Someone built a vintage, '50s-style American recording studio in Germany? Or, as Moonshine's owner, Christian Krüger, said when he dropped a line, "I've lovingly recreated the original recording studios of this era, and the sound of the recordings are incredible." Okay, this is a passionate labor of love. I talked to Christian not long before he relocated his studio to the U.S., along with all this amazing equipment. -LC
Why build this studio?
I wanted to recreate this time capsule. I want to feel those times. I researched the photos and looked into the details. "What's this microphone in front of the bass? What did they use? What is behind the window in the recording room? What tape machines did they use? What tapes were used?" I wanted to recreate this; the recording way in the original studios in the '50s, like Chess Records or Sun Records. A small studio. Not Capitol Studios! I want to record 100 percent the original way. In between the gear, there’re no modern signals or electronics.
What was your inspiration?
As a young boy, my father was in the Air Force in Germany. His friend was a pilot, always flying to the USA for training, and he brought back a lot of records from Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, Hank Williams Sr., and so on. I listened to this music as a child. At 13 years old I was playing guitar; country music, rockabilly style, early Elvis [Presley], and so on. I was trying to record my music like my idols. I wanted to sound like Johnny Cash, but I never found the sound. I said, "How do you record this?"
You can cut to vinyl with the Presto lathe?
Yes, the Presto 6N. We cut live, or we can do it like Sam Phillips [Sun Records]; from the tape directly, cut on the vinyl, and then make the digitized version from the vinyl.
When you track to tape, is it only mono or do you have stereo?
That's too late! That is too "new" for me. My equipment is from around 1957 and '58. From the recording side, I can do the sound from the 1940s until the '60s. My studio also has very good effects, and we have a real echo chamber. The tape deck has the slapback echo – the Elvis echo – and I can give tape echo on the guitars, or to the voices with an extra microphone. This is original, not a modern splitter or something. My friends said, "Christian, you cannot do this. You need the multitrack! We can use the Fostex tape machine with eight tracks and hide it in the cupboard." I said, "No!"
The mixing console is important for studios like yours, as the mics get mixed down together during the live takes.
I researched techniques from recording studios and broadcast stations in the '30s to '50s. I read about equipment, checked catalogs, and got into the community network. I asked some people in the USA, "Can you help me?" I bought and bought over more than ten years. I have an old technician. I found him, and he was totally in love with the studio. He did all the restorations, so 95 percent of my studio is in totally working condition.
Right. Maintenance is really very difficult with older tube equipment.
Yeah. I'm very specialized in finding rare parts. I always find the transformers and all the manuals. My passion was to rebuild the studio. In the '50s, the small studios used a broadcast console and prepared it for recording. We don't need the network buttons and so on [like radio]. I started with the RCA BC-3B from 1957, and now I have this Raytheon RC-10 from around 1945. This is an amazing console. My technician worked two and a half years on it. Three transformers were damaged. Ten knobs were missing, and I found an original transformer. With the two consoles from the '50s connected together, we have 13 channels to record that I can use.
And mics certainly matter.
Older vocals are so fat and so true. I have five RCA 44-BX [ribbon mics]. In total I have 26 microphones, all American from the '50s.
It must be a very unique kind of client who wants to record this way, because there’re not 24 tracks of tape or computers.
No! Some clients are from jazz, or singer/songwriters. People like the vintage sound. They don't want to do the clean sound. They want the natural, the human. If you record in today's way on digital, you have no emotions. You can make mistakes. I think this is the human side. Sometimes people come into the studio and say, "Hey, I came to you because you have gear from the '50s and can make this Elvis Presley sound." Afterwards, they say, "Hey, it doesn't sound like Elvis." Of course! They don't sing like Elvis! We have the instruments, the studio, and the tapes, but most of the sound is the intonation of their voice and how they play.
The studio can only do so much. But putting together this environment, as well as the limitations, create a way of working that changes the way the records sound.
This is totally the way of recording. It's life. When I was young, I liked the Johnny Cash style. Now that I am growing older, I am going a little bit to the jazz. For me, jazz is easier to record. The jazz musicians are very close and often very professional in the playing. In my studio if you play loud, then it's more difficult.
Do you have conversations with artists beforehand, where you explain how the process is going to work here?
Yes, of course. First they need to see the photos, the feeling, and impression; this is special. When they call me and make a request to record and the price, I tell them that they must learn to play acoustic before they come in the studio.
If they're professional, I don't need to say this. But if they're an amateur band, they must prepare and practice their music without the amplifiers. I think if you want to work in this studio, you must be an artist. The clients sometimes say, "Oh, the sound is wonderful, but I thought we were playing better." I say, "Yes, you can do better! But you must practice more." I always tell the musicians, "We can create the music together." A good engineer has a feeling for the music and makes a good mix. You must listen. You must have the ear. For me, it's important that I make good recording sessions that people say are sounding cool. If I always have bad bands, then people might think the recording studio is very bad-sounding and uncool. Every recording session is very special and not always the same.