The Ardent family, surrounding owner John Fry, at the newly installed SSL Duality.
Photo: Tommy Bridwell
Wow—45 years and counting. That’s not easy to do in any industry, let alone one that is dependent on the forces of technological change and the whims of a record-buying public. But Ardent Studios, under the leadership of John Fry and a dedicated, loyal team of creatives, has weathered the ups and downs, branched into new markets over the years, added and dropped studio services, and continually kept an eye on the future. To commemorate its 45th anniversary this month, Ardent has undergone a complete acoustical makeover of its flagship Studio C and dropped in an SSL Duality console.
The history of Ardent Studios has been written before—Fry in his garage in 1966, the move to National and then Madison Avenues; the association with Stax, Al Green, Sam and Dave, Big Star, ZZ Top, R.E.M., Steve Earle, Huey Lewis and a slew of local talent—so we won’t go into that here, except to note that the past does inform the future, and the commitment to technical and creative excellence has never wavered. If you talk to the people in and around Ardent, that’s attributed to Fry; if you talk to Fry, that’s attributed to the people he surrounds himself with.
“Ardent is unique because of one individual, and that’s John Fry,” says Jody Stephens, Big Star drummer and studio manager at Ardent since 1987. “He’s the captain, and he fosters that spirit of innovation and creativity. Look at some of the talent that has called Ardent home—Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, John Hampton, Joe Hardy. All have helped keep the doors open because John has always emphasized that individuals come first. But then he provides the tools, too, and brings in someone like Chris Jackson, a chief engineer that we are just lucky to have. He’s amazing. But it starts with John Fry.”
Ardent owner/engineer John Fry in 1968 at the “Stax” console he had custom built
Then you talk to Fry, and he humbly states how pleased he is to just have been a part of “all things Memphis, to have so many good friends and clients be a part of our lives for these 45 years. From around the world and from right down the street.”
There are any number of reasons why some large commercial studios survive and others do not. For Ardent, besides the obvious assemblage of Talent and Tools, the team has always been about the music and offering services that can launch or boost a career.
“We’ve always been involved in artist development,” Fry says. “We’ve always had a production company, a record label or both. We’ve always had publishing interests. So we’ve always been more than a fee-for-service studio, and I think those aspects of our business cause talent to gravitate to the facility. Jody Stephens has spent a lot of time developing relationships in the A&R and label world, music supervisors, too—people who can help with exposure for local artists and music coming out of the area.”
Those local artists have included Big Star, most notably, but in later years John Kilzer, Tora Tora, 36 Mafia (an Oscar!), Skillet, Star & Micey and many others. It extends to the visual arts, where after a few years’ hiatus, a film department has reopened, headed by returning Memphian Jonathan Pekar, son of Ron Pekar, who designed the neon star for the first Big Star album cover.
KEEPING IT FRESH
Still, Fry, Stephens and Jackson realized that to stay a player in today’s changing production market they had to stay current with technology. A couple of years ago, they started thinking about the aging Neve V Series in Studio C. Fine for tracking, couldn’t mix on it, and it was proving a maintenance headache. “Everybody liked the sound of it, but it was getting problematic,” Stephens confesses. “It was getting long in the tooth,” adds Fry. They decided to put in an SSL Duality and tear back the walls to ready the room for 5.1.
“We wanted to retain superior analog performance,” Fry says, “and we liked the design features that give it high reliability. They removed most of the electrolytic capacitors, and with digital control, they’ve removed over 1,000 switches, both of which can be a maintenance headache. The other thing is it speeds up your workflow by enabling you to control your DAW from the worksurface. It’s really efficient.”
Pictured (L-R) Ralph Arista, band assistant; Bill Gibson, drummer; Johnny Colla, guitarist/saxophonist; Jim Gaines, engineer/co-producer; Lydia Gilman, staff assistant (seated); Huey Lewis; Curry Weber, engineer; and Sean Hopper, keyboardist.
Photo: Daniel J. Russo
“The interface with Pro Tools is definitely a plus,” adds Stephens. “But the selections of mic pre’s and EQs is excellent. And you can track and mix on it! Imagine that!”
Chris Jackson, chief technical engineer, supervised much of the deconstruction and reconstruction of the control room, working hand-in-hand with engineer Curry Weber. “For the past six years, I’ve been looking at Studio C and trying to figure out what to do about the low end,” Jackson says. “The measurements confirmed our issues at some very specific frequencies. So when this opportunity came up, we went back into the walls, starting with the back wall. We put in some bass traps on resonating panels, tuned to those frequencies, and then put in this dense mineral wool, up to 18 inches thick in some points. Then we added back a tiny bit of RPG diffusion right behind the mix position; it had been there before, and it works. Then we also added some traps on the side walls so that we now have a sweet stereo image that also works great for 5.1 work.”
Memphis is truly a special place. I’m often reminded by my friend Rick Clark, producer, musicologist and semi-regular contributor to Mix. It’s a sentiment echoed by Fry and Stephens. While they are quick to point out that their success is not unique to a geography, they do exhibit a fondness for their hometown and its rich musical legacy. The birthplace of rock ’n’ roll…does it get any bigger than that? Beale Street, the Peabody, the pawnshops. Stephens recalls the Battle of the Bands at the Orpheum, George Klein and his band at The Place, Goldsmiths and the rise of Stax. He walked into record at Ardent for the first time in 1969 and says he felt like an imposter.
But being part of a community is being a part of the community. And Ardent has always been conscious of being a good neighbor, whether it’s the current run of PSAs for health care, hosting a Grammy GPS event on a Road Map for the Music Business or putting on “16 Over 48,” a two-day recording marathon with 16 local bands in three-hour studio slots (produced by Mike Wilson). “This is a tight community,” Stephens says. “It’s a real, living music community, and we’re real happy to be a part of that.”
They are sure doing something right down there on Madison Avenue in Memphis, and they show no signs of slowing down. “In many ways we’ve come full circle,” Fry says. “In the mid-’60s, when we started, independent labels and independent artists were so important. Then it became a business. But we’ve seen a decline in the dominance of the majors and a new ascendancy in the role of the independent.
“Not everybody needs a studio environment for everything they do, but some want to do ensemble playing and need the services of a studio. Others are missing the sense of community and the kind of assistance they get from a staff and the interaction they get with other musicians by being in a studio environment. We’ve been having fun here for 45 years, so we’re going to keep on with it!” Studio C Construction Documentary
Video: Studio C Construction Documentary