Fifty years ago, Wayne Moss created a studio in his Nashville garage. And while big‑money, purpose‑built complexes have come and gone, Cinderella Sound still thrives today.
If you heard that a studio's client list included Linda Ronstadt, the Steve Miller Band, Tony Joe White, Kiss, Chet Atkins, the Whites (of Brother Where Art Thou fame), Billy Swan and Memphis Slim, you'd probably assume it was a slick, purpose‑built facility somewhere in America.
Well, you'd be right about America, but wrong about virtually everything else. The studio in question is in fact Cinderella Sound, tucked away in a hard‑to‑find, semi‑rural, residential area on the outskirts of Nashville, full of clapperboard houses with open porches. Housed in what was originally a two‑car garage, with a vocal booth in a minuscule bathroom converted from a coal cellar, Cinderella couldn't be in starker contrast to the corporate, office‑block‑style studios of Nashville's Music Row.
Nashville's oldest surviving independent studio, Cinderella was started in 1961 by virtuoso guitarist Wayne Moss, whose impressive session credits include Roy Orbison's 'Pretty Woman' and Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde album (the distinctive jangle guitar line on 'I Want You' is his), amongst many others. This is also the studio where Moss's group Area Code 615 cut 'Stone Fox Chase', the harmonica‑driven number most famous as the theme to the BBC's The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Walking through the tiny control room, you arrive at the shag‑pile‑carpeted Studio B, which is just slightly smaller than a bedroom in a 1930s semi-detached house. Passing the bathroom/vocal booth used by Linda Ronstadt, you walk into the similarly small Studio C. (There is no Studio A, as Moss says he's never seen a Studio A "that had any soul. Elvis had the choice of RCA's A or B. He chose B, you know?”)
But whilst the rooms may be small, they're also crammed with historic (and still fully functioning) equipment, such as the custom‑built Flickinger console — one of only a handful that survive of a design famously used by the likes of Sly Stone and Ike Turner, and, more recently, the Kills. There are also original RCA 44 microphones from the 1930s, the Gibson amp Moss played through on 'Pretty Woman', and a Yamaha grand piano once used by Ray Charles, not to mention a cornucopia of miscellaneous equipment, from cowbells and washboards to a Hammond organ.
But it's not all vintage equipment: Cinderella Sound is still a fully functioning commercial studio, despite having no web site nor even being listed in the phone book. Consequently, Moss also uses an Alesis HD24 digital multitracker and an Apple Mac, on which he will shortly be installing Pro Tools.
When Moss first started Cinderella Sound, he was playing guitar with his lifelong friend and similarly virtuoso multi‑instrumentalist session musician Charlie McCoy. The group had been running their own local nightclub, the Sack, hosting guest performances from the likes of Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers, most of whom the group backed. When the nightclub folded, they decided to make use of the equipment they had acquired and set up a studio in Moss's suburban garage.
They started to cut folk instrumentals and demos on a mono, two‑track machine and as Moss — now a trim 73‑year‑old with shoulder‑length, straight white hair and an arid wit — explains, "There was no overdubs, no punch‑ins, no anything. It was straight 'What you see is what you get.'” The pick light that illuminates when recording starts and the burlap lining the ceiling in the studios both came from the nightclub and the group, as did a Steinway piano presented to them as a gift by a local record label chief.
Through their session work, both Moss and McCoy had already begun to pick up a certain amount of technical know‑how when it came to recording. "We built all the baffles and put rollers on them and stuff, 'cause we saw where mistakes had been made in other studios,” remembers Moss.
In order to get the tight sound they had achieved in the other studios, Moss realised the importance of having the rhythm section in close proximity to each other. "This setup here,” Moss tells me, indicating a small triangular space, "bass player was here, drummer was here and piano was here — that's the same way it was at Columbia B and pretty similar to the way it was at RCA B, which were the best‑sounding rooms. I stole ideas from here and from there, and I would pick the brains of all the engineers in town and say 'Why do you use that mic on this?' and they'd say 'Well, because it'll take a lot of volume without breaking up,' or 'Because you can hear your hair growing with it,' or whatever, so I gained a lot of knowledge from Bill Vandevort, Bill Porter [both at RCA], Selby Coffeen [the legendary Nashville engineer whose credits include Patsy Cline's 'Crazy'] — different ones.”
Moss and McCoy also gleaned valuable tips from engineers at other studios, including Chess in Chicago, particularly in terms of which mics they used and how. "I wanted to get that Chess, Checker and Argo sound, and so this is what they used,” he says, pointing to an Electro‑voice OA16 mike. Also, this [an Altec] was on the snare, so I went out and got one just like it.”
