Design-Build Team Projects
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: New is Old Again
Mozaic AV and Leon Speakers team up to renovate a legendary recording studio
By Michael Johnson and Noah Kaplan
BACK IN 1946 on the old Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama, a non-descript concrete building was constructed and for many years it housed a coffin showroom. In 1969 a group of musicians known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section decided to convert the building into a recording studio and go into direct competition with the renowned FAME Studios. FAME Studios was owned at that time by Rick Hall, who was instrumental in helping to develop the careers of Etta James, Otis Redding, and Duane Allman.
And so began the legendary history of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. From Aretha Franklin to The Stones, Cat Stevens to Bob Seger, Willie Nelson to Levon Helm, the studio thrived for ten years until it was shut down and the production moved to new premises on Alabama Avenue. The Muscle Shoals Music Foundation was founded in 2013 and the building was partially restored and opened for tours in order to continue to raise funds for a major restoration. In 2017, the foundation received a large grant from Beats Electronics (aka Beats Headphones of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine fame) which helped secure vintage recording studio equipment and paraphernalia.
The vision behind the restoration was to return the look and feel of the interior to an authentic reproduction of exactly how the studio looked in 1970. At the same time, modern technology was going to be incorporated into the process, so visitors could look and listen as the history of the space unfolded during tours of the building.
And that is where our intrepid team of technology designers enters the picture, with a story that is both charming and technological, but at the same time passionate and artistic.
MICHAEL JOHNSON (CEO, Mozaic AV) I was originally approached by the director of the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation, Bonnie Bak and she explained how they envisioned using modern technology to facilitate the tours of the building. TVs and speakers would need to be integrated as part of the tour, but at the same time they didn’t want to stick flat-panel TVs and architectural speakers on the walls. The goal was to keep the A/V presentation gear as retro as possible because the entire décor was going to be circa 1970 in look and touch.
I think my team’s background in design and how eager we were to help realize their end-goals was what won us the bid. As relayed to my team, a ‘vintage’ TV was needed to begin the tour as a means to set the stage of what visitors were going to experience, and in the basement lounge we were tasked with integrating audio that had a period-correct look yet needed to be state-of-the-art to capture the essence of the music that was produced at Muscle Shoals. I mean, imagine being tasked with going in and putting sound into Muscle Shoals Studio!
NOAH KAPLAN (President/Founder, Leon Speakers) Michael called and gave me an overview of the project and asked for my initial thoughts on how we could use today’s technology but give it a retro look to mesh with the vibe of the studio. I’ve been collecting vintage audio gear for years and as a musician, I was honored for the chance to be a part of the Muscle Shoals story.
Michael took the lead on doing the essential research of what that period’s audio and video products looked like and from his background as a graphic designer began to create sketches to give both of our teams direction and a jumping off point for how our companies would collaborate on this project.
I did my own research and when we began preliminary discussions, we both agreed that back in the day there was a lot of checker-patterned materials used for speaker grills. If you remember those vintage Fender guitar amps and checker-patterned speaker grills and how TVs were these huge furniture pieces with the same kind of fabric covering the speakers, you immediately are taken back in time to the early 1970s.
MICHAEL It was great working with Noah because he is not only a musician, but he is an artist who incorporates aesthetics into his speaker system designs. He is a visionary in the true sense of the word. From my side of the table, I tasked my team to design an integrated audio video experience that could be accessed from smartphones to tablets. My only guideline was that none of the technology could be evidenced by the visitors who would be touring the space.
NOAH At Leon Speakers, we assembled a team of mechanical and electrical engineers to develop the drawings that we would be working from to create the custom components needed for the project. While we had to faithfully recreate fabrics and cabinets as specified in the scope of work, we also needed to guarantee that the acoustical and visual properties were state-of-the-art.
We then turned to our senior craftsmen to hand-build each component. We incorporated a 40″ flat panel TV into a retro cabinet that we could hang on the wall. And while the TV is mere inches in depth, as opposed to those old giants that were deeper than they were wide, the illusion of vintage was faithfully reproduced. The same goes for the speakers. Our modern driver and enclosure technology housed in wooden cabinets that speak vintage but deliver hi-fidelity.
MICHAEL It’s kind of crazy to think about putting sound into Muscle Shoals Sound Studio when so much great sound came out of that building. I think that the passion of both Leon Speakers and Mozaic AV and how we approach our normal business goals fostered a belief that both teams could come together and create something magical that upholds the original vision of those musicians who had a vision of their own. It was a great experience.
the gift of music
By Michael Johnson
AFTER LEON SPEAKERS showed so much passion for the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio project, we wanted to do something special for Noah. The idea began to bounce around about building him a custom guitar. Originally we were going to keep the whole thing a secret, but we enjoyed collaborating with Noah so much we talked to him about what he would want if he were to have a custom guitar of his own. Noah was quick with ideas with his typical zest for art, but also trusting in what we could deliver giving us his faith to bring this idea to life. I took that input and put together a sketch of what was to become known as the “Ghost Lion” guitar.
One of my former employees named Paul Smoke creates custom guitars in Muscle Shoals by way of his custom guitar company, McLane Guitars. These are completely one-of-a-kind, hand-built, hand-finished guitars that deliver the southern rock sound the area is known for while looking like an original work of art. I gave Paul the sketch and he and I went back and forth with ideas over a several month process. He took input from Noah, along with input from my original sketch and ran with it as well as adding his own flare, the finish details he is known for and some surprises of his own along the way. We shipped it off to Noah along with some local goodies and watched the video of him opening it like a kid at Christmas. It was very cool.