"It all started with this idea that I wanted to tell the story of the (Neve) sound board. The conversation became something much bigger. In this age of technology where you can simulate and manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element? How do we keep music to sound like people?" Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, endless side-projects and former drummer with Nirvana, has added film directing to his repertoire with a fascinating rockumentary about Sound City studio in California
The studio is famous for its amazing drum sound, for its huge range of former classic artists, including Nirvana who recorded 'Nevermind' there in 1991, and its legendary custom-built Neve 8028 recording console.
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The DVD tells the story of Sound City studio from 1969 up to its 2011 closure,and the subsequent purchase of the Neve console by Grohl for his home studio. What follows is an insight into the recording of the 'Sound City – Real to Reel' album in Grohl's studio using the Neve console and featuring artists including Josh Homme, Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks and Trent Reznor.
One of America's most seminal recording studios, Sound City, is renowned for its impossibly cool list of former artists, from Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young to Rick Springfield, Cheap Trick, NIN, Foreigner, Johnny Cash, RATM and evenSlipknot. In addition, in 1991, Nirvana recorded 'Nevermind' there and, as they say, the rest is history!
The film project was conceived by Grohl after purchasing the Neve console from Sound City Studios last year. The board, built in 1972, is considered by many to be the crown jewel of analogue recording equipment. It was also seen as the last bastion of a recording and producing craft which has been slowly eroded by digital technology.
Through interviews with the artists and producers that created decades of musical history at Sound City, the film showcases the amazing history of the studio. Starting out with Neil Young and then Buckingham Nicks, it's interesting to see the studio had no specific plan other than to be successful. It would have recorded anything, but they had the foresight to invest in the Neve console for – at the time – a staggering sum of $76,000.
The studio itself wasn't custom built; it was just a building which naturally just seemed to capture the perfect drum sound. And in the words of Rick Rubin: "Guitars sound pretty much the same everywhere, but drums change from room to room, and the sound at Sound City was among the best."
The studio's roster of artists is impressive but two albums in particular drove its success across two eras. Fleetwood Mac's first album with Buckingham and Nicks, 'Fleetwood Mac', and Nirvana's 'Nevermind'.
It was at Sound City where Mick Fleetwood heard Buckingham Nicks who had been recording there anddecided he needed them in his band. The album proved to be a breakthrough hit, reaching #1 in the US and giving Sound City the boost it needed to work with such an exceptional range of artists through the 70s and 80s. To put it in perspective, Tom Skeeter, Sound City owner from 1969-1992 reckons: "You listen to one of those stations which plays Rock 'n' Roll and seven or eight out of ten songs were recorded at Sound City!"
Grohl's personal connection to Sound City began with the 1991 recording of Nirvana's breakthrough album, 'Nevermind'. There's a great chapter around the recording of this album including interviews with Krist Novoselic and producer Butch Vig. The studio suited Nirvana perfectly because they wanted to capture their primal, sweaty performance feel. What's really interesting however is that while trying to capture the gentle subtlety of 'Something In The Way', producer Vig introduced the band to a very early version of Pro Tools. It's a reminder of just how much technology has changed the musical landscape ever since.
The success of 'Nevermind' was the catalyst for Sound City's continued success through the 1990's with artists such as RATM, RHCP and Kyuss. Brad Wilk, drummer with RATM and currently Black Sabbath, tells us they chose Sound City simply because: "Nevermind was recorded there!" Another musical highlight in this period was Rick Rubin's production of Johnny Cash's 'Unchained' album, using Tom Petty's band as the house band.
As time passed though, digital came to the fore. Sound City's analogue tape-based systems were seen as expensiveand over complicated, although the studio fought against the tide and artists such as Josh Homme who wanted to capture the live feel of his band specifically chose Sound City.
Trent Reznor adds some balance to the digital debate by explaining how he uses Pro Tools and computer software to enhance his sound and give him the flexibility to experiment. But what we see here from artists, producers, studio-owners is that the recording budgets of old aren't there anymore and that, in addition to the development of technology over time led to the decline and eventual closure of Sound City.
Real to Reel
With Grohl attributing the Neve board to his success with Nirvana, he returns to the studio to purchase it for his own studio, 606 with the aim of not just using the board, but actually making an album which reflects the history of the studio. The soundtrack to the film, 'Sound City: Real to Reel' is a mixed bag of styles, featuring not just artists from the studio's history, but also Grohl's hero, Sir Paul McCartney.
Having downloaded it digitally from Spotify, I'm not sure I'm getting the benefit of the old-fashioned studio recording sound quality, but it does sound fantastic.
While dealing heavily in nostalgia, this film cleverly works to illustrate not just how important the custom-built Neve console was for this specific studio, but how important this was to capturing and actually enhancing the real sound and feel of the instruments and bands. This intangible 'feel' is what seems to be missing from our modern digital product.
It is clear that in this fast-moving world, musicians and record companies have sacrificed engineering genius and craftsmanship for quicker laptop-based digital solutions. Music production has simply become a cheap commodity which anybody can access and market through their laptop and the internet.
The result is a trend towards 'quick fixes' and mixing techniques which make up for deficiencies in the recording and allow sub-standard product to sound acceptable.
John Fogerty sums up the change in recording craft neatly: "I heard some young guy in a band say 'you don't have to practice any more, you just slice it up in the computer and it comes out perfectly.'"
Where 'Sound City' is intelligent is that it isn't overly critical of digital techniques and it's certainly not a rage against the machine. It's a celebration of the history of a fantastic studio and an appreciation of the art of record production which, in the right circumstances and with the right equipment can capture the intangible human element.