A multiple Grammy winner for his work with Jason Isbell, Matt Ross-Spang knows what he wants to hear. He’s built his career on being a music lover first, and then researching the techniques and the gear behind his favorite songs.
Ross-Spang started out at Sun Studio when he was just 16, at a time when much of Sam Phillips’ original equipment was gone or in disrepair. As he progressed from intern to chief engineer at Sun, Ross-Spang carefully restored and acquired pristine equipment, ushering in a new age of respect for Sun’s history, and encouraging a renewed enthusiasm for live recording at rock ‘n’ roll’s birthplace.
Now an independent engineer/producer, Ross-Spang — who has also recorded Drive-By Truckers, John Prine and many others — offers the benefit of his experience amassing vintage gear.
How did you get the bug as a collector?
When I started interning at Sun, I didn’t know anything about equipment. I thought the Leslie cabinet was a hunk of furniture until someone told me to plug it in! But working in such a legendary place, I was immersed in vintage equipment and recording methods from the get-go. Most of my favorite studios to work in, in Memphis, Nashville, and Muscle Shoals, are largely unchanged from their inception. They are also the studios where most of my favorite records were cut. I love attempting Sonic archaeology and trying to figure out what my heroes were doing!
When you started to restore Sun Studio, what were the first pieces you went after?
Definitely Ampex 350 tape machines. Sam had two of them: one to record mono, and the other for the slapback echo. Those machines have such an incredible sound! You have to pay attention to how the motor’s running, the wow and flutter on the machine, the head gaps. It sounds silly to be so critical of a delay machine, but there can be many milliseconds’ difference between a Studer at 15 ips and an Ampex at 15 ips, for example.
Next was microphones. At Sun, you’re recording live in a room with four mics, without headphones, and Sam was very specific about using certain pieces like the RCA 77 or the Altec 21B—the Coke Bottle Mic—and placing them carefully. For example, to get a “Whole Lotta Shakin’” piano sound, you have to know that the mic was also 90 percent of the drum sound. Wild!
For personal studio owners and operators, how would you suggest they get started collecting?
Don’t go after pieces just because they are popular; think about the sounds that you are wanting and the pieces of equipment that helped achieve them. Also gauge your needs versus whether it’s serviceable: Does it use tubes, and are those tubes easy to find? It’s getting harder to find discrete components and motivated Techs these days, so that’s a factor. Too many people buy a tape machine but never buy an MRL [Magnetic Reference Library test tape] to align it, so it quickly becomes their new coffee table.
But really, the best piece of advice I could give is to work in as many rooms as you can and try pieces out. You will build your ears to where you recognize what sounds you like and dislike, even down to the converters. I was at Sun for 11 years, and I knew that room and that gear inside and out, but it wasn’t until going independent in 2015 and working in so many different ways and genres and studios that I got to figure out my needs and tastes when it came to gear.
Is renting a piece of gear a good way to try before you buy?
Renting can be good. In Nashville there’s Blackbird Audio Rentals, and they have just about everything you could dream of, but with the caveat that every RCA 77 or [Neumann] U47 or Fairchild [compressor] sounds different, so you’re not going to get a 100-percent accurate idea of the sound you’ll get if you buy one.
The marketplace for audio equipment has changed a lot since you started at Sun. Are there still deals out there?
There are deals out there, though I think the days of going to a pawn shop and finding a U47 are probably over.
The big thing to remember is, music is a community whether you’re making it or producing it. I bought a beautiful Spectrasonics console that’s my pride and joy. This lovely guy in Canada was selling it, and I became friends with him just talking over the phone. Other people he’d talked to wanted him to chop the console up and sell channels individually, but a lot of gear was custom back in the day, so I think it’s terrible when these things are butchered.
It’s great that there are people out there who really love this stuff and would rather see it go to a good home than go to the highest bidder on eBay. So, the more friends you have in the business, the more you’ll be able to track down gear that you want.