Memphis, TN—Memphis has a unique place in American musical history, birthing a string of blues, soul, R&B, rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll and pop hits in the 1950s, ’60s and onward out of legendary studios such as Sun, Royal, Stax, Ardent and American. Memphis Magnetic Recording, a new studio that opened in February, just a few blocks from Beale Street, aims to build on that heritage with a design aesthetic and an equipment list straight out of an earlier era.
Memphis Magnetic Recording was named by owners Scott and Claire McEwen as a reference both to the city’s pull on them as well as the studio’s many tape machines. Scott previously owned and operated Fry Pharmacy Recording, a classic analog facility in Nashville. In 2017, they found a 1927 building with foot-and-a-half-thick brick walls in Memphis’ South City neighborhood, gutted it and, in partnership with Bob Suffolk of Suffolk Studio Design, have created a facility with a look and a vibe straight out of the ’60s and ’70s, with equipment to match.
Engineer and producer Scott is originally from Detroit, but he has long felt the attraction of Memphis. “Every time I went to Memphis as a musician to play, I always felt at home,” he says. With costs rising in Nashville, “I had a soul-searching moment where I thought, where do I really want to be?” Other than at the beach, he laughs, the answer was Memphis. The energy of the city reminds him of New York, where he also once lived, he says, and has a grittiness not found in Nashville. “And I feel like with independent music, you need some of that.”
The building had been a grocery store, a taxicab office and, until recently, a document storage facility. Support from the Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County allowed the footprint to be expanded to about 2,800 sq. ft. with the addition of a new ADA-compliant entryway and lobby area, and also enabled other upgrades and exterior improvements. Self+Tucker Architects designed the new floor plan.
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McEwen’s previous studio in Nashville was a one-room layout, a concept he picked up from working with Eric Roscoe Ambel at the producer’s 33 1/3 Recording in Brooklyn. “It was the first time I experienced a control room that wasn’t behind glass. The communication was amazing.” But during 13 years of operation at Fry, the downside became apparent. “As the engineer, you can’t get away from the sound, so at the new place, I went back to a traditional control room,” he says.
Suffolk, who is also a musician and producer, designed Memphis Magnetic using elements from some of his favorite facilities. He started as a tea boy (runner) at London’s Pye Recording Studios, where the first band he worked with was The Kinks, before breaking into the design business when he was asked to renovate Trident Studios in the 1980s. A resident of Texas since the ’90s, he has since designed more than 200 rooms. Along the way, he also founded English new wave precursors the Fabulous Poodles and worked with musicians such as Kate Bush and her band.
When Suffolk saw the Memphis Magnetic building, “I said, let’s have a big tracking room. I did the acoustics in such a way that we have probably a 9.5 millisecond delay; it’s a nice, bright room. We’re getting some great results,” he reports. “I like to build what I call 'purpose-built vintage,'” he adds, noting that the wall finishings include classic drilled acoustic tiles.
McEwen adds that the room, materials and colors are also a mix of classic studios that he really likes. For example, the tracking room is similar in dimensions to the RCA B tracking room in Nashville where he has worked, most notably on JD McPerson’s Undivided Heart and Soul album. “Lots of the other elements are lifted in style and spirit from some classic vintage studios in America and England,” says McEwen.
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Memphis Magnetic is well provisioned with tape recorders. McEwan’s collection includes a couple of Ampex MM1200 machines from the 1970s with 2-inch 16-track or 24-track headstacks; an all-tube 3-track Ampex 300-3 1/2-inch from 1958; 1950s vintage mono and stereo Ampex 351 1/4-inch mastering decks, and several Ampex AG440 1/4-inch 2-track mastering machines from the 1960s.
“I’m a fan of 2-inch 16-track tape; I feel like it’s the Holy Grail, as far as tape formats,” says McEwen. The studio also has a Pro Tools rig, though it's rarely used. Whereas a DAW can offer almost unlimited tracks and encourages leaving decisions until the mix, he says, with tape, “you have to commit. It forces your hand. There are a whole bunch of engineering things that you have to do, because there aren’t endless tracks.” And that’s the way McEwen likes it: “I love being on consoles and on tape.”
Indeed, pride of place at Memphis Magnetic goes to a very special console: a 28-input, 16-bus Sphere Eclipse A that was custom-built for the broadcast facility at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. “At the time it was made—which was the ’70s—they could have bought anything, and they bought a Sphere. That’s saying something,” says McEwen. “It’s a stellar console.” The company only built about 50 consoles, many of them for Nashville clients but also for the White House and the president of Peru; less than 25 are believed to still exist.
As for outboard gear, “We have all kinds of stuff; I’ve been buying gear forever,” says McEwen. A few choice items include a couple of Universal 1176 and a pair of Urei LA-4 compressors, a Spectrasonics 610 compressor and a few dbx units. Spring reverbs from Fairchild, Fender and MicMix are available and there is a venerable Roland Space Echo. Microphone choices range from vintage AKG, Neumann and RCA tubes and ribbons, to newer Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and Shure models.
The booking schedule started to fill up as soon as the doors opened. Local freelance engineer Adam Hill, known for his work with the likes of Big Star, Tav Falco and Jack White, has already brought in a few projects. JD McPherson has also been in, says McEwen.
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But he is especially excited about a project that put a young singer from the Netherlands together with some Memphis Music Hall of Famers. “We’re bringing new blood in, somebody from Europe, using a songwriter from down the street and guys like Rev. Charles Hodges on keyboards and Leroy Hodges on bass,” he says, referring to the Hi Rhythm Section, Royal Studios’ house musicians who played on Hi Records classics such as Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.”
Memphis Magnetic has opened at an opportune time, with the city currently undergoing a massive revitalization. “It’s the underdog, coming out of a dark period,” says McEwen. But now that he’s established roots in the city, he’s feeling protective: “I’ve stopped telling people how cool Memphis is, because I don’t want people coming here and ruining it!”
Memphis Magnetic • www.memphismagneticrecording.com