There were, however, some aspects of the Chess setup that Moss was less keen to replicate. "When we were at Chess Records, I'd say 'Where are the mics in the piano?' and they'd say 'Well, we have to tear 'em down after every session.' 'How come?' 'Because people will steal them.' 'Well why don't you not use those people?'” he laughs. "Mine are inside the piano and they stay there. The Leslie up here has microphones that are permanent. They stay there, so when you flip the switch you're gonna get a Leslie.”
The historic RCA 44 ribbon microphones, meanwhile, came out of Castle Studios — Nashville's first recording studio, which was started in the late 1940s.
The adjoining Studio C, with its bare stone floors and rugs, is still recognisably a garage, albeit one crammed with cabinets and more equipment, including a special convection oven for 'baking' brittle old tape and a Sonor drum kit. "This room is very live,” explains Moss. "If you really want live you pull the rug up. All these slick walls in here, all these cabinets and everything, make it sound huge. And so once again we got two of these $8000 mics [the RCA 77s] that pick up the cymbals and stuff.”
But in such a residential area, isn't this likely to cause problems with the neighbours, particularly with sessions at three in the morning? "No,” says Moss. First of all, there's about eight inches of foam and thick brick in the walls to stop the sound filtering in, and secondly, as Moss explains matter‑of‑factly, "I just bought out the neighbours. No problem.”
Although Moss initially engineered sessions at Cinderella himself, he did eventually draft in some technical support, in the shape of Neil Wilburn, who was, at this point, merely a local electrical technician, but later became one of Columbia Records' top studio engineers, working on classic albums such as Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline and Leonard Cohen's Songs From A Room. "Before he came here,” remembers Moss, "he sold resistors and stuff at a place out in the West End. And I asked him 'Please come and be my engineer and fix stuff when it's broken.' He said 'I don't know anything about music.' I said 'You don't have to. Just know how to fix stuff when they break.'”
By the mid‑'60s, Moss had progressed to a four‑track recorder and Cinderella was swiftly gaining a reputation for cutting records with breadth and depth that belied the size and homeliness of his studio setup. "We liked to double things a lot,” Moss explains. "Chet Atkins called me one day and said 'What kind of phaser do you use?' I said 'I don't use a phaser.' 'Well, how do you get that big sound?' I said 'I double it.' And he was amazed by this. He said 'I notice that when somebody's using a phaser and you slip into mono it disappears in the centre. Yours doesn't do that. How come?' I said 'Because it's not a phaser. It's this guitar and this guitar. They're different, but they're playing the same thing.'
"It's harder than it sounds, though. You take the first track, play it back, play with it and put it on another track. Put one on the left, one on the right and they'll vary from each other ever so slightly, enough to sound like an electronic phaser, which it wasn't. If you play exactly the same thing, you're gonna have enough variations so it's gonna sound like it's phasing or doing something, 'cause you're never gonna play it exactly the same. There are people that never play the same thing twice. They don't know how, or they can't, or they have no interest in it, so that's not for them.”
Rather than just getting a large sound for the sake of it, Moss was also consciously trying to stretch the limits of what was possible within a relatively small setup. "Back in the day when the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper came out,” he explains, "it just blew everybody's mind because it was so elaborate but they did it on four tracks. So we were trying to prove the same thing over here.”
Cinderella subsequently acquired an eight‑track, and Moss's ability to create big sounds also extended to replicating convincing string sections. Although there were times when he did indeed have up to 13 string players in the studios, and some eight horns, he was also adept at building a more than plausible sound with many fewer musicians. He had used the effect with particular success on 'Stone Fox Chase', and the sound had impressed the Nashville singer Alex Harvey (not to be confused with the Scotsman of the same name), who came to Cinderella in 1971. "He came in here,” remembers Moss, "and he cut a wonderful record called 'To Make My Life Beautiful'. He said he was gonna go to lunch and he wanted me to put on some of those fuzzy string things 'Like you guys do on that Area Code stuff, you know?' So when he came back, I had, like, a 12‑piece string section done, and he said 'Wow!' He was impressed and so was I.
"We call it the Goodlettsville sextet [Goodlettsville being the broader surrounding area of Nashville]. Newbury [cult singer‑songwriter Mickey] chose to call it 'the Nashville harmonic', but it would consist of various instruments. One of them would be Buddy Spiker playing one fiddle, and then the steel, electric guitar, another electric guitar, organ, whatever, playing the different parts to simulate a string section. But a lot of it was run through fuzztones and stuff to make it sound like a fiddle or a violin, and so if you put that on enough times — and we did, we doubled it and stuff — it sounds huge.”
