If a particular record ever stopped you in your tracks, where you said to yourself “Boy, that SOUNDS really, really good!” then Temples of Sound is a book you should read. If you check the producer and engineer credits regularly on your favorite records, then likewise this should be on your reading list.
Fifteen studios are profiled in varying detail: Capitol Studios, United Western Recorders, Sunset Sound, RCA “B”, Stax, Sun Studios, J & M, Chess, Universal, Motown, Sigma Sound Studios, Atlantic, Columbia Studios, Van Gelder Studios, and Criteria. Music aficionados are probably familiar with most, if not all of these “temples of sound”; if not, there is an excellent “Temple Essentials” addendum at the end of the book that presents a dozen classic recordings (singles and albums) from each of the featured studios. A glance at this list provides a quick rundown of some of the greatest pop, rock and jazz records ever made.
I’ll admit to a passing interest in reverb, limiters, and the tradeoffs between four and eight tracks, but I was worried this might be a more technical read than I was ready for. Happily, I can report that there’s just enough gear talk to keep gear heads happy and people with a more casual interest engaged and informed, but it is decidedly not a detailed dissertation on microphone placement, recording levels and vintage gear. The ambience and acoustics of each room are discussed in some detail, as are the all-important recording consoles. Turns out a fair number of these were built from scratch.
Each studio is presented in its entirety; the room (including measurements), broad strokes of the equipment employed, the artists who recorded there, and most importantly, the visionaries behind the glass.
Rudy Van Gelder’s story — and importance — to Blue Note is well-documented. Likewise, Sam Phillips at Sun and Berry Gordy at Motown. Lesser known, however, are Bill Putnam (Universal), and Frank Laico and Fred Plaut (Columbia,) who are responsible for Ray Charles' epic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, (Putnam) and Miles Davis' masterpieces Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out! (Laico and Plaut). They get their due in Temples of Sound and it’s a fascinating read, although many of the engineers are reluctant to reveal the secrets to their sound.
The book also sketches out integral background players: Steve Cropper at Stax, Willie Dixon at Chess, and Norman Whitfield at Motown. Allen Toussaint, a key player at Cosimo Mattassa’s famed New Orleans R&B joint J&M, would soon open his own studio that would eventually birth Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” and virtually all of Paul McCartney’s Venus and Mars album.
Temples of Sound confirms that, while, these studios were blessed with great–sounding rooms and state-of-the-art or custom-built equipment, the people behind the scene were equally important and sometimes more so to their signature sound, successes, and longevity.
Of course, human curiosity, a willingness to experiment and sometimes just plain luck also played their part in the making of a sonic masterpiece. Just ask Sam Phillips of Sun Studios.
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