From Neutral Ground to Abbey Road
Editor’s note: In 2001, New Orleanian Steve Cunningham went to a Halloween party as Bob Dylan, guitar in hand; so he learned “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the occasion. And that prompted the onetime rock musician and composer to return to music, after a 26-year stint as a computer programmer. He began performing monthly at Neutral Ground Coffeehouse as Mister Steve, after what daughter Ellen’s friends called him. That led to creating songs on his Macbook, digitally combining arrangements of voice, electric and acoustic guitar, bass, piano and organ. By 2014, he had 10 songs ready for an album. But how to master it for distribution? He found the answer in a, well, likely place.
I went to London in September to have “Music From Mister Steve” mastered at Abbey Road Studios. It was a dream come true.
I had intended to use an online mastering service for “Music From Mister Steve,” but my wife, Lynn, suggested that I actually go to London and attend a mastering session in person. The mastering process converts a collection of song mixes into a cohesive album. This includes ensuring that there is sonic consistency from song to song and that the album will sound good on a variety of devices, like CDs, smartphones and other modern implements.
My first order of business after arriving in London was to walk to the studio and have my picture taken in the famous Abbey Road crosswalk. Abbey Road is a busy street with no stop light or stop sign at the crosswalk, so visitors have to wait for a gap in the traffic. There’s much horn honking by irritated Londoners. One elderly lady driver, hunched over her steering wheel and scowling, leaned on her horn for about a block before she got to the crossing.
A highlight of the trip was the walk from the hotel to the studio on the morning of the mastering session. I was definitely living in the moment as I walked through St. John’s Wood to Abbey Road, to the studio of the Beatles.
I arrived 10 minutes early (of course). I checked in at reception and went downstairs to the cafeteria, got a cup of coffee and waited in a lovely courtyard for Simon Gibson, who soon came and took me upstairs to his mastering suite. I had selected Simon to be my mastering engineer for his experience and education. Among his many accomplishments is the audio restoration on the Beatles Album Remasters.
Simon’s mastering suite is a comfortable space, more like an office than a studio control room. There’s not much audio equipment in the room; the computers and related equipment are in an adjoining room about the size of a large closet. The most obvious recording features in the room are the futuristic looking B&W speakers.
I gave Simon a USB drive with my mixes and the session was underway. I was worried that my recordings would sound rinky-dink, but was relieved when he started auditioning them and they sounded OK.
Simon then got to work; I was mainly a spectator to the proceedings. He asked me a couple of technical questions along the way, but mainly followed an evidently refined procedure. The session lasted four very enjoyable hours. Afterward, he gave me a CD with the mastered songs for my review and approval.
Then he gave me a short tour of Abbey Road, taking me into Studio 2, where many Beatle recordings were made -- another highlight of the day. I left Abbey Road and walked back to the hotel, still on cloud nine.
Below, "At the Gate," from "Music From Mister Steve"; the song was inspired by an old photograph of a group of immigrant men who were refused entrance at Ellis Island.
"Music From Mister Steve" will make its debut at a record release party at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse, 5110 Daneel St., on Saturday, Jan. 17, from 9 to 11 p.m. Steve will perform.