At Radio Galactic, his North Chicago studio, John Buehler does a variety of things: film scoring, music projects and immersive sound for apps including his own holographic audio app Naturespace, which provides vividly detailed high-res 3D recordings of natural spaces. There is a common thread that runs through all the work that Radio Galactic does – emotion and well-being. The emotional impact that sound has on the listener (and the creator of the sound) is fundamental to Buehler’s work.
Recently, we had the pleasure of chatting with Buehler about his approach to recording nature, what it was like working with Vintage King Audio Consultant James Good while building out his studio, the future of immersive audio and his philosophy on audio production.
Tell us about Naturespace, the app that is one of the projects coming out of your studio Radio Galactic. What is holographic audio and how do you approach it?
Naturespace actually began over 18 years ago, before the iPhone. Its focus is the accurate reproduction of outdoor natural space. By re-creating natural spaces the way the ear actually hears them, including above and behind the listener, we tap into a fundamental aspect of the way we, as humans, use sound. Your hearing is the only sense that can tell you what's happening behind you. It’s your security system, so there's a strong connection to your sense of well-being and your sense of safety. By providing the subconscious with benevolent, outdoor, spatially accurate sound, we inherently relax. While the never-ending quest for relaxing tones and timbres continues, I believe the most relaxing sound is the sound of something a mile away, the sound of distance – accurate, outdoor natural space, which has an impact on our mental state.
But it didn’t begin with wellness! It was my passion for capturing stereo sound fields and the new reality of headphones everywhere. When the iPod came out, headphones suddenly became much more common. So in the spring of 2004, I was experimenting with different Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF) mic techniques outside and subsequently completely geeking out about the sound of the trees above me with headphones. It was about being immersed in sound to such great detail that I was completely transported. After a few minutes of listening, I would forget where I was.
Just when I was finding my groove and getting better at managing myself and my gear in the field, the iPhone came out and the app store along with it. Things escalated quickly from there. We were early with our app. It had five free sounds and it did quite well in the Health and Fitness category. Fast forward a bunch of years, and the app had grown from a small little business card to a full-blown app with over 160 natural spaces available. It has millions of downloads from all over the world. The thunderstorms are really the most popular, in every country.
The wellness part of it came directly from user feedback. We immediately started hearing from all sorts of people who had been using Naturespace as a solution for many different things—PTSD, insomnia, anxiety etc. When the tsunami hit Japan, the flood of emails we received telling us how helpful the sounds were through the aftershocks was life-changing and set me on a new course. I was beginning to understand the true depth of what spatially accurate sound is capable of. It goes way beyond entertainment and I’ve dedicated my career to diving in as deep as possible.
How does the process of recording nature impact you creatively?
Nature is fickle and constantly in flux, noise pollution is everywhere, but there are these fleeting moments of sonic beauty and harmony. It is the acquisition of these unique moments and the amount of work that goes into it—the patience and the distance I have to go—that ultimately when it happens, I am hyper-aware of the gift I am being given. Every time it’s a gift. I’m not paying anyone for this performance that's happening before me.
I started this journey as an impatient control freak but being out there, in solitude, with no control, only surrender, changed me forever. In those specific moments of sonic ambrosia, I am profoundly thankful. Thankful for the sound, thankful for the opportunity to bring it to others, and thankful for life in general.
In the end, the whole process is about gratitude. I believe when you have a sense of gratitude, you can see life with clarity. That is what I’m trying to re-create in the listener. To me, that is the true power of spatially accurate outdoor sound – to reconnect you to the earth and feel safe in that connection. You belong here. This is your home and right now, you are not under attack, you are safe. You can feel it, you can hear it. Your DNA is coded to respond to it – the sound of peace, the absence of dissonance and conflict. It works! When you feel safe, you relax. Psychoacoustics is the science of how the brain reacts to sound. But science alone can’t do it. Recording is an art. The artist is the true conduit for healing the mind because it’s all about emotion.
Tell us about Radio Galactic. When did you move into the current studio and what motivated you to upgrade to a Dolby Atmos rig?
I've been in this space for about twelve months. It's taken a while and a lot of planning, especially getting the four Focals in the air. I’ve been doing immersive audio for eighteen years, and Atmos is an obvious next step. I think a lot of people have genuinely appropriate questions as to whether this is a thing for them or not in the music industry and there's a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the revenue side of things, but for me and what I've been doing with Naturespace, it's a no-brainer.
