Feature Scene: Real to Reel – Paul Rodgers

Renowned hard rock and blues singer-songwriter Paul Rodgers finally got to record his favourite classic soul songs in the studio in which many of them were originally recorded. He and producer Perry Margouleff chatted to Michael Smith about the making of The Royal Sessions.

DSC_4735c-680The fully ordained Reverend Charles Hodges, 67 year old Memphis, Tennessee native, stepped out from behind the vintage Hammond B3 he’d played on for thousands of sessions as part of the Hi Records house band the late Willie Mitchell put together to record his artists, from Al Green to Albert Collins, Chuck Berry to Tina Turner, and took aside the fit white singer from Middleborough, in the northeast of England, via Surrey in Canada’s British Columbia, where he now lives, a man he’d only met an hour before and said, “You know, you should consider a career as a singer… You could really do this.”

It was the first song of the session, a reading of Otis Redding’s That’s How Strong My Love Is, at the legendary Royal Studios in Memphis, the original track recorded just three blocks away at Stax Studios early in 1965, many of the players joining Hodges backing up the Englishmen having featured on some of those same original Hi Records sessions – guitarist Michael Tolls, bass player LeRoy Hodges, “Hubby” Archie Turner on Wurlitzer, drummers Steve Potts and James Robertson Sr, and the Royal Horns and Singers. They had no idea the singer was Paul Rodgers, who first came to international fame in 1968 with a band called Free, who topped the charts in 1970 with All Right Now, and then went into the ‘70s with Bad Company, the ‘80s with The Firm with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and, in 2005/6, toured with Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor, as well as establishing himself as a solo artist in his own right over ten albums. That’s How Strong My Love Is kicked off the sessions for what has become The Royal Sessions album, released by 429 Records through Universal Music on CD, as a download and on vinyl – more on that later.

Rodgers has been collaborating with New York-based guitarist, engineer and producer Perry Margouleff for a few years now, writing together and working towards an album of original songs, a taste of which, a track titled With Our Love, was released on iTunes last December. That was recorded at Margouleff’s own Pie Studios, situated on the northern shore of Long Island, a two-room facility originally set up in 1991 he now shares with engineer William Wittman that features the only fully discrete Neve 8078 console (72 channels in mixdown) on the US East Coast, with 32 API 550 EQs on the monitor section, 72 channels of GML Moving Fader Automation, four 32264a compressor/limiters and two 32257 noise gates. The A Room also features two Studer A-800 24/-track tape machines, an Ampex ATR-102 ½” two-track tape machine, an Ampex ATR-104 1” two-track and a Studer A-810 ¼” two-track tape machine among other analogue goodies, while the B Room runs a discrete Neve 24-channel 6-Bus console. Margouleff’s CV includes engineering and producing albums for, among others, American singer-songwriter Thom Chacon, The Wiyos, Maroon 5, The Library Is On Fire and he even recorded Australian surfing legend Tom Curran’s contribution to last year’s Morning Of The Earth Reimagined CD, a reworking of the Brian Cadd track from the original album, Sure Feels Good.

“All my life I’ve been doing music,” Margouleff explains, on the line from Palms Springs, California, “and of the music I love, one of the things that was always near and dear to me was Al Green and the sound of the records he made. Of course, I love Otis Redding and all that. Anyway, I was in Memphis for [Presley’s original guitarist] Scotty Moore’s eightieth birthday party – Scott is a friend of mine – and we had a day off and did all the touristy things and went to Sun Studios, which is still there but is really just a tourist thing and they have recording but it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we have Pro Tools and it’s all digital,’ and I’m, like, ‘Puke – I’m not gonna come here to record at Sun Studios on some computer that’s horrifying.’

“Then I went to Stax and got the tour, but it’s just a museum – you can’t record there; none of the gear’s plugged in. The museum was actually closed for a funeral but the director of the museum was standing at the door and I asked if I could please come in, and there was a film at the beginning of the tour in which they talk about Willie Mitchell and Royal and all that, so when I got to the gift shop at the end of the museum, there was the director again, Lisa Allen, and when she asked what I thought I said it was unbelievable but it was sad for a guy like me, I want to be recording or playing in these places, I don’t want to just look at them – I wish this was still a studio, or that Sun was really a studio, or Royal Studios was still there.”

In fact, Royal Sound Studios is still there, in the original converted cinema that, in 1957, local music entrepreneur Joe Coughi, along with partners Quinton Claunch and John Novarese rented and converted into the Royal Recording Studio, the new home for the label, Hi Records, they’d started up the year before. Willie Mitchell, who passed away at the age of 81 in January 2010, a trumpeter who joined Hi Records as a recording artist, session player and producer in 1963, became the president of Hi Records in 1969 on Coughi’s death, taking on more production and administrative duties, which proved particularly fruitful in his work with singer Al Green and in pioneering a Memphis “Soul” sound.

