Digital Killed the Sound City Studio Star

At first glance, you’d think a documentary about a defunct recording studio would have a hard time maintaining the interest of anyone other than a recording engineer for its entire 108-minute runtime. When I tell you that this documentary spends a great deal of those 108 minutes reverently reminiscing about the analog mixing console at the studio, it’s likely you’ll start wondering what insane, “analog forever”, diehard audiophile thought this subject would ever appeal to more than a dozen or so people. Frankly, it’s the sort of film you’d expect to find in the mosh-pit discount bins of DVDs and Blu-rays in the aisles of Walmart.

On the other hand, if you’re the Foo Fighters’ frontman, Dave Grohl, and you were the drummer for Nirvana when the band recorded the ground-breaking, career-making album, Nevermind, at this particular studio in 1991, you might feel differently. In fact, far from being a tweak-fest for audio geeks interested in microphones, cables, sliders, and knobs, Sound City is Grohl’s fascinating tribute to the legendary Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California and the near-mythical Neve 8028, a custom-built, analog mixing console that eventually winds up in Grohl’s own Studio 606. Actually, the film is much, much more than that…

From its beginning in 1969, the list of artists who recorded at Sound City until it closed in 2011 is astounding: Neil Young, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Johnny Cash, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Barry Manilow, Fleetwood Mac, South Park, Grateful Dead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lenny Kravitz, Evel Knievel(?), and Charles Manson(!). And that list barely scratches the surface of all the musicians who walked through the doors into Sound City’s beat up, dilapidated facilities – many of whom produced some of their best, most notable musical releases there.

While the film’s rapid-fire rundown of famous Sound City alumni at times feels more like a promo for an upcoming concert tour than a traditional documentary, the name-dropping does set the backdrop for the film’s main point – which, essentially, is summed up by Grohl when he says, “In this age of technology, where you can manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element?”

For a variety of reasons, Sound City Studios never embraced the digital audio revolution that has radically changed music in ways both good and bad. The studio continued to be tape-based, with cut-and-splice editing, while other studios began using computers and programs, such as Sound Tools and then Pro Tools, to do editing, sampling, and digital corrections. Grohl’s film points out that, without the digital crutches of programs like Auto-Tune, at Sound City musicians had to be musicians. Shivaun O’Brien, Sound City’s Studio Manager for 20 years, nails it when she comments that, “Sound City was a place real men went to make records.”

The ideal Sound City session involved putting the musicians together in the studio, letting them play, and capturing the resulting magic (on analog tape). It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always quick. (Nirvana took 16 days to complete Nevermind.) But, as Metallica’s Lars Ulrich says, “Chemistry is something that happens between people…” – and it’s the amazing artistic alchemical reactions that Sound City was so uniquely able to capture that is what Grohl is ultimately after when he acquires the Neve 8028 mixing console after Sound City goes out of business.

Although the inspiration for the documentary may have been the Neve 8028, for which Grohl felt such attachment, at some point, Grohl says, “The conversation became something much bigger. How do we keep music to sound like people?”

Far from being the archetypal, dispassionate documentary, Sound City is a film that captures the essence of real music – involving real musicians with real faults and real emotions – and somehow brings it to life on the screen (and speakers) in front of you. My 12-year-old daughter complained to me the other day that contemporary music lacked “passion”. Watch Sound City. It’ll give you a few clues as to why much of music today is so passionless – as well as how and why it doesn’t have to be that way. Be prepared, though, Grohl and cast don’t pull any punches; and Grohl is unabashedly opinionated. (He recently said in an interview with British music magazine, NME , that TV talent shows, such as American Idol and The X Factor, reduce music to the point that “everyone sounds like f*ing Christina Aquilera.”)

As far as I’m concerned, this is a “must see” film for anyone interested in music, how it’s made, how it sounds, or how to keep it real. If you’re lucky, you might still have a chance to see Sound City in a theater. If not, it’s absolutely worth the $12.99 to get the movie from iTunes - or less to stream it from an online service. (Watch it in your home theater, though, and not on your computer. The sound, in this case, is more than 50-percent of the experience.) More than a soundtrack to the soundtrack to the film, Sound City – Real to Reel, the album, “features Grohl enlisting the musical legends who recorded at Sound City--and then some (hello, Paul McCartney!) to demonstrate the human element of creating and recording music, teaming up to write and record brand new original songs on the spot.” I haven’t heard the album yet, but if it’s anything remotely similar to the film, it’ll be a definite keeper.

