Cuca Records









Cuca Record's foundation paralleled that of many new independent labels created in the 1950's: Its home was far from the centers of the music industry and its owner did not have a professional music background. A combination of good timing, luck, and business creativity helped harness an early hit for the business. The home of Cuca Records, Sauk City, Wisconsin, was an unlikely location for a new independent label. Located about 25 miles northwest of Madison on the banks of the Wisconsin River, the city had a population that hovered at approximately 2,000 residents, the majority of which were descendants of western European immigrants. Like many of the area's residents, Jim Kirchstein, the founder of Cuca, had a historical connection to the community. His great-grandfather, Gustave Kirchstein, emigrated from Russia in the 1840's and settled in Sauk City. Kirchstein did not set out to pursue a career in music, however. After graduating from high school during the Korean War, he enlisted in the Navy as a naval cadet. Although he originally planned on a ten-year commitment to the Navy, he instead took a four-year service option and in the final year of his service taught electronics, an emerging field of study, at the San Diego naval base. In 1954 he left the Navy and started an electrical engineering education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While attending the university, Kirchstein concluded he needed additional income to support his new family; he had during his stay with the Navy. He began selling records from his brother's Toy and Hobby Shop in Sauk City which was adjacent to his parents' grocery business. In the basement of this store, Kirchstein opened the Hi-Fi Record Shop where he sold records and studied for his electrical engineering education. Kirchstein began learning the marketing and distribution side of the music business. Here, too, he began to recognize the need for a recording outlet for area musicians to whom he had been exposed during his youth and college years. Similar to other upstart Indies of the era, Kirchstein's early recording equipment was second-hand; he could not afford to purchase state-of-the-art technology, nor did he need it. He found an old Ampex Stat tape recorder for 300 dollars which recorded sound on ten-and-one-half inch reel-to-reel tapes. He also acquired an ancient RCA microphone. Kirchstein was apprehensive about the expenditure for the equipment, but his desire to record musicians outweighed the pain of investment. Evident at this early date of 1959 was Kirchstein's interest in being simply more than a "one-shot" producer, a common practice of the time. During that year a record salesman came to the Hi-Fi Record Shop and informed Kirchstein of an independent label in Milwaukee, Phau Records, whose owner had recently died. Kirchstein located the owner's widow and she agreed to sell all of the label's hardware, including 300 of the original master recordings made for the label (which possessed several old-time musicians who would later record with Cuca) and record-cutting equipment for acetate masters. In this way Kirchstein acquired, for a small price, his own master-making capability - a decision that would decrease his production costs in the years to follow. The first artist to take advantage of Kirchstein's new service was Don Chambers of Lodi, Wisconsin. He and his band recorded "Riding Down the Canyon" and "I Overlooked an Orchid" on Kirchstein's recently purchased second-hand equipment right in the tiny room of the Hi-Fi Record Shop. Kirchstein and Chambers decided to have 300 records pressed and Kirchstein contacted RCA. RCA of Chicago would press 300 records for $37.50 or twelve and one-half cents per record on 300 units. RCA and Cuca succeeded in the pressing of the Don Chambers single release as it sold well in the Sauk City area. The next recording venture taken on by Kirchstein was a rock-a-billy instrumental by Willie Tremain's Thunderbirds. Again, he had RCA press 300 copies of the single. Kirchstein renamed his business Cuca, the nickname of his wife. With a new name and therefore a continuing relationship with RCA, Cuca Records could move forward. Within less than one year of business and through several strokes of good luck and timing, Cuca established itself as a regional and, to a certain extent, nationally known company. Jim Kirchstein was a trained engineer and an unprofessional musician with a knack for innovation in acoustics, making him an ideal record producer. Kirchstein believed using good studio acoustics achieved an un-muddied, undistorted product. The "Nashville sound" resulted from isolating musicians and their microphones with baffles, screens, or separated rooms to decrease splash over from instruments. The band members wore headphones in order to hear what their fellow musicians were playing, a process which often took time to learn if they were familiar with visual cues from one another. Kirchstein had to devise his own methods to achieve a sound similar to that of Nashville's because many of his artists belonged to large polka bands and both special design and monetary constraints limited his isolation abilities. He also believed in the value of producing on record the excitement and spontaneity of live sound as faithfully as is possible, with all band members playing their instruments simultaneously rather than laying down individual recorded tracks on tape. He therefore utilized some baffling and directional microphones to reduce some splash over effect. However, the most important achievement in Cuca's sound came from the actual construction of the recording studio room itself. By 1963 Kirchstein had accumulated the knowledge and resources to expand Cuca's recording studio in the basement of a tiny, concrete building painted pink with blue diamonds. He enlarged the studio's capabilities as well as its size to three times that of the original. The recording room itself could hold a 30-piece band, a size necessary for the multi-member groups attracted to Cuca and one which greatly enhanced the results of the recordings acoustically. According to Kirchstein, old-time recording in the 1960's was a delicate balance between acoustics and electronics. Before the electric age and before smaller studios could afford the technology, most old-time bands recorded acoustically. Decades later, independent studios recording polka bands employed electronic effects to capture that earlier sound because the studio owners could rarely afford the bigger space demanded for acoustic recording. Cuca, by contrast, had a luxury of space expansion and Kirchstein had the foresight to design the room especially as a studio; he did not have to convert the space when he remodeled. Kirchstein's goal was to approach an open air sound to best enhance Cuca musicians' recordings. He also needed to employ construction techniques to remove bass notes from the room because bass instruments projected a non-directional, sticky sound which muddied a recording. Kirchstein developed a perfect 3-4-5 ratio in the 30,000 cubic feet room: a 30 by 40 foot ceiling and floor and a height of 24 feet to prevent standing sound waves from interfering with the recorded sound. The ceiling, which later Nashville studios would adopt, contained three separate layers of tectum board and acoustical tile to absorb high frequencies and remove some bass notes. Kirchstein then tackled the walls, where he attached a zig-zag covering of alternating strips of transit board and acoustic tile to scatter the sound, further preventing booming standing waves. Microphone placement also was an important factor in achieving the desired sound. To complete the studio's effectiveness, he installed mood lights which would not enhance the acoustics per se, but would hopefully inspire the musicians. Bright colorful lights lit the studio during the old-time musicians' sessions, blues artists played in a soft blue illumination, and rock musicians could chose whatever colors their emotions or tunes demanded.

In 1972, the University of Wisconsin offered Kirchstein a full-time position and he accepted. Kirchstein's interest in design, electronics, and technology, which had helped spawn the Cuca label over a decade earlier. With lack of artistic challenge, a new job demanding more of his time, and a failing market for the music he produced. Kirchstein shut down the recording studio in 1973, its tenancy taken over by Midwest Professional Karate Studio and the Shear Expressions beauty salon.

When Kirchstein closed the studio, he removed thousands of tapes and transferred them to his home's basement, where they remain in storage. For the past several years, Kirchstein has been in the process of transferring the analog master tapes to digital audio tape. Kirchstein had the ability, therefore, to re-release Cuca material on CD or lease/sell the CD-quality master tapes to other firms.