Industry Professional Profile: Greg Hunt of Rosewood Studios (Part 2)
Tucked away in downtown Tyler, Texas - off of the music industry’s Los Angeles, Nashville, New York beaten path – Rosewood Studios has earned a reputation for consistently engineering and producing songs and albums that can compete with recordings cut at any studio in the world. The reason Rosewood has gold and platinum albums lining the walls is more than just the product of their great recording gear and a Russ Berger designed acoustic space. The reason Rosewood is recording the best sounding records of various artist’s careers is because of people, not technology. Owner Greg Hunt has racked up 2-score-more than the requisite 10,000 hours to become a master at his craft. In fact, he’s well into his 43rd year as a music industry professional, all the while calling Texas home.
This is part 2 of the 2 part interview with Hunt. Read part 1 here.
TMO: We were previously speaking about learning things from projects you’ve worked on. You mentioned that an old friend of yours did the orchestration on one of Leann Rimes’ records? Was that on "Blue"?
Hunt: "No. That was on Leann’s 'The Classic’s Album.' The string arranger on that record was Darrell Holt."
TMO: The orchestration is phenomenal. How did you originally start collaborating with Leann Rimes, considering she was such a young artist at the time?
Hunt: "A popular Texas musician and close friend of mine, Milo Deering, had suggested to Leann and her dad, Wilbur Rimes to come to Rosewood Studios. They had been recording in Clovis, NM, the studio Buddy Holly had done his hits, as well as a couple other studios in Texas. Leann had signed a record deal with Curb Records, and they were looking for a home to record and mix her debut album, 'Blue.' We cut 'Blue,' not the album, but the single, and it became a monster hit for her.
"And the crazy thing about it…we did it on a Saturday. The guys loaded in at 9:00 a.m., and by 3:00 o'clock in the afternoon, Leann and her dad were going home with finished mixes.
"There were articles written about how 'retro' the recording was, so when I tell people the story of the session, they say ‘That's impossible!’ And it's really not (laughs). We started at 9, and at 3 o'clock they were headed home. We did background vocals, lead vocals, all the overdubs, mixing and everything. You know…it's just a song. The quickness of the session was one of the unique things about that."
TMO: It’s also interesting because the performance is so strong, she must have been really well rehearsed. To pull off such a strong performance, she must have been hitting it in first or second takes?
Hunt: "Oh yeah. This is what's crazy about her…and this is a great story: I was in Sacramento, CA working (on a project) when her father Wilbur Rimes called our studio. Gary Leach spoke with him, called me that night, and said, 'this fellow named Wilbur Rimes has got a daughter that sings…and he wants to book a session. And he asked specifically for you, so you should call him.' So I called him. And we set up the date.
"On the day of the session, for her cue vocals, I put up an SM 57 (Editor's note: a good, but very general and multi-use mic), and stuck her in the vocal booth. And at the time, we had an MCI 636 console in the control room. We didn’t have the ability to send private cues the way we do these days, so typically I would just have a full stereo mix for the singer and session players. Assuming she was going to sound like most of the other young vocalists at the time, I would have the vocals turned off in the control room mix.
"We went through each instrument, dialed in the sounds, then started recording the song. The assistant engineer, Gary Leach, after being in the studio making final mic adjustments, came into the control room, bent down in my ear, and he says, 'Turn on the singer! She is the real deal.'
"I'll never forget it. I hit pre-fader listen on her channel, and I said, 'Oh my gosh! She is the real deal.’ (laughs). Ohhhh...we better take that SM 57 mic off of her..."
TMO: The recording sounds so pure and present…did that SM 57 really record her final lead vocal track? Or did you really ditch it and use something else?
Hunt: "No no no. We went through the gamut of trying to find the best mic for her. It could have been a Sankin CU-41, which is a nice vocal mic. It probably was, because at the time, it was one of the better ones. But we went through trying out AKG C-24s and C-12 mics. I had U47s there, U67s, U87s, and what handled her voice the very best was the Sankin CU-41. It just worked on her. And you know, it doesn't mean it would work perfectly on everybody else.
