Sound City

Music geeks won't want to miss this inspiring documentary of musical legendry made by Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) detailing the history of the little music recording studio that could, California's Sound City.

Yes, it's true, it turns out Dave Grohl can make movies, too, and this debut is exceptional. Utilizing studio footage and interview commentary from many of the greatest rock musicians of our time, the film brings to life a golden era of music that is in many ways becoming a thing of the past. Although a strong message is presented about authenticity and the human element in music, the film decisively stops short of being preachy or tiresomely adherent to a bygone past. We can move forward into the new territory that is being pioneered in music recording, distribution, and listening, but a reasonable recommendation is to refrain from throwing out the baby with the bath water. Nine Inch Nails founder and great experimenter of digital technology, Trent Reznor, reveals by example in Sound City that digital recording need not be at odds with musical mastery.

So, how is this fabled past supposedly so different from the future of music? The Sound City recording studio serves as an exhibit. It was at first glance a cheap dump, the greats agree, but there was a special anomaly of the performance space being not acoustically great for recording, yet somehow yielding a perfect sound. Combined with this bit of magic, at the studio's heart was a unique piece of recording equipment that one might conjecture was ultimately the soul of the studio and that largely made possible the astonishing number of platinum records recorded there, as well as the skill and development of the musicians who utilized it. This was an analog Neve Console (or "board") hand built by electronics engineering guru Rupert Neve. I'm no expert, even though the movie made me feel like one afterward, but what sets it apart from especially most digital home recording systems of today is that, on top of being manually recorded onto reel to reel tape instead of translated into 1s and 0s in a computer, the studio performances are typically recorded live (meaning that the group plays together as they would on stage or in rehearsal) rather than with each piece recorded individually and then spliced together using digital technologies. More specifically, the Neve's resultant recording quality for the live performance is exceptional due to its comparatively large number of inputs for sound. The more inputs, the more performance detail is accurately captured. What all of this translated into was the necessity for all parties to highly develop their skill--the producers and the musicians.

Fans of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers may be amused to learn of their particularly humble beginnings and the subsequent whipping into shape that the Neve board necessitated for their work. One can't quite walk away without a sense that Sound City molded the musicians who recorded there into the highly skilled stars they went on to be. Some of the groups that recorded there over its lifetime of more than four decades include:

Although the same skill level is not necessarily a prerequisite for success in using today's revolutionary digital home recording software Pro Tools (which contributed directly to the closing of Sound City), it doesn't have to be that way. Today, up and coming musicians can not only be highly skilled, but now have the unprecedented ability to choose to skip the recording industry scene and, it may be argued, enjoy much greater artistic freedom. And don't worry--under Grohl's care, a piece of Sound City has found a way to live on in his own Studio 606.

You can check out the movie from the library, as well as the soundtrack featuring collaborative recordings (using the original Neve) of new songs performed by multiple artists who were a part of Sound City, including Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, Lee Ving, Joshua Homme, Brad Wilk, Corey Taylor, Rick Springfield, and of course, Dave Grohl. Visit the project's website to see the trailer, watch clips of interviews, purchase the movie, and more.

Written by KristinG on April 8, 2013

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