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Like virtually every other industry, the recording business has been transformed by advances in digital technologies. Some argue that cutting-edge digital “effects” and electronic “sweeting” can make even a mediocre performance sound good. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but I can speak from experience, having played bass on a couple of professional recordings, in saying the post-production recording tools available today ensure that singers and musicians are given every advantage to shine.
With that in mind, I recently paid a visit to Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where they still make records the old-fashioned way, with just a handful of microphones, a simple control board and a reel-to-reel mono tape machine. The only voices and instruments heard are those that are actually in the room. And yes, the final product ends up on vinyl. It’s the way they did it when Sun first opened its doors in 1950. It’s the way Elvis Presley recorded his first hit single, “That’s all Right,” at Sun Studio 60 years ago this weekend. Others who recorded here include Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Howlin Wolf, and Carl Perkins.
Sun Studio is a National Landmark and little has changed since the late Sam Phillips founded the tiny storefront studio, from the faded acoustic tiles lining the walls and ceiling, to the plain linoleum floor. Tourists come by daily to view the studio, see the framed pictures of famous artists who recorded here, and take pictures posing in front of the very mic Elvis sang with. By night, working musicians anxious to capture the simpler raw sound of the pre-digital era still come here to record. Studio engineer Matt Ross-Spang has painstakingly restored the studio with vintage, but fully functioning, equipment.
During our visit, veteran Sun session musicians, drummer J.M. Van Eaton, and bassist David Roe, joined guitarist Jerry Phillips, son of the studio’s founder, along with pianist Rick Steff and Country singer Dale Watson for a late night recording session. Roe, who recorded here with Johnny Cash, says at Sun, “You kind of get a blend like you would at a rehearsal or at a live gig.” Matt Ross-Spang calls the sound “real.”
For musicians, Sun is a sacred place. A revered piece of American history. And so it was both an honor and a thrill when David Roe handed over his upright bass and invited me to join the guys in playing the final tune of the night. This cut would be only for us. A little jam in the key of F, with Dale on vocals. There were no headphones to wear, no studio monitors, and no one to “auto-tune” or dub in some extra accompaniment. It was just us, along with the echoes of some of the greats who recorded here, playing our hearts out with the knowledge that every note we played — for better or worse — would be faithfully reproduced. Refreshingly authentic. The way it used to be.