"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Stop Tape 

I picked up the latest issue of Bass Player magazine yesterday to read on the bus, and there I learned (belatedly) that two of the great recording studios in pop music history - Alabama's Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and The Hit Factory in New York - have closed.

Muscle Shoals produced a gritty country/soul hybrid sound that got AM radios jumping through the 60's and 70's. Most of the great Aretha Franklin tracks, classics by the Rolling Stones, the urbane funk of the Staple Singers, and AOR standards by Paul Simon and Bob Seger were all among the hits pumped out by this homely studio. This story from NPR captures the groove:
In 1969, four local session players known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section decided to open up their own recording studio. David Hood, the group's bass guitarist and studio co-founder, says the studio's name was a joke of sorts.

"There was a Motown sound, there was a Nashville sound, there was a Memphis sound, and I said, 'Muscle Shoals Sound,'" Hood tells NPR's Debbie Elliott. "And we all thought that was just the funniest thing. And then after a bit we thought, 'Heck, why not?'"

In fact, that sound was already developing in Muscle Shoals at a studio called Fame -- the first studio in the region to cut a hit record. That was 1961's "You Better Move On," by local bellhop Arthur Alexander, and it was the first of a string of R&B hits recorded there by such artists as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Clarence Carter.

Muscle Shoals seemed an unlikely place for a celebrity crowd: the nicest hotel was a Holiday Inn, and sometimes the area's studios would put artists up in mobile homes at the local trailer park. But the music kept the stars coming, and in its heyday in the mid-70s, the area was home to eight studios.

"I think they just got funkier records here than they did anywhere else," says Fame studio president Rodney Hall. "And it's a lot more laid back than any other music center in the country."

On the other end of the "laid back" spectrum was The Hit Factory. From Rolling Stone (back in February - I told you my notice of this news was belated!):
New York's legendary Hit Factory -- where John Lennon recorded his final album, Paul Simon spent more than a year working on Graceland and Biggie Smalls smoked blunts while scribbling Ready to Die lyrics on yellow legal pads -- has closed its doors. The studio's six-story West 54th Street building will be converted into condominiums. "It's the end of an era," says engineer Neil Dorfsman, who worked on an Eric Clapton project at the facility. "New York is losing its role as a destination to make records."

The Hit Factory was founded in 1968 on West 48th Street by producer and songwriter Jerry Ragavoy. Entrepreneur and former musician Eddie Germano purchased the studio in March 1975, outfitted it with top-shelf gear and dedicated it to serving the needs of A-list musicians. (In 1991, Germano moved the Hit Factory to its current location; he died in 2003.) "If we needed dinner, Eddie had the best restaurants send food," recalls Billy Joel producer Phil Ramone. "If I had a fifteen-mile drive home after a session, he'd say, 'Listen, I got you a hotel room across the street.'"

When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded Born in the U.S.A. at the Hit Factory, longtime Springsteen engineer Toby Scott joked that Germano should knock down his office walls to expand the lounge. "We went away for two weeks," says Scott, "and when we came back, they had done just that."

During the Double Fantasy sessions, Germano gave Lennon and Yoko Ono a private room next to the studio. "I had it done like an elegant English living room with chaise lounges and paintings I liked," recalls Ono. "John loved it and hung out there all the time." When news leaked that the former Beatle was working on his first recording in five years, Germano ensured the couple's privacy. "John told Eddie that he did not want anybody to visit the floor we were working on unless John personally OK'd it," says Ono. "Eddie protected us very forcefully. It was probably hard for him to say no to the biggest people in the music business, but he did. I still appreciate that."

The urge to constantly improve the studios could even go too far. When Stevie Wonder used the Hit Factory for three months to record "As," from Songs in the Key of Life, the studio was going through structural renovations. "One day, Stevie came into my dad's office," recalls Germano's son Troy, who helped run the business. "He said, 'Eddie, I love the studio. I love you. But you gotta stop moving the doors.'"

The loss of our classic recording studios is not unexpected, nor is it entirely a bad thing. Bands that could never afford five hours of recording time at The Hit Factory (or even at Muscle Shoals Sound) can now build their own digital home studios that sound nearly as good for very little money. As a result, the nature of the recording art is shifting away from traditional studios to computer-based alternatives; indeed, the very title of this post is an anachronism, as old-fashioned recording tape itself is becoming a relic. It's inevitable, but it's also a little sad.




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