Music's Crucial Element of Humanity: The Sound City Documentary
Sometimes when you think you’re done with something, a whole new dimension of the conversation slams you in your face. It’s like an episode of Seinfeld. And guess what, it happened to me.
Getting the Picture
If you read my blog last week on the resilience of vinyl, you may remember my analysis of the difference between analog and digital. Well, apparently Dave Grohl agrees with me, but for him, it's about more than sound quality. He takes things a step further to say that the quality of the music is better in an analog format, and you can see how he's come to that conclusion in the film he recently directed: Sound City.
For those of you who don’t know, Dave Grohl is known in the music world as the former drummer of Nirvana and present singer/guitarist for the Foo Fighers. And I know what you might be thinking, “What does a musician know about making a film?” But as it turns out, Mr. Grohl knows quite a bit about the music industry, and the sound studio from which the movie takes its name. It just so happens that when he was a member of Nirvana, he recorded one of the many platinum records that came out of Sound City, helping to revitalize the studio for a time. And now he’s back to immortalize it. I might hesitate to watch a Dave Grohl directed soap opera, but in this case, he’s showing us something he’s uniquely situated to tell us about. I’m not complaining at least.
But don’t think for a minute it was just Dave Grohl or Nirvana that put this place on the mpa. Have you ever heard of Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac? How about Rick Springfield, Neil Young, Cheap Trick, Kansas, Fear, Johnny Cash, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, or Queens of the Stone Age? Maybe you’re starting to get the picture.
So how did Sound City manage to attract all those legendary musicians? Well, the same way it lost all of its business: an analog recording system. But the reason this specific studio is remembered is thanks in large part to the Neve Console that was housed there. The interviews in the film with the previous owners of the facility, musicians, producers, and even the designer of the console are a testament to the special sound that comes from this carefully engineered and crafted recording console. For you champions of modern media, keep in mind that this device was invented before computers were a blip on the radar screen of the recording world.
However, the movie doesn’t just sing the praises of the sound captured by the Neve Console, it’s a celebration of the human element it promoted. The greatness of Sound City comes from the ability to record a great sound and the analog equipment that pushes the musicians to hone their craft, or as Frank Black puts it, the “happy accident” that becomes part of a song when people play together.
There’s a shared sense of discovery and excitement in seeing a song unfold. When it’s put together on an analog console, the musicians feed off each other, learn from each other, and innovate. Not only that, but musicians have a “feel” that translates into the music. Analog may not lend itself to being fixed or altered the way digital recordings can be, but it has personality and humanity.
For Your Entertainment
That’s what Dave Grohl has captured in Sound City: The personalities that have been captured in music over the years at a unique sound studio. Maybe this kind of recording is a thing of the past, but it’s clear that there are musicians like Dave Grohl who aren’t willing to let it go. I don’t know what the future of music is, but Sound City is at least a reminder of all the great music that’s already out there. Enjoy it.