Photo: Christopher Ian Smith/Mercer University
10 Recording Studio Tours That Take Fans Behind The Music
Found in the forgotten corners of Alabama, amid the bustle of Nashville, in Midwestern suburbs and the Pacific Northwest, these 10 studio tours allow fans to wax nostalgic about iconic albums and artists.
Whether you’re an eternal Elvis enthusiast who wants to see where the Tupelo titan made his very first round of licorice pizza and where he recorded more than 240 singles, an audiophile who geeks out at the slightest turn of a soundboard knob or the old-timey crackle of feedback, a vinyl connoisseur who wants to gather historical context for his collection, or just looking for something fun to do on vacation, consider touring a historic recording studio.
Found in the forgotten corners of Alabama, amid the big-city bustle of Nashville or Detroit, and nestled into quiet Midwestern suburbs or rainy regions of the West Coast, studio tours offer behind-the-scenes scoop on the making of iconic albums by household names from the Aretha Franklin and Rolling Stones to Dolly Parton, Lizzo, and Billie Eilish.
The number of studios being restored and opening their doors to offer music fans in-depth experiences seems to be climbing alongside the growing interest/reinvestment in vinyl. While some of these studios ceased production years ago and exist only as musical time capsules, others are still making noise.
These are 10 of the most exciting recording studio tours strewn across the lower 48 where you can wax nostalgic about classic cuts while standing in the exact spot where they came together. Armed with old photos, music clips, and sometimes the actual gear used back in the day, guides regale visitors with tales of budding romance, epic fights, intense late night sessions, studio wizardry, custom instruments, memorable moments, and quirky habits — like Keith Richards lyric-writing breakthrough in the bathroom or Prince’s penchant for playing his favorite movie Finding Nemo while working.
Who Recorded Here: Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Rufus Thomas, Bobby Blue Bland, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Wynonna Judd, Roy Orbison
You’ll hear the story of those sessions and more as you walk through the original operating base of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips from 1950-1959. Tours begin in the memorabilia gallery, which contains the original radio broadcasting booth of influential Memphis DJ "Daddy-O" Dewey Phillips, and proceed through the reception area and into the room where the sonic sausage was and is still made. (Sun returned to its recording roots in the ‘80s.) The space is filled with retro furniture and equipment from Sun’s heyday, but little of it was ever near that gyrating pelvis.
Presley’s history with Sun precedes working with Sam. At 18, he paid $4 to make a 78 featuring two slow jams called "My Happiness" and "That’s When Your Heartaches Begin" with the help of assistant Marion Keisker (Phillips was not in that day) in 1953. Fairly unimpressed, he jotted down his name and number alongside a notation that he was a good ballad singer. The following year he returned, picked up the tempo, snarled the word "mama," and the rest was history.
Much of the gear used at Sun in Elvis’ day is on display in other museums or held by private collectors, such as the Million Dollar Quartet piano you’ll find at Graceland. One mic is original to the space however, and visitors can use it as a prop in photos when they bust out their best impression.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Who Recorded Here: Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Demi Lovato, Otis Redding, The Osmonds, Terri Gibbs, Band of Horses
FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) and its leader Rick Hall (who was nominated for Producer of The Year in 1970) put the Muscle Shoals region on the commercial music map. Originally founded in 1959 and located above a drugstore, Hall eventually took his earnings from Arthur Alexander’s "You Better Move On" and a $10,000 loan to buy out his partners. He built the current headquarters and studios, turning his passion project into a blues and soul powerhouse that gave the Memphis music industry one state over a run for its money.
The first session in the new digs resulted in the chart topper "Steal Away" by Jimmy Hughes. Over the next few decades, numerous classics were captured on vinyl under the same roof: "Mustang Sally" by Wilson Pickett, Etta James’ Tell Mama, "Slip Away" by Clarence Carter, "I Never Loved A Man" by Franklin, and "You’re Having My Baby" by Paul Anka.
