A CUBAN ADVENTURE - upgrading the Buena Vista studio
In early 2019, we were approached by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) to assist them in upgrading Cuba’s oldest and largest recording facility, Estudios Areito.
Most famous as the birthplace of Buena Vista Social Club, the studio dates back to the 1940's and remains in regular use to this day. Although this is hardly surprising - the US blockade froze most of the country's industries in the early 60s, most prominently evidenced by the vintage American cars still prowling the streets, which have pretty much become Cuba’s motif. Frozen in time and never replaced, they betray not only when the embargo began but also give a nod towards the era of prosperous trading that preceded it. Truly a time warp, albeit with Wi-Fi and an appreciation for high-end pro audio.
The recording industry was no exception. Music was nationalised during the revolution, bringing all recording, publishing and distribution under the umbrella of the communist government. Today it remains a national project, under the name EGREM (Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales, Spanish for Enterprise of Recordings and Musical Editions)
EGREM is effectively Cuba's national record company and organizes everything from booking the recording session and setting up microphones to pressing and shipping CDs of the finished tracks, which are then distributed through their network of shops, bars and restaurants. This was a particular culture shock coming from the fiercely competitive and comparatively disjointed music industry typical of the rest of the world. In a funny kind of a way, the whole process being under one roof makes a lot of sense.
Another unexpected but rather beautiful offshoot of communism is that, with earnings the same whether you’re a lawyer or a road sweeper, you may just as well be a musician. Because why wouldn’t you? The resulting over spill of people who spend their day jobs honing their craft is an enduring gift from the revolution. This makes the talent pool for their session musicians wide and of extremely high calibre.
However, this romanticism provided little comfort to me as I was detained on entry by Cuban Customs. They were curious as to why I was travelling with a suitcase full of XLR connectors, soldering tools and hydrometers. And what exactly my plan was for 200 bantam patch cables. It was a fair question.
The travel arrangements had been last minute. Despite a lengthy process of multiple shipments and pallets heading over to Cuba ahead of me, in real terms I ended up with only 4 days to prepare for the trip. Before we knew it, the re-inauguration of the studio had been scheduled and the invites sent out. With a quick and slightly apologetic note from UNIDO saying effectively, “it’d be great if you could somehow make this work!”
Never shy of attempting the seemingly impossible, I crammed any remaining stock items and tools into my suitcase to complete the delivery. At one point I considered filling all my pockets with connectors to save the weight, although luckily it didn’t come to that. Content that the return journey would at least leave me with abundant space for cigars and rum, I just about managed to bring everything that was promised.
Eventually a man from the Culture Ministry came with a letter explaining the situation and, after a thorough rummage through my suitcase, the nice officials let me go and allowed me to complete my journey.
Studio Areito, although beautiful, was in need of a refresh. The upstairs studio was large, boasting an old Steinway D in the main space, several booths and a big control room.
Downstairs we had the smaller tracking space. It was still big enough to record a 20 piece ensemble and had high ceilings. A 40-input Amek Mozart console tethered to a Studer A80 tape machine had long been the centrepiece of the control room. Anybody who owns a classic old console like this will know that maintenance can be a headache - something made even more difficult by Cuba's political situation. By the time I arrived, both these had already been removed to make space for the new SSL AWS console - installation of which being the reason I was here.
This was where we were first to set to work.
In Havana, musicians typically spend the day playing bars and the evenings playing the clubs. A lot of latin music heavily features call and response as well as spoken word overlays. With interaction between bandmates being essential to their performance, live recording is the norm, with overdubs and retakes rare.
Such a studio demanded a flexible tracking system. Multiple headphone mixes and the ability to change patches on the fly were paramount. When all the musicians are in the same space, most of the hard work is done at the recording stage.
We supplied and installed an SSL AWS 948 and Pro Tools HDX rig, along with a host of microphones, outboard, convertors and monitors.
A battery of 6 Redco patchbays (our current favourite) fed the console and control room tielines. It being Cuba, we had to find a way to make the labelling colour scheme work with a black-and-white printer. Once in situ, a substantial complement of Mogami looms tied everything together. As well as a few hundred meters of unterminated installation cable and connectors.
The AWS Track Assign outputs were normalled to the inputs of a Hearback headphone monitoring system. The convenient symmetry of the channel count made it an easy marriage. Our first session saw staggered arrivals of musicians. As a new member joined the band, we got their foldback up and tested with a single button press. As well as assigning their output to the rest of the band in turn. Breaking this path out on the front of a Redco allows insertion of a non-destructive tracking comp over selected foldback channels, making headphone mixes easier to manage. One could also assign channels 7 and 8 for aux returns allowing performers to dial in how much reverb they want in their cans. This worked out great.
Finally, there was a lengthy list of ancillary equipment - dehumidifiers (which had to be custom-built for the studio spec), computers, external drives and various other utility bits to keep the studios running. Not forgetting my lovingly hand-delivered hydrometers.
The install wasn’t without its challenges. Mains power in Cuba runs at 60Hz. With no access to any equipment shipped directly from the US, finding gear to run at 60Hz natively was a real problem. What’s more, there’s a mixture of 110v and 240v outlets with people tending to insert transformers to convert between the two. And no one uses a label maker! There was also no grounding in the studio, which played havoc with the console metering. We also had to revise the audio cabling scheme several times. Cue desperately exchanging late night emails with KMR staff back in London on hotel Wi-Fi. Although admittedly, I was sitting with a mojito in a Havana bar while KMR HQ was busy rethinking cabling lists, shuffling around patchbay labels and trying to cram files into tiny, emailable packages (you can’t access most cloud storage from Cuba).
We tackled all of this together with the EGREM engineers, whose professionalism, skill and unparalleled work ethic meant that nothing was too much of a problem.
Then followed a day of training with the team not only from Areito but also from the neighbouring Estudios 18 where we went over the console, interface and Pro Tools.
During the last day at Areito we ran a recording session to mark the recommissioning of the studio. We recorded a predictably fantastic band which, in an instance of poetic symmetry, contained musicians who had played on Buena Vista Social Club. Attended by press and delegates from the Ministry of Culture, it was a stress test of both the equipment and the engineers. As a result, the team heroically decided that I should run the session. Although whether this was a kind honour or a passed buck remained to be seen.
The session used the direct outs from the preamps into the A/D converters. This meant that, once the gain was set, the console could be kept in DAW mode. With the control room fully loaded with press and dignitaries, it was nice to be able to tweak the mix without affecting the artists. And having it spread out on faders makes even the most seasoned engineer more comfortable.
Everything ran perfectly and, after toasting the new studios with some particularly delicious rum, it was time to depart.
We left Havana with a better studio than when we arrived. The local engineers are skilled and resilient. There's no doubt that even without any outside influence or new equipment, they will continue to make music and release albums in perpetuity. Just as they can run a car from the 60s, the studio will stand for as long as someone has something to record.