Inside Sun Studios' 'Sun Sessions' Program

Behind the scenes at Sun Studio's 'Sun Sessions' PBS/YouTube program
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It doesn’t get much more “vintage” than this: Welcome to a behind-the-scenes look at the Sun Sessions PBS/YouTube program, where today’s artists film live performances in the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.

THE MUSIC that came out of Sam Phillips’ Sun label and studio is now the stuff of legend. From the Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years,” to Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner’s earthshaking “Rocket 88,” to Elvis Presley’s golden throat, to The Killer, Cash, and beyond, Sun was the source of American popular music as we know it.

Today, Sun Studio is at once a monument to rock ’n’ roll history and a vital recording Mecca, drawing not just scores of tourists every month, but also reverent musicians who dream of recording like the King. Sun Sessions was designed to give modern artists (such as Jakob Dylan, Justin Townes Earle, Vienna Teng, Ha Ha Tonka, Ryan Bingham, Beth Hart, and more) the experience of working live in that almost magical space, and showcase a new generation of musicians.

“The music that came out of Sun Studio was real,” says show producer Jeff Davidson. “The artists did not rely on overdubs and layered vocals. Most of the giant hits were done in just a few takes, and everyone performed live in this little room. The amount of talent to grace that room is extraordinary, and not only did it usher in a new era for music, it ushered in a new era for America. The first time I stepped into Sun Studio, I knew it was a place I wanted to spend as much time in as possible.”

Sam Phillips back in the day Davidson—an intellectual property and business attorney whose love of music moved him to bring his skills to the music business— co-created the show with Sun Studio’s current ownership and is the force behind Sessions reaching 150-plus PBS-TV markets. Sun’s chief engineer, Matt Ross-Spang, is the man on the floor, handling the technical side in a studio he first visited at age 14.

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“I did this god-awful demo when I was a kid,” Ross-Spang recalls. “The engineer wore a beret, and he cussed like a sailor and called you ‘babe.’ I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.”

Ross-Spang got his first job, as a tour guide, at Sun a couple years later. “During the day, we’d give tours of the studio, so I would get off of high school and go be a tour guide till 6:30, and that’s when we’d start recording every night,” he says.

Like a lot of old-school engineers before him, Ross-Spang hung around, too, observing and offering help on sessions, and he learned about audio production from the Sun staff. As personnel shifted, he moved up the ranks until he took over as chief engineer in 2009, at the ripe age of 23.

Engineer Matt Ross-Spang with his vintage rig “Matt is truly an old soul,” says Davidson. “He is a direct musical descendant of Sam Phillips and Cowboy Jack Clement, and his work carries on their vision.” A case in point: Ross-Spang recently completed a full technical restoration of Sun’s control room, bringing it back to the Sam Phillips era.

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“I learned everything from the ground up here,” Ross-Spang says. “I started to realize, we didn’t do anything like Sam did back in the day, and I tried to figure out how Sam did what he did with three or four microphones, live to mono with no EQ. He just had that one compressor he built himself.”

Elvis Presley’s original guitarist, Scotty Moore (also an engineer and former studio owner) proved to be a great resource for Ross-Spang’s mission. “Sam passed away in 2003, so I had to ask Scotty and some of the other old guys, and they explained some of the microphones. I started acquiring the old gear.”

Five years after Ross-Spang took over as engineer, Sun Studio is refurbished with two Ampex 350 tape machines (“one to cut to, the other for the famous Sun slapback echo,” he says), a 1940s 6N vinyl-cutting lathe with a Presto preamp, and an RCA 76D tube console: “That was a radio broadcast console,” Ross- Spang says. “I couldn’t find one for years. But the same week that I took over as chief engineer, a guitar of mine was at the studio, and somehow it got smashed. That guitar was worth some money, partly because it was signed by Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, lots of artists. I got a check from the insurance company. It’s the most money I’ve seen ever, and then a couple of days later I actually located an RCA tube console, for almost exactly what the check was for. It was almost freaky.”

However, on the Sessions show, the engineer uses a Studer console. “Cutting live to mono on the RCA scares a lot of people,” Ross- Spang says. “So I also bought a Studer 1-inch A800 8-track machine and a 16-channel Studer 900 Series console, though I don’t think I’ve ever used all 16 at once.”

The legendary Sun tracking room is about 18 by 30 feet in size, and during filming, half of that space is occupied by film crew and equipment, so bands get up close and personal in that room.

“Once you accept that you have that limited space to work with, you realize you actually get a lot of rejection and a lot of great bleed,” Ross-Spang says. “I’ve heard that Glyn Johns used to work this way, and he’d call it ‘barnstalling.’ A friend of mine, Jeff Powell, used to work a lot of with Glyn Johns, and he said they would do things the way we’re doing: where the bass amp and the guitar amps are parallel to the kick drum on each side.

“The other thing I think is great is, for the most part, we don’t use headphones [on the show]. I have these old Altec 604s in the corner that I pump back into the room. It’s amazing how much volume you can pump in there without affecting the actual recording. A lot of people don’t know, because they’re so used to headphones, how much they might prefer to sing that way.”

For a band to tape live in a small space, they often have to adjust arrangements as well as their technical expectations, but Davidson sees that as one of the show’s great assets. “An artist stripping down their music a bit for the Sun Studio Sessions taping allows them to get back to the true roots of their songs, and I think they have fun with that,” he says. “It lets them reconnect with the songs and the emotions they intended to convey in the music.”

On the other hand, for acoustic roots combos, in particular, the Sun space may be a natural fit. “I was one of the first to play the program when they started,” says singer/songwriter/stand-up bass player Amy LaVere. “Then I went back later and did another session with Will Sexton, supporting him on upright bass. To me, the space is bigger than most stages we play. It’s more like a live performance than a recording session where you’d use iso booths; in this case, you’re controlling your own volume in the room— mixing yourself, essentially.”

