Stories about New York’s creative class being pushed out due to rising rents and gentrification are common enough that it’s hard to call them breaking news anymore. But the recent announcement that the Magic Shop, a legendary SoHo recording studio, was priced out of its building and will close after March 16, captured the attention of music fans nationwide. It’s not merely due to its celebrity clientele, such as Lou Reed and Norah Jones; Dave Grohl’s last-minute bid to purchase the property and save the studio; or its connections to David Bowie, who recorded his last two records inside. Legendary music studios are rare places that most of us will never enter, but many of us will experience, in one way or another. These custom-designed spaces leave an imprint on much of our favorite music. In honor of one such studio closing down, here are a few of the most influential across the country that are still standing and open for visitors, and in some cases, still recording great music.Read More
Hitsvilles, U.S.A.: Legendary Music Studios Across the Country
From Motown to Muscle Shoals, tour the rooms where many of music's biggest hits were recorded.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
This non-descript building in northwestern Alabama—the sign atop the entrance simply listed its address, 3614 Jackson Highway—was a crucible for Southern rock and soul, playing host to legendary sessions by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Percy Sledge, Willie Nelson, and the Rolling Stones. The makeshift operation was the work of a crew of session musicians known as the Swampers, who left nearby FAME Studios to set up their own operations. Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), and David Hood (bass) and Muscle Shoals Sound recorded there until the late ‘70s, when it bought a bigger facility in the late ‘70s. The original building was used occasionally after the move: Malaco Records bought all of MSS and used the Sheffield Highway space, and assorted artists have recorded there over the last few decades. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the original studio is being restored by Beats Music and should open later this year.
Sunset Sound Recorders
A West Coast music landmark, this former auto garage is the unexpected connective thread between Disney soundtracks and Purple Rain. Disney Director of Recording, Tutti Camarata, who supposedly invented the isolation booth, purchased the former repair shop in 1958 to record movie soundtracks; he liked the slanted floors used to collect auto fluid, since a room with non-parallel surfaces offered engineers more control over sound. Soon after converting the space, he began recording music for Mary Poppins and 101 Dalmatians. Eventually, the nearby Sunset Strip music scene made its way into the studio, and the space, renowned for its top-flight equipment, hosted a range of artists including the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and Brian Wilson, who recorded part of Pet Sounds inside. The studio is still in operation today.
Studio A, The Snakepit
Barry Gordy spun R&B into gold at Motown’s first office, a two-story home-turned-hit factory nicknamed Hitsville, U.S.A. But the real musical alchemy occurred in Studio A, a former garage known by Motown musicians as The Snakepit due to the piles of cables that criss-crossed the cramped studio. From 1959 to 1972, when Gordy moved the Motown label to LA, an assembly of musicians culled from local clubs recorded some of the most seminal music of the 20th century. Known at the Funk Brothers, they turned out hits by the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Four Tops. The offices and studio are now a museum open to the public.
Electric Lady Studios
An artist-owned space founded by Jimi Hendrix in 1970, this renowned Greenwich Village studio, a former nightclub which the Wall Street Journal described as a looking “like a New Orleans pleasure house embedded in a psychedelic space capsule” after the renovation, has, like the guitarist’s music, been an inspiration to generation of musicians. John Lennon and David Bowie recorded “Fame,” here, Questlove, Erykah Badu, and other neo-soul artists were frequent guests, and legends from Stevie Wonder to Led Zeppelin and Patti Smith cut albums inside.
Originally opened as the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 by Sam Phillips, a local radio engineer, the studio on Union Avenue may have seemed like an unlikely place to birth rock and roll, considering its early focus on recording conventions, weddings, choirs, and even funerals to make ends meet. But Phillips, who had an open-door policy and a willingness to improvise and experiment, would record what some consider the first rock song in history, “Rocket 88” by the Delta Cats (featuring a young Ike Turner on keyboards). Over the next decade, the space that would be renamed Sun Studio recorded blues legends, rock forefathers and figureheads, from Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King to Elvis, who was discovered here shortly after his high school graduation. Despite attracting considerable talent to his label and making a massive impact on modern music, Phillips was forced to sell the label and studio in 1969, which subsequently shut down. The space was re-opened in the mid ‘80s, and has served as an occasional recording space, and full-time tourist attraction, ever since.
Built in 1956, Studio A opened its doors to a high-profile first guest, Frank Sinatra, and has become an icon in its own right over the last 60 years. Located in the rectangular ground floor of the famous Capitol Records Building—the cylindrical, reinforced concrete tower designed by Welton Becket—the studio was designed by the team of Vincent Van Huff, Jeff Cooper, and Jack Edwards to minimize and eliminate outside sound. Thick walls of concrete, along with layers of cork and air gaps, protect the three studios, while a famous series of subterranean echo chambers, trapezoidal concrete bunkers constructed by famous guitarist and recording innovator Les Paul, add a signature reverb. Artists can still use the same studio where Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and the Beastie Boys recorded massive hits.
Van Gelder Studios
Rudy Van Gelder, an optometrist by trade, began recording jazz music in his parent’s living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1954 and like any young man, moving into his own space was a big deal. But “big deal” fails to capture just how important this angular suburban home, a windowless brown structure inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, is to the history of the genre. Inside, beneath a 39-foot-tall canopy that often gets compared to a cathedral, Van Gelder recorded many of the most famous records in jazz history for labels such as Blue Note, Impulse, and Prestige, from Coltrane’s Love Supreme to Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay.
J&M Recording Studio/Cosimo Recording Studio
Cosimo Matassa opened this small studio on the outskirts of the French Quarter in 1945, carving out space within the family’s store to create a space for musicians to record songs cheaply (rates were $15 an hour). Matassa, who named the space after his father, John Matassa, is acknowledged as a key contributor to New Orleans music of the period, using the success of J&M as a springboard to open a series of studios that would record the city’s voluminous contributions to rock, soul, and funk. Now a national historic landmark, the original space, which measured just 15 by 16 feet and had a control room Matassa described as “as big as my four fingers,” also lays claim to cutting the first rock record, Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1947).
The second home for FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises), which was originally based in a former tobacco warehouse, this still-operating studio, owned by Rick Hall, was the birthplace of the Muscle Shoals sound, and hosted famous recording sessions by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, and Candi Staton. Many of the sessions musicians here would go off to form their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, nearby.
Originally known as Criteria Studios, the facility, founded in 1958 by musician Mack Emerman, was far from the centers of music industry influence, but a combination of high-tech equipment and warm weather helped lure artists, as well as a growing reputation. The studio had an especially auspicious run in the ‘70s, when a number of high-profile albums and songs were cut here, including “Layla” (Eric Clapton), “Rumours” (Fleetwood Mac), and “Hotel California” (The Eagles). Emerman’s friendship with Tom Dowd, an Atlantic Records producer and engineer, helped attract high-profile sessions, including Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black. The Hit Factory has also had a second life with hip-hop and modern R&B, playing host to R. Kelly, Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber.
RCA Studio A & B
Part of a string of early studios that established the Nashville Sound, along with Columbia Studio A and Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut, these spaces helped kickstart the growth of Music Row. Studio A, founded by Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley in 1964, was the scene of many famous recording sessions, including Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban, and was recently saved after a long preservation campaign. It even boasts a living room complete with a statue of Nipper, the RCA Mascot. At Studio B, built in 1956, you can supposedly see the spot where a young Dolly Parton, in a rush to make an early recording session, crashed her car into the wall.
The notorious Chicago blues label founded by entrepreneurial Polish brothers Phil and Leonard Chess captured the electrified sounds of the Southern blues after the Great Migration. Releases by legendary artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor made the label, which put out its first record in 1950, one of the most important blues imprints in the country, with a legacy of recordings that helped shape rock and roll (case in point: the Rolling Stones recorded an instrumental, “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” during a stop at the studio during their 1964 U.S. tour). Members of the house band that played on many Chess releases went on to local and national fame, including future members of Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as Pete Cosey and Phil Upchurch. Chess would move into a different facility in the mid ‘60s. The original space, now a museum called Blues Heaven, has been criticized by members of the Chess family in the past for not properly telling the story of the label, but it does allow visitors to learn about some of the history of this vital Chicago label.
A music industry institution, this iteration of the Record Plant family of studios moved into its current space in the mid ‘80s. By that time, the Record Plant name, established in 1968 with a now-closed studio in Manhattan, had already built a reputation for offering big-name artists a more relaxed recording environment. Recording engineer Gary Kellgren and music industry exec Chris Stone established the studio-as-living-room concept in New York, and it quickly caught on, attracting Jimi Hendrix, who recorded Electric Ladyland, and John Lennon, who was working in the studio the day he was shot in 1980. They would open two other locations in Sausalito (which closed in 2008) and Los Angeles, California, the later with Tom Hidley, which was the scene of a number of jam sessions between high-profile musicians in the mid-’70s. While the ownership and location of the LA studio has changed a few times, it’s still bringing in high-profile artists, including Beyonce, Kanye West, and Nine Inch Nails.