For Matt Ross-Spang, Southern Grooves Studio Is a Dream Come True
Memphis native and Grammy Award-winning Producer Matt Ross-Spang is known for his love of vintage instruments and sound, and for his background working at some of the most storied studios to hone his skills. While he is very much in-demand regardless of what studio he works in, his dream really did come true when after a lot of planning and hard work, he opened his own Southern Grooves Studio in the Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, Tennessee. Because he believes in breaking a place in properly to create its necessary atmosphere, he even quietly recorded several albums with artists there before he officially revealed Southern Grooves to the public.
While Ross-Spang is a great lover of vintage instruments, and even made sure to include vintage consoles and key mementos from folks like John Prine, Sam Phillips, and Dan Penn in his plan, he needed to build Southern Grooves as a new construction. That meant a process of selection, and visiting and thinking hard about various beloved studios, to decide what key features his special workspace needed to possess. This extended to both practical engineering and to creating the appropriate vibe and atmosphere that allows great music to be created. He knew that leaving either aspect out could mean a less than successful outcome. I spoke with Matt Ross-Spang shortly before his grand opening event for Southern Grooves in late September 2023 about his process of creating his own space and how he feels about the role of recording studios at this time.
Americana Highways: I haven’t been to a studio opening before, so what’s the parallel experience to that? Is that like opening a museum exhibit or art space?
Matt Ross-Spang: I have no idea! My friends Vance Powell and Mitch Dane throw an amazing Christmas party every year in Nashville at their studio, and that one’s fun because oftentimes even though my best friends are musicians and engineers, we go a long time without seeing each other in person. Its always fun to get a bunch of engineers, artists, and musicians together. I knew that I wanted to get a bunch of people together to see the studio, but it’s also a good excuse to hang out. Next door to me is the Memphis Listening Lab and the whole building that it’s in in Crosstown is an amazing place to hang out. It allows people to spread out. People can go to the various spots and see the neighborhood that we’re in.
AH: That could lead to other adventures for them to explore the area.
MR-S: Exactly. It’s hard to describe the space. You can tell people, “Oh, I’m in this million and a half square foot building,” but until they come and witness it, it’s impossible to convey. I also didn’t want to do the party right after it opened, since I wanted to make some records first and make the place lived-in, put some scratches on it. I think that’s important, too. It already looked old from when it was brand new, but I think it helps to really see that. When you see Willie Nelson’s Trigger guitar, now it’s much cooler than when it was brand new when it didn’t have a hole or scratches.
AH: There’s also something indescribable about the way in which the vibe of a place is created by how its constructed, but also by what happens there. So if you want to lay down the vibe of Southern Grooves, you would make some music there first.
MR-S: Yes, and how many times have you been into someone’s house, a church, a studio, or even The Alamo, and it’s a place that, when you go in, you feel something immediately? I wanted to try to have a spot like that. Sometimes the history makes a spot feel like that, like Sun Studio, but then there are other places, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, where when you walk in, you already know it’s somewhere special without having to be told that Elvis ate his breakfast there. I think that was one thing I was very pleased with, that even brand-new the place already felt like it had been there a long time and had a soul to it. It was an incredible feeling for the first musicians who recorded there to say that to me. Obviously, you can’t buy that on Amazon!
AH: That’s funny that you mention Frank Lloyd Wright because I was thinking about him when I was reading about the studio. Though maybe that’s a bit of a contradiction, because he uses a lot of right angles and I heard that you didn’t want to use a lot of right angles in the studio.
MR-S: Actually, there’s a lot of right angles! I’m a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. I kind of wanted the drum booth to have a Frank Lloyd Wright feel to it. There are actually quite a lot of angles in the studio. A good rule of thumb, which is an older way of thinking, is that you really don’t want parallel surfaces, like in the tracking room. All the walls have angles, even within them, so they are slightly cock-eyed. The live room is full of angles in that regard. You just don’t want a rectangle or square, really. If you think about the floor and ceiling, the floor is going to be flat, but that’s why we wanted an angled ceiling. That’s also a kind of nod to Sam Phillips, since I started at Sun Studio, and then at Sam Phillips Recording, and he used an angled ceiling at both those studios. I’ve always loved that look and sound.
AH: How did you go about this design approach? Were you working with builders, making drawings yourself, or was this about conversations over time?
MR-S: Once I figured out that I could be in Crosstown, the first thing I did was that I brought in the acoustician Steven Durr, who’s originally from Memphis, but lives in Nashville now. A lot of acousticians will come at it almost like a math problem, but I took people to various studios like Royal, Sam Phillips Recording, Sun Studios, and also mentioned FAME and Muscle Shoals, since these are places that don’t fit that formula. A lot of these places were old movie theatres, and Sun was a bakery. Guys came in with acoustic tile and glue and put stuff up until it sounded good to them. That’s how a lot of the great records were made in the 50s and 60s. I’ve always liked the smaller studios, as well.