Willie Mitchell's Royal Sound Studios Memphis-680

Now run by one of his sons, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, the studio, renamed Willie Mitchell’s Royal Sound Studio, is one of the oldest continuously operated recording studios in the world, and owns one of the biggest collections of studio-grade vintage reel-to-reel tape machines, many of them specifically customised over the years by the studio’s engineers, including a modified eight-channel Ampex 351 with tube circuits replacing the original transistor circuitry, as well as a standard Ampex 351, Studer B67, Sony APR-5000 and MCI JH16. The core of the main studio is an MCI 536 C mixing console and MCI JH24 24-track tape machine. Mitchell just happened to be back from the funeral as Margouleff was talking to the Stax Museum director, so she introduced him and the pair went off to check out Royal.

“The studio is wonderful actually,” reckons Paul Rodgers, who was also in Palm Spring, on the album promotion trail, “because, you know, the later it gets, the cooler the place seems to get – the vibier it gets, if you like – and the spirits start to rise or something,” he chuckles. “It was very funky – in parts some of the stuffing was coming out of the wall and there were miscellaneous electrical bits that seemed to have been there for centuries,” another chuckle, “and the floor is uneven in parts but it adds to it all.” (As it happens, the Royal Sound Studio’s website history quotes Willie Mitchell as suggesting that “the secret” to the main room’s acoustics is “Something about the floor. As you go down the slope, the music gets bigger, it separates.”)

“It looks basically like somebody had turned the keys and locked the door in 1971,” is Margouleff’s impression of the studio. “I mean, nothing has been changed or moved. The instruments, the mic collection, the console – everything was still there – and I thought, ‘I’ve got to record in this place.’ It’s a big, long, skinny space and you have the drums right next to the control room window; you have the bass guitar in a sort of cubby right next to that; you have the guitar in a cubby right next to that – not a booth – in the room, but sort of semi-isolated, not properly isolated. And then the B3 is right next to that, and then you wrap around the room and you have an iso booth where you could put a vocalist if you chose to – I actually put the horns in the iso booth – and then there’s a Wurlitzer in another spot and I had Paul out on the floor with the band.

“So he was in the room with the band and there was a connectedness between the musicians – they really can feel each other playing. It’s a pretty dead room – there’s a lot of padding in the room – but you can tell when you listen to the record, ‘Oh, that’s from the same room that Al Green was in.’ Actually, a lot of the instruments were the same – we had Al Jackson’s snare drum, the same snare drum that was on those Al Green records; the same B3 and the same players.”

Rodgers and Margouleff are not alone in their love of the studio. The session before theirs at Royal was Boz Scaggs, who cut his latest album, Memphis, produced by drummers, multi-instrumentalist and composer Steve Jordan, there. Drake recorded his latest video there, Wu-Tang Clan cut a record there and Robert Plant dropped by in July last year to record harmonica on two tracks for the North Mississippi Allstars.

“Perry is a self-confessed boffin,” Rodgers admits, “and he collects guitars and he loves the old gear – Beatle Vox amps, microphones (he actually owns Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour’s 1970 customised amp among other treasures) – the microphone I used was one from his collection actually, a Neumann U47, and he has some twenty of them – they don’t make them anymore. A wonderful sound, the range from all the lows to the highs and the breathing you can hear – it’s just a fantastic mic. This mic enabled me to just forget about technicalities and just be ‘in the place’; to go into the world of the song, whatever the song was, with the guys. Having a great sound was really, really an inspiration for that.”

Along with the Neumann U47, Margouleff brought quite a few of his own “toys” down to Royal Sound for the session: “I could have done it all with their gear, but I had a big responsibility, especially because Paul was travelling a great distance, I couldn’t take the risk that I would get there and fall short, so I drove from New York to Memphis and I brought with me a rack of ten API mic pre’s; along with my favourite U47 I brought a couple of 67s, I brought an Ampeg B15 because the only bass amp they had was a ‘70s Fender amp and I just didn’t like the look of that so I didn’t want to take a chance with it.

“So I used a mixture of my mics and mic pre’s and the mic pre’s on the MCI desk and we used their MCI tape machine and it all worked beautifully together. And one of the key integral qualities of how this thing came together is my association and working relationship with William Wittman, who was my right-hand man and did the majority of the work behind the board on this particular project. A lot of projects I’ll do on my own, but for this project I just felt that there were too many technical unknowns in Memphis and such a big responsibility for everything to be seamless we went down two days before and got everything set up and within five minutes of the band walking in we were cutting tracks – we weren’t trying to get levels or sounds, we had it styled and ready to go.”

“All the little finesses you hear were in there,” Rodgers adds. “For instance, on Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand The Rain, I discovered that she had recorded that song at Royal Studios – they had the master sitting there – and not only that, the (Mica Sonic) electric bongos that they had used on that track were still there in a cupboard! They’d pulled them out but couldn’t get them to work, but Perry got them working and we put them on the track.”

