Sound City

Sound City 1What a gem! In tracking the history of the Van Nuys recording studio, Sound City, Dave Grohl’s documentary not only covers most of the soundtrack of my formative years (Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, etc.) but also that of my son’s (Nirvana). But it’s also a fascinating history of the technology of music – as analog eventually fell to the wayside in favor of digital and laptop music.

One musician described Sound City thusly, “You could piss in a corner and no one would care.” The exterior was nondescript. The interior featured brown shag carpet on the walls. But an investment of $76,000 in 1973 ($399,849 in 2013 dollars) by Joe Gottfried and Tome Skeeter to purchase a custom recording console from British engineer geek genius Rupert Neve, changed the fortunes of the dumpy Sound City.

While other albums had been recorded at Sound City, the first album to be recorded using the Neve Console was Buckingham/Nicks (future Fleetwood Mac members Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks).

Sound CityThe drum sound was key. Part Neve console, part serendipitous acoustics of the ratty Sound City room – the combination served to produce an optimal sound that musicians flocked to. Sound City enjoyed a charmed existence until the advent of digital recording.

One of the early members of the team, Keith Olsen, set up shop next door to Sound City with a digital studio. Digital meant less expensive studio costs. Suddenly analog music was endangered much in the same way printing, film based photography, word processing, and dozens of other industries were in the face of new, less expensive technology.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the documentary is listening to Trent Reznor elaborate on the evolution of music technology. He concedes that the “processors got faster” and the “programmers got smarter” and the tools were certainly better than anything else engineers worked with in the past 30 years. But it didn’t mean that music got better. At the core was still the human element.

Sound City hung on to the analog method and the Neve console that was the hub of their operation, but the forces of the market (tape manufacturers going out of business) made it even more difficult to operate. Then Nirvana drove into their parking lot and entered the studio to record ‘Nevermind’. The popularity of ‘Nevermind’ made Sound City a destination site once more. But the boon was only temporary. This documentary is a wonderful commemoration of the music that was created at Sound City and an instructive look at the impact of technology on the music business.

Watch along with me Sound City

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