SONAR at Sun Studio: The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Chief Engineer James Lott and Assistant Engineer Matt Ross-Spang
By Randy Alberts
“Our clients love what we do for them here with SONAR,” says James Lott, chief engineer for over 20 years at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. “It sounds great and we’ve been using it for a long, long time. But most of all they trust us and how we’re using SONAR to record them. When we tell a band ‘OK, you can move on to the next song now,’ they trust us completely.”
Spoken on behalf of Sun Studio—the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and the country’s only National Historic Landmark with a digital audio workstation in the tour—Lott’s professional trust in Cakewalk’s SONAR shouts volumes.
“Like a good horse,” he adds with a laugh, “when something in a studio runs as fast as SONAR and does everything you tell it to, then you’re gonna ride that horse a long, long way.”
Tracking History Then & Now
The sheer history of music behind Sun Studio, since Sam Phillips first built it in 1950, deserves far more space than this story allows- to give it proper justice.
Those who visit Memphis, especially musicians and engineers, would not want to miss taking one of the studio’s daily tours to learn more about the studio’s historic past.
Elvis recorded his first two songs at Sun Studio in 1953 for $3.25, when it was still called Memphis Recording Service. Before Elvis, there was Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats who recorded the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll single, Rocket 88, at Sun, originally composed by Ike Turner.
With all the history within the studio’s walls—the same cozy 25×20 live room, tight vocal booth, tiny control room, and tiled front office where the original studio manager, Marion Keisker, sat in for the absent Phillips’ to record Elvis’ first songs—Sun is one of the top, most vibrant studios in the world today.
Recently, Lott used SONAR to track, edit, and mix projects for Liz Phair, Matchbox Twenty, Maroon 5 and Bowling for Soup. Tom Petty, a tape devotee, also recorded some new tunes at Sun with the studio’s prized MCI 24-track machine. Another recent SONAR session at Sun involved Amy LaVere, an Americana music composer and vocalist who expertly plays an upright acoustic bass far taller than she. Billy Bob Thornton’s band too, was due in for another Sun session shortly after our interview with Lott.
“The vibe of this place, this sort of ‘welcome homey’ kind of feel, is really what brings people back here all the time,” says Lott.
“Billy Bob is a longtime friend of Sun, in here for the fourth or fifth time now, and it’s his birthday, too. He told us that he wanted to come celebrate and to make some music up in here. It’s very old school here: not much has changed from the old days. There’s the same floor tiles, control room, front office, and even old lamps from the ’50s hanging from the ceiling. Even Marion’s front desk is still here, the same one she was sitting at when Elvis first walked in the door. Besides our staff and the gear we use, it’s the original vintage vibe of this place that keeps ‘em comin’ back.”