When you think of where some of rock’s greatest and most memorable albums were recorded, the chances are that Sound City is not what you have in mind.
Located in a run-down neighborhood in Van Nuys California, Sound City’s dilapidated appearance looks better suited to the production of meth, not music.
This is the story that Foo Fighter’s front-man and first-time director, Dave Grohl, sets out to tell about this unlikely rock landmark that changed the face – and more specifically, the sound – of music.
And Grohl would know, as Sound City is where Nirvana recorded their seminal album, Nevermind, before it exploded onto the scene and transformed the rock landscape forever.
“This Place is a Dump.”
Sound City opened its doors in 1969 to an inauspicious beginning. It was not until 1975, when Fleetwood Mac recorded their heavily praised self-titled album there (a serendipitous and well-documented story in the movie), that the tiny studio landed on the rock map and began attracting artists who wanted to come and record there.
Overwhelmingly throughout the documentary, artists’ recollection of their first impression of the studio was that it was a complete dump, many nearly refusing to record there as a result.
However, what Sound City lacked in polish, flash or even clean furniture, it more than made up for with something that no other studio at the time had.
The Neve Console
The Neve console was designed and manufactured by Neve Electronics for high-end recording studios during the 1970s and was the last of the “80 series” hand-wired analog mixing consoles.
It was a custom-built beast that could record and produce a unique and organic sound that could not be replicated by other studios. It was this sound that attracted artists like Tom Petty, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, REO Speedwagon, Metallica, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, The Arctic Monkeys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fleetwood Mac and even Barry Manilow (go figure).
The Neve console features prominently in the telling of Sound City’s story, as it was also the catalyst for the creation of the film. When Grohl learned that the famed studio would be closing its doors, he purchased the console to ensure its place in rock history and installed it in his home studio.
Which leads me to one of my favorite parts of the film.
After Grohl dismantled, moved, cleaned (not an easy task according to Dave) and reassembled the famed Neve console, he invited back many of the artists whose careers launched at Sound City.
The result was one of my favorite sections of the film, as the likes of Trent Reznor, Stevie Nicks, Josh Homme, Paul McCartney and Rick Springfield tried to recreate the sound and vibe of the famed studio by recording the film’s soundtrack.
I particularly loved this part of the film because I find it amazingly inspirational to see the creative and collaborative process between genuinely talented musicians. Just the portion between Reznor, Homme, and Grohl is a reminder of what real artists are, and quite frankly made me resent the manufactured, auto-tuned and over-produced-pop crap that passes as “music” today.
Later, you are treated to Paul McCartney (whom I have never been much a fan of during his post Beatles / Wings career), but I developed a new-found appreciation for him after this documentary. Again, witnessing the collaborative nature of real musicians is a sight to see, and hear.
Which leads me to my next topic.
Digital Killed The Analog Star
One of the primary reasons that Sound City eventually went under was due in large part to the introduction of digital recording and audio editing programs such as Pro Tools.
Nowhere in the film does Grohl levy an indictment against digital recording (nor is it my intent to do so in this review), but instead makes the point that because of it, the music industry is unlikely to see another Sound City emerge or thrive again.
In a time when you can easily record, manipulate and produce music from your bedroom, the days of artists creating a genuinely organic musical experience in the studio is quickly dwindling. In fact, it is my opinion that Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters are one of the only bands remaining who proudly carries and waves the ‘rock banner’ above a sea of mediocre and short-lived musical acts that no one will remember in 10 years.
At the beginning of the documentary, you learn to appreciate the inherent challenges (and benefits) of recording on tape. Many artists had to play straight through a song, even if it meant dozens of takes to get it right and match the sound since editing in those days is not what it is today.
Nowadays, you can record an entire album without having any band members present. Each member can come in, record their parts and call it a day since it can all be mixed later or “fixed” in post-production. This disconnect and dependence on technology are what the film laments and is what Sound City was able to provide.
Every artist featured in the film remarked about the unique sound that the space at Sound City produced, especially for drums and vocals, one that they were never able to replicate at another studio. This space, coupled with the Neve console and the audio engineers who ran it over the years, is what combined to produce some of the most memorable recordings in history.
I venture to guess that what was considered a unique sound at Sound City, would be filtered, flattened or processed out by something like Pro Tools today.
Please visit the Sound City website for additional viewing and purchase options.