Currently run by Hall's children, Studios A and B still pull big names like Phish, Jason Isbell, and Gregg Allman, who recorded his farewell album Southern Blood there in 2016. Whether you opt to take the standard tour or the new backstage experience (which adds stops in the publishing office, Hall’s personal office brimming with awards and gifts, and instrument exhibits to the basic studios tour), be sure to pose under the sign above the hall that reads "Through these doors walk the finest Musicians, Songwriters, Artists, and Producers in the World." The sign has been up since the studio first opened.
Who Recorded Here: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Cher, Staples Singers, Boz Scaggs, Rod Stewart, Lana Del Rey
After honing their unique funky R&B style together up the street at FAME, the Swampers (David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, and Barry Beckett) struck out on their own in 1969. Using a loan from Atlantic Records VP Jerry Wexler to buy equipment, the four opened what was then the only recording studio owned and operated by session musicians.
First to record there was Cher, whose 3614 Jackson Highway takes its name from the studio’s address and features the building’s exterior on the cover. The cover, in turn, inspired the studio’s now signature sign. Before moving operations to a bigger facility in 1978, more than 200 albums (75 of which earned RIAA gold or platinum status) and hundreds of songs were cut at the original property. Among the biggest hits were Paul Simon’s "Kodachrome" and Bob Seger’s "Old Time Rock and Roll."
After the Swampers moved out, it became an appliance repair shop, headstone showroom, and pro audio retailer and then spent much of the ‘90s abandoned. A local entrepreneur started to return it to its former glory and run it as both a recording studio (that’s when the Black Keys laid down the first tracks in 30 years at the studio) and museum in the aughts. But it was 2013’s Muscle Shoals documentary that really stoked both public and deep-pocket interest — Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine donated a million dollars to the preservation of the studio — and further restoration was completed in 2017 under the watchful eye of the new owner, the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation.
Visitors are treated to fascinating session stories with corresponding audio snippets, photos, and equipment while wandering around the basement writer’s room, secret speakeasy where booze was hidden (it was a dry county until the ‘80s), and the one-room studio which includes the tiny bathroom Keith Richards locked himself in to finalize the lyrics of "Wild Horses" and Mary MacGregor captured her "Torn Between Two Lovers" vocals.
Who Recorded Here: Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Blind Melon, Pearl Jam, Brandi Carlile, Dave Matthews, The Strokes, Fall Out Boy
Though it was opened in 1985 by brothers Rick and Raj Parashar, this Seattle-adjacent studio didn’t rise to prominence until the ‘90s when a who’s who of grunge pioneers used it to record seminal albums like Ten, Louder Than Love, and Dirt. Tours are offered several days a week and on dates that hold significance to the studio and now owners/producers Eric Lilavois, Geoff Ott, and Jonathan Plum, including an annual Layne Staley tribute.
Admirers of alt-rock can take a peek at a wall covered in early headshots and items left behind by bands, as well as the original guestbook that features a few work-in-progress band names.
The tour visits isolation booths, the control room, a Neve A599 console commandeered from Decca Paris Studios, and the original Yamaha C7 Piano that appears on Mother Love Bone’s "Chloe Dancer" and Dave Matthews Band's "When I’m Weary." Among the studio's most interesting artifacts is the rope swing in the live room, which Eddie Vedder swung from upside down to achieve the Doppler-like sound effect on "Once."
And it isn’t just grunge acts for whom London Bridge has played a significant role in their career. Brandi Carlile met her longtime bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth through Parashar in the studio's kitchen.
Who Recorded Here: The Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson
Berry Gordy established his game-changing label Motown Records in 1959 inside a simple home on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard. The ground floor held the administrative offices, control room, and tape library while the Gordy family posted up on the second floor. A photography studio in the back was converted into what became known as Studio A, which was open 22 hours a day.
As business grew in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he bought neighboring houses and expanded the footprint of Motown Records. Today, three of his houses, including the original abode, contain the Motown Museum, which maintains the studio and his living quarters as they looked during the label's zenith. Tours include a trip through the Gordy family's recreated apartment and the legendary Studio A.
