Taking a page from the simple set-ups and raw energy of Memphis' early pioneering recording studios, today's DIY studios are recording the city's rock and roll music with few resources, but with talent and enthusiasm to spare.
While cities like Los Angeles and Nashville are known for music industry money and suits, the Memphis recording landscape has always been largely defined by makeshift studios capturing the raw sounds of bands who are long on talent, creativity and energy but short on cash. That scene still plays out daily in nondescript buildings throughout the city in a world of studios where the rates for working with a sound engineer run less than $45 an hour and the owners share the do-it-yourself mentality of the bands they record.
In the city where Sam Phillips' willingness to record anyone led to the birth of rock and roll at his Sun Studio
60 years ago when he captured a young Elvis Presley jamming out "That's All Right," Midtown studios like High/Low Recording
, Rocket Science Audio
and 5 and Dime Recording
all evolved from practice spaces set up for their owners' personal bands. The term "guerilla recording" is used repeatedly when those owners describe their operations.
Sun is a museum today. While it is also still a functioning studio, the $150 an hour recording rate rarely makes the legendary spot a feasible choice for independent bands with limited funds. Memphis is also home to multiple modern spaces with high-dollar equipment and multiple isolation rooms like Ardent Studios
, Archer Records
, Cotton Row
and Young Avenue Sound
But the do-it-yourself ethos has always been a cornerstone of Memphis recording. Ardent began as a garage studio at founder John Fry's parents' house. A large part of the raw, live energy of the legendary soul recordings made at Stax Records
on McLemore came from the label's lack of funds to fully renovate the movie theater it converted into a studio. The former theater room, stripped of its seats, became the Stax tracking room where bands performed together in an auditorium-shaped space.
Toby Vest at High/Low Recording on Cleveland, where studio rates range from $30 to $45 an hour depending on how involved a band's needs are, said his studio was inspired by his experiences recording at Easley McCain Recording
. That famed Memphis studio started as a four-track near the Wolf River Bottoms and evolved into an indie-rock recording destination that drew acts like Pavement, Sonic Youth, Wilco, Modest Mouse and the White Stripes to Memphis with a later location off Lamar Avenue, which suffered a devasting fire in 2005. "There were instruments everywhere. You just felt like you were in a creative environment," Vest said.
Like all the independent studio owners interviewed, Vest stressed that despite their limited funds there is a sense of camaraderie amongst the studios. "Everybody is very respectful of each other. The universal goal is to bring people in, like Alex Chilton did with the Cramps (at Sam Phillips Recording Studio) or Jim Dickinson did with the Replacements at Ardent," he said. "Jim Dickinson always described it as a magnet. There's a certain mystique to being in this town and being a musician. At the end of the day it might not be the most financially fulfilling, but it is the most spiritually fulfilling."
Vest moved in the Cleveland space in 2007, when the building was still also home to offices for the Makeshift Records label. While it also served as a functioning studio at one time, Vest initially used the studio space as a practice area for his band the Bulletproof Vests. By 2009 Makeshift was gone. Vest took over all the rent and utilities and began recording albums for other bands, along with his later group, Tiger High.
"It's the nature of the world where there's no budgets," Vest said of his rates. "We definitely embody the spirit of Sun and Stax. In terms of creating an archive of the Memphis scene over the past five years, that has been the most rewarding part to me. It's a whole community of people encouraging each other to do better."
The services provided by a studio stretch beyond recording to include the mixing and mastering work that are crucial elements of the final product. Vest said his goal at High/Low is to record the live energy of the performers. "Does what is coming from the speakers sound like the band? Is that essence there?" he asked. "We're not cutting corners here. It's a seven day a week job. If you're not working, you better be booking work. At the end of the day, my name goes on [the album] just like theirs does." It has been an honor to work with Memphis musicians like David Shouse, Jack Oblivian and Alicja Trout, who were a huge influence on him, he added.
While Vest has been slowly upgrading his space and equipment, which now includes an isolation room and a MCI 600 series console, the expenses involved in building up a studio are enough to make some engineers rent rather than attempt to own.
Matt Qualls attempted to have a studio for his Brass Tacks Audio engineering at 1372 Overton Park, the famed "Lucero spot" where that band recorded and crashed and which provided the name for one of its albums. Years after Lucero moved out, Qualls rented the space and set up a combination live venue and tracking room with a separate control room so he could record performances.
"Originally my purpose was to build my own place, but after a couple thousand of putting money into gear and not getting anywhere, I said to hell with that," said Qualls. He still has a basic mixing set-up at his house but rents the tracking room from Ardent when he is recording bands. "I would love to at some point have my own place, but what I have at Ardent, for me as a guy who loves the gear aspect of it, they have all the toys," said Qualls, who works by day in a doctor's office. "Memphis is the kind of place where if you don't buckle down and make it happen for you, it's not going to fall in your lap. You just have to grind," he added. "The first time I even went to Sun Studio I couldn't believe the records that were done there with a mono tape machine with one track. It's unbelievable."