As far as Atmos and my music go, I think composition is fundamentally about relationships. In general, one note is emotionless, you need two for harmony and that's when it begins to have an emotional component. Same thing with groove and that interplay with the kick, hat and snare, or verse-into-chorus, dry versus wet—it's all about relationships. The way I see it, space and position are another compositional axis to create sonic relationships between elements. Pitch, Timbre and Timing now have a new sibling named “Where”.
For me, the stereo upmixing process has yielded a wide spectrum of failures and successes. I’m surprised at how hard it is to predict until I try it. Composing natively in the immersive space, that’s completely where it’s at for me.
What drew you to the Focal monitors?
I know exactly how I got those. It's all James Good’s fault. [Laughs]
What was it like working with James Good at Vintage King and building out the studio with him?
Honestly, what you're asking about is “What was your friendship with James like, how did that develop?” Because I don't see it like he’s a sales rep. James and I are friends. That’s really important because there’s so much conflicting information out there. You need someone who has their finger on the pulse of what is happening now, someone you can trust. James understands my work and he wants me to succeed. It’s absolutely critical to have guidance these days.
My original outreach was because I was fatiguing on my Dynaudio speakers. I was editing voiceover a lot for a while, but then things with my wife and daughter were starting to get very musical and I was just burning out real fast when I was tracking and mixing. The main thing I needed was something that wasn't fatiguing. That's how I ended up with the Focal Shape Twins. That was before Atmos, it was still stereo. Now I have a 7.1.4 setup using eleven Shape Twins and two Sub6 subwoofers for the LFE. With Atmos, I’m actually working at lower monitoring levels so the fatigue is a thing of the past.
I will also say that the Audeze LCD-XC headphones that I’ve got, again from James, have really been the perfect complement to the Focals. The lack of fatigue, the detailed mids and just the clarity that they provide. I'm amazed. I've not actually heard headphones sound so intuitive before.
There are a lot of ways to do an Atmos rig, but I really wanted an equidistant, equal-power rig—all the drivers are the same. The time alignment is dead on, lasered out to the mix position and the sound field is beyond tasty. It's just so nice to be able to exist in immersive sound fields without being nailed down under headphones. Invite a friend!
Of course, when I do invite a friend, they inevitably say something along the lines of, “But who’s gonna have one of these setups to even hear this stuff?” Which is what people have always said when they go to a studio for the first time. A mixing facility is not an awesome stereo. That’s not what it’s for. It’s for revealing problems and giving you a clear window into the audio. The job is to make tracks sound good everywhere, on any device, not just at your place. In order to create something stable, you really have to have proper monitoring. While headphones are a good reference, you could never do it just on headphones. It’s always been this way. So the proper placement and time alignment of the speakers is just everything. It’s a big task but when you do it right, you quickly understand why. You most definitely can't just put sonic elements wherever you want. The phase issues inherent with multiple speakers are formidable and must be managed with care. But when you get it right, the heavens open up.
What drew you to the AVID Control Surfaces?
I was considering doing a much larger S6 / Pro Tools rig but honestly, I spend so much time composing and Logic is just in my nature. It’s super important for me to have these buttons and faders back in my life. It was an ergonomic issue, as well as speed. So the Avid controls I use are an Avid Pro Tools | Dock and two Avid S1 control surfaces primarily controlling Logic but also the Metric Halos via EUCON for the monitor controller and talkback.
The interfaces I’m using are six Metric Halo ULN-8 mkIVs. Two of them cover the Atmos speaker array, two more are for 16 channels of analog summing via a Dangerous Music 2-Bus+, which I love and the remaining two for outboard gear and mic/line-ins. My rack is fifteen feet from my computer and it’s all connected via one Cat6 cable!
I also don’t like stuff under my speakers, I hate the reflections from a big console, so the Argosy Halo sit-stand desk just drops right out of the way. I love it, it’s a huge improvement.
What is a typical day in the studio for you?
A typical day for me is to wake up, have my coffee, get on the treadmill and run 3-5 miles. I think the treadmill is probably the most important piece of equipment because my own physical health actually matters to my day-to-day mindset and focus. I'd love to get right into the edit but I need the endorphins first.