While you likely won’t be granted permission to tickle the ivories as Paul McCartney was when he took a private tour, you can eyeball the 1877 Steinway Model D grand piano heard on many Motown favorites. Fun fact: After discovering the antique in unplayable condition, the Beatle helped restore it and eventually played it at a charity gala.)
Who Recorded Here: Dolly Parton, Elvis, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, Al Hirt, Amanda Shires, Perry Como, Everly Brothers, Don Gibson
Plans for this studio were first written on a napkin by chief audio engineer Bill Miltenburg. The fabled hit factory operated by RCA Records is located in the country capitol’s Music Row neighborhood.
RCA Studio B churned out so many ballads, bangers and boppy pop tunes between 1957 and 1977 that it earned the nickname "Home of 1,000 Hits." Elvis alone knocked out 240 songs there.
As rock began to dominate, house producers Chet Atkins and Anita Kerr removed or downplayed the twang of traditional Western ditties, adding strings, background vocals, and smoother instrumentation. Their Nashville Sound is said to have rescued country music from certain obscurity.
This key point is made by docents and audio and video clips during daily tours, which depart from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and last about an hour. Visitors will pass through the hallowed halls where Parton belted out "Coat Of Many Colors" and "I Will Always Love You." Also on display are two original recording consoles, a prized 1942 Steinway Grand Piano, and the building’s recently restored exterior.
The studio is still in operation. Occasionally, artists like Gillian Welch, Marty Stuart, and John Hiatt return to record new projects with the old-fashioned analog flair.
Who Recorded Here: Prince, Madonna, Lizzo, Chuck D, Beck, Gwen Stefani
Prince built the mural-covered creative compound of his dreams in a suburban cornfield 20 minutes from the Minneapolis music scene where he first made a name for himself. Paisley Park includes his home, four still-active recording studios, a Hollywood-sized soundstage where Prince rehearsed for tours and made music videos, concert movies and films like Graffiti Bridge, and a nightclub. His trademark shade of purple reigns supreme in the color palette.
Prince cut every album — from Sign O’ the Times until his last release — at Paisley Park and welcomed artists from Chaka Khan and R.E.M. to Sting into the booths. And when he wasn’t working, he was playing…hard. His late-night impromptu parties at the NPG Music Club were legendary, including one particularly epic evening when Madonna arrived around 2 a.m. and sat at stage’s edge while Prince serenaded her for an hour.
While all three tour levels feature peeks at the studios, musical instruments and Prince's massive shoe collection, diehards can book the three-hour ultimate experience which adds exclusive access to a private screening, a playback session in the control room, and even more archived items. All visitors should keep their eyes peeled for the modified road case Prince used to hide inside in order to be moved through concert crowds undetected. It is tucked along the tour route but never mentioned.
Who Recorded Here: Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels Band, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop, Blackberry Smoke, Eddie 9 Volt
After building a name for himself as a booking agent and manager for soul artists like Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, and Sam and Dave, Phil Walden founded Capricorn Records with Wexler and used the FAME model as a roadmap. He put together a Swampers-style house band and built them a studio from the ground up in downtown Macon.
When Mercer University cleaned up the Capricorn complex in 2019, adding a museum, music library kiosks, and a state-of-the-art Studio B, it thankfully left A untouched. The ‘70s time warp continues in the control room, where they custom-built a soundboard to mimic the one that was used during Capricorn's pinnacle (around the time when fellow Georgian President Jimmy Carter attended Walden’s infamous summer artists’ barbeque).
The studio remains so true-to-vibe that you half expect to find a stash of illegal substances in the basement's reverb chambers (a favored hiding spot according to rumors), the Allman Brothers jamming on their highest charting work "Ramblin’ Man," or Joe Cocker laying on the floor with a mike stand bent down to meet his mouth because he was too inebriated to duet with Bonnie Bramlett standing up. Less scandalous is the piano Redding composed on, complete with cigarette burns, displayed in the museum.