That bare-bones Sun Studio set-up was also an inspiration for 5 and Dime Recording, a backyard studio owner Harry Koniditsiotis built in 2004 as a practice space for his band at the time. "I tried to model it after Sun, where the bands all play in one room together and rock it out," he said.
The approach is a great fit for capturing the raw sound of the type of bands drawn to his space, the type of bands he meets on the road touring with his current group, The Switchblade Kid. "I think some people overthink how much they need to spend to record an album. Our motto is 'Keep rock and roll cheap.' Technology has made it where you don't need a lot of super nice stuff," he said, referring to recording software like Pro Tools that can transform a laptop into a multi-track recorder.
Koniditsiotis, a New Orleans native known in Midtown as "Harry K" due to his long Greek surname, moved to Memphis in 2002 looking for a fresh start. "The life and debauchery of New Orleans led me to the life and debauchery of Memphis," he said. He worked at Cotton Row until 2006, but that studio focused more on blues, gospel and rap rather than the rock music he performed. "I wanted to focus on the music I was into," he said.
When he purchased his home in early 2004 the backyard space was a carport with no walls or electricity. "The long idea was that it would turn into a working studio and rehearsal space. This back here was one of the selling points. Being able to work for myself rather than someone else was the main thing."
Koniditsiotis charges bands $25 an hour or $200 a day to record in his studio, where a line of old, glass-paned doors separates his recording station from the bands who perform in the one-room space.
For his next step, Koniditsiotis said, "I'd like to turn this into a bed and breakfast studio space." His wife, Jenny, is a skilled baker, and the couple have extra themed bedrooms in their Cooper-Young home. The neighborhood's amenities appeal to out-of-town bands who are drawn to the idea of recording in Memphis. "It's just something in the water that I still can't put my finger on, but it drove me here," he said of the city's draw.
While Koniditsiotis is creating a bed and breakfast experience at 5 and Dime, around the corner on Madison Avenue, Rocket Science Audio is offering bands a "rock and roll weekend" package where they can play an online variety show on a Thursday night, spend Friday and Saturday recording, then play a live show next door at Murphy's
, where the studio's engineers serve as the sound guys, on Saturday night.
While the studio's rate is $35 an hour, co-owner Robin Pack stressed it tries to be flexible with bands. "With big studios, the moment you hit the front door the clock starts," he said. "Our goal is to give them the best possible sound for the cheapest rate we can give them." Rocket Science also has its origins in a practice space. From 1998 to 2003 Pack was in a band called Yow that rehearsed in a space downtown near Autozone Park. Partner Kyle Johnson, who has decades of experience in the recording industry, came on board as a sound guy to record some Yow sessions and soon found himself running a snake cable down to adjoining rehearsal spaces to record other acts as well.
Pack and Johnson ended up recording the Reigning Sound "Live at Goner Records" album in 2004, and recording every Gonerfest performance since Gonerfest 2 in 2006. "It's exactly what the event was and exactly what the bands are supposed to sound like," Pack said of the festival, which features 35 bands, playing in five Midtown venues over a period of 72 hours every September. "What we really specialize in is that loud, raw sound."
"That Reigning Sound record was what kicked off Rocket Science," Johnson added. In 2005 the two rented a recording space in the upstairs area of the same building High-Low occupies. By the time they moved to Madison Avenue in December of 2010, partners Jackson Gilman and Chris Hoerske were also on board. The four formally incorporated in 2011. While Johnson works full-time in the recording industry by day, the other three work desk jobs in the IT field. None of them draw any money from the studio, keeping all the funds it earns to put toward better equipment.
The space next door to Murphy's on Madison Avenue served as a vacuum repair shop for decades and still had the shop's old sign until a few months ago. "We still, until a couple weeks ago, would get someone knocking on our door wanting their vacuum fixed," Johnson said.
The Rocket Science crew continued to record live shows while transforming the old shop into a large single-room recording space where insulated modular walls are moved around to isolate musicians as necessary. "We essentially had to gut the whole place," Pack said. The monthly Rocket Science variety show, held the last Thursday of every month, hosted by Pack, features a combination of bands and comedians performing in the studio along with short contributions from local filmmakers. The show is streamed live on the studio's website
, where archived past shows are also available.
Pack said his objective is to create as much recording content as possible from musicians, both in the studio and performing live around town. "It's about documenting what the hell happens here in this town. And it's amazing what happens here in this town."