In Crosstown, I had a raw space of 3,000 square feet, and the ceilings were already a good height. But there were these support columns, three feet thick and concrete, every 17 feet. That was the only thing that I really had to work around. But I also had to separate myself acoustically from all my neighbors in the building. If I’m playing drums, I don’t want to disturb my neighbors above, below, or beside me, and conversely, whatever they are doing is something I can’t hear. If I can hear them, my microphones can hear them, and that makes recording impossible.
I brought in several acousticians to look at studios that were “wrong” but right and inspired thousands of artists. Then I showed them the Crosstown space and said, “Can we build a box within a box?” Steven Durr was the first one who got exactly where I was coming from and said we could work around everything. I appreciated that, because it’s not a formula, and things can look good on paper, but doesn’t have a good sound or feeling. There’s a side to this business where there’s the whole technical side to engineering, but there are moments where you just capture something on your iPhone that has the right feeling, and you’re never going to beat it in a studio with expensive equipment. So you have to balance the technical and the emotional side of music. I felt like the designer had to get that, and Steve did.
We started drawing up plans, and we spent several months tooling around on paper, drawing things on napkins. We got something that we felt was really good, then as we started going forward, we discovered more things. You definitely do some adjustments on the fly as it’s coming together, but it sounded perfect from the get-go. It really is a dream come true.
AH: It must have been hard to move forward not being able to see the final outcome for quite a while.
MR-S: You can try to draw something on paper, but you really don’t know how it’s going to sound. You have to figure it out. But you can have the best sounding room in the world, and if people aren’t comfortable there, you’re not going to get anything. Those were my big, scary moments, wondering if we would do all this and it wouldn’t work. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m a very visual person and have no problems making decisions, but not being able to see it until after the walls were built was hard.
AH: Is this a space where other producers are going to be welcome to work also, or is this purely your space?
MR-S: It’s kind of in-between. I’m not precious about it in that way, but I don’t see it like a commercial studio where I’m trying to book every hour. I see it kind of like Doctor Frankenstein and his laboratory where I go in and work on things. I’ve been very fortunate to stay busy all these years, but I also want my friends and people I trust to use the studio. It boils down to whether my space is right for them. Some people want to mic just the drums or the bass, or they expect more modern things. I have very vintage equipment-based room, though I still have Pro Tools and you can record anything you want. You could still do any genre, but it’s kind of about how the engineer likes to work. If they want 96 tracks to record a drumkit, I don’t have that, but if they work in a similar way to me, I’m happy for them to use the room.
The first time someone else came in to use the room, it was the first time I used my office, and I got to sit back and be the host. I had so much fun watching them work in that room and seeing how they liked it. The studio is open for others, but I just have to make sure it’s the right fit for both parties.
I collect a lot of guitars, and I play the guitar, but I get pretty bored with my own playing pretty quickly. There’s nothing more fun for me than for someone else to come in, like Jason Isbell, who loves and uses the guitar. I get more joy out of watching them use that guitar. The studio is like that, times a hundred.
AH: What do you think of the current state of the business of operating recording studios? Are the numbers growing or shrinking?
MR-S: Some studios are going away, and a lot of the classic studios are shrinking. Obviously, budgets are shrinking, and a lot of people can’t afford those spaces, but also, the real estate has gone up so much in those areas that they can’t help but sell the studio. But at the same time, if you look at Muscle Shoals, there are probably over 40 studios there, even though there’s a small population. If you go to Nashville, every building in a particular area may be a studio. They may not all be busy every day and they may not all be making a huge profit, but I look at it kind of like running a restaurant.
We’re doing it because we love it, and the studio is never going to make you a bunch of money. If you make any money on a studio, you’re doing good. But I think it’s changed now, from trying to build a place that has ping-pong tables and a pool to trying to build a place that’s a specific person’s space. If you want to work with them, this is their space and their stuff. I think that’s the specific model now. But while a lot of people can record at home, that may be good for a record or two, but a lot of people then yearn to be in a studio. And they want to be in different studios and get the different vibes. Now that you can record anywhere, there’s more importance in recording somewhere. It’s not just the space, but the gear, like using better microphones. It’s in what studios can provide. I think that’s why studios will never go away, and some people will always want to record there.
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Matt Ross-Spang. Find more details and information on his website here: https://www.southerngrooves.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage of a project Matt has recently worked on, here: REVIEW: Jason Isbell Weathervanes