Recorded over two sessions of three and then four days live to tape in the studio, two songs a day, the resulting album is mostly first takes – “some of the songs would be second or third take because we’d change the key or tempo,” Margouleff points out. Margouleff then mixed The Royal Sessions back at his own Pie Studios.

“That was two or three days. I mean, we really didn’t have a lot to do to mix because the dynamics were so integral to the playing and none of the songs had more than 16 or 18 recorded tracks, even though I was running a 24-track machine. It was very minimal mic’ing and we got the sounds that we wanted right up front, so there was very little work to do in the mixing process. I mixed it right to half-inch tape and went to mastering at Sterling Sound (in New York) off of half-inch tape. The only time this music saw the digital world is when they made the PM CDs for digital. In fact that was probably the most difficult part of the process.”

Beginning his recording career in the mid-‘70s, when his uncle Robert was producing and recording Stevie Wonder, Margouleff is totally committed to the analogue world.

“Towards the end of the ‘80s,” he recalls, “when the digital thing came in, I just heard it and went, ‘Where are the cymbals? Where are the sounds? There’s no integrity to the sonic quality.’ And so I stuck with the analogue recording process because clearly it’s technically better sonically. But it’s evolved into another element as well, and that really is, for me, that analogue recording is a talent filter. In the analogue I cannot make a person who can’t sing sing, can’t make a drummer play in time; so by maintaining the position of recording people in the analogue world, you sort of rule out having to record music that you wouldn’t want to record anyway – for me.

Royal's MCI JH24 24-track tape machine-450“I really believe that the recording process is a process of capturing a feeling and emotion, some sort of content of personality from the people, and I don’t wanna smooth that out or tighten it up or correct it. I wanna get people that are emoting something – that’s what you get excited about. The analogue format works perfectly for that.

“So, going back to the mastering thing, for years, George Marino (Senior Mastering Engineer at Sterling Sound) has been doing my mastering fantastically. He passed away in June 2012 and his protégé, Ryan Smith, who is also fantastic, took over his mastering suite and updated some of the gear in his studio because people are now requiring to leave the studio with 44/16 CDs, but they also do a lot of stuff for Mastered For iTunes in 24/96. So he changed his A to D converter from a George Massenburg Converter to a thing called a Burl Converter.

“So I went to mastering with him and got the master home and thought, ‘Man, I’m not diggin’ it. It doesn’t sound right to me.’ So I called him back and we were talking about EQ and stuff and he said he’d change all that, gave me another master and I’m not diggin’ it – it’s not sounding right! He didn’t know what to say so I asked him what had he changed and he told me he had this other A to D converter, so I asked if he still had George Marino’s GML A to D converter. He said yes so he switched that back in and all of a sudden the sound came back for me.”

In the end, Margouleff got Smith to use the Burl Converter for the 24/96 for Mastered For iTunes and the GML Converter for the CD.

“Though I would say,” he continues, “still, we were listening to the vinyl album today and it just sounds better than the CDs or any of it. Listening to digital music, basically for me, is tantamount to watching a ballet under a strobe light. No matter how fast the lights are flashing, you’re not getting all the information. In the analogue world, you have the full spectrum of what’s happening.”

As it happens, the plan was always to cut The Royal Sessions as a vinyl album, as Rodgers points out: “Even in terms of running order, I thought in terms of side A and side B, so the whole concept was how we used to do things.

“Over the years I’ve found that my interest in recorded music has wavered. I don’t find that there’s a lot that I really like and I think part of that is down to the digital environment. Although it’s very convenient – there’s no going back now; it’s with us to stay – I think there is something missed in the signal.”

Paul Rodgers (left)  Perry Margouleff (right)
Paul Rodgers (left) Perry Margouleff (right)

Margouleff explains that Rodgers hadn’t really known why he had been losing interest in making studio records but that “when I brought him back into that type of recording where the musicians are really all in the room together in that way, all of a sudden he got very excited. It was really refreshing for him because for years people were telling him, ‘You can’t do that.’

“Listen, we live in a strange time. I recorded a record with another artist of mine (Margouleff also runs a label, Pie Records), a young kid named Thom Chacon, and we got Bob Dylan’s rhythm section to play on the record, so they came out to my studio and (bass player) Tony Garnier said to me, ‘This is the best my bass guitar’s ever sounded,’ and we started talkin’ about all the Dylan records he’s recorded and he said, ‘You know, Dylan was in the studio and wanted to record his new record analogue, and the engineers and people told him that you can’t find tape, that there’s no tape,’ and really they were just looking for an excuse to get out of it, and I thought, how sad that Bob Dylan’s being deprived of doing the right thing because some people are lazy. It’s just the world we live in. I’m gonna keep doing it until there’s no more tape left.”

The Royal Sessions was cut to vinyl directly from tape and manufactured at QRP (Quality Record Pressings) in Salina, Kansas, run by Chad Kassem, on 200g virgin vinyl. “The vinyl record has never been in the digital domain,” Margouleff says emphatically, “ever.”

About Michael Smith 1 Article
Michael is a widely respected Australian music writer and bass player.