"A lot of guys are like, 'Well this is my best mic.' That doesn't mean it's gonna sound the best on that singer. If the budget allows, we always do a three or four mic shoot-out as the singers are warming up, so we can hear which mic works best. And we're very careful to make sure that we that we run each mic barefoot, meaning there's no EQ, no compression, it’s the mic and the mic pre: We make sure every mic runs through the same mic pre, whether it’s an API, Neve, etc.. That allows us to choose the best sounding mic for that singer, and not wear the singer out."
Since that song was such a monster hit, did that increase the amount of business that was coming in to Rosewood Studios?
Hunt: "After recording the song, 'Blue' we finished the rest of the album, then went on to cut her next several records. The last album we did for Leann was the 'I Need You,' and 'Coyote Ugly' projects.
"We've always been very busy. During that era, we became incredibly popular with artists in the Christian market as well.
"We did some huge records. An example is Matthew Ward’s 'Armed and Dangerous.' Check that record out man. That was before Pro Tools, and it will kick ya'! (laughs) This guy is an incredible singer."
TMO: That leads into one of our final questions: Where do you come down on the use of analog recording gear versus digital recording programs and gear, like Pro Tools?
Hunt: "Originally at Rosewood Studios, we had two MCI multi-track machines, a 24 track, and a 16 track, giving us 40 tracks to record our projects on. We also had an Otari MX 80, and a Steven 16. The Steven was probably the best sounding multi-track machine that I used, but the problem was maintenance and parts.
"So back to your question. I was very much a machine tech guy, and I can talk hours about it. I was not running noise reduction, so I would elevate my input over output to compensate. It was a bit frustrating at times, because I was such a fanatic about setting up that machine, and I never quite enjoyed the change that the analog tape did to the sound. I know people say ‘oh it's supposed to sound better’. Well, it’s not the ‘sound better’ part that I disliked. It was the change. In other words, I worked so hard on my input, recorded it, and my playback didn’t sound exactly the way my input did. And that's just because its tape. It's saturating, compressing, distorting, etc. It's using bias current to print on to your magnetic tape. I was always a little frustrated with that, but always loved the sound of it. The sound of it I always liked, it was just a little bit a change. So then I would start to engineer the beginning of the recording process to compensate for what I knew the machine was gonna do. And that can be a little risky at times.
"Entering the digital world, the first step was ADATs, then we went to full Pro Tools, probably around 2000. I've always been a bit frustrated with the digital sound. The way we have found to compensate for that is through nice vintage gear. Old LA2As, great condenser mics, great tube mics, API and Neve mic pres & EQs, and a lot of cool other things that we cut with when we record. Recently, within the past year, we’ve installed all Burl converters, which bring the analog to digital conversion to a whole new level, and I love it."
TMO: And lastly, you mentioned earlier that your studio continues to stay busy. As so many recording studios are struggling, why do you think Rosewood has continued to stay so busy?
Hunt: "We are busy all day long. Both the tracking room and the editing suite…every day of the week. We do everything from demos, to complete full song productions. Some of our recent projects include Josh Ward, Cody Wayne, Aaron Watson, Jason Cassidy, Joe Nichols, and many more.
"Our hourly rates can range anywhere from $75 to $90, with an engineer and an assistant. We also offer song production rates, pre-production rates, and each one of these projects are unique unto itself."
TMO: Competitively, that’s very affordable.
Hunt: "Yes. You’re exactly right. You know, sometimes we don't know if it's too inexpensive, but I think it seems to work.
"You know, my dad he taught me a very important thing about being in business, and that is: ‘In business, there is no substitute for profit.’
"My dad was a petroleum engineer. He never really cared about me being in the music business, until I started doing well. And I'll never forget it. I went to his office one day. We were going to go have lunch. And he said, ‘Well how's it going?’
"I told him how our phones are ringing off the wall with business.
He said, ‘Just make sure you're not getting activity confused with accomplishment.’
"In the early ‘80s, I realized that I would find people that needed my services to make their living. I knew I'd be a lot better off doing that than staying up all night recording garage band demos. Even though that’s very important to us, you want to have the potential for repeat business.
"You have to find people that need your services to make their living. That’s the key to success in the studio business."