Monday, February 11, 2008

Sun Studios Tour Proves Less is More

On a recent trip to Memphis Tennessee I took time out for a visit to Sun Studios (Memphis Recording Service). Everyone knows about the legend of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, and the birth of Rock & Roll. Nothing prepared me though for just how much can be done with so little.

Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service “A Complete Service to Fill Every Recording Need” recorded everything from weddings to artists such as B.B. King, Little Milton, Junior Parker, and Howlin’ Wolf. His studio recorded "Rocket 88", which music historians consider the first rock & roll song and made history with his discovery of Elvis Presley. However, on the tour I found out that his “Newest and Best Equipment” was an Ampex single track recorder and his “Sonocoustic Studio” was a simple room with acoustical tile that is still there today (Sun Studios was designated an historical landmark in 2003).

Truth is, a fifth grader with GarageBand on their laptop has vastly more capability than Sam Philips had available at the time. If you want to introduce an effect into a recording today you push a button. Back then, they rearranged the furniture or got out the soldering iron to make some tweaks to the equipment and did another take. Also, there was no post editing where they could use punch-in points to correct mistakes. They just kept doing full takes until they got what they wanted. Yet, these early recordings continue to hold up today.

So, that begs the question, what have we gotten for all this technology? Has it generated any benefit or just created shortcuts to mediocrity? The way I think about it is that Sam Philips and his contemporaries were all about the “Newest and Best Equipment.” When he started out the Ampex one track was the best he could get. If today's technology were available then they would have been all over it! We owe our listening pleasure to innovators then and now who are all about pushing the limits of available technology.

Sun Studios photo licensed through Creative Commons 3.0.

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