The Story Behind the Sound: 5 Legendary Recording Studios

Bestselling albums don’t pop out of thin air; rather, they are built, coddled, and obsessed over for months by artists, producers, and writers alike. Most of that process takes place inside a recording studio, a soundproof room, with the best soundproof curtains, that varies drastically in size, depending on the function and the adjacent space. They may be in an individual’s home, or they can host hundreds of people and their instruments. 

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The first designated recording studios came around in the 1930s, almost exclusively for symphony orchestra recordings. This was due to an increase in demand for movie soundtrack recordings. Many early studios were repurposed churches due to the need for high ceilings and wide areas. Tape recording would be popularized by the ‘40s, and with the rise of rock ’n’ roll, studios began popping up all over the United States, and soon globally. Many studios were owned by RCA Records, and later some of the most legendary would be owned by Columbia Records. These are some of the studios that shaped the art of recording into what it is today. 

1. Sun Studio (Memphis, Tennessee) 

Arguably one of the first modern recording studios, Sun Studios began in Memphis, inside a brick building not much larger than a coffee shop. The space was meant to fulfill many purposes, but Sun Studios, and owner Sam Phillips, built up a reputation for working with local blues, swing, country, gospel, and Western artists, placing special emphasis on prioritizing their needs and desires. This primed Phillips to go after a young performer named Elvis Presley in 1954. On his way to becoming the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Presley’s ascent would also skyrocket Sun Records’ notability in the music industry. Presley and Phillips would go on to popularize rock music nationwide, and attract many aspiring performers to Memphis. 

Artists like B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Dixie Cups, and Johnny Cash also recorded at Sun Studios. Sam Phillips’ contributions to country and rock ’n’ roll were recognized in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. Today, the space is a National Historic Landmark in Memphis. The Sun Studios catalog was purchased by Primary Wave Music in 2021. 

[RELATED: Various Artists: Sam Phillips — The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll]

2. Norman Petty Recording Studios (Clovis, New Mexico) 

Settled just over the Western Texas border, producer Norman Petty established his 7th Street Studio in Clovis, New Mexico, as part of his independent label, Nor-Va-Jak Music. There, he would record with his own musical group, The Norman Petty Trio, which gave way to recording careers for several well-known artists after he himself found popular success in 1957. 

One of the best-known artists to come from Petty’s label was Buddy Holly & The Crickets. Holly recorded some of his biggest hits, such as “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be The Day,” at Norman Petty Studios, helping give way to the rock ’n’ roll explosion of the 1950s. Other acts that used the space include Waylon Jennings and Roy Orbison. 

The space is no longer used as a studio, but remains open as a local landmark and museum. It is considered to be the most well-preserved recording studio in the world, allowing visitors a glimpse into Buddy Holly’s recording experience there. 

3. Beach Boys Studio (Los Angeles, California) 

The Beach Boys almost single-handedly pioneered and popularized the surf rock genre in the 1960s. Their 1966 album, Pet Sounds, is regarded as one of the most important albums of all time due to its intricate production techniques. This led to the founding of Beach Boys Studios in Los Angeles, the private studio located inside lead vocalist and co-founding member Brian Wilson’s home. The group would record their albums Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, and more there. 

Brian Wilson wanted to record at a private home studio in order to have full, free rein over the equipment, and work as he pleased without needing to schedule studio time. Wilson would have the studio until 1972, when it was dismantled. Wilson and his Beach Boys brothers, Carl and Dennis Wilson, would establish a public studio, Brother Studios, in Santa Monica two years later. That facility would be used by Elton John, Donna Summer, The Runaways, and The Beach Boys themselves, who recorded their albums 15 Big Ones and Love You there. 

4. Abbey Road Studios (North London, UK) 

Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the famous crosswalk probably does, as it appears on the Beatles’ album of the same name. Abbey Road Studios has been a recording staple since 1929, starting simply as a space to record on acoustic wax discs. The space would later be bought by EMI and Columbia to record orchestral music. By the ‘40s and ‘50s, Abbey Road would host early pop legends like Shirley Bassey and Cliff Richard. 

It wasn’t until the Beatles began using the space that it rose to international prominence. They recorded around 90 percent of their discography there for almost a decade, starting in 1962. The band upended recording conventions there, vetoing three-hour session constraints and recording all night; they also allowed engineers to ditch their white lab coats and dress more casually. 

Abbey Road Studios would go on to record artists like Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Oasis, Radiohead, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, and plenty more internationally known acts. 

5. Westlake Recording Studios (West Hollywood, California) 

The newest studio on our list, Westlake Recording Studios, was founded in the 1970s in West Hollywood, California. Founder Tom Hidley aimed to use the space for technological innovation within audio recording. He is also known for his work in developing the first car stereo in 1959. The Westlake Studios building consists of five studios, two production suites, and a hybrid studio/lounge called The Barn, all hosting some of today’s most seminal pop acts. 

Westlake Recording Studios is something of an international landmark as well, as it is where Michael Jackson recorded Thriller in 1982; that LP has sold more than 32 million copies and counting. Other notable Westlake recordings include *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached, Britney Spears’ self-titled album, Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad and ANTI, Doja Cat’s Planet Her, and SZA’s SOS

Photo by Steve Oroz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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