Today, Moss still often uses the doubling technique, but he also has contemporary tools including a Korg synthesizer with the usual selection of strings, horns and so on. But even when using this, Moss often tends to combine it with his secret weapon: Ray Charles's Yamaha grand, which sits directly beside it. "You can do stuff with this, you know?” says Moss, pointing at the Korg. "Layer things, have a piano behind it playing the same thing. A lot of people have those, but they don't all have this,” he says, pointing at the seven-foot Yamaha and playing a bass chord.
Like most of the equipment at Cinderella, there's a story behind the piano, which Moss acquired in 1970 after Ray Charles had played it on the long‑running American country music TV show Hee Haw. When Charles arrived to rehearse at the TV studios, he was presented with a five‑foot‑two Yamaha grand, but according to Moss, after playing a few low notes, Charles complained that "It ain't big enough. Get me another one.” The larger seven‑foot‑four model was duly delivered, but the effort of having to shift two mightily heavy pianos, not once but twice, apparently aggrieved the piano movers so much that after Charles had used it on the show, it mysteriously got scratched in the move. The 'accident' worked to Moss's advantage: "They put a scratch on the side of this one taking it out of there, and knocked a thousand dollars off of it. They should have added a thousand because Ray Charles played it, but I ended up with it and it's the best‑sounding piano in Nashville. It's the brightest piano in Nashville, and bright's what you need for recording. You can always add bottom, but you can't add bright if it isn't there.
"All pianos sound good up here,” he adds, playing a few higher-register notes, "but it takes seven feet to do that,” playing some still higher ones, which sound amazingly bright. "People lacquer the hammers to make 'em bright. This one came bright. It doesn't have lacquer. It had a cup of coffee in it once, but nothin' else.”
By the end of the '60s, Cinderella had progressed from an eight‑track to a 16‑track recorder, and eventually to a custom‑built 24‑channel Flickinger console. "When we got our 24,” explains Moss, "there was only two other studios in Nashville had those. So if you wanted to get a funky sound, this was the place to come. And as a result, we had everyone from Tony Joe White to Billy Swann.”
Artists were also drawn to the exceptional musicianship of the Cinderella house band: essentially Moss, McCoy and drummer Kenny Buttrey. Steve Miller was a case in point. "[Miller] was crazy about McCoy's harp playing,” remembers Moss, who played bass on various recordings Miller made at Cinderella, including 'Going To The Country' from the hit 1970 album Number Five. "And he knew I understood what a guitar was supposed to sound like, so he played guitar and I played bass. I even had a remote out here where I could start and stop the machine and not have any engineer at all. Just preset things. I would say 'Charlie, play me some bass,' and then we'd get level, and so we'd go out here and the tape machine would roll in the other room. And he had an Echoplex that he liked to play with a lot and run things and loop 'em. Fly Like An Eagle [Miller's platinum selling 1976 album] has got that all over it.”
When it came to recording his vocals, Miller was surprisingly insecure, and very much appreciated the flexibility and freedom of Cinderella. "Steve Miller said 'I wanna do my vocals now, so why don't you just go have lunch or something, because I might hit a bad note and I'll be embarrassed.' I said 'Give me a break, man. You've sold so many millions of records. How could you not like your own voice?' He said 'Well, I'm not really a great singer, and I don't mind making a flub as long as there's nobody here but me.' I said 'Fine, I'll go eat lunch. See you in an hour.' So he sat out here in the control room with a mic and put on his own vocals to 'Going To The Country' and some of that stuff. He had reference vocals that we followed, but his keeper vocals, a lot of them he did by himself — started and stopped his own machine.”
Since the '70s, technology has obviously moved on, and although the Flickinger console is still very much part of the Cinderella sound, Moss has made some concessions to new developments, including an Alesis HD24 hard‑disk recorder. That doesn't mean that he likes them, though. "Now we have 24‑track analogue or digital,” says Moss, "and we got a Pro Tools rig coming in this month for those who like Pro Tools. I like to refer to them as 'slow tools', because you could spend a month in here trying to get a remix on one song if you want every note exactly right and every backbeat to be the same and tempo not to vary. But to me that takes out a whole lot of the soul of the thing. And if the vocals need pitch correction, then it's because they didn't sing it well. We got an eraser for that. Redo it!”
