By Dave Austin, “Music Professor”
I grew up in a small southern town and became involved in music recording about the same time I entered my teen years. Some buddies and I formed a band when we were thirteen years old and would frequently practice at a local radio station after it had signed off the air at the end of its broadcast day. There, we had access to RCA (model 44 and 77) and Shure (model 55) microphones, a large Gates mixing board and two Magnacord reel-to-reel machines. I share this bit of personal history because, as I was searching for a particular item a few days ago, I ran across a box containing several tapes of those late-night sessions. By modern standards, these recordings are primitive and serve only as a bit of nostalgia preserved on brittle old magnetic recording tape. As I was taking this stroll along memory lane, I began thinking about some of the legendary studios that have contributed so much to our musical heritage.
So, I begin right there in my little home town of Bogalusa, Louisiana, known mainly for its paper mill and forest industry. Just outside of town, amid 26 mostly undeveloped acres, sits the Studio in the Country. This legendary studio opened in 1973, the brainchild of local boy William “Bleu” Evans and designers Tom Hidley of Westlake Audio, Los Angeles and George Augspurger.
SITC is highly regarded for the exceptional quality of its sound, and it also provides on-site facilities for artist to stay and work free of distractions. Artists who have recorded here include Kansas, Stevie Wonder, Perry Como, Willie Nelson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Johnny Winter, and Jimmy Buffett. The studio’s walls are lined with dozens of Grammys and gold or platinum records, including the 11X platinum “Dirty Dancing” movie soundtrack.
Hurricane Katrina did major damage to the studio in 2005, and since then, it has undergone a complete restoration and upgrade. Post-Katrina projects include Edward Sharp & the Magnetic Zeroes, Ani DeFranco, The Afghan Whigs, Dash Rip Rock and others.
While we’re down South, let’s mention a couple of legendary Alabama hit houses. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, perhaps best known for a song that was not recorded at this facility (“Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd at Studio One, Doraville, GA)). Much like the Memphis Horns, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – known as The Swampers – carved out its own slice of music history. Muscle Shoals hosted The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Cher, James Brown, Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Dylan. These days, the studio is recording in fancier digs but is still located in Muscle Shoals.
While in the neighborhood, let’s not overlook FAME in nearby Florence, Alabama. Opened in 1959, FAME was overseen by Rick Hall,Tom Stafford and Billy Sherrill. Hall produced the studio’s first hit in 1961, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” With a legacy which includes the likes of Wilson Pickett, Etta James and Aretha Franklin, the studio is still making hits.
Just a short stroll from the beach in Santa Monica, California, resides 4th Street Recording, now in its 37th year of operation. In 1978, the studio opened as Brian Epstein’s Sound Solutions, and in 1989 new owners gave it the 4th Street name. Among its first clients were Little Richard, George Clinton and the Beach Boys (notably, “Kokomo.”) For soundproofing, the studio was constructed on a bed of sand from the nearby beach. If you have the time to look over 4th Street’s lengthy client list, names and hits span across years – Mick Fleetwood, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Sean Paul, Alice Cooper, Chris Daughtry, Steve Martin, Justin Bieber and dozens more.
Back in Memphis, Cotton Row Recording, resides amid a row of houses in the Midtown area of the city. About the only way one can distinguish the studio from the neighboring residences is by its rather unique paint job. Begun in 1980 by Niko Lyras as an annex on the back of the house, he recorded whatever he could – jingles, demos, etc. With some 200 albums having been produced, recorded or mixed here, Cotton Row’s impressive client list includes B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Z Z Top, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, The Blues Brothers, Najee and hometown jazz star, Kirk Whalum, P. Diddy, Three 6 Mafia and others, including international artists from England, France, Greece.
Among the several great studios in Memphis is Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios housed in a 1915 movie theatre. Royal opened its doors in 1957 and is renowned for its theatre acoustics, and it began turning out million sellers from its outset, earning the title “House of Instrumentals.” Today, Royal is one of the oldest continually operating studios in the world and is still turning out gold and platinum recordings. On their clients list you’ll find Bruno Mars, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Al Green, Robert Cray, Boz Skaggs, John Mayer, Chuck Berry, Charlie Rich and others. If for any reason, one might think these older studios could be out of touch, consider that the current super hit, “Uptown Funk” (Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars) was partially written and recorded at Royal.
At many small studios, artists say they enjoy a more relaxed working atmosphere, friendly staffs and lower costs. Also, analog recording still remains popular, and it’s not uncommon to find reel-to-reel tape machines and large analog mixing boards and components operating alongside the latest digital setups in these studios.
In this article, I’ve scarcely touched on the many great (and relatively unknown outside the recording industry) studios. However, I find their history fascinating, and I hope you will also. Some of these studios have tours or allow visitors under certain guidelines. (Please don’t show up unexpectedly!)
To learn more, begin with a reading of “Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios” by William Clark, Jim Cogan and Quincy Jones.