“But Sun is also different from a club or garage, or most studios, where you can turn your amp up to 10 and get your drums as loud as you want, and just focus on your one tone.” Ross-Spang says. “The difference is, everybody is listening to each other and playing together. If you’re too loud, you can’t hear the vocalist, the drummer can’t hear himself, and so on; that means you’re way too loud.

“In a studio with isolation booths and personal headphone cues, inevitably, everyone just turns themselves up. Here, you’ve got to see the room as an instrument, and when you do that and play at a lower volume, it’ll actually sound bigger than when you’re playing really loud: You’re not just getting the attack of the instruments, you’re getting the overtones and harmonics, and you’re not fighting the space. Sun is, I think, one of the few spaces that actually makes people better musicians and better bandmates, because you don’t have the option to bring in your Marshall half-stack and turn it up to 11. You have to use a smaller tube amp, and the tone has to be in your fingers. A lot of people first turn to pedals and volume knobs, but here you realize there’s much more to it.”

Any band that comes in to tape a Sun Session may have to make some sorts of adjustments in approach, and Ross-Spang does, as well. “The main thing about Sessions that’s different from a normal recording session at Sun is the way we can use the space. Not only is the film crew taking up half of the tracking room, we can’t use any other spaces, like the little front office at Sun. You see it in old pictures of Marion Keisker, who was the secretary and Sam’s business partner in the ’50s. It’s this weird-shaped room of glass with a tin ceiling, and it sounds amazing. It can sound anywhere from [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘When the Levee Breaks’-type drums to a beautiful short-decayed background vocal. It’s a really cool little echo chamber. I can’t use it on the show, but I use it in other sessions all the time.”

Film also imposes limits on the type and size of gear Ross-Spang can use. “I might want to use a big old ribbon mic on the singer, but it blocks their face for TV,” he points out. “But it’s not a huge sacrifice. I think you’ll see an SM7 on lead vocal on pretty much every shoot, and that’s one of the best vocal mics in the world, whether you’re cutting live or you’re just cutting somebody on acoustic guitar and vocal.”

On down his recording chain, Ross- Spang mainly sticks to the pre’s in his Studer console for the show. He also loves to use his Spectrasonics 610 compressors, and a Gates SA39B compressor. “I have a tape echo and an Echoplate 2 reverb that gets used on Sessions a lot, too” he says. “But almost all of my EQ’ing is done by changing out or moving microphones.”

Sam Phillips surely would have approved. In the early days of the Sun founder’s career, when he engineered radio broadcasts for WREC, Memphis, Phillips was a pioneer in the art of tailoring mic placement to suit specific performances. And it’s curious to note that reverting to the studio’s ’50s-era rig and techniques plays such a big part in the ongoing vitality of Memphis’s first independent recording studio. The facility could easily subsist on its wealth of past glories, but instead Davidson, Ross-Spang, and some lucky artists, are making new memories.

“Some favorite moments from Sessions include sharing laughs with Jakob Dylan between takes, showing Lisa Marie Presley’s son the very spot where his grandfather stood to record his first full song in 1954, watching Ryan Bingham pour his heart out into a scorching performance, hearing Lee Rocker’s first-hand stories of playing with Carl Perkins,” Davidson says. “But, a particular favorite moment was from the start of the very first taping we ever did in January 2008, when Grace Potter sat down at the piano and started leading her band, The Nocturnals, through their version of ‘Mystery Train,’ which had, of course, been first recorded on that same floor decades ago. She nailed it in her own way, bringing the song into the present while simultaneously paying homage to the past. It was thrilling, and we knew instantly we had something special.”

Barbara Schultz is Electronic Musician’s managing editor.

Volume vs. Tone

SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE, AND SOMETIMES MORE IS COOL

“From a mixing standpoint, the louder someone’s banging on the drums, the more I have to bring them down because they’re bleeding into the vocal mic. So the louder they’re playing, actually the quieter I need to make them and the less tone you end up with. A guitar player might not want to turn his amp down because he’s afraid he’s going to lose his tone, but the louder it is, the more it’s bleeding and the lower I have [to turn] his close mic. Whereas, if he had a lower volume, the tone that’s going into the mic is very cool and then I can bring up the amp sound, and it’s got a lot of depth to it.

“Some recordings will have a lot of depth because everything is bleeding into one another, and if you do that correctly, it becomes a cool, almost 3D sound image where you can feel the drums are there, but they’re behind the vocalist and amp off to the left a little bit and they’re kind of floating into the right. It doesn’t work for everybody, but when it works, it’s one of those catching lightning in a bottle things.” —MATT ROSS-SPANG

(Not Just) Drum Miking at Sun

IN A SMALL SPACE, DRUM MIKING ISN’T JUST DRUM MIKING

“I never use more than three or four mics on the drums, and they’re all also positioned to grab little bits of a B3, or the back of an electric guitar amp—anything I’m trying to add a little depth to. In other words, I’ll usually do mono drums, but sometimes that depends on if there’s two guitar players, for example; I might pan those a little bit because I also position them to pick up not just the floor tom but also some leakage from the amps. And then if you pan the amps 100 percent, you get this beautiful little early reflection from the amp toward the middle that adds more beef to the guitar and spreads it out a bit cooler.

“If you close-mike everything, you can pan it all you want and add additional reverb, but you’re not getting a real sense of being in the room with that thing. Everything is played at different volumes, and the more I can create that sense with fewer microphones, the more I can re-create that cool Sun sound.” —MATT ROSS-SPANG