Muscle Shoals, AL (November 25, 2019)—“FAME Recording Studios. Where it all started,” says the sign on the building, and it’s hardly an exaggeration. Beginning in the early 1960s, through smash hits by the likes of Arthur Alexander, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Little Richard and others, the studio put Muscle Shoals on the map, establishing a signature sound beloved around the world to this day.
When FAME Recording Studios founder Rick Hall passed away at the beginning of 2018, the studio was still going strong but needed a little TLC, recalls engineer, producer and musician Glenn Rosenstein, who maintains his own Skylight Studio near Nashville. “I went into Studio B about a year ago. I needed to get a vocal done. I flew the artist in from New York, put up a microphone and it was by far the best-sounding vocal room I’d heard in my life—and I have worked everywhere in the 40 years I’ve been making records. There’s magic in the room.” But the control room, equipped with little more than an Avid work surface and a handful of rack gear, wasn’t quite up to the same standard, he says.
Rosenstein’s history with the Shoals area goes way back, he reports, and includes a 30-year working relationship with the recently deceased Jimmy Johnson, an original member of the legendary FAME house band, The Swampers. Rosenstein had also spent some time with Hall in his last years, he says, and had become good friends with Hall’s son, Rodney, now FAME president. “So I said to Rodney, What if I throw a console in here?”
He had initially envisioned installing a workhorse Allen & Heath desk, but as he and Hall headed down that road, he says, their thinking evolved. “Making hits in the ’80s and ’90s, my favorite console to work on was an SSL 6000 E because I was able to use the three stereo buses.” As luck would have it, Rosenstein’s friend Paul Savasta at Odyssey Pro Sound had just the thing: an SSL 6056 E previously installed in a Dallas studio that had recorded three Stevie Ray Vaughan albums.
“We wound up with this wonderful pedigreed SSL and upgraded it with an Atomic Instrument power supply and THD-Labs Tangerine computer. Vinnie Fast, a really excellent tech, took charge and worked through it, and Greg Pace, who lives here, was involved with the wiring of the room,” he reports.
FAME’s Studio A was built in 1961, says Rodney Hall. The facility’s name is an acronym for Florence, Alabama, Music Enterprises, reflecting its original location, where it opened in 1959. Hall explains, “In 1967, my dad decided to build a B room because of overflow. He had just missed doing ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’” a number-one single for Percy Sledge that was instead recorded at another local studio. “His original thought was for it to be a secondary room. But because my dad kept Studio A as his studio, a lot of work got done in B while Studio A sat empty for periods of time,” he says.
“The room’s gone through a few iterations over the years,” Hall continues. “We had a couple of different MCI consoles and an Amek in here.” Now, the custom console originally built for the B room in 1967 sits alongside the SSL. “The Allman Brothers were the first to run any signals through the console in the room,” Hall says, while they were starting to put the Allman Brothers Band together.
Hall’s vision for FAME Recording Studios, aided and abetted by Rosenstein, is to accommodate modern workflows while celebrating the history of the facility, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. “The music industry was built on the shoulders of people who came from places like this—but there is also a modern demand for the way records are made,” says Rosenstein. “As we get clientele, we’ll build to suit. If there are key gear pieces or microphones that people desire, well, we’re in accumulation mode.”
Studio B’s control room was too small to house the SSL, so the pair took down a wall and, in the process, unearthed some history. “We became archeologists,” says Rosenstein. “We were taking off wood paneling, and below that there would be more wood paneling, all done by hand by Rick. Below that, there was beautiful carpeting. Rodney said, ‘What if we left this on the wall?’ Instead of hiding it, we’re framing it.”
Adjacent to the control room, previously hidden from sight, was the tape library, “stuffed with every conceivable master,” according to Rosenstein. “When I went to Electric Lady, I’d ask the studio manager to see the tape vault,” he recalls. “Same with Capitol. I would take photographs of key tapes and masters. I know how excited I got about seeing original Beatles masters, so when we had the opportunity to do that ourselves, I said, can we incorporate it into the design of this part of the room?
“Rodney curated the most important masters—Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding—and made it into a lounge. People come here initially for the history, and then for the functionality of the room.”
Rosenstein relocated to Nashville in the late ’80s, attracted by the facilities and sense of community. But Nashville is changing, and Music Row is no longer what it once was, he says, and now he also has a house in the Shoals.
“The things that made me, as a New Yorker, want to be in Nashville creatively have shifted down here [to Muscle Shoals]. There are guys in my age bracket who are looking for an exit strategy from Nashville, which has fundamentally changed. I feel like the time is right for this area to be a bedroom community to Nashville, creatively,” he says, noting that the travel time is comparable to driving from LAX to Burbank on a bad day.
“We’re not trying to build [another] Nashville—there isn’t the infrastructure here—but we are trying to create a viable option that has offerings that you can’t get anywhere else in the world, let alone Nashville.”
And for those unable to travel to the studio, wait a while and it might come to you. “We’re looking at other environments to build other FAME recording studios, in secondary markets that are maybe a little underserved,” says Rosenstein. “That’s on the horizon.”
FAME Recording Studios • www.famestudios.com