A professional recording experience is nothing new to students who study in Millikin University's School of Music in the College of Fine Arts. With Millitrax, Millikin's own recording studio, Millikin provides this type of opportunity for aspiring musicians on a regular basis. Recently, however, the professional recording experience for several Millikin undergrads became new again as students went back in time and recorded original music using 1950s technology at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., a studio regarded as "The Birthplace of Rock n' Roll."
Seventeen Millikin student musicians traveled to Memphis where they recorded music, toured studios and engaged in the history of rock n' roll music. The project was part of a routine fall semester course at Millikin called "Perspectives in Jazz and Rock," led by Dr. David Burdick, associate professor of music. What was not routine was the opportunity to relive music history and create some of their own.
"The project originated following a discussion I had with Sun Studio Chief Recording Engineer Matt Ross-Spang, and Ardent Studios Record Producer Jeff Powell at a conference in Nashville," said Dr. Burdick. "I wanted to bring the students to Memphis to tour Sun Studio. Matt suggested that we go a step further and make a record of our own original music."
The trip, sponsored by Millikin's Center for Entrepreneurship, allowed students firsthand access to iconic Memphis recording facilities, as well as the Stax Museum, an important landmark in the history of rock and soul music. Prior to recording in Sun Studio, the group toured the building and saw a collection of artifacts from Elvis Presley and other great artists including Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Studio.
"After the tour, we went to work," said Dr. Burdick, "and it became a studio session where we recorded our own original music – using 1950s technology – which meant there was no stopping and starting. We only got one shot to record a clean cut from beginning to end. Once the students started playing, the recording didn't stop until the song was over," Dr. Burdick added. "The Sun Studio project was a great opportunity for Millikin students to be produced by a professional engineer and to record music in a different way."
The original pieces of music were recorded using analog techniques instead of digital techniques, a process that is rare in today's production of music. After recording, the group took their mixes to Jeff Powell at Ardent Studios who turned the mixes into lacquer masters, a disc that contains the final mastered sound of a recording.
Millikin students Brenna Pfeifer, a junior commercial music major and vocalist from St. Joseph, Ill., and Matthew Swofford, a junior commercial music major and guitarist from St. Louis, Mo., composed the original music the group recorded.
"We played the songs over and over again because we had to get it right; there are no overdubs," said Swofford. "It's all one take – the difference between analog and digital is that digital is flawless in some sort of way. You can record music part by part. Analog recording captures the imperfection in the group – it's real. It was one moment in time and that's what made it so different."
Pfeifer simply described the experience as "incredible," "Having the opportunity to record the way artists such as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley did was absolutely surreal. And working with Matt Ross-Spang was great because he definitely wanted the best we could give him," Pfeifer added. "Looking back, I appreciate the experience so much more now than I did while I was in the studio recording because at that time we were all so focused on getting the work done."
Swofford's appreciation of the experience, however, was instantaneous. "Every time that I have recorded a song of my own, I've been the artist singing as well as performing all the instruments," he said. "Having my peers perform a song I wrote helped me gain a new perspective on the recording of music: the process and what it takes to make something good. This experience has definitely shaped how I'm going to pursue my music career," said Swofford. "The recording process is a team effort, and everyone matters. It's a lesson I will definitely carry with me."
Matt Ross-Spang noted the students excitement. "It was a real pleasure recording Dr. Dave's students at Sun Studio. Dr. Dave's enthusiasm and teachings were evident as the students arrived inspired, professional and eager to work," he said. "I think we all learned a lot that night and had a blast doing it."
Because Dr. Burdick's class, "Perspectives in Jazz and Rock," covers the origins of rock n' roll record production and recording technology, the trip to Memphis was "a perfect component," said Dr. Burdick. "The single biggest location for rock n' roll record production and recording technology is Memphis, and in particular Sun Studio. The class decided that rather than making it a small subject we would make it a big subject by going to Memphis and record music using 1950s technology."
"Having these experiences where you get to go out to places like Memphis or Nashville and work with professionals like we did gives us the idea of what the industry is like," Pfeifer added. "Millikin's commercial music program is very dedicated to the recording process, and this is an opportunity I never expected to have coming into the program."
A documentary of the trip is also being produced by Dr. Burdick that will highlight the students and the recording experience at Sun Studio.
"The documentary is about a group of college-trained musicians who go back in time to Memphis to see how they stand up to recording in the birthplace of rock," says Dr. Burdick. "I'm hoping one thing that the students took from this is that nowadays it is common for anyone to be recorded. Back in the day, it was a big deal. I'm really proud of our students – they made music the way they know how to make music."
Dr. Burdick added, "What's good for the students about a trip like this is two things in particular – they experienced the history which is very important, but the other aspect is that they tested themselves and they took the skills they've worked on at Millikin and applied it to the recording process."