Recording studios, like many things in the modern age (payphones for example), don’t hold the same significance as they did let’s say, 20 years ago. With the advent of digital recording equipment, home recording has become a lot more prevalent. One of the biggest selling independent recordings of the past 15 years, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever, Ago was recorded right here in the Chippewa Valley by Justin Vernon in his family’s hunting cabin using a laptop and other portable equipment.
In this blog post I am going to go over a brief history of some famous studios and the musicians and owners and that helped make them so well known. My wife and I were going to embark on a roadtrip where we visited some of these rooms but like a lot of people, we had to change our plans due to the current Coronavirus pandemic. We were going to drive down to Tennessee and stay in Memphis, Nashville and just outside of Pigeon Forge, the home of Dollywood. Since the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama was just a little South of our drive between Memphis and Nashville, we were going to make a quick stop at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield and take a quick tour. That studio is run by a small group of musicians known as The Swampers. The Swampers got their start at another area studio, Fame Studios, before branching out on their own. The amount of famous musicians that stopped through their neck of the woods to record in these rooms is astounding. Check out the DVD documentary and book listed below for more on this fascinating area of the south.
Another group of studio musicians informally known as The Wrecking Crew were associated with producer Phil Spector and often worked at Gold Star Studios in LA. Their little known but important contributions to hundreds of hit records from The Byrds to The Beach Boys are the subject of another DVD available at our library.
Two other famous studios that we planned to visit were Ardent Studios and Sun Records, both in Memphis. Sun was originally owned by Sam Phillips, the subject of the great biography, The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll. A fun scene featuring Sun Studios is in the film Mystery Train which also features Rufus Thomas, a Sun Records recording alum, in a small role. Sun is an example of a studio that is directly associated with a record label. Another such studio is RCA Studio B in Nashville, which was the home base for many artists on that famous label. A visit here was also on our list of planned activities.
Finishing up, I wanted to touch on three studios in this area, one owned by the aforementioned Justin Vernon, and two that I was lucky enough to be able to record in. April Base is a recording studio in Fall Creek, just a few miles outside of Eau Claire that is owned by Justin Vernon. I believe he built it for himself to record in, using money that he made off the enormous success of his first record. (Before moving to Eau Claire, I worked at B-Side, an independent record store in Madison and I can attest, we sold a lot of copies of that record). He now records other bands both international, Blind Boys of Alabama, and local, The Drunk Drivers. The final studios I am going to talk about are ones that I’ve worked in, Smart Studios in Madison, and Pachyderm, in Cannon Falls, MN. Smart, (no longer in busisiness) owned by Butch Vig had a rich history starting with working with local bands like my high school punk band Mecht Mensch and culminating in recording demos for Nevermind, Nirvana’s multi-platinum selling record. My college band Poopshovel recorded both our records there. More information on Smart can be found in the documentary, The Smart Studios Story, directed by Wendy Schneider, the owner of her own Madison studio, Coney Island. Now on to Pachyderm. They are famous for being the studio where Nirvana recorded their second record, In Utero. My band NoahJohn was lucky enough to record there using the same engineer and equipment.
The final studio, I am going to mention is Sound City, located in LA. Dave Grohl, the drummer for Nirvana, fell in love with this studio after recording the final version of Nevermind there using Butch Vig as engineer (lots of connections here). Grohl made a documentary that we also have on our shelves. He also eventually bought the sound board used by many famous bands because he didn’t want to fade into obscurity. Another piece of equipment saved by an obsessive musician is the 1947 Voice-o-Graph record booth in Jack White’s (White Stripes, Raconteurs) Third Man Record’s store in Nashville. My wife, Colette, being a major Jack White geek, wanted to stop there on our aborted journey as well. I was going to try to make a short recording in the booth because my hero, Neil Young, recorded his A Letter Home CD there.
I’m glad I was able to talk about and highlight the materials related to some of these hallowed places and hope you will check out some of our library’s selections to learn more about them. Obviously, it would have been a treat as well as an educational experience to see some of these studios in person, but due to our current unique situation, it was not to be.
Library materials (please do not place a hold on these until the library re-opens)
- Sam Phillips: The Man who Invented Rock And Roll by Peter Guralnik BOOK
- Muscle Shoals DVD
- Wrecking Crew! A Documentary DVD
- Bon Iver Good Winter by Mark Beaumount BOOK
- Sound City DVD
- The Muscle Shoals Legacy Of Fame by Blake Ellis BOOK
- A Letter Home by Neil Young CD
- Mystery Train DVD
Studios That We Planned to Visit On Our Trip
- Ardent Studios – Memphis, TN
- Sun Records – Memphis, TN
- Muscle Shoals Sound – Sheffield, AL
- Historic RCA Studio B – Nashville, TN
- Third Man Record Booth – Nashville, TN
Studios Related To This Blog Post