Working in these virtual domains and then being so connected to the natural world, it's such a contrast to go out and spend six weeks in the forest and then come back and sit at a computer for six weeks, and then go back out again. It's so different, and I think the contrast has been deeply illuminating. It’s made me more aware of my physical health. If I’m not in shape, Nature is going to make that a vivid reality quickly.
Given my late-night history, I'm actually surprised that I can compose music in the morning. I’m much faster and more efficient. It used to be an almost exclusively at-night endeavor but now mixing at night is really the thing. I'm basically in the chair every day doing one of many different projects that I also work on. I’m supplying sounds for another app called MindBreaks, which is a really interesting project. It allows me to actually merge some of the film scoring approaches, using tonality in conjunction with some of the Naturespace work that I've done. I'm constantly busy with personal music projects too, it fills in all the gaps. My wife and daughter both have albums in the works.
What microphones do you find yourself using most often?
When I’m capturing sound in the field, I’m a Neumann guy, 100%. They are reliable workhorses that always deliver and they are like an extension of myself. But I’m usually using multiple mic arrays that have different purposes.
Naturespace is for headphones, so a lot of that comes from binaural and HRTF techniques that I’ve developed on my own. Binaural is usually the Neumann KU 100 “Dummy Head Microphone.” I think Neumann deserves credit for understanding immersive audio a long, long time ago. The KU 81 was the start, and their thinking back then has proven quite prescient now. It had a huge influence on how I think about space and first-person perspectives. But the KU 100 has issues with a clear center, which is a problem in many situations, like with a shoreline in front of you. There’s a hole in the center. It’s also not the best choice if speakers are involved, but really the issue is that Naturespace is rarely a singular recording. It is almost always created with many layers of elements. In order for that to work, I have to avoid using the same technique everywhere. I need to create spatial contrast. Otherwise, everything becomes a vague, mushy image. It loses its believability.
Nature is not a point-and-shoot endeavor. No mic captures everything perfectly. Some ambiences will be entirely horizontal, like a shoreline, or a meadow of crickets; others have strong vertical components, like the wind in the trees, or thunder overhead. So even though the core is some form of HRTF, I will absolutely use a spaced pair of omnis, I will use MS, which is awesome for Atmos because the sides can be manipulated so well. I completely love Blumlein, which is one of the most magical stereo methods. It’s so stable and versatile in post and it fills in the missing center from the KU 100.
What I won’t do is anything cardioid. I like omnis because that's the way the ear works. I'm also all about diffuse-field EQ mics. It’s amazing how versatile the Neumann KM 183s are. I can use those things in all sorts of ways, but I'm just an omni kind of guy when it comes to natural sound and off-axis coloration is the death of it. So no cardioid, that's for sure and no ribbons outside, obviously.
Having good mic preamps in the field is crucially important. The dynamic range of a thunderstorm is ridiculous. I’m impressed with my Sound Devices 788T. That thing is just part of me, I rely on it and it's unbelievable. The things I've put that poor recorder through. It's crazy. There have been some really scary experiences, you know, rogue waves, dangerous, horrible storms, extreme heat and extreme cold, blizzards, icicles on the mics. I kind of enjoy taking this stuff that doesn't really belong outside and seeing if I can make it back home with it intact.
It turns out, I’m an adventure addict. All those hours in the studio, I would have never guessed. I’m now a member of a group called The Adventureman's Guild that is pushing my boundaries and teaching me new skills, like how to properly fly-fish, correct blade techniques, stuff like that. The Sound Devices has been with me for a long time and it’s got much more adventure ahead. It’s a seriously robust piece of gear.
In the studio and especially recording vocals, I am a huge Telefunken fan. There’s something about the history of it, the sense of beauty. We have enough time now, with the history of recording, that there is this human consensus about what is pretty. You can't see it on paper, you just hear it and say, “Man, that's pretty”. The perception of beauty, and the way that it attaches you to the world, is such a uniquely human experience. The Telefunken ELA M 251E, you know, it's actual magic.
When you realize that these tools are special, it really makes you feel like you're capable of going beyond yourself. People feel special in front of them. It’s very likely that the vocalist has sung the song a hundred times. It is my job to actually create an environment that facilitates an exceptional performance. That's done with a good headphone mix, a stellar mic/preamp/compressor chain, the right vibe, the right lighting, the right mood and attitude, and patience. It's entirely about the mind.
