RSR040 – Matt Ross-Spang – Working at the Famous Sun Studio, Learning from the Great Sam Phillips - Recording Studio Rockstars

RSR040 – Matt Ross-Spang – Working at the Famous Sun Studio, Learning from the Great Sam Phillips

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RSR040 – Matt Ross-Spang -
Working at the Famous Sun Studio, Learning from the Great Sam Phillips

My guest today is Matt Ross-Spang, a Grammy winning engineer, mixer, producer and recording historian. Matt began his career at the young age of 16 interning at Sun Studio in Memphis TN, which he revitalized during his decade of work there bringing it back to it’s original analog roots. After his time at Sun Studio He has more recently migrated over to Sam Phillips Recording Services, home office and studio for the legendary Sam Phillips.


In 2015 Matt won a Grammy for engineering and mixing Jason Isbell “Something More Than Free.” And he has recently broken the top 10 Billboard country charts for engineering, mixing, and co producing Margo Price’s debut record “Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter” for Third Man Records.


Matt’s extensive credits in the studio include Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Lee Lewis, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Jakob Dylan, Justin Townes Earle, JD McPherson, Chris Isaak, Mark Ronson, The Wood Brothers, and Brett Dennen to name a few. And he has also worked with acclaimed producers like Dave Cobb.


The City of Memphis has even nominated Matt as one of its “30 under 30” Memphians and in 2016 awarded him a key to the city while proclaiming April 25, 2016 as Matt Ross-Spang (day) in Germantown,TN.

“I feel like everyday is a success because I get to keep doing this. I’m so grateful” -Matt Ross-Spang

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Sun Studio

The Transition back to the Analog Roots at Sun

Equipment wise it wasn’t the same. They had a Soundcraft TS24 console that we recorded through a homemade PC rig to before Sonar it was Cakewalk Audio, and we had a 2” MCI machine that was just a dust collector. I didn’t know anything about microphones. I remember my first day as an assistant the guy asked me if that Leslie worked and I didn’t even know what a Leslie was. It wasn’t the gear that Sam Phillips used, it was more modern stuff from the 70s on and as I worked there more and more, we were using 24 tracks or 18 tracks in this little room which was about 18X30. Sam Phillips had 4 microphones going live to mono tape and in the early cases he went direct to disc and that stuff sounded incredible. To my ears, what we were doing wasn’t as cool sounding. If he could do it with 4 microphones and I can’t do it with 12 then this is all on me, so I tried to reverse engineered it and started from there.

Sam Phillips

Sam started Sun with no money in 1950. He had worked two other jobs to try and make this little recording studio happen. So many people think that Sam was a lucky hillbilly that just happen to record Elvis, but Sam came from Florence, Alabama, he loved radio, he loved communication and he started by recording big band music at the radio station. Part of the reason he wanted to come to memphis was the Mississippi river and the other half was Biel street because at the time it was the only place where black people could go and have fun, let loose and be themselves without worrying too much about the Jim Crow laws. He wanted to record these bands playing on Biel street that no one was paying attention to, so he started this studio to do that and eventually he quit the nice job to focus just on Sun. Now we all know it turned out really well for him. In 1950 they didn’t have recording equipment, you could buy radio equipment and multipurpose it for recording. He spent $800,000 in 1958 which is about 7 million dollars today to build a unique high-tech studio that would grow with the technology.

“Sam passed away in 2003, I started a few months after he passed away. I never got to meet him.” - Matt Ross-Spang

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Margo Price

First girl in billboard history to have a top ten record without a hot trending song

I’ve recorded a lot of people at Sun the past 10 years, I’ve work over 330 days in the studio most years, but I felt a little bit like what Sam must have felt like when Elvis came in and he saw this natural talent that no one else had heard yet, I think there's something incredible about that.  I felt that way in regards to Margo when her and her band came in, I was completely blown away.

Recording Margo

Everyone came in to work and had an amazing time working. We did it all live. We had no headphones which I think is a big part of recording at sun is not having headphones so i think everyone is seeing and playing off of each other dynamically in the room and making way for the vocal. Margo sang right in the room, she overdubbed some vocals later, but it’s all about polar patterns. So SM7 or RC77 that reject well, I found parts of the room where I could stick her kind of in the middle of where everybody could hear her voice naturally, and it picked up room instruments. I would have her within about 8 ft of the drums and the drums would be in the middle back of the room and she would be off halfway down the room.

