The next time you turn on the radio to listen to music, consider this: every song you hear, while credited to a specific artist or group, likely required an army of professionals to create.
With few exceptions, your favorite recordings started with a songwriter who channeled his or her ideas into crafting lyrics, writing music and creating a recording that demonstrates how the song sounds—known in recording parlance as a demo— of how the song should song.
Once selected for an actual recording session, the team-building begins. The team can include arrangers, engineers, producers, session musicians, backup singers, and others. To paraphrase a popular saying, it takes a village to record a song.
Another very important consideration is where to record it. There are a handful of studios in most major cities, some of which are iconic for the amenities they offer and the songs that have been recorded within their baffled walls. Among the most legendary are Sunset Sound and The Evergreen Stage, both located in Los Angeles; Record Plants in New York, LA and Sausalito; Sun Studio in Memphis; and, of course, EMI Recording Studios on Abbey Road in London—a studio so revered that the Beatles named its 1969 album after its location.
But what draws musicians and their teams to specific studios? It’s often a combination of features, sound quality, studio-quality, and comfort level. For example, the Evergreen Stage offers a 3,000-square-foot live room—one of the largest independent soundstages in the greater Los Angeles area, accommodating up to 60 musicians—as well as a full range of options, both analog and digital.
Also, many recording artists and engineers are drawn to the Evergreen Stage’s massive collection of vintage microphones which have a proud history of their own. An extensive array of performing, from Frank Sinatra and Kelly Clarson to Ozzy Osbourne and Slash, have recorded there.
For some musicians, it’s all about history. Although Cleveland is the city in which the term “rock and roll” was coined by Alan Freed, many musical purists point to Sun Studio in Memphis as the birthplace of the genre. Opened in 1950 and operated by the late, legendary producer Sam Phillips, Sun’s earliest clients included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and other rock and roll pioneers. In recent years, contemporary artists including John Mellencamp, U2 and Chris Isaak have also recorded there, seeking to capture some of Sun’s audio magic.
“The engineers running the studio side for years now have all been obsessed with deeper learning of exactly how Sam Phillips managed to discover so many legendary talents and keep the recordings fresh and new,” said Sun Studio’s chief recording engineer Ples Hampton.
Back in the 1970s, Sausalito’s Record Plant, which had its own distinguished history, became known to the public after Fleetwood Mac recorded its seminal album Rumours at the studio. At the time, LA-based recording engineer Ken Caillat ventured north to work on the sessions, which he later documented in his excellent book Making Rumours.
According to Caillat, Fleetwood Mac “were living in Los Angeles and didn’t want to have so many of their friends come down and hang out. So they wanted to get up here, get everybody alone, and be able to really focus on their record.”
Across the pond sits a number of highly regarded studios, but perhaps none has the recognition factor of London’s EMI Recording Studios, later renamed Abbey Road Studios, the facility at which George Martin produced virtually all of the Beatles’ albums and hits. There, Martin and his engineers used the studio’s four-track REDD console, which was designed by Peter K. Burkowitz.
Many years after recording the Abbey Road album, whose cover photo has since inspired countless tourist selfies, veteran session engineer John Kurlander recalled being a studio newbie when the album was recorded.
“At the time,” he said, “I didn’t really have any experience at all, but what occurred to me, later on, was that—when we did Abbey Road on a new EMI solid state mixer, instead of a valve one that was used on previous records—some of the micing things that (engineer) Geoff (Emerick) did were quite different to what had been done before, and he was adapting his workflow quite significantly, especially going from four to eight-track.”
The stories told about these and other recording studios are fascinating. Every session is unique, and artists, engineers, and producers do form bonds with their favorite facilities.