Every once in a while, someone will ask me why I tote such big clunky headphones around with my iPod. My standard response has been to ask them to plug into my player with their earbuds and select a track of choice. After a moment or two, I ask them to pause the track, switch to my headphones, and press play. The musical experience might be mostly digital these days, but good sound is still good sound.
Curiously though, when I think about good sound, I seldom think about its creation. However, after watching a new documentary by Dave Grohl, I’m unlikely to forget anytime soon.
In 1970, a music studio opened its doors in Van Nuys, California: It was named Sound City. It didn’t look like much from the outside, and looked even more unspectacular inside. However, the studio had a secret weapon: a Neve 8028 Console (translation: big fancy mixing board) that cost double the price of a mid-size home when it was bought. The massive mixing board, with its hundreds of knobs and dials looked like it would be at home on the bridge of The Starship Enterprise. The rarity of this console would have made this unspectacular space attractive on its own.
However, besides just the fancy gear, the studio had another arrow in its quiver. The space that was designated as Studio A came with some amazing acoustics, especially effective for capturing great drumming tracks. Nobody specifically designed the space to offer these results, and to look around the room, it’s difficult to tell just what makes the magic happen. Nevertheless, the proof was in the pudding as touchstone albums like “After the Gold Rush, “Rumours”, “Damn the Torpedoes” and “Nevermind” were all born in this unassuming space.
Two years after it finally closed its doors, Dave Grohl has stepped up to tell its story.
For any music fan, SOUND CITY will be a fun watch. I was a little bit nervous that I had signed on for 100 minutes of audio nerds geeking out over their gear, but that’s not what the film is about. This film is a testament to the factory floor for some of the greatest records in rock history. In just over forty years, this was the scene of the crime for rock & roll debauchery, infighting, successes, failures…and that was just on the record Barry Manilow recorded there (I kid). The joy of the film is listening to legends like Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, and even Grohl himself discuss all the pleasures and pains Sound City brought them as they made such amazing music.
The film is handsome, well-paced and well-cut…so much so that I’m left to wonder whether Grohl has been playing possum with his directorial skills, or whether someone else did a lot of the heavy-lifting. Much of its visual aesthetic is made up of old photos, some archival footage, and some very famous talking heads. However, as the old joke goes: How many sound engineers does it take to screw in a light bulb? (Answer: “What’s a light bulb?”). The film sounds glorious, which of course is key when you’re trying to sell your audience on the lush audio experience one particular spot enabled.
If nothing else, SOUND CITY is worth a go just to soak up the best 100 minute playlist you’re likely to hear.
Towards the end of its second act, SOUND CITY turns into a requiem for the organic, analogue process of recording music. The Pro Tools software system is basically handed its red letter “A”, and all of the famous faces we’ve just spent an hour getting to know start to grumble about digital music like crotchety seniors sitting on their porch. Everyone from Neil Young to Grohl himself sing the praises of the talent and sonics that a studio offers artists, and bemoans the fact that those qualities are quickly becoming extinct. Perhaps the finest point is raised by a virtuoso of digital music: Trent Reznor.
Reznor points out that digital recording has leveled the playing field and taken out many of the costs involved with creating a great record. He the goes on to point out, that even with that parity, we didn’t see a landslide of great records in the digital age.
Unfortunately, the documentary bails out before it really makes its point understood. The loss of Sound City (and other studios like it) isn’t broadened into a debate about what the effects will be going forward…and it so easily could have been. With Grohl having purchased that massive Neve mixing board, a side-by-side comparison would have been easy to achieve. Want to really drive home the point that music isn’t getting its due? Record something into a laptop, and then record the same piece using all those bells and whistles you’ve been pining over. Play us the results. Odds are we will hear it, Dave.
The film’s finale documents the gathering of Nirvana’s surviving members to record a track with Sir Paul McCartney. As all involved become more and more pleased with the results, and how well everything comes together, a wonderful off-handed exchange happens between Grohl and McCartney.
Grohl wonders aloud “Why can’t it always be this easy?”. Without missing a beat, McCartney answers that “It is.”
One can’t help but feel that in a small way McCartney has just undermined the story Grohl has spent 99 minutes telling. I don’t think McCartney was trying to boast; to say “Anytime I step into a studio, it all comes easily”. I think that McCartney is saying that such results are achievable just by flipping a switch and picking up an instrument. It’s pointed out that nobody at Sound City specifically designed the place to give the results that it did…there was just a string of magic captured by the artists who stepped inside.
As handsome as SOUND CITY looks, and as much fun as it is to listen to those wonderful songs, one can’t help but wonder: Years from now, will those looking back even care about the stage…or the singers that stood upon it?