Sun Studio, U2, and the Evolution of Recording Technology
U2 recorded several tracks at Sun Studio, but the gear used was surprising to say the least
The list of classic tracks recorded at Sun Studio reads like a history of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, Elvis Presley all made their earliest recordings there, and in doing so, forged the sound that would change the course of music forever.
The studio opened in 1950 by Sam Phillips in Memphis. Phillips was a self-taught studio engineer, and as a result, was not hampered by convention. During the early days, the studio recorded legendary blues artists such as BB King, and Howling Wolf. Phillips’ creativity, and the Sun Studio ‘sound’, led to the renowned, unique sonic character. It quickly became the place for new artists to record, with Chess and Modern records using the facility regularly.
In 1952, Phillips launched Sun records. This would be the platform that would see the studio propelled onto the global stage. In the mid ‘50s, the studio would hit a golden period. When a young Elvis Presley and his band were ‘fooling around’ whilst playing a cover of Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s All right’ during a late night session, Phillips told the band take it from the top, and recorded it. Rock ‘n’ Roll, as we know it, was born.
There really isn’t enough space to talk about every seminal recording made during those early years at Sun Studio. In the late ‘60s, however, the Studio went into decline, and by 1969, the record label had been sold, and the ‘70s, the building was sold to a plumbing firm.
The story was not finished, however, and in 1987, Sun Studio re-opened. Far from being a preserved, tourist attraction, this was still a working studio, and still had more iconic recordings to come…
In 1987, U2 were on tour in America. Album, ‘The Joshua Tree’ had propelled them to international superstardom, and now, they felt compelled to take a different direction. The band was immersing itself in American music history, and was clearly heavily influenced by it.
This led to the creation of ‘Rattle and Hum’, which was intended to be a sort of ‘musical scrapbook’, documenting their time in the states, according to The Edge. As part of its creation, the band visited Sun Studios and recorded 3 tracks: ‘Angel of Harlem’, Love Rescue Me’ and ‘When Love Comes to Town’.
The Studio still had the ‘Golden Touch’ it seemed, and ‘Rattle and Hum’ became the fastest selling album in UK upon its release.
Technology (or lack of it…)
Though it may seem like the dark ages to some, in 1987 the development of recording technology was happening at pace. Most pro studios were equipped with at least one 24 track reel-to-reel recorder, and possibly more. Despite this, Sun Studios was a far more modest affair.
At its heart was the Akai MG1214 recorder- well respected, but very limited compared to other studios. It was an all-in-one mixer and multi-track recorder that employed Akai’s own format cassette. It provided only 12 tracks, with a sync track and control track. The mixer section was a 12-input affair, with just two effects sends and 3-band EQ. Just the essentials, then…
The recordings produced in the studio at that time, which employed the microphones and other equipment used by the rock ‘n’ roll legends of Sun Studio ’s early years, were a testament to the old adage that microphone placement, and a great sounding studio are the foundations of any great recording.
The modern equivalent…
There are a number of portable multi-track devices still available, despite the onward march of computer based recording technology. Though the Akai machine used in Sun Studio is no longer in production, the technology packed into currently available multi-track recorders, for a staggeringly small amount of money is astounding.
For example, the Zoom R16 recorder is capable of recording up to 16 tracks at CD quality, with 8 simultaneous inputs, onboard effects and much more, for just £279.99 (price correct as of 2/8/2012).
For the singer songwriter, The Boss BR-800 is an eight-track machine, with a full guitar effects processor, drum machine and built-in stereo microphone, priced at just £369 (price correct as of 2/8/2012). It even doubles as an audio interface for computer-based recording.
If that isn’t portable enough, its little brother, the Micro BR-80 offers eight tracks of recording, a drum machine, guitar effects, and eBand play along tracks, in a battery-powered box that is truly pocket-sized, and priced at £225 (price correct as of 2/8/2012).
The power available for use in modern home recording opens up a whole world of creative possibilities. And whilst you may not have the ‘magic’ of Sun Studios, you’ll have a set of tools that Sun Studios ‘ Sam Phillips could only dream of…
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