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STUDIO: Muscle Shoals Sound

STUDIO: Muscle Shoals Sound

Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studios prides itself as one of the last remaining studios to use tube recording consoles and rooms full of vintage gear that simply cannot be found anywhere else.

Famously known as the studio where the Rolling Stones recorded Wild Horses and Brown Sugar, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios was started in the 1960s when Fame Studio’s backing band, The Swampers, left to set up their own space on 3614 North Jackson Highway, in Sheffield, Alabama. The band operated the studio from 1969 to 79 and created a signature sound that was revered by artists like John Lennon and is still highly sought after today. The successes of the studio led to the arrival of a raft of mainstream rock and pop artists suh as Traffic, Lulu, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Bobby Womack and
Millie Jackson.

The studio made headline news in 2005 when a false story about a different building being sold to a film company was published in Rolling Stone magazine. It was a huge shock to owner Noel Webster, who has owned the original location since 1999. Muscle Shoals Sound Studios was recently brought back into the press when Akron, Ohio blues duo The Black Keys recorded their latest album, Brother, at the studio with producer Mark Neil.

Webster feels that the continued success of the studio is a  result of the gear, great bands and engineers as well as the building itself. “When you stomp your foot or hit a kick drum the band feels that under their feet. It is sitting on 100-year-old red oak solid rough-cut beams and the floor is not insulated. The whole building shakes when you play in it.”

Recent renovations made to the studio’s main room are proof that Webster is determined to maintain the spirit and history of the studio, rather than trying to compete with modern studios. “The main room was set up from the 70s and we are going back to put the original 1950s Celotex acoustic tiling in the control room. So when people walk in the studio it will be just as it was in 1969, as opposed to 73. We had an MCI 416 console in here at one time, and that is a great board, but it doesn’t sound like the Universal Audio tube stuff. We are going that route because that is what the clients want. Now when they come in and say they want to sound like the Rolling Stones, it’s nailed.

“I have kept the original studio location and everything in it exactly the way it should be. The building was closed and the city was going to knock it down. I started rebuilding it and registered it on the National Register of Historic Places. I cleaned up the whole place and even restored the original furniture and lights.

“We have gone through some revisions to get it back to how it was in the 60s and put in the original MCI consoles that they used. The consoles are all tube, and we will still track to tape, but we also have a Radar system. We are also adding the mastering lab from the Hit Factory in NYC. I bought its entire Weiss system and its Sonic Solutions HD and DAW and Apogee UV1000 UV22s, so we do complete mastering here as well.

“We are now putting in a Universal Audio 610 desk. Of the three that are in this country, Mark Neil owns all of them. He came around here and made an album and he loved it so much that he is moving his entire operation. He is physically moving here because he has a lot of projects and we are the only cats doing this kind of recording.

“All the instruments in here are historical. We have the Hammond that was used on Eric Clapton’s song Layla and Alabama’s touring drum kit. There is no place to cut on tubes any more. Abbey Road has changed, you can’t go to Stax now and American is gone. This is the last remaining fully-fledged analog tube recording studio period piece.”

Webster argues that, although the studio isn’t filled with the latest time-saving digital equipment, it is an extremely efficient studio to work in. The fact that The Black Keys recorded 15 songs in ten days further strengthens this argument. “It is a period piece, but we can also track to Radar and capture the tube sound,” he says. “The sound we have in here sounds bigger per track than a 24-track mix on a Pro Tools system – it’s huge. Most of the records we cut only need ten to 14 tracks for a whole band because we are using Neumanns and Telefunkens, all tube stuff and tracking just like they did in the 60s, and it works.

“When you walk through the halls at the AES tradeshows you see that all the gear manufacturers are trying to get back to the 50s and 60s. They are trying to make Fairchild 670s, but they don’t sound as good as the original because the iron in them is a black art. The fact is that you can’t go out and buy anything that we have in this building. We have Westrex compressors from 1947 that were built for the film industry and they are awesome. We have Bruel & Kjaer eqs that go from 12 Hertz to 40K. Everyone else has Neve in-line consoles and Pro Tools rigs, and that is fine. They can keep it because I don’t like it, and it doesn’t sound correct to me. If they made anything better we would use it.”

While most studio owners and engineers will argue that they do not use vintage gear because of the time and money that is needed for maintenance, Webster contends that the gear in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios is so well made that it doesn’t require much maintenance at all. “We might get a ringing ...

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one of the consoles every six months, but we have extra modules so we can fix them very easily,” he states. “We have a huge tech shop, but we don’t really need to fix stuff all that often. This room sounded great then and it still does now and we haven’t changed a thing. We have still cut everything live on the floor and it just works.”
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