I will confess that, as a young buck in a hi-fi store, fresh out of college, and unencumbered by the weight of personal experience, I rode the digital music bandwagon as hard as anyone. I proudly flew the “perfect sound forever” digital flag and cast aspersions at those Neanderthals who clung to their vinyl records and the cult of the phono cartridge. While I’m not ready to abandon digital audio – and the world at large wouldn’t give a crap if I did, anyway - Sound City is an uplifting and energizing cultural kick-in-the-ass that just might help corrupt much of music’s digital “perfection” with a little bit of grungy human emotion. (Until our robot overlords take over. Then all bets are off.)

Rob Sabin's picture
Very nice review, Darryl--thanks. I saw Sound City recently and it was really an awesome homage to the great music, great artists, and great recorded sound quality that came out of the 70s/80s era before digital really took over. And the obsession with that almost unique Neve console and what made it special was fascinating, down to Grohl actually sitting down with Rupert Neve and having him wax on in technospeak about why it sounded different and why so many muscians flocked to it. Absoulutely fascinating. For anyone who loves music and audio, this one is highly recommended.
supamark's picture

Hi, first post!

It isn't the tools, it's how they're used. I used to work as a recording engineer (early 90's) and mostly worked digital (Alesis ADAT's) but did overdubs through a tube mic pre in my own studio. The studio I worked in before that had a Studer A820 24 track w/ SR and a couple ATR 102's from Ampex (great for editing on) and was primarily analog (with mostly Neumann mics). The reason why music is "less human" now isn't because it's recorded digitally. There are two primary reasons:

1. Digital multi-track editors (ProTools, allow every single little mistake to be "fixed". All notes can be made to fall exactly on the click/beat, pitch perfect, etc. This takes the natural tension and release out of the music, which is the "soul".

2. Producers and musicians, knowing every little mistake can be corrected, don't rehearse nearly enough before recording. Until a band can play the songs without thinking about it, they can't work the "feel" into it. You can hear them thinking about it (I used to surprise a lot of musicians by telling them exactly when they started thinking about what they were playing). This is also why first albums tend to "rock" harder - the band has usually played the songs for a year or more, and figured out what worked in front of an audience.

It is a poor craftsman who blames his tools.

deckeda's picture

You can't have it both ways -- at once saying "digital" isn't the problem while acknowledging it's the enabler of the disease.

People will naturally use the tools in the best way that the tools perform.

deckeda's picture

... the engineer featured in the movie says, about the Neve console, "It's the facilitator."

In that statement he's not saying the same results couldn't be achieved digitally, but you have to wonder the likelihood of that happening. A tool's either ideal or it's not, and the results will reflect or at the very least influence that.

supamark's picture

Those things do sound "fat". The old Neves were Class A, used transformers, and were hand built/wired. This only really applies for consoles designed by Rupert before he sold the company to AMS.

supamark's picture

It's not the tool, it's how it's used. And using a DAW (dig. audio workstation, i.e. ProTools) to compensate for poor performance isn't the best way to use it. Using a DAW to compensate for delay caused by distance (i.e., syncing a room mic with the drum overheads to get better bass or to sync spot mics with room mics when recording an orchestra is a much better way). You want to fix a bad performance, rehearse the band and have them do it again. Preferably with more feeling.

Also, regardless of which format you think sounds better, high bit/sample rate digital (at least 24/88.2) will be far more accurate and far less distorted (and use a lot less EQ as well) than analog. Only 1/2" 30ips 2 track (no Dolby A/SR) comes close. Least accurate/most distorted "audiophile" format? The inner 1/2 to 1/3 of an LP from an analog master originally recorded to a 2" 24 track machine. The amount of EQ (and the collapsed stereo field due to vinyl limitations) would make most audiophiles sick if they knew. And it sounds worse every time it's played.