Billy Stull Remembers Recording Genius Norman Petty

More than 20 #1 hits seeped out of the doors at Norman Petty’s 1313 W. 7th Street studio in Clovis, New Mexico, but it was the big, warm and clear sound that defined Petty’s producing and made him a hugely influential figure in the history of recording.

Although Jimmy Glimer and the Fireballs, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, and Charlie Phillips were among the many successful artists who cut tracks at Norman Petty’s original studio, Petty is best known for producing and recording Buddy Holly and the Crickets. We had a chance to sit down with one of Petty's proteges, Billy Stull, to talk through what he remembers about Petty's signature producing style and his time recording Buddy Holly.

A Studio Born

Billy Stull first crossed paths with Petty in 1962, when the producer recorded Stull’s high school band. Petty charged the youngsters $75 for that first session but quickly determined that they should be clients of a different type.

“Norman signed my band to a five-year contract. We started by recording some instrumentals which he placed in Europe,” says Stull. “Later, we did a vocal piece that he placed with Atlantic/Atco Records. Norman was the producer, the recording engineer, and the A&R guy. He was the guy who would go get you a deal and collect the money – he was a one-man operation.”

Stull also played guitar on countless sessions for Petty, while simultaneously honing his engineering chops under Petty’s guidance. After Petty’s death in 1984, Stull spent eight years operating Norman Petty Studios.

He used to say that 'creativity doesn’t come by the hour,' and he didn’t like to go into studios and only get three hours to record a song.”

Petty’s original studio (he relocated to the much larger Mesa Theater building in the late ’60s) was housed in what was formerly a family grocery store, situated next to his father’s car repair shop. “Norman originally built the studio for his trio to use,” says Stull. “He used to say that 'creativity doesn’t come by the hour,' and he didn’t like to go into studios and only get three hours to record a song, which was how it was back then.”

Stull continued, “Once the word got out that there was a professional studio in Clovis, however, people started coming from all around. One weekend, Norman cut some sides for two guys named Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen. They couldn’t afford to record more than one song each, so they put out ‘Party Doll’ and ‘I’m Stickin’ With You’ on the same disc. When that single sold a million copies, Norman saw that and decided to produce other artists besides his trio.”

The Gear of Norman Petty’s Studio

Petty in his Clovis studio

The gear in Petty’s Clovis studio was in a continual state of flux. At the time that Buddy Holly was recording there, the main mixer was a tube-powered, 8-channel Altec radio station console with only volume knobs and no EQ. All of the recordings were in mono. Petty’s first recorder was an Ampex 401, followed by an Ampex 300, both of which recorded mono to 1/4” tape.

“He did tune his studio, though,” says Stull. “He had some curved panels placed on the walls for sound treatment, and they tuned each panel to a different frequency to keep those frequencies from resonating. I’ve never seen that done anywhere else. He didn’t use any baffles or anything between the mics, however, and because he put mics close to the sources, he didn’t capture much of the room sound.”

When asked about microphones, Stull says that Petty didn’t use many during that early period and didn’t have much in the way of EQ. “If he wasn’t getting the sound he was after, he would just move the mic around or choose a different one. His main microphone was a tube Neumann U47 that he used to get those amazing vocal sounds. I believe he actually went to the Neumann factory in Germany and picked that microphone by ear.”

Petty’s Echo Chamber

Another thing that contributed to the “Clovis Sound” wasn’t actually in the studio at all. “Norman built an echo chamber in the A-frame attic of his father’s garage next door,” says Stull. “Buddy Holly’s family was in the tile business and they took a bunch of scrap ceramic tile and put pieces all over the attic, which was about 100’ long and 50’ wide, to create reflective surfaces. On one side, Norman placed an old speaker in a wooden case that looked like the sort of speaker used in schools to make announcements, and on the other side he had a microphone. He also had some big pieces of sewer tile standing up in there, which the sound would hit and curve around to break up any standing waves. He would send the sound from his studio all the way over to that attic and then the microphone would pick it up and that sound would be sent back to the studio."

The echo chamber can be heard on all of the recordings Holly made at the Clovis studio, though it is particularly evident on “Peggy Sue” due to a clever production move by Petty.

The chord solo during “Peggy Sue” also presented a challenge – one that Petty couldn’t solve with creative engineering."

“Norman only used one microphone on the drums. On the intro to [Peggy Sue], you hear the drummer playing a paradiddle on a tom as Norman switches the echo on and off every two beats, from dry to wet,“ says Stull. Another nice touch was putting a mic close to the strings of Holly’s electric guitar to pick up the unamplified acoustic sound of the pick strumming the strings, which was blended with the slightly muffled sound of the amplified rhythm guitar.”

The chord solo during “Peggy Sue” also presented a challenge – one that Petty couldn’t solve with creative engineering. “When it came time to play that louder and much brighter rhythm solo, Buddy needed to change from the darker pickup setting to the treble pickup setting,” explains Stull. “But he couldn’t do it and play at the same time, so fellow Cricket Niki Sullivan knelt next to him and reached up to switch the guitar from one setting to another.”

Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” and “Crickets”

The recording of “Every Day” provides another instance of Petty’s spontaneous creativity. “They were working up the song in the studio and [the drummer] Jerry Alison just started slapping out a rhythm on his Levis,” says Stull. “Norman heard that and said, ‘Hey, that’s what we’re going to do right there. We’re not going to use any drums.’ So the song is just that sound, a little keyboard called a celeste that Norman had brought back from Europe, the upright bass, and Buddy’s acoustic guitar and voice. So Norman was always looking for something different and unusual.”

One of the best “Crickets” stories, however, involves an actual insect. “While they were recording ‘I’m Going to Love You Too,’ there was a cricket in the echo chamber that was chirping. It got on the tape and could be heard at the end of the song,” says Stull. “The band was upset that a cricket’s chirp had spoiled their perfect take. But Norman thought the cricket take was great and decided to keep it the way it was."

The band was upset that a cricket’s chirp had spoiled their perfect take. But Norman thought the cricket take was great and decided to keep it the way it was."

Stull himself has achieved many successes throughout his long recording career. He developed the Masterpiece Analog Mastering System with audio engineering icon Rupert Neve, collaborated with Sonic Studio on the ICE audio restoration plug-in, and founded Masterpiece Mastering.

He traces all of his successes back to his initial encounter with Petty. “Norman gave me the recording bug,” he says fondly. “I remember standing in a tiny control room when I was about 17, listening to music being played back really loud on Norman’s Altec 604 speakers, and thinking that it was the best thing I’d ever experienced in my life.”

About the Author:

Barry Cleveland
Barry Cleveland

Barry Cleveland is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist, author, guitarist, and composer. He was an editor at Guitar Player magazine for 12 years and at Mix and Electronic Musician magazines before that. His book, Joe Meek's Bold Techniques is a cult classic, and he also contributed to Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin. He has released five albums, as well as composing music for film, television, and video games

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