Factoid: Stoneking’s new album was recorded live and direct to a 1/4" tape machine using only two microphones.

Paleo Recording: Capturing Gon’ Boogaloo’s Primitive Vibe

With his band only available for two days to record the 12 songs on Gon’ Boogaloo, C.W. Stoneking already had his work cut out for him. So when he walked into Sound Recordings Studios (just outside Melbourne, where he now lives) and was told by engineer Alex Bennett that the 4-track machine they’d intended to use had broken down the day before, he feared the sessions might be jinxed.

“First time I met him,” Stoneking chuckles, “he had an 8-track machine there that he’d already told me was a piece of junk, but we started plugging into it anyway. We were checking out mics, and I was having difficulty getting a guitar sound that I liked with a close mic on the cabinet. I kept moving it further away until it was so far across the room, I was like, ‘Well, how much bleed am I getting into my vocal mic?’”

Stoneking’s Jazzmaster actually sounded better bleeding into his old RCA 77-DX ribbon microphone—and, he discovered, so did Andrew Scott’s double bass. By then, they were down to just a couple of overhead mics on the drums when Bennett suggested they could switch the setup over to a more reliable Ampex 351 1/4"-tape 2-track machine.

“We did a pass of a song and it sounded a million times better,” Stoneking notes. “It was a pretty minimal song—one of the ballads—but I was like, ‘Okay, let’s just do it like this and we’ll figure it out as we go.’ So we pretty much built the band around the RCA, and I sang into another microphone. [Author’s note: The vocal mic was a vintage, Soviet-made tube condenser, much like those used by radio announcers.] We’d do a pass of each tune and have a listen back, and then just position everybody. The amps and the drum set stayed where they were, but for songs with acoustic bass, sometimes we’d have to reposition him or the singers to get the right mix.”

As primitive as it sounds, the setup turned out to be crucial to the overall atmosphere of Gon’ Boogaloo. The only way to “mix” was to do it on the fly, using mic position and the room itself: with the guitar, for example, sounding overdriven and upfront on “The Jungle Swing,” or with the background singers clear and present on “Good Luck Charm” and more submerged into the rhythm section on “Get on the Floor.” And then, of course, because overdubs weren’t an option, it meant going all-in and committing to each performance.

“I think the energy takes over,” Stoneking says, “but in terms of the old sound, I think it works because we kept it pure. For instance, the old tube condenser mic that I sang into would overdrive when I shouted into it, like some of Little Richard’s rock ’n’ roll records. I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s keep it. That sounds pretty good.’ And then I guess there’s the tape compression, but we didn’t add anything, really, to the sound. It was very pure—just performing straight to tape. Bam, that’s it!”