Recording Studios in the Charts

Recording Studios: A review of Leon Bridges’ Coming Home

June 2015 saw the release of the debut album from Texas artist Leon Bridges. It could be argued that this review is 5 months too late; in some ways the album itself is 5 decades too late, but only in the best possible way. Bridges’ album is a journey back to the soul music of the mid 20th Century, free of the cliches
we’ve come to expect. Coming Home, rather than being a recreation of the rhythm and blues sound, is a genuine extension of it; the music comes first, with songs like Lisa Sawyer (a loving ode to Bridges’ mother) and River (an intimate reflection on gospel teachings), while the aesthetics are a natural extension of these. Interestingly, the album was already tracked and mastered when Columbia Records arrived on the scene. Leon Bridges isn’t a gimmick carefully calculated by faceless pinstriped suits sat around a boardroom table up at Sony Music, with a specific market for nostalgia in mind. Leon Bridges the artist is Leon Bridges the person. It’s simple, honest and real.

Much of the album’s authenticity can be attributed to the recording studios and production methods used. Preferring analogue tape technologies over modern digital ones, Bridges and his band set about recording in a live setup reminiscent of the work of Phil Spector. It was all done in their home town of Fort Worth, Texas, at Niles City Sound recording studios, a kind of nest of all things vintage. Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, producer and engineer respectively, had been slowly accumulating second-hand instruments and recording gear, mostly 50 years old or more. Bridges’ music was the final touch needed to bring the ageing circuitry back to life, the VU meter twitching to the splashes and jabs of the instruments, all played live in one portion of the studio. A single sound shield loosely encased the drum kit, behind which sat Block, engineering a mood unachievable in a modern environment.

In today’s industry, a lot of time and money is put into the post-production stage of recording. EQ, reverb and sometimes even preamps are simulated in retrospect, once the performances have already been captured. 50 years ago this was all done in real-time before or during performances; EQ was controlled primarily by microphone placement, reverb by the architecture of the recording studios used, preamplification by physically altering electrical signals. A modern workflow has its time and place; but does it really have to be everywhere all of the time? In an age when computer accuracy and perfectionism reigns, the grooves and emotions captured at Niles City Sounds are a welcome breath of fresh air. Other artists in the charts are also revisiting these old-school techniques. Sydney’s very own Boy and Bear recently dropped Limit of Love (Universal), another album recorded live to tape in a similar studio environment. Maybe Coming Home wasn’t late at all. Maybe it came right when the industry needed it most.