Unwind — and Rewind — at These Historic Recording Studios

Tour these studios to see firsthand where electronics turned music into vinyl and vinyl into gold.

interior of Muscle Shoals

That great old song stuck in your head? You may never get rid of it — but on a recording-studio tour, you might be able to see where it originated.

Some classic facilities are long gone. Others, like London's Abbey Road Studios, of Beatles fame, are still working studios and not open to the public for visits or tours. But don't be disheartened — you can still check out other notable studios in these cities:

Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Some of music's most iconic performers recorded at Fame Studios, including blues legends (Etta James), old-school R&B greats (Arthur Alexander), soul stars (Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett), rock/pop stars (from Tommy Roe and the Osmonds to the Allman Brothers), and country royalty (Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire). Tours are available Monday–Saturday, no reservations necessary.

In the 1960s, Fame's house band, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, left and opened Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (MSSS) in nearby Sheffield, Alabama. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, this unassuming building along Jackson Highway is where famed musicians like the Rolling Stones, Traffic, Bob Seger, Cher, and others forged hits. MSSS is now a nonprofit and was recently restored to its '70s look. As of January 2017, the studio has reopened for tours and will soon resume recording.

Detroit, Michigan
The Motown/Tamla labels got America dancing in the streets in the 1960s and '70s with distinctive and polished crossover soul delivered by the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and others. Motown's cramped facilities, called Hitsville U.S.A., hosted songwriters, producers, arrangers, engineers, and top-notch singers and session players. 

Motown left for California in 1972, but the original hit factory has been preserved as the nonprofit Motown Museum. See artist memorabilia, Motown's famous Studio A (built in a garage!), and the upstairs apartment of founding entrepreneur Berry Gordy. Ford Motor Company and UAW-Ford recently donated $6 million toward a $50 million museum expansion that will include a performance venue and interactive activities. The museum is open Tuesday–Saturday and you can buy tickets online in advance of your visit.

exterior of the Hitsville USA studio in Detroit

Considered the birthplace of Motown, Hitsville U.S.A. is an iconic studio located on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.

Memphis, Tennessee
A small brick building on Union Avenue changed American pop in the mid-1950s. It's where Sam Phillips of Sun Studio found a young truck driver named Elvis Presley who could blend country blues and hillbilly music in a most peculiar way. Other notable artists who cut their teeth  — and records — at Sun Studio include Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.

Decades later, the 1,026-square-foot Sun Studio was declared a historic landmark and opened to the public for daytime tours and after-dark recording sessions. (U2 recorded some of its "Rattle and Hum" LP at Sun in 1987.) Visitors can take advantage of free shuttles between Sun Studio, Memphis' Beale Street entertainment area, and Elvis' Graceland estate.

Chanhassen, Minnesota
Prince Rogers Nelson — better known as music pioneer Prince — helped reshape the pop sound of the 1980s. But in his personal life, Prince was a homebody and spent much of his time at his compound, Paisley Park, in suburban Minneapolis. More than a home, Paisley Park was a "creative sanctuary" and state-of-the-art recording and production complex, complete with studios and a performance venue. Parts of his 1987 concert film "Sign O' the Times" were shot at this estate and many notable musicians recorded there, including Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Celine Dion, and R.E.M.

Prince always wanted Paisley Park to be like Elvis' Graceland — a resting place that the public could visit. After his passing in April 2016, Prince's ashes were placed in an urn on the grounds and tours began a few months later. Now visitors are able to see the studios, editing and rehearsal areas, the soundstage and concert hall, and Prince's private music club. Besides the general-admission self-guided tour, 100-minute VIP tours are available and include additional access to the estate as well as exclusive photo and recording opportunities. Or you can visit on Friday evenings to attend a DJ dance party at Prince's private club as part of the Paisley After Dark experience.

Monmouthshire, Wales, United Kingdom
Located in a quiet corner of southeastern Wales, Rockfield has played host to Rush, Dave Edmunds, Ace, Black Sabbath, Simple Minds, Coldplay, and Oasis, to name a few. Rockfield Studios, a former farmhouse, has a stunning pair of well-appointed recording setups. You may be familiar with one of the most popular recordings to come out of Rockfield: "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen.

To really soak up the atmosphere of this one-of-a-kind space, rent one of the studio's seven suites, which have Jacuzzi baths and a separate lounge and dining area. Your stay includes a private guided tour that explains how tunes are recorded — and tales about some celebs who've recorded here. The studios are just a short drive from the charming and scenic Wye Valley, noted for its native woodlands and wildlife. Great golfing and hiking are in the area, as well.

Kingston, Jamaica 
Reggae means Bob Marley and the Wailers — and Tuff Gong International, which doubled as Marley's home, was the go-to recording place for decades. Nowadays it's where Marley's widow transformed the residence into a memorabilia-filled Bob Marley Museum, Bob Marley Theatre, and Queen of Sheba Restaurant.

Tuff Gong —  one of the largest recording studios in the Caribbean — has since moved 20 minutes away, in downtown Kingston, and offers tours Monday–Saturday. The highly regarded studio has been used by such non-reggae artists as Snoop Dogg, Kenny Chesney, and Lauryn Hill. The museum and studio offer combo bus tours, which saves you the hassle of driving in congested Kingston. Chukka pairs with cruise lines to offer Zion Bus tours, which highlight reggae's cultural backstory. 

Freelance writer John Bordsen is the former travel editor of The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. The award-winning features journalist previously worked at newspapers and magazines in Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, and his home state of Wisconsin.

Images courtesy of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and Motown Museum

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