Despite the studio's low profile, Cinderella continues to draw a steady list of artists aware of the its reputation. It may be Nashville's oldest surviving independent studio, and almost certainly its most idiosyncratic, but it is that very freedom from the streamlined major studio aesthetic, combined with the calibre of the sound Moss has created over the years, which is the secret of its ongoing success.
"We're not even in the phone book, you know? It's Nashville's oldest working studio and it's never been in the phone book. So unless you know somebody that knows somebody, you can't even get in here. But Steve Miller did and Ronstadt did and Leo Kottke did and a lot of folks. So we've had the business, despite the fact that you can't even find us, you know? You can't Google us or anything else, therefore there's not a Gray Line bus tour coming through here every day saying 'Is that Johnny Cash in here? I wanna get his autograph.' That drives artists crazy. And Steve Miller didn't want anybody in the studio that wasn't hired to play on it, and that's what he got. He wanted to engineer his own vocals? Fine, go ahead. You know? So we try to bend in whatever direction the artist wants and we've had a lot of people in here over the years.”
So how much longer does Moss plan to continue? "I'm 73 now,” says Moss, "and still kicking like a mule, and we're putting out new product all the time. I tried retiring at 30, 40, 50 and 60, and I just said 'I don't guess I'll ever retire!'”
"The best-sounding mixing desks ever made” is how engineer Steve Albini once described the legendary Flickinger console. In 2005, the Kills, similarly enamoured of the '60s desks, tracked down Sly Stone's model to the outskirts of Chicago and recorded an album with it.
When the desks were first built in the late '60s and early '70s, they were hugely advanced for their day, and soon became the board of choice for many of the top artists of the time including Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Sly Stone and Funkadelic, as well as the studios at Muscle Shoals and Motown. And, indeed, Cinderella Sound. Wayne Moss's console was custom‑built for him by pioneering engineer Daniel Flickinger himself, and is now the last console of its kind left in Nashville, and one of only a handful still remaining worldwide.
"Flickinger was way ahead of his time,” explains Moss. "I told Mr Flickinger: 'I have a 16‑track machine but I want 20 inputs.' He said 'No you don't. You want 24 inputs. I'll charge you the same thing for a 20 as I do for a 24 but I'll build you a 24.' "Also, he said 'This patchbay has a [tape] machine A and a machine B in it.' I said 'Well, I don't have a machine B.' He said 'You will have. Hush.' So he built it, and sure enough, that's where my HD24 plugs up now! But he knew that back in the '70s.”
With what was effectively the first 'in‑line' recording console, Flickinger also invented and developed now widely used devices such as remote‑controlled gain and the concept of 'audio control surface', as well as pioneering the development of modular bar‑graph illuminated metering, aka 'Level Lites'. Similarly advanced was the EQ system on the consoles. "Say you got a bass player,” explains Moss, "and he has one note that's sticking out. The EQ on these things is three‑band EQ, and there are continuous controls like a wah‑wah pedal would have. It has plus or minus 15dB. So you turn it up to +15 and you take the frequency and you look for that note that sticks out and you find it, and then you minus it 15dB and all of a sudden that note's not too loud anymore. That makes a lot more sense than equalisation things that go up in notches. It might be in between two of those notches, but if it's continuously variable you can get any frequency you want from below to above your hearing range. And plus or minus it 15dB. All the echo is phantom echo — it's not really on the tape. And that's helpful because you might get too much if you put it on there to begin with and you can't take it off. So every playback you have has echo on it, but it's not really on the tape. Flickinger had all this figured out a long time ago.”
As a guitarist, Moss also had his own more specific requirements for the desk. "All the other boards,” continues Moss, "had these assigned buttons over here,” he says, pointing to the right. "I said 'I want mine on the left.' He said 'Why?' I said 'I don't wanna break these fingernails. I want to be able to hit this and not break anything. These are short.' So he made it backwards.”
Ike Turner was likewise so taken with the consoles that he bought two for his studio in Las Vegas. Not, however, without his own custom‑built preferences. "He liked to have each module be a different colour,” explains Moss. "He'd put a black [ultraviolet] light on it, so the drum's be red and the vocals'd be green or whatever, so you could get right at it real quick if you had to turn something up or down, 'cause you knew the colour.”
"Here's Ike Turner's module up here,” he says, pointing at a white module. "That studio mysteriously burnt down one night, and I have the white module out of it. It looks clear until you put it under a black light, and then it's white.”
But it's the sound of the desk which Moss really admires. "His consoles had op‑amps,” says Moss, "and they've got a lot of components in them that do the same thing, only better, than what a computer chip will now do — but the sound is completely different. One's warm and the other's very sterile. So this console heats up warm and it sounds like you're right there, you know?”