trying to trick out my rig; and then all of a sudden, I owned Studio Without Walls. I wish I could say that there was this grandiose idea — that I was like, "Oh, I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to do it all like this, and I'm going to have identical racks," and so on. It was just one of those things where I started doing it because I was moving from studio to studio. I turned around one day and went, "Hey, man, this is kind of a portable studio. All I need is a console."

Let’s get real geeky now and talk about the UAD-2 and the UAD-1, your plug-ins and how you've used them, and what you think.

I have to be honest. I don't think the important thing I have to say has anything to do with any particular plug-in, or any particular benefit of the UAD-2 — other than the lower latency, and excess of DSP, which you guys espouse so eloquently already. The thing that I feel no one's really talking about is that this is a paradigm shift. For the first time ever, people are standing up and saying, "These plug-ins sound better or different than the plug-ins that are inside my Pro Tools system." And that's something a lot of us have been saying for a while: These plug-ins have a sound to them.

Now, I'm not trying to slight Pro Tools. I love Digidesign. There are HTDM plug-ins that I have that I could not live without — and I'm not speaking only of Massenburg's equalizer and compressor. There are other brilliant plug-ins. The hardware architecture is solid. I love my console. But there are some things that it does not do well. There are some things that every particular system does not do well. An SSL 9000J does not sound good when you drive the buss at +20. You theoretically can, but it just doesn't sound right. There are things that you do with Pro Tools that just don't sound right. So, for the first time, there's a way for us to work within the framework of the Pro Tools DAW and have an option for the way that we're manipulating our audio with DSP. Being able to use the UAD cards, whether it's the UAD-1 or the UAD-2, you really, really do hear a difference. There is a difference in the quality of the sound when you go through these plug-ins.

Can we talk about specific plug-ins?

Yeah. The Fairchild, the 1073, the 1081, the SPL Transient Designer … I'm a really basic person in terms of what I use when I'm mixing. It's like, "God, I really wish I had a little midrange bump that I get on a 1073." I'm not a super-freaky Neve aficionado. I love 33609s on horns, so if I'm mixing stuff in with a horn buss on it, I use a 33609. The deal is, when I use a UAD plug-in, it sounds more like what I expect it to sound like. When I add mid range to a guitar with the 1073 plug-in, it does exactly what a regular 1073 does. It's awesome. I can just make a guitar grind.

A lot of people have problems with the latency stuff. Can we talk specifically about that, and about really using it in the Pro Tools rig, and the new card?

I've run up against my latency limit, but I didn't run out. And I don't usually use more than one or two plug-ins on a channel. I also don't do a lot of soft synths. I really mix very old school. I open it up, I EQ a couple of things. I go to a UAD plug the same way I would go to an outboard Fairchild for real. It's like, "OK, I got two Fairchilds." Maybe that's wrong, but I still have that mentality. I'm very sparing with my equipment. I try and do as little as possible.

That's probably why your stuff sounds so good — you're not over-producing.

Maybe I'm a bit too much of a purist to tax the system. If I open up 15 or 20 equalizers — I think that's a lot of EQ. [Laughs.]

Have you been following the Metallica story?

No.

The general public is complaining that their new album is “too loud.” It turns out it's ultra-ultra compressed. Some are even saying there's digital clipping. The story even hit Rolling Stone and The Wall Street Journal. The mastering engineer, Ted Jensen, at Sterling Sound in New York, came out and said, "It wasn't me. It came to me that way." It's been a big story in the recording and mastering world, but I found it really interesting that a mastering story hit The Wall Street Journal.

Well, you know, we've been saying it for a really, really long time.

Then what happened was that stems were given to Guitar Hero, the game —

Let me guess…that were more dynamic.

Right. So users have been remixing, or using those stems, and prefer the way the video game sounds to the album. [Laughs.]

Wow! Well, you know, maybe the public isn't so silly.

I know. We always think, "Oh, they don't care what it sounds like. They’re happy with MP3s." But maybe they do care what it sounds like.

Of course they care what it sounds like. I've certainly been mixing with a lot less compression. It just seems better.

I still have vinyl, and we'll get out our vinyl and listen to older stuff … most of it just sounds so good.

Doesn’t it?

Do you curse the fact that you have this EM column to write every month, or is it easy for you because you have so much to say?

I love it. But I don't take it lightly either. Even when it's a light-hearted article, I take it fairly seriously. I want it to be entertaining and hopefully educational. If someone's going to take the time to read it, I want them to get something out of it — even if it's just a good time. So I worry about it a lot; I pine over it. That makes it a little bit hard sometimes because I really will rake myself over the coals. But at the same time, I love it, because once a month it really does make me take a couple of days to sit down and think about what's going on, what it means, and what parts of it I think would be important to share with other people. The articles are usually veiled — and sometimes very thinly so — diary entries. They're often entwined in exactly what's going on for me. They are therefore about a subject that I'm thinking about in such depth that it's easy for me to spell out a couple of thoughts and ideas about it. So in that respect its been wonderful for me. I am certainly planning on continuing until they ask me to go.