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Sam Phillips: The Sound Engineer Who Invented Rock’n’Roll

20 Feb 2017

Interview kind: text · Reading time: 13 minutes

Sam Phillips was a pioneer both as a technician and an artist. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jonny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins: these are just some of the artists discovered and raised by Phillips, a man who changed the history of music, the recording techniques and the music business itself. In his Sun Studio he gave birth to a sound that would carry on for a decade. Sun Records was one of the most successful independent record labels in history.
Sam Phillips was born in Alabama in 1923, right in the middle of racial segregation and cotton fields. He was raised close to the afro-american community. As a young man, he started developing this concept: it’s inevitable that white and black music will contaminate each other. This was the time when his most famous quote was born: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars” (he later disavowed that comment: "That quote is an injustice both to the whites and the blacks. I was trying to establish an identity in music, and black and white had nothing to do with it").
Back in the 40s, Phillips worked in radio station, recording big bands and broadcasting their performances. In 1949, after he gained enough experience, he decided to open his own recording studio in Memphis, at 706 Union Avenue: the Memphis Recording Service.
There were two main factors that allowed recording studios to open at the time: first of all, the new magnetic tape technology (highly developed during the war and imported from Germany at the end of it), that allowed to have cheap and portable recording devices; secondly, the fact that the army was selling a big amount of microphones at very low prices once they signed the peace. Four dollars to record two songs. One of the advantages of the Memphis Recording Service, a part from the talent of its founder, was to be the only southern studio where black music was recorded.
In april 1951 Chess Records started printing Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, well known as the first rock’n’roll song in history. It was recorded and produced by Sam Phillips. The band, led by Ike Turner, damaged one of the guitar amps while traveling to the studio. Sam Phillips tried to repair the broken cone using some newsprint. He obtained the first fuzz in history. Other engineers would have changed the amplifier, but Sam Phillips simply turned up the volume and made that particular sound the basement of the rhythm section. The result was a song that topped the Rhythm and Blues chart.
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That was the point when Sam decided to start his own record label: Sun Records. He would discover, produce and publish Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many other famous artists. While listening to those recordings, it’s impossible not to be astonished by the sound and the quality it had, considering the fact that they were made in an age in which sound engineering was still very pioneering.
How did he shape the sound of the music that changed the world? In the “golden age” of recording studios, the equipment they used was basically a RCA76d console (a broadcast mixer with six pre-amplified inputs, with no EQs or compressor), two Ampex 350 tape recorders, a handmade compressor and four microphones: an RCA 44BX and a 77DX, a Shure 55 and an Altec 21B. But the instrument Sam used the most was actually the live room. It was sixteen for thirty feet wide, eight feet high with a "wave-shaped" ceiling. All of the corners were rounded. It was one of the first approaches to sound diffusion in a recording studio, in a period of time in which the live rooms for non-classical music recordings were acoustically dead. The walls were covered with sound absorbing panels and the result was a very particular room with plenty ambience sound.
“I never truly liked a dead room for what was I going to do with a very sparse number of people on the session - maybe two to four or five was a big band - so all that was taken into account”
(Sam Phillips in an interview for Mixonline).
Compared to the current production techniques, Phillips’ approach could upset a modern sound engineer. Nowadays we have to deal with very strict production schedules, an obsession for the highest definition possible and flawless performances. Almost every sound engineer and producer has its own recording and mixing techniques that are getting more and more esoteric.
Let’s say it, if you’re reading this article and you’re an engineer, you’re probably looking for THE technique, that particular microphone placement, that type of compression, that rule to get “the Sam Phillips’ sound”. But like it always happens in this job, the only rule is that there are no rules. Phillips’ approach to every session is unique and everything gets reinvented each time. The genius and the talent of Sam Phillips relies on the approach rather than the techniques. He didn’t have “a way to get that guitar sound” or “a way to record vocals”. His technique was shaped around the performance.
The human aspect was essential during the sessions at Sun Studio and the work was always done in a quiet and peaceful environment. Sam was able to create this mood that simply made the musicians have fun and enjoy themselves. If a musician feels comfortable just like he would be in his rehearsal room with his best friends, the performance he’ll deliver will certainly have that extra feeling in it. A song could take up to six moths to be completed, for example with Elvis. You could argue that, in those days, there was the budget to afford such a long time in the studio. Wrong: the last thing Phillips had was the budget, especially in the early 50s. Sam didn’t have  neither a talkback nor a flashing red “recording” light. If he had to tell something to the musicians, he would simply stand up, walk into the live room and talk to them. 
“Well, were you that poor?" Well, I was poor, but I could have gotten me a light bulb. I just did things different”
(Sam Phillips in an interview for Mixonline)
