Sound City, Dave Grohl’s documentary on a Hollywood recording studio doesn’t promise much, on the surface, and yet it turns out to be a heartfelt and eloquent history of something that, with the digital revolution, we seem to have lost – sound.
The film doesn’t promise much?Have I gone mad?? It’s got Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame, as if you needed reminding) directing and narrating (though there’s no real narration, rather a set of talking head shots)! It’s also got a stellar cast ranging in talent and gravitas from Neil Young through to Rick Springfield – but that’s precisly what makes you wonder; you wonder how interesting a recording studio can be as a subject to start out with, and in particular one that has housed everyone from Tom Petty through to Ratt, Barry Manilow through to Nirvana. What kind of place does that conjure up in the mind? Surely a luxuriant palace filled with the latest techno-gadgetery, and the odd jacuzi to boot – as dull as lines of coke and the lowest common denominator, and a film about that promises to be as interesting as a large desk full of knobs and faders.
Setting the scene though for why this place was special is Neil Young – after a strange anecdote about a car filled with smoke, and police officers on his back (‘I attracted police officers a lot, because of the cars I was driving, and I didn’t have a licence because I was Canadian – I wasn’t even supposed to be there’) – he tells the camera about recording Birds at Sound City, from the 1971 After the Gold Rush album. After listening back to the tapes he decided that the vocals sounded so good that he would do all the vocals for the album there (he’d already recorded most of the music at his home studio).
And what becomes apparent through the film’s various interviews is how special this studio became, for two reasons. Firstly it had, a great sound of its own though not even originally designed as a studio but rather as a shoe-box factory, and secondly it had people there who knew how to record and had the right equipment to do it.
A special board (back to the knobs and faders I’m afraid) called a Neve board, custom-made, ensured that the great sound could, by the right engineers, be captured. And while discussion by sound freaks like Trent Reznor or Neil Young could leave you yawning, Barry Manilow captures the importance in a kitsch interview from a a suitably glitzy mansion: “This neve board that you talk about – this is not my world. Engineers have to spend hours like on the kick-drum sound; please, I would rather have a blood transfusion, but I do remember that there was something different about the sound of this board”
So it’s an argument for skill, craft,talent and passion. The studio was special because it naturally sounded good (talent), it had the right equipment (craft), and the right people and atmosphere (skill and passion).
Skip ahead and you have the digital revolution – the arrival of pro-tools and the ability to smooth off faults and errors. To the bombastic but tinny and soul-less sound of 1987’s Whitesnake, we’re shown a world where progressively, despite the arrival of grunge and bands like Nirvana and Rage against the Machine, a studio like Sound City can’t exist.
With the great interviews and music that flesh out the film this is all a compelling and urgent argument, but one that could, with technophobia, all too easily ring flat to young ears. Wait though, because there’s more. In essence the film started as a project, when Grohl heard that Sound City was to close, and that the famed Neve board was being sold. Grohl bought the board, and decided to make a tribute album using the board. So, using the old board, and artists like Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, and Trent Reznor he did just that which is also documented in the film.
Watching them work on the album, with the inclusion of today’s technology alongside the famed board, the real argument comes through. Reznor in particular brings an edge to things, showing how modern technology is neither friend nor foe but simply another tool – like the Neve board – for artists to use. Grohl comments in fact, about Reznor: “He’s using technology as an instrument, not a crutch. He doesn’t need it. He’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met in my entire life [and do remember all the people Grohl has played with!] He’s the person that could inspire the digital end of this conversation”.
So this is a beautiful film not specifically about a recording studio, or a recording board, or even just the analogue/digital argument. Instead it’s about that magic space, the pretty spot, where ideas form into sounds, and sounds into music to soothe the soul.