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Recreating everything in Sun Records sound
July 24, 2014 10:59 PM   Subscribe

Studio engineer Matt Ross-Spang wasn't even born when most of Sun's most famous records were cut. Nonetheless, he's thought a lot about what makes them sound the way they do (transcript). Matt has been buying up old gear for a few years, returning the Sun Records studio to a vintage state (with a few exceptions), and he is still practicing "sonic archaeology," trying to figure out how Sam Phillips made records sound like Sun Records. There's more to it than the Sun tape echo.

Bonus videos: Sam Phillips: the man who invented Rock & Roll (part 1, part 2); Good Rockin, Tonight: the legacy of Sun Records (part 1, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9); and Elvis Presley - At Sun Records.
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

And one final link: Sam Phillips: Sun Records - The Man Who Invented Rock & Roll (Sound on Sound article, lots of gear talk).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:01 PM on July 24

From the Memphis Flyer article: It was one of the greatest days of my life. It's like Yoda giving you his light saber."
posted by mikelieman at 12:01 AM on July 25

Beautiful. Thanks flt!

Slap-back echo:
ROSS-SPANG: Sam would eat in a cafe every day, and he heard the jukebox. And the way the jukebox kind of echoed in the room - he thought, this is how people want to hear music. They don't want to hear it perfectly, exactly like it happened. They want to hear it with some kind of - a little bit of fantasy around it.

posted by petebest at 4:08 AM on July 25

Too much good stuff here. Bookmarked for later. Thx.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:15 AM on July 25

I dunno, I think that the room is the #1 most important part of the sound. A group of musicians, playing live in a great-sounding room with plenty of leak, looking at each other and jamming together, is something you can't replicate any other way. Obviously gear from the 50s has a particular sound--they were thinking about fidelity, but hadn't really gotten there yet--but I think the room is the biggest factor in getting the vibe.

I'd really like to hear the modern records he's made in that room with the vintage gear, but I didn't see any links in the articles. Did I miss anything?
posted by uncleozzy at 4:40 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]

I don't know about the claims of invention and birthing of the genre but these are some good links. Thanks.
posted by ChuckRamone at 7:31 AM on July 25

I got to record at Sun with Matt at the controls, and it was an incredible experience. We only had one night to get it done, so we had to be really focused and kick ass. But every now and then I realized where I was and what I was doing, that I was standing on the same spot where Elvis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis had recorded, and it was just overwhelming. At one point, we finished a take and Matt asked us, "How does it sound?" I said, "This room sound amazing!" And then I instantly felt foolish, because, duh, of course this room sounds amazing! It sounds like rock and roll!

I'd really like to hear the modern records he's made in that room with the vintage gear, but I didn't see any links in the articles. Did I miss anything?

Here you go. "Tales of Madness" by Super Witch (self link)
posted by vibrotronica at 8:04 AM on July 25 [4 favorites]

I'd really like to hear the modern records he's made in that room with the vintage gear, but I didn't see any links in the articles. Did I miss anything?

There were some clips of current bands recording at Sun in the WKNO FM link ('still practicing "sonic archeology"), but I didn't collect more modern music in the post. vibrotronica, thanks for that information on your experience, and the example of a modern recording.

The Sun Studios sessions page has some information on new recordings, compared to the Sun Records website, which is solidly focused on the past. I guess it makes sense, as the record label released the music, but the studio is where it's recorded.

On other thing mentioned in the WKNO/NPR piece is that the set-up is geared towards bands playing together, and capturing that "imperfect perfect" moment and sound, not making a song by layering pieces together and fine-tuning everything. And there's definitely a mystique about the place, and it seems like a lot of people get overwhelmed by the history. From the Memphis Flyer article ("Matt has been buying up old gear for a few years"), Matt Ross-Spang said:
"When people come to [record at Sun], they are freaked out. You have to let them Instagram and calm down. If you're not a sociable, welcoming guy, they'll be puking or freaking out. You won't get anywhere."
And that article has some information that made me respect Ross-Spang even more for his efforts and dedication to the studio. When he became head engineer at Sun Studio (at 22 years old!!), it sounds like neither he nor the studio had much money for his project of getting vintage gear to re-create Sam Phillip's setup, until his prized guitar (signed by Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, and others who came to Sun Studio while Matt was there) was destroyed and he used the insurance money to start picking up old gear.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:25 AM on July 25

I dunno, I think that the room is the #1 most important part of the sound.

Oh yeah. Check that little basement space in the movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown where the Funk Bros played behind most of the Motown-Detroit hits. Then go listen to the hits and hear that space.

(Anyone into rock history NEED to see this film!!!)
posted by Twang at 1:31 PM on July 25 [2 favorites]

I first heard about Matt Ross-Spang's efforts to return Sun Studio to it's former sound on NPR this week, where there wasn't a mention of Elvis Presley's first recordings for Sun, but it seems this is the 60th anniversary of the recording of That's All Right Mama, originally recorded in 1946 by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:11 PM on July 25

The album Chris Isaak recorded at Sun that's referenced in the Memphis Flyer article is tremendous. Highly highly recommended.
posted by quartzcity at 6:12 PM on July 28

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