Review: Dave Grohl’s ‘Sound City’ documentary

After watching Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” documentary, one is forced to wonder if the kids these days even know or care what a recording studio is. It seems that my generation (the older Millenials) is one of the last that truly cared about the recording studio, or for that matter the producer.

For several generations the recording studio could be an instrument in the right band’s hands (think: Flaming Lips, Air, MGMT on the LP “Congratulations” for more recent examples). And even if the studio wasn’t used as an instrument, at the very least it could impart a professional, lasting sound to a record.

Those days are mostly gone.

The average indie musician has access to a laptop and software like Ableton Live, Logic Pro, plug-ins for reverb and chorus, and MIDI, which allows them to route their instruments into the laptop. This setup has replaced the hallowed mixing board. And for good reason—it’s cheaper.

One thing that should have been emphasized in “Sound City” is that the home digital recording revolution led by Digidesign’s Pro Tools—alongside the concurrent cultural shift into electronic music forms, which values the laptop—isn’t the only culprit of the recording studio demise. In 2000 Napster was king, launching the file-sharing era. Hysteria soon engulfed the music industry. And in every year since recording budgets have shrunk. That fact is at least as important to Sound City’s story as the Pro Tools-triggered digital recording revolution.

The reality is that too much of this sort of criticism would render “Sound City” a polemic. Grohl wisely avoids this trap, opting instead to spend much of the second half of the film documenting great recording artists talking about and demonstrating the magic of musical creation.

Grohl also does a great job communicating the wonder of the recording studio and, indeed, of 1/2″ tape. The project could be mistaken for mere nostalgia: the old rock titans’ fighting against the dying light as their relevancy vanishes with the studios. But that reading of the film would be also be a trap.

While Nostalgia is a component of “Sound City,” it’s not the film’s primary component. Grohl and the filmmakers’ real goal, it seems to me, is to demonstrate the value of the craftsman and the artisan, whether it’s the producer, engineer, musician or music equipment maker (Rupert Neve, for example). There is an emphasis on the value in taking one’s time (and money) to record for the best possible sound. Grohl’s documentary is also a reverential hymn of sorts to the Neve 8078 hand-wired analogue mixing console, which Grohl bought off of Sound City so as to prevent it from becoming a museum piece. Now, a new generation can experience the sound and atmosphere found on records such as Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”.

Yes, you might say, but the bedroom producer can still write and record an entire album on his or her laptop! I’d in turn ask if that album sounds as good as an album recorded in a studio with 1/2″ tape? I think we know the answer to that question. And many bands who recorded early singles and EPs on laptops, eventually graduate to recording studios. But don’t take Grohl’s or my word for it. Read what Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear said of their “Veckatimest” recording process, following an online album leak:

[T]he biggest bummer for us was that we spent a lot of time and put a lot of effort into making sure that it’s a really rich recording — recording it to tape and doing all these nice sonic details — and then it leaked and I remember listening to it and it sounded like an underwater YouTube stream or something.

With “Sound City”, Grohl aims is to highlight that richness, that detail, which isn’t some inexplicable, nebulous mental aberration. The film doesn’t represent sonic elitism either, with Grohl & Co the cabal of insider audiophiles. Rather, “