Dave Grohl’s Sound City Documentary – “How Do We Make Music Sound Like…PEOPLE?”

March 26, 2013

Opinion

When I was a kid I wasn’t what you’d call a music fan. I suppose I gravitated towards a few of the “radio hits” my parents were listening to at the time, but I definitely wouldn’t say I was a music-lover. In fact, everything about music kind of bugged me until I was about 14 years old when I discovered bands like Pearl Jam, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Soundgarden, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rage Against the Machine – to name a very few. I also feel it’s necessary to name a few bands I didn’t really appreciate at the time – bands like Nirvana, Oasis, and the Smashing Pumpkins.

There – now we’ve laid a foundation…

Before we go any further I should probably tell you that I’m thirty-four years old. soundcityThat’s not a particularly significant number I suppose, but relatively speaking it doesn’t lend me a ton of credibility while discussing the “good old days” in the music business. I do feel as though I’ve been around long enough to at least question some of the advances we’ve made musically over the past ten to fifteen years though, so damned if I’m not going to try.

When the bands I listed above were cutting their teeth the recording process was mostly analogue and the musicians followed a relatively simple process, at least by today’s standards. There were no computers lining the studio walls waiting to apply a healthy dose of pitch correction as needed, and the musicians were tasked with practicing their parts and getting them to tape with as much precision as possible.  Failure to do so resulted in multiple “takes” until the part was nailed. No matter how much practice went into their part though, there was always a human element to the music that to this day is a huge intangible – at least in my mind.

I’m not saying computers don’t have a place in music. In fact, many of the artists I enjoy (Moby, Thievery Corporation) wouldn’t be where they are today without the computer. Just ask Trent Reznor. But I often wonder in the world of rock music where mostly live musical instruments are used, what the effect is on the music. There are computer programs out there today (Pro Tools comes to mind) that can literally take a horrible performance, be it vocal or instrumental, and turn it into a #1 hit without a second thought. How else do you think people like Paris Hilton are putting out albums today?

I’ve wondered for a long time about the effect computers have had/are having on the music we consume today, so I was really excited to hear about the release of a documentary called Sound City. The film is directed by Dave Grohl of Nirvana & Foo Fighters fame, and it chronicles the story of a shitty crappy old studio in Los Angeles that was actually called Sound City. It was in this dark studio that some amazing music was created over the years by artists and bands like Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers…I could go on for another page. The point is, while technologically significant at the time, the artists at the studio were forced to play their parts with precision so everything could be recorded through Sound City’s infamous analogue mixing board called the NEVE 8028 – a $70,000 part at the time.

As the movie progresses, the band’s discuss the closing of Sound City and reminisce about their old mixing board recalling a warm, analogue sound that you just don’t find today with computers and digital recording. I found this portion of the movie to be of particular interest because while I believe a point can be made in favour of the “old way”, it’s important to realize that back in the day of the NEVE board, there were probably guys from Jimi Hendrix’ era saying “boy, music has gone to hell as of late”.

The point of the film is to showcase a place where some of the most incredible albums of the past 35-40 years were recorded, and how that place has pretty much been replaced by a couple of computers running some relatively inexpensive software. It’s an unfortunate story to be sure, but I’m still trying to figure out just HOW unfortunate. While I believe albums today are too loud and somewhat over produced in comparison to their Sound City counterparts, a small part of me appreciates the advancements that bring us electronic music too.

Maybe that’s why I was so happy to see the way in which Sound City ended – with a compromise of sorts.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the demise of the analog era, but this documentary and the latest Foo Fighters record (which was recorded on TAPE!) are helping me bridge the gap until I can make up my mind.

In the meantime, head over to Sound City’s website or check out the trailer below. Do you miss the analogue days?

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