Who Recorded Here: Leon Russell, Tom Petty, J.J. Cale Willie Nelson, Gap Band, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Buffett, Air Supply
In 1972, Sooner State native and Elton John mentor Leon Russell bought a 1915 Methodist church in Tulsa's Pearl District and converted it into offices for his Shelter Records label, a recording studio, and a hangout for his creative pals.
Russell eventually left Shelter in 1979 to start his own label, Paradise, for which he constructed a same-named studio complex in Burbank, Calif., but not before numerous household names made magic within those stone walls. Tom Petty also signed his very first record deal with his early band Mudcrutch at Church.
In 2016, Tulsa businesswoman/Master of Space and Time megafan Teresa Knox bought the holy ground of the Tulsa Sound (now located on Leon Russell Road), renovated it, and used her personal Russell memorabilia collection to jumpstart a museum. According to Knox, her prize purchase to relaunch Church’s recording side was a NEVE 8068 mixing console from Daniel Lanois, who used it when producing records by U2 and Emmylous Harris. In fact, the machine is pictured on the cover of Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind.
In 2022, the Dropkick Murphys chose The Church to put together a Woody Guthrie concept album. (Guthrie was also from Oklahoma and a museum in his honor is less than 15 minutes away.) Tours begin near the bronze statue of Russell in his signature top hat.
Detroit and Nashville
Who Recorded Here: Bob Weir, Billie Eilish, the Hives, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jack White, MC50 (anniversary MC5 band)Former White Stripes’ frontman Jack White started a label and three same-named record stores, all with live music venues tucked inside.
The two American outposts of Third Man Records offer tours once or twice a week. Established in 2015 in the longtime cultural hub Cass Corridor, the Detroit tour includes visits to the state-of-the-art vinyl pressing plant, a stage, and the control room, and giant depictions of local superstars the MC5, White Stripes, and the Gories. In Nashville, which opened in 2009, the longer, pricier tour takes guests through the warehouse, control room, and live space. Like many of the aforementioned studios, guests exit through an expertly curated gift shop.
Coordinate visits on days where someone’s rocking the mic, as these two venues are the only live music halls where artists can record performances direct to vinyl. With a lathe procured from King Records in Cincinnati and a pressing deal with United Record Pressing, Third Man recorded a live 7-inch by White and made it available less than four hours after he’d exited the stage. Could there be a more ultimate souvenir for music lovers?
Positive Vibes Only: Natalie Bergman & The Chicago Children's Choir Deliver An Uplifting Performance Of "Talk To The Lord"
Get ready to raise your hands up to the heavens with this soulful performance from Chicago-bred singer/songwriter Natalie Bergman and the Chicago Children's Choir
In the latest edition of GRAMMY.com's inspirational video series, Positive Vibes Only, Chicago-bred singer/songwriter Natalie Bergman delivers her psychedelic, gospel-infused "Talk To The Lord," with angelic support from the Chicago Children's Choir.
Written by Bergman, "Talk To The Lord" is the lead single off her forthcoming debut solo album, Mercy, out May 7 via Third Man Records. She recorded the entire album at the Los Angeles-based home studio operated by her brother, Elliot, with whom she makes up one half of indie folk duo Wild Belle.
Learn more about the Chicago Children's Choir and how to support their work.
Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Jack White To Release Live Album On Blue-And-White Vinyl
The main man at Third Man preps a new live LP to be distributed through his Vault subscriptions service
On the heels of his adventurous new album, Boarding House Reach, GRAMMY winner Jack White has announced his label, Third Man Records, will release a new live album titled Live At Third Man Records/Nashville & Cass Corridor.
Recorded during two shows on the Boarding House Reach tour — a show at the Blue Room at his label headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., in March and a concert in Detroit in April — the new project will be released via White's exclusive Vault subscriptions service. Fitting with White's latest visual theme, the LP will be pressed on "beautiful blue and wonderful white vinyl," according to Third Man's site.