The drums on that record are two mics I used a Shure 55 on the kick drum (The Elvis Mic) and I had an old altec 11 it was one of Sam Phillips’s favorite mics they call it the coke bottle mic but it's the first american condenser (1947) microphone its tube, it goes all the way down to 10hz. I put it all the way down on the omni and it catches the whole kit in a really cool way and its glass capsule so it has a really weird sound.

“When you have those no-headphone moments, everyone is listening to each other not just listening to themselves” - Matt Ross-Spang

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Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A -I think being so young, I couldn’t stay out that late. My parents only let me be out till 12:30. I remember when I first started interning I never got to see what happened at the end of mixing, because they’d start mixing and I had to leave because I had school the next day.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?

A- I think my best advice for people is to watch everything. I see so many people that come into studios that want to learn, but then they stay on their phone cause they think it's a boring part because they aren’t seeing you actually touch a compressor or something and seeing how people talk to each other and relate to each other. The engineer I learned from at Sun was so great at welcoming everyone and making them feel at home. At Sun, people come and freak out because Elvis Presley cut here and Johnny Cash and people get so nervous, so you have to really get good at becoming their friend and letting them know you’re here for them. Before I ever touched a piece of gear I sat there for months watching him talk to people and how he handled people. Thats a huge part of it because this is a people business, this isn’t who’s got the best compressor in town.

“I’m a microphone geek, I love gear, but I don’t want gear to ever get in the way of a session” - Matt Ross-Spang

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
A - The quieter you play, the bigger it can sound I think that goes for every instrument out there.

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
A- 
Microphones I think are the biggest piece of the puzzle. Everyone loved neves back in the day because it was one of the first pre’s that had clean gain. Now every pre’s got tons of clean gain. So I think mic pre’s do have sounds, but more importantly it's what microphone you have. And instead of EQing you can move a mic an inch and it changes everything especially ribbon and condensers. One of my favorite pieces of gear is the spectrasonic 610 complementor and most people who know me know I’m a geek for spectrasonics. I have tons of their equipment. But a 610, it's one of the world's most fastest compressor. Most people don’t understand how it works because they try and use it like an 1176. It’s so fast it doesn't bump, the limiter comes in at 50 nanoseconds, the compressor comes in at 60 nanoseconds. It's so fast you can pop a microphone into the complementor, plug that into a speaker, you can drop the microphone and instead of blowing out your speaker, it's so fast it tracks the waveform and it'll catch the transient. It’s that fast.


“You’re your biggest selling tool” - Matt Ross-Spang

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Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - Phone a friend. I think that's the biggest thing in the world. You can read a book, but everything you’re going to have a question about is pretty much unique to your situation. Often times, we’re recording with friends, so you don’t want to hit friends with some crazy contract. The business side has changed a lot so, I try to stay away from that stuff as much as I can. I hate talking about money, I hate talking about business stuff because I do this to make records. Go with your gut.

Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - I’m sorry.. Good luck!! If you’re in that situation and sticking through it, you’ve got what it takes because this business is really tough and you’ve got to do it because you love it. If you’re in that situation you’re obviously in it because you love it, not because you’ve got $20,000 to blow on something. This whole thing is a people thing. Everything I’ve gotten in this business has been through friends or through word of mouth. So you need to go out and meet people, introduce yourself. You can’t do that over the internet. You’re your biggest selling tool. As far as equipment there's nothing wrong with Shure57 and simple microphones like those. Don’t spend too much time on gear, just get a set up that works and doesn’t crap out on you and get your name out there and meet people and do stuff for cheap

“Be fearless. You don’t want to look back on something and regret it because you only have one shot at this stuff” - Matt Ross-Spang

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - What’s great about our job is that everyday is different. Everyday is unique to itself, you're never going to have the same day twice in a row. What you did one day might work amazing, and it may never work again. You always have to try and better yourself. I love my time at Sun studio, but I feel like I got stuck because I felt like I was doing the same things and I knew the studio and the equipment so well. I felt like I wasn’t growing anymore, so I quit a steady job with a steady paycheck and became independent. I threw myself into the fire again, and I’ve grown so much. Be fearless. You don’t want to look back on something and regret it because you only have one shot at this stuff.

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Big Thanks to Tyler Cuidon & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!

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