To get that sound he relied on the musician’s expression, who played all together in the same room with no headphones (except for a few rare cases). He wasn’t looking for the perfectly played and controlled performance. He wanted Rock’n’Roll! He wanted something to happen in that room, some kind of magic that at the end of the take made you scream: “We got it!”. It’s not unusual to find mistakes in the records made at Sun Studio. He wasn’t looking for the perfect vocal tuning or the guitar solo of the century. It wasn’t the single musician’s ability that made the difference. For example, Luther Perkins, Johnny Cash’s electric guitarist, was able to play just one string at a time; in fact during the song Home Of The Blues, he played just the lower strings while another guitarist played the chords and the higher strings.
The combination of that live room and the fact that the musicians were playing all together gave birth to a particular phenomenon: the small room got easily saturated with sound pressure and created a natural mid-range frequency compression. Even though it may seem strange, even a producer like Phil Spector used similar techniques in certain situations. The few occasions in which the musicians were recorded outside the live room was when he needed a certain room sound: for example he recorded the brass section in the bathroom to get that classic reverb from the reflections of the ceramic tiles or he even recorded some of the instruments in the Sun Records offices above the studio.
Apart from the “room compression”, one of the distinguishing features of Phillips’ work is the extreme attention in the mic positioning; and if you have only four microphones, this is a key part of the process. Jim Dickinson, a producer who worked at Sun Records, claims that all of the microphones were used as room mics, even the lead vocal one. In some of the recording sessions with Elvis, the guitar amp would be captured with Elvis’ vocal mic. It is worth underlining that what was being miked was the performance, not the single instruments.
During an interview, Sam Phillips describes his choice of microphones depending on the singer he had to record: for Howlin’ Wolf he used a non-directional mic. The Wolf was used to singing while moving around and shaking his head a lot; a directional mic wouldn’t have captured all of his voice’s overtones. With Elvis he usually used a Shure 55 or even the RCA 44D, a bidirectional microphone which captured a great amount of room sound.
Some singers would be recorded facing the microphone, while others obliquely. Sam Phillips gained his experience in different miking techniques by working in the WLAY radio station, where his duty was to record and mix big bands. Even though radio stations had their standard miking procedures, Sam was always looking for the best approach for every band he had to record, depending on the musicians, their style and the type of music they were playing.
Phillips never equalized anything before the mastering phase. Everything was achieved with mic placement and the tone was given by the room’s midrange compression. The only outboard he used was a handmade compressor inserted before the recorder to avoid peaks that could have created tape distortion.
The only consistent technique used by Phillips is one of his greatest inventions: the slap-back delay. While listening to a jukebox sitting in a diner next to his studio, he realized that people are used to hearing ambience sounds. The dry sound coming out of a recording studio is strange and unnatural. So he tried to put together the original signal with the same signal delayed through his Ampex tape recorders and obtained the first artificial spacial effect in the history of recording business. It’s thanks to him if we’re currently familiar with adding ambience to a mix through effects like reverbs and delays, Delay could be used on vocals, on guitar, on the snare or even on the full mix.
To transfer the tapes to lacquer he used a Presto lathe. When he realized that the quality didn’t quite match the level of his productions he had to release, he started collaborating with Bill Putnam, a cutting engineer based in Chicago.
This is how rock’n’roll was born. This was how Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Obrison, Johnny Cash, BB King and Ike Turner were discovered. This is how these songs were cut to lacquer. This is how we’ve turned from classical music to pop, creating the modern record selling industry. This is how black music stepped into the white culture and changed the history of the United States, taking part in the racial segregation and leading young white and black people to share music, spaces and opinions. All of this happened because of a man that spent hours placing microphones in the right spots and talking with the musicians to get their best performance. A man that has always been able to go beyond any artistic, technical and ideological prejudice. A man that had a clear vision of the result he was looking for from and artistic yet technical point of view. With just four microphones. Everything strictly mono.
At the end of the 50s, Sam Phillips moved to another studio, more technically advanced but, as he said himself, he was never able to recreate the atmosphere of Sun Studio. The 706 in Union Avenue reopened in the mid 80s. It wasn’t Sam Phillips’ anymore, but it slowly got restored. The main character behind this change was Matt Ross-Spang, the current head engineer, who tried to recreate the acoustic of the original room in the best possible way and bought all the original equipment used by Phillips. Nowadays the production method of Sun Studio is basically the same as the 50s. Many artists have decided to record their performance in this “new” studio, including U2. The studio organizes guided tours during the day while from 7 pm on it goes back to its primary purpose.
You can easily look up on YouTube some videos of the modern Sun Session. It's up to you (and your ears) to make an opinion about this revival of the 50s recording techniques. There's certainly something fashinating about it, in my humble opinion. But is it really worth moving away from the modern technology just to recreate a piece of history? It's your call.
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