The live album will mark White and Third Man's 37th Vault release and follow the recent landmark reissue of Captain Beefheart's Frank Zappa-produced seminal sound collage Trout Mask Replica. In addition to a remastered version of the influential album, the Vault package contained extras such as a special seven-inch single, lyric book, tote bag, patch, and even a printed replica trout mask.
White's latest live album will also feature a few extras, including three glossy 8 by10 photos, logo flag and "a die-cut sleeve with peep-in artwork reminiscent of Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti or the Stones' Some Girls, the interplay between the sleeve and the jacket will provide fans with hours upon hours of flip-flopping fun."
Live At Third Man Records/Nashville & Cass Corridor is available for preorder through July 31 for those who join The Vault.
Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Watch: U2's "Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way" At Third Man Records
The GRAMMY-winning band records a new version of their 2017 song at Jack White's Nashville studio for a special limited-edition vinyl release
From Dublin, Ireland, to Nashville, Tenn., U2 made a special stop at Jack White's Third Man Records studio to record an intimate version of "Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way" from their 2017 album, Songs Of Experience.
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A handheld video posted on the band's Facebook page shows U2 delivering a stripped-down acoustic version of the song after an endearing false start. The footage provides an equally candid glimpse into the band's raw live sound as it does into the music memorabilia-lined walls of Third Man Records' retro-rock studios.
The recording will be available on a "special limited-edition vinyl coming soon," according to the video's caption. Earlier this year, U2 performed another song from the same album, "Get Out Of Your Own Way," from a barge in the New York Harbor with the Statue Of Liberty in the background at the 60th GRAMMY Awards.
U2's previous album, Songs Of Innocence, earned the band a GRAMMY nomination for the 57th GRAMMY Awards. The pair of albums take their names from William Blake's 1789 illustrated collection of poems, "Songs of Innocence And Experience."
The session at Third Man Records comes during U2's Nashville stop of their Experience + Innocence Tour, which stretches across North America and Europe through November, making its final show a homecoming in Dublin, Ireland, on Nov. 10.
For a full list of tour dates and ticket information, visit the band's website.
Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Getty Images
Prince's Paisley Park Announces Four-Day Gathering: Celebration 2018
Event will honor the Purple One's memory on the anniversary of his death with performances, panels, and presentations
For the second consecutive year, Prince's Paisley Park will host an event in the late icon's honor. Celebration 2018 will feature performances, panels, and presentations at the Chanhassen, Minn. compound celebrating Prince's remarkable work and commemorating the two-year anniversary of his death.
Set for April 19—22, Celebration 2018 will feature musical performances from the likes of Sheila E, fDeluxe (formerly known as the Family), and a debut appearance from a new supergroup composed of members of Paisley Park and New Power Generation alumni, according to Rolling Stone.
On April. 21, the festivities will move to Minneapolis' Target Center for Prince: Live On The Big Screen featuring "newly remastered and never-before-released audio and video of Prince accompanied live on the Target Center stage by an all-star ensemble of musicians who performed alongside him throughout his storied career."
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">N.E.W.S. for our Purple Friends and Fams: <br>Programming details announced for Celebration 2018! <a href="https://twitter.com/SheilaEdrummer?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SheilaEdrummer</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/TheFdeluxe?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheFdeluxe</a> & new super-group of <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PaisleyPark?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PaisleyPark</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NPG?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NPG</a> musical alumni to perform live at Paisley Park. Full details = <a href="https://t.co/NzlV2uW69F">https://t.co/NzlV2uW69F</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PrinceCelebration2018?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PrinceCelebration2018</a> <a href="https://t.co/y6eRirnaGA">pic.twitter.com/y6eRirnaGA</a></p>— Paisley Park (@PaisleyPark) <a href="https://twitter.com/PaisleyPark/status/967071085832351744?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">February 23, 2018</a></blockquote>
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The four-day event will also feature several guest speakers, including Sheila E., Susannah Melvoin and a host of other Prince collaborators and friends. Tickets for Celebration 2018 are now on sale through Paisley Park's website.