In order for us as listeners to be able to respond emotionally to the singer, that singer’s got to be in the right frame of mind themselves. In order to be able to create Naturespace, I have to be in the right frame of mind. This is really the essence of it. To understand that this is an emotional paradigm and that facilitating the emotional mindset from the beginning to the end is the engineer’s job. Radio Galactic is, at its core, about capturing and inducing emotional states with sound.
What plug-ins are a part of your workflow?
Softube’s Weiss Deess. Hands down best de-esser. Although I have learned, with sibilance, it's not just a problem because it's too loud. I've learned that it can be the wrong color and just turning it down doesn't help, it’s just a quieter form of wrong. I have been thinking about de-essers as a kind of white balance. Like in a photograph, when you need to straighten out the whites. In order to fix the whites I use the Black Box Analog Design HG-2 in parallel, just a bit. The actual unit, not the plug-in. It adds just the right amount of fizz and sparkle to the Esses. So now it's not just about how loud the “ess” is, it's about bringing the right color to the “ess” and then using the transparent Weiss Deess to manage the dynamics.
I'm a big fan of the Flux Elixir limiter. I find it to be incredibly flexible, transparent and CPU-friendly. So that thing is making it onto a lot of recordings.
For Atmos, I use the LiquidSonics Cinematic Rooms Professional. It’s funny, talking about glue and what that even is. I realized that the room that we are listening in is actually its own glue. We've got this contrast where we're mixing music in immersive and we listen to the headphone version and it's a little broken up and then we listen in the room and the room is actually gluing things. So reverb seems to be more of a unifying glue than compression, which has been relegated to the stems primarily when working in immersive.
Although, I really do like my outboard reverbs still. Stereo is still the thing it always has been. We only have two ears after all. I have no intention of moving away from stereo, that passion is eternal. And from the beginning, I have always had Lexicon reverbs. So I've got a PCM80 and a PCM92 that are just right and working great, especially for zero-latency chambers while tracking vocals.
I love this little free VUMT Deluxe plug-in by Klanghelm that allows me to move my MS around and mono up my low frequencies and it's just really low impact. I use it all the time. I prefer VU meters anyway. It’s important to understand your metering. The metering in most DAWs is misleading to me a lot.
I also like the Ringshifter in Logic. I use that all the time.
What are some of your other favorite pieces of outboard gear?
My favorite outboard gear at the moment includes the Black Box Analog Design HG-2, the API 5500 Equalizer, the Heritage Audio Successor for its parallel compression/mix knob, and the Tube-Tech CL1B compressor because both my wife and daughter are very dynamic vocalists.
But my absolute favorite box is a custom box that formerly lived in a mastering studio here in Chicago, an Ako IC6 insert controller. It allows me to individually bypass all the outboard gear on my 2-mix from a switch at the mix position. There was only one made and it’s just so useful with my rack off to my left. I can sit and accurately audition whether I’m genuinely improving things or just being swayed by the pretty lights and meters.
What’s next for Radio Galactic?
I am extremely aware that the mentorship era in which I was raised is no longer around at the scale it was when I began. The studio was a gathering place where knowledge was handed down to those who paid their dues and put in the effort. With recording these days, the learning path is much more vague and unguided now. There are fewer studios, there are less opportunities to get in the door. However, that era of mentorship was not the greatest for women. It was ‘dude land’. But now the tools are more accessible, and there's an opportunity for women to actually learn without the creepy male-dominated studios of the 90s. My daughter works for me, she's nineteen, and because of that, I am finding the drive to create an environment that facilitates mentorship and a safe space for women. We need more women in audio.
I think that the door is now open for anyone with the drive to really dive into the long journey of artful recording. It’s a real trip watching my daughter learn audio. She’s so smart, been around it forever, overdubbing since she was in diapers so her aptitude is stunning. She’s a sponge. She’s also a Telefunken fan, she has a TF51, Metric Halo LIO-8, Focal Shape Twins, UA 610 Lunchbox pre into a dbx 160A, which is a great compressor to learn on. Teaching and working with her has been life’s best gift, hands down.
So in addition to the actual audio work, Radio Galactic will hopefully be a place for the handing down of techniques and ideas and workflows. Now is the time of the autodidact, the self-learner, but it’s exponentially more efficient with guidance, in the same way I need James’s input even with my experience. I've seen people hack their way through Photoshop. It's not pretty. This need of mine to share knowledge, I think, is just a part of getting older.