Notes On My Experiences Mixing The Shaming Of The True by John Cuniberti
In 1995 I was introduced to Kevin Gilbert by his manager and friend, Jon Rubin. I was called in to confer with Kevin about recording gear — in particular digital vs. analog equipment and drum micing techniques. Kevin also had questions about some recordings I’d made. Although Kevin was a very good engineer and had a great studio, he liked to collaborate in some areas and often worked with other engineers at different studios. Apparently he was unhappy with some of the results he’d been getting at his own studio and liked the work I’d done with drums on a Joe Satriani record. The questions about technical matters turned out to be a sort of audition. I guess I passed, as Kevin and Jon hired me to work with them a few days later.
The work we began would become Kevin’s rock opera, The Shaming of the True. I began working as a recording engineer on this project at NRG studios in L.A. in 1995. This was my first insight into the way Kevin went about recording his music. The process could be described as extremely creative, open-ended, chaotic, or the only way an incredibly intense musical prodigy was capable of working. Bits and pieces of song ideas appeared — a bass track here, a synth track there, scratch vocals with piano, etc. There were no track sheets or notes on the technical information and song titles, just a lot of interesting music.
We recorded Nick D’Virgilio’s drums on the songs Smash and Water Under The Bridge. Nick’s performance was spectacular, and I was thrilled to be working with him and with Kevin. I felt I’d gained much more than simply a new client, I saw the beginnings of a friendship with two very talented people.
Sadly, I never saw Kevin again after those sessions. Like most people who were fortunate enough to know Kevin, I , too, was shocked to hear of his death. But this event didn’t end my involvement with Kevin and his music. Instead, Kevin’s tragic departure intensified the process of making the album in a way I could never have predicted.
Jon Rubin contacted Nick and myself a few months after Kevin’s death and asked us to finish, archive, and catalog all of Kevin’s recordings for his estate. As mentioned above, Kevin never felt it necessary to label his tapes or make track sheets, a general and usually essential practice in commercial studios where dozens of takes of many instruments and musical phrases need to be organized and put together to mix and construct final pieces. Only Kevin knew the shape, the final plan, for the project. Only he knew what fragments would be arranged in what order, how they would be pieced together and how all the scattered parts would be used, if at all.
Nick began the huge task of cataloging the tapes, some dating back to the early eighties, and eventually created a computer file for us to evaluate. Jon Rubin, Nick, and I were able to determine that we had on hand at least five CDs of unreleased Kevin Gilbert material. I am happy to say that as of this writing all of Kevin’s tape library has been cataloged and archived, and all the material to be released has been mixed (if necessary) and mastered.
The first project that we undertook in early 1997 eventually became Kevin’s rock opera The Shaming of the True. Those of us who took on the task of finishing this work decided to use Coast Recorders in San Francisco. The fact that the studio had an automated vintage Neve console and that I managed the studio made it the likely choice. Kevin loved the sound of the Neve, and I was sure he would have insisted on it as the mixing desk.
The constant question of what Kevin would have done haunted me throughout the entire project. In most cases, I collaborate with the artist on all aspects of the mixing. So instead of a detailed collaboration with weeks of decisions made by an artist, all we had to go on were rough mixes on a DAT and a handwritten note of Kevin’s with what we believed was the last running order of the opera. I remember at one point being upset about a mix, not knowing what Kevin had intended and feeling hopeless. Someone said, “Kevin f….d up and he doesn’t get to be here. So do what you feel is right for the song.” With that in mind, I got on with the job at hand, always referring to Kevin’s rough mixes as a kind of blueprint and never venturing too far from them.
Parade: There are two versions of this song. One was recorded with footsteps keeping time, and one was recorded without. Because Kevin used the second version on his rough mix, I assumed this was the one he wanted to use in the final version. The intro synth chaos was never found on the 24 track, so I pulled it off Kevin’s rough mix.
City of the Sun: The cross fade into this piece is a combination of about 20 tracks of TV and radio shows all mixed together and faded up. I really liked what Kevin had done without fader automation, and it took me a long time to equal his rough mix. What a great song and production! After spending a day mixing this song, I put on Kevin’s rough mix and was floored at how good it was. I learned again that I couldn’t venture too far from the rough mixes. There are some backing vocals on the rough mix that aren’t on the master 24 track. Did Kevin have a slave reel with more vocals that we never found? We’ll never know.
Suit Fugue: This shows Kevin’s brilliance as a songwriter, singer, and producer. I loved mixing this and look forward to mixing it again in 5.1 surround.
Imagemaker: This was the first track Jon Rubin asked me to mix. It was a test to see if I could improve Kevin’s rough and finished mixes. All involved agreed there was an improvement, and I got the green light to do the rest of the record. When I told Jon I used Dolby SR on the two track mix, he told me that Kevin hated SR. Out of respect for Kevin, I mixed the rest of the record on BASF 900 +6 @ 30ips.
Water Under The Bridge: This track was incomplete when Kevin died, but was a necessary element to the production. The vocal was a scratch recorded as a guide. I had only one vocal chorus to work with, and moved it around to complete the lead vocal. Nick did a great job of doubling the lead vocal and adding harmonies. I asked Tommy Dunbar (Jon’s partner from The Rubinoos days and a collaborator and friend of Kevin’s) to play a simple George Harrison style guitar solo to complete the song.
Best Laid Plans: There is no doubt that Kevin was paying tribute to some of his mentors on the production of The Shaming of the True. In this case, it must have been Elton John. As a fan of early Elton John recordings, I was thrilled to mix this classic rock production. To get the feeling of this piece, I spent equal time listening to Kevin’s rough mix and referring to Elton’s Madman Across The Water.
Smash: Early on, it was decided that Smash could not be a part of the rock opera. Kevin never sang a vocal on it, not even a guide. There was some talk about a Kevin Gilbert sound-alike singing the song, but that never happened. It was only after working on the Kevin Gilbert Live At The Troubadour CD that I thought it possible to pull Kevin’s vocal performance from the live show and apply it to the studio version. After many hours of digital editing, we had completed the song portion but left the rap (story) section out. We thought it would be clever to have someone else do that bit, so we hired a comedian named Bobby Slayton. Bobby was great and very funny, but in the end we went back and pulled Kevin’s vocal from the live recording. If you listen carefully, you can hear the Troubadour audience in the background.
Staring into Nothing: One of my favorites tracks. The crucial elements: flanged bass on the intro, drum and guitar sounds, monks, backing vocals, reverbs from hell. This track took me three days to mix, and it was worth it. This is maybe the best work I have ever done. There was a problem with some leaking time code on the right channel intro piano track. The piano track was a guide for vocals and was never replayed by Kevin.
Fun: As with most of Kevin’s recordings, the use of processing (i.e. compressors, EQ, and distortion) was applied at the time of recording. Unlike most producers, he knew what he wanted and laid it down processed as a raw element. If he decided later he didn’t like the sound, he would just do the recording again. I am sure this practice led to the confusion regarding track sheets and tape box notes. The vocal processing on Fun had serious sibilance problems. There were also three vocal performances on the 24 track. We used Kevin’s rough mix to sort out what vocal he wanted to use, when he wanted it to be used, where he would have wanted it. I mixed this song four times before I felt I got it the way Kevin would have wanted it.
From Here To There: This might be Kevin’s finest vocal performance on the CD. I still get goose bumps when I hear it. The end is down right creepy.
Ghetto of Beautiful Things: This song was a late arrival. We knew it existed only because we found a mix Kevin made of it to DAT. In my opinion, the mix was not good enough to go on the CD. The master was found at the last minute and it was the last to be mixed. When mastering the CD, I decided to replace the drum intro I had mixed with Kevin’s original. When we tried to cross-fade the two intros together, the tracks were a bit out of phase with each other. Jon and I liked the effect so we left it in.
Long Days Life: Mixing this song was like mixing three songs. In fact I had to mix it in sections or I would’ve gone crazy. I no sooner got a mix I liked than the arrangement would change and guitar tracks would turn into vocal tracks and a percussion track would turn into a keyboard track then back again. Kevin would often put many different instruments on the same track. He had a 24-track tape recorder and a pair of 8 track digital recorders locked up for a total of 40 tracks. But that still wasn’t enough for this complex and beautiful production.
Way Back Home: This cut was bare bones. Only drums, a piano, and a guide vocal track. Nick D’Virgilio, who worked on this cut prior to Kevin’s death, is the person most responsible for its completion. Nick knew what Kevin wanted regarding instrumentation and vocals. Nick decided to finish the track knowing how important it was to the opera. I am certain this must have been very difficult for Nick since he had been so close to Kevin and was now working at Kevin’s studio without him. Nick did a great job, and I know Kevin would have approved. The guitar solo is one of the high points of this CD, played by David Levita. Nick doubled Kevin’s guide vocal track to help reinforce it bit.
Johnny’s Last Song: Kevin wanted this last song to sound as down and out as Johnny Virgil must have felt. He recorded it outside the studio somewhere, onto a portable cassette player. The guitar was some old beat up junker. It was then transferred to the 24-track and sound effects were added. Kevin recorded the wonderful rain track himself. The faraway train whistle, that always leaves me with a sense of sadness, was another stroke of brilliance on Kevin’s part.
A final note: There are two other songs that may have been part of the rock opera but were pulled at the last minute by Kevin. They are The Best of Everything and Miss Broadway. Miss Broadway appears on the Thud Live CD, and The Best of Everything will be on a forthcoming compilation of unreleased solo material.