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Recording legends from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Howlin' Wolf cut some of their earliest tracks at Sun Records in Mephis. And more than 60 years later, the studio is still making music the old-fashioned way. From member station WKNO in Memphis, Christopher Blank explores the label's signature sound.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you guys Johnny Cash fans?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.
WOMAN: OK. Pretty much everybody is these days.
CHRISTOPHER BLANK, BYLINE: Every day, hundreds of tourists pay twelve bucks to visit the room where some say rock 'n' roll was born. Sun Studio is about the size of a one car garage. The walls and ceiling are covered with white acoustic tiles.
WOMAN: I'll show you a little trick. You guys can hear there's a percussion sound in this Johnny Cash song. In this - "I Walk The Line" - see?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")
BLANK: Our tour guide picks up a guitar. the slack strings rattle as she strums along, revealing the secret to Cash's rhythm. But there's another element to this song - that cavernous and booming sound - that can't be explained here in this room.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")
JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
BLANK: That depended on the imagination of the labels pioneering founder, Sam Phillips. Stepping into the control room, you can still see what Phillips had to work with - big metal consoles full of large knobs and vacuum tubes. It's here that a young recording engineer named Matt Ross-Spang is re-creating the sonic palette of early Sun records using the early equipment.
MATT ROSS-SPANG: Everything in here is before 1970.
BLANK: Everything but Ross, who is vintage 1987. Hipsters would drool over his collection of retro hardware, from old microphones to a record lathe. But Phillips' sound was more than just his gear. And Ross-Spang has spent a decade picking apart old recordings for clues to how the music was made...
(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)
BLANK: ...Like this back alley reverb on Johnny London's saxophone in the 1953 instrumental "Drivin' Slow." Through trial and error, Ross-Spang discovered that sometimes Phillips just recorded people in the echo-y reception area or even in the bathroom.
ROSS-SPANG: You know, just got goose bumps and my neck hair standing up, like, oh, that's how he did, you know. So it's kind of like sonic archaeology, I mean, where you're digging, but you don't know what you're going to find.
BLANK: Sam Phillips' son, Jerry Phillips, says, his father was always trying new ways to get different sounds from the room.
JERRY PHILLIPS: My dad called it a laboratory. You had to get in there like a laboratory, like you're making something or building something like a Frankenstein, you know.
BLANK: His dad's trademark effect is called slapback echo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY, LET'S PLAY HOUSE")
BLANK: It was created by using a reel-to-reel tape machine to feed a slightly delayed playback into the master recording. Matt Ross-Spang explains why Phillips liked it so much.
ROSS-SPANG: Sam would eat in a cafe every day, and he heard the jukebox. And the way the jukebox kind of echoed in the room - he thought, this is how people want to hear music. They don't want to hear it perfectly, exactly like it happened. They want to hear it with some kind of - a little bit of fantasy around it.
BLANK: Not every band that records at Sun wants that vintage sound. But getting the Sam Phillips treatment is one reason the studio stays busy these days. It's booked almost every night after the tourist leave. At a recent session, a band called The Buff City Backsliders warmed up. The horns were miked in the reception area. The drummer lowered his volume. Singer Jason Freeman says that recording at Sun is about finding what Phillips called the imperfectly perfect.
JASON FREEMAN: You know, we're all playing live together in a room - no headphones - the way Sam would've done it - you know, totally live. We're trying to capture that energy, you know.
All right, boys.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
BLANK: As The Backsliders launch into take one, Freeman stands near the spot where 60 years ago this month, Elvis Presley recorded his first hit, "That's All Right, Mama." Sam Phillips knew right then he'd gotten something good. Ross-Spang says, that's part of the fun.
ROSS-SPANG: You can feel in the room with the take. There's no, like, I don't know if that was it. You never hear that. You hear like, man, we've got to go hear that back.
BLANK: Jerry Phillips, whose family is still in the music business, says that in an age of digital editing and endless retakes, the old ways of recording reveal to young musicians what the first great secrets of rock 'n' roll...
PHILLIPS: ...Which is we don't know what we're doing, really, but we know it when we've got it.
BLANK: For NPR News in Memphis, I'm Christopher Blank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.