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Capturing the Shine of Sun Records

Capturing the Shine of Sun Records

At his legendary Sun Records studio, producer Sam Phillips recorded tracks that formed the earliest library of rock ’n’ roll music. He cut seminal records with Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and the king himself, Elvis Presley.

Here’s a breakdown of classic Sun Records recording methods, and a brief guide to matching them in your own studio.

Greetings and welcome to another Dojo. Last month I showed you how to get some early-Beatles vibe into your mixes. This time, I’d like to turn the clock back a bit earlier, put the ragtop down, throttle the Chevy small-block V8 and burn rubber back to the cradle of American rock ’n’ roll—Memphis, Tennessee. Tighten up your (seat) belts, the Dojo is now open.

On January 3, 1950, Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service opened its doors and welcomed any genre of music—especially the blues. After having early success with B.B. King, Phillips’ first No. 1 hit was recorded in March of 1951 with Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm (credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats because Brenston sang the lead vocal).

The song, “Rocket 88,” about an Oldsmobile with a V8 engine, has become legendary for at least two reasons: It is arguably the first recorded example of rock ’n’ roll, and the first recorded song with distortion.

Legend has it that while the band was en route to Memphis, guitarist Willie Kizart’s amp fell from the truck onto the pavement as the band hastily tried to change a flat tire. Once they reached the studio, plugged it in and heard the distorted, gravelly buzz of the amp (most likely the amp’s speaker cone was torn), Phillips quickly stuffed paper taken from the diner next door into the back of the amp, hit record, and the rest is history.

By 1952, Philips would change the studio’s name to Sun, add a matching record label, and record the soon-to-be seminal musical offerings of Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.

The Sun Sound, Mics, and Room

Armed with a repurposed 1930s RCA 76D radio broadcast console, two Ampex 350 tape recorders, a Presto 6N lathe, and a handful of mics (RCA 77-DX, RCA 44-BX, and Altec “coke bottle” 21B), Sam Phillips would go on to shape and codify the “sound” of rock ’n’ roll. For me, the sound of early Sun recordings can be boiled down to three main elements: ribbon mics, a tight room sound, and highly saturated tape delay.

Dojo veterans will remember the “Microphone Polar Patterns 101” article, “Two Mics, One Cab, and Infinite Tones” video, and note my love for ribbon mics on just about everything. Ribbon mics feature a wonderful high-end roll-off, smooth midrange, plenty of low end, and are mostly used in a figure-eight polar pattern. They naturally capture any size of room sound in a flattering way that is never harsh and adds dimension to the source material. I believe they’re closer to the way our ears naturally “hear.”

“Ribbon mics feature a wonderful high-end roll-off, smooth midrange, plenty of low end, and are mostly used in a figure-eight polar pattern.”

Sun’s tracking room is 18′ x 33′ with square acoustic tiles covering the walls and the undulating V-ceiling. There are no partitions and all musicians are recorded in the same room together as a band. This is a huge part of the Sun sound as the mics invariably have bleed from other instruments playing in the room, no matter how strategically placed—in a good way!

Lastly, there’s the gloriously saturated “slapback” delay echo from the Ampex 350 tape machines: This is a hallmark production value that Sam Phillips really exploited on mostly all of the early Sun records, and became the sound of rock ’n’ roll.

Sun Shine

The good news is that most of the original gear is available as plugins. Here are my top two plugins that will help add some Sun shine to your recordings:

  1. Waves Kramer Master Tape ($29 street) is a lovely Ampex 350 tape machine emulation with lots of vibe and coloration.
  2. Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection ($149 street) is five consoles in one plugin (Neve, SSL, API, Trident, and RCA).

Try using both of these plugins on every track and adjust to taste the amount of noise, saturation, feedback, and EQ.

Lastly, if you’re in the market for a new all-purpose microphone that accurately emulates every classic microphone, look no further than Universal Audio’s Sphere DLX ($1,499 street). The Sphere DLX models 38 of the most coveted mics in the world (including the RCA 77-DX). You can select your microphone, polar pattern, and other settings before recording and change them all completely afterwards. They also offer a dual mode for making a stereo recording from one mic.

Until next time, keep sharing your music with the world. Namaste.

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