Gearing Up: Inside The Stax Sound

Scully 8-track 280 tape machine at Stax museum
Scully 8-track 280 tape machine at Stax museum. Photo by Kate Cauthen.
Like any successful studio, there are stories galore about sessions at Stax, along with details about the equipment, the players and recording techniques. However, it’s important to note that the studio area at Stax was a large and, by all accounts, featureless room that was deadened with thick curtains and movable baffles all engineered to provide a quiet space to record. It wasn’t fancy and remained that way for many years. Recording techniques there favored the musicians hearing themselves and playing as a group. Virtually unheard of in modern recording studios, recording at Stax was often done without headphones and the small amount of ‘’leakage’’ between tracks was accepted in favor of an environment where musicians played in the same space, together. It’s a simple and effective approach and very much a part of the Memphis Sound. While what was happening on the recording room floor might have been more simple than today’s recording techniques, the technology at the time presented some serious technical challenges for the engineers and producers. A major constraint was the limited number of tracks. This forced decisions to be made early in the process as to what tracks would have to be combined. Any mistakes in the process were costly, so recording sessions needed to be carefully planned out. One thing in their favor was that microphone selection and placement was kept simple. Where, today, we might use several microphones on a drum set to give us the ability to mix more extensively, at Stax, recording drums, a key element in the Memphis sound, was all about the basics. Without a doubt, the biggest part of the drum sound at Stax would have to be attributed to drummer, Al Jackson, Jr., or in some cases, Willie Hall. Stories from the studio and photographs at the time indicate that Jackson used a Rogers kit mostly, and a chrome-plated Ludwig Supraphonic 400 snare. That snare sound and the drum tuning for the Stax sessions is classic. One favorite trick that many drummers attribute to the Memphis scene was taping a wallet to the top head of the 400 to get just the right deadening effect. Stax had a very small booth for drums. That means very little “room sound” would make it into a recording and mic’ing the drum set was limited to the bare basics. Frequently, only a Neumann KM-84 was used on the snare drum, but at a distance of as much as eight inches, much further than typically done today. The high hat was almost never mic’d and, typically, one Neumann U-87 or similar overhead mic would have been used to capture the rest of the kit. The bass drum might have an EV RE-20 microphone on it, but that’s about it. Bass guitar, bass drum and snare frequently shared track one, with the rest of the drums assigned to track two, leaving more tracks open for the other pieces. In some ways, the limitations of recording technology at the time kept things simple on Stax recordings. At least, that was the result — a clean, well-defined sound for each instrument, that built into a solid ensemble sound to back the featured performer. These are techniques we can apply today. Steve Cropper is the guitarist most closely associated with Memphis Soul. His distinctive guitar parts are frequently up front in the mix, but are carefully arranged so as not to detract from the song or the singer’s performance. There are many “tasteful” guitarists that are overlooked in popular music, but Cropper’s parts are frequently front and center and, more often than not, the iconic guitar parts he creates become identifying elements of the recording. Cropper is most often associated with a clean Fender guitar sound with very little effect added. Interviews with the guitarist and other players of the day confirm that combination of a Fender Esquire (or Telecaster) and a little Fender Harvard amp was used on most of Stax hits of the 1960s. The Harvard amp is about as basic as you can get: 10 watts with only one tone control and one volume control. Again, we see a carefully arranged, but simple approach to creation of great guitar parts. Like Cropper’s guitar parts, horn parts were also key to the Memphis sound and typically stripped to the basics. The Memphis Soul horn sections, that most often featured a single trumpet with one tenor sax and only occasionally a baritone sax, provided a powerful dimension to songs that already featured powerful singers. That combination was formula that made hits. Song forms of the Memphis Soul hits were as basic as the arrangements; sometimes as simple as a 12-bar blues and sometimes with just a simple harmonic twist or repeated riff. Even the studio’s rhythmically driven dance material maintained a heart-felt honesty that is immediately clear to the listener. With its distinct blues and gospel influences, Memphis Soul is universally accessible with lyrics that were most often basic and brought you closer to the singer. Memphis Soul might be over 50 years old, but still has a lot to teach the songwriters and producers who will take the time to explore this great American music. The Memphis Soul sound, perhaps partially due to the technical limitations of the day, is carefully constructed from interwoven parts. It begs to be dissected by savvy musicians. Knowing that, careful listeners can find a common thread of honesty among the basic instrumentation, simple arrangements and heartfelt, soulful vocals. Songwriters, musicians and performers making music that they feel – soul music.

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