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Ardent Studios and the pursuit of authenticity

The Memphis recording institution celebrates its 50th anniversary

Isaac Hayes, Big Star and The Replacements are just a few of the legendary acts to have passed through the doors of Ardent Studios. As the Memphis recording institution celebrates its 50th anniversary, David Davies discovers that a blend of old and new technology is helping to keep it relevant

Patrick Scholes – who, since 1979, has been involved with Ardent Studios variously as senior manager for technology, co-owner and, latterly, chairman – is reflecting on the qualities that continue to make the studios a stop-off for regional and international acts since they opened for business in their first incarnation 50 years ago.

“I think our strength has always been our ability to capture the authentic sound of a band in its rawest form then infuse it with the spaces and gear that were original to the craft,” he says. “So there is a vintage aspect to it, but also the mix of digital and analogue that we can offer is a rare thing these days.”

Business development director Jody Stephens’ association with the studios is even more extensive. As drummer with the much-loved US power-pop band Big Star, he recorded at Ardent’s first incarnation on National Street and, from November 1971 onwards, its current location on Madison Avenue. In the mid ’80s – long after the dissolution of Big Star – Stephens returned to the studios as a full-time employee, helping to develop acts through Ardent’s production wing.

“It really all goes back to John Fry,” says Stephens of Ardent’s founder and designer, who passed away in December 2014. “He had an amazing ear for music and he put together some really great sounding rooms. Even at the start Ardent was equipped with plenty of state-of-the-art gear. So his founding vision is still very much present.”

Creativity flowing

Fry’s repeatedly stated dual-passion for both music and technology saw him become one of the first in the region to acquire EMT plate reverbs and 24-track recording equipment. While Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, Led Zeppelin’s third album (mixing only), and immortal singles from the Staple Singers and Booker T and the MGs helped to distinguish the studios’ first phase, Ardent undoubtedly entered a golden age after its relocation to Madison Avenue. At this time a two-studio complex, Ardent attracted an increasingly diverse roll-call of rock, blues and soul performers – among them Freddie King, Joe Cocker, Cheap Trick and ZZ Top – as the 1970s progressed.

Then there was Big Star, whose Ardent-recorded classic albums #1 Record and Third/Sister Lovers are now classic texts of alternative rock. As Stephens recalls of the band’s early studio experiences, “we felt immediately comfortable at Ardent. John Fry gave us the keys to the studio and encouraged us to sharpen our engineering skills – which [band co-leader] Chris Bell and others did – and also let our creativity flow without the clock ticking. We were extremely fortunate to benefit from that kind of generosity.”

There is no doubt that this generosity was to some extent repaid, particularly during the 1980s, when the evocative and emotional pop of Big Star drew an entire generation of bands keen to acquire some of the Ardent sound. Green On Red, The Replacements, the Georgia Satellites, the Gin Blossoms, Canada’s Tragically Hip and the Afghan Whigs were among the many acts to pass through Ardent during what might be regarded as its second golden age.

The 1990s were no less successful, with a burgeoning interest in the contemporary Christian music market (encouraged by its own label) complemented by ongoing popularity among blues and country artists, including Robert Cray, Jeff Healy, Albert Collins, BB King, Tanya Tucker and Steve Earle. Further diversification followed in the 2000s and 2010s with hip-hop and film soundtrack projects, while Cat Power, Bob Dylan, the Raconteurs and the resurgent Big Star confirmed Ardent’s enduring appeal to major international acts.

Studio tour

A look at the studios’ specification in 2016 confirms that Ardent has indeed remained true to Fry’s desire to blend the best of old and new. At 25ft x 40ft [7.5m x 12m], Studio A is Ardent’s premiere tracking room and is today based around a Neve VR60 60×48 console and Pro Tools 10.3.1 HD3 Accel system – although a Studer A827 24-track recorder is also available for those wishing to record to tape. The other key tracking room, Studio C, was overhauled in 2011 under the watchful eye of technical director Chris Jackson and now features an SSL Duality SE 48 channel console.

Once again, the latest Pro Tools technology is complemented by a vintage Studer recorder, and Stephens confirms that a significant number of artists are keen to move smoothly between analogue and digital domains. “Of course it is economical to stay on Pro Tools, but we do have artists who want to track to 24-, 16- or even 8-track, and then jump onto Pro Tools – or conversely track in Pro Tools and then jump over to tape to touch analogue. Then there are quite a few who will record everything in Pro Tools and then mix to half-inch or quarter-inch tape.”

Rounding out the Ardent complex is Studio B – based around a Solid State Logic 6056 E console with G computer and primarily geared towards overdubs and mixing – and an Audio Production Suite, opened in late 2012 and conceived as a “more affordable alternative to our full production studios”.

Sense of purpose

A recent project with Chicago-based soul star Zeshan Bagewadi neatly illustrates Ardent’s continuing ability to cover a wide range of musical bases. Resident producer/engineer Adam Hill recalls that Zeshan’s session was “a new and exciting adventure, marrying traditional Indian instruments and vocal techniques with the classic Memphis sounds and feel of the Goldwax, Hi and Stax labels. Producer/arranger Lester Snell is a genius, and I learn something new from him every time I work with him. The rhythm section consisted of top-notch local legends Steve Potts, Dave Smith, Michael Toles and Lester. All basic tracks went down live to two-inch tape, and were eventually transferred to Pro Tools for editing and overdubs. The deep grooves supporting Zeshan’s harmonium, tamboura and vocals yielded some great-sounding tracks that had one-foot planted firmly in the Mississippi and the other in the Ganges!”

While many albums now have their roots in home or project studio recordings, Stephens believes that the current popularity of Ardent and selected other iconic studios can be ascribed to the fact that “people want to walk in the doors and be sure that the magic will happen. It’s not like walking through someone’s doors and not knowing whether you are there for dinner or to record! When you come into Ardent you feel a sense of purpose and energy pushing you forward.”

“In the ’80s and ’90s you might have artists camping out here for weeks on end,” adds Scholes, “so in a way I think things have almost gone back to a ’60s feel, where local and international artists are coming in and spending a few days or sometimes just a few hours to experiment and do artist development-type work. So you have that kind of incubator feel for new talent as part of what we do… it’s really exciting.”

Pictures: Top: The studio in the 1960s. Second: Ardent founder John Fry, who died in 2014. Third: As the studio looks today. Fourth: Lester Snell, Seshan Bagewadi and Adam Hill in Studio C. PhotoCredit: Antar Hanif. Last: (L-R) Adam Hill, Jack White, John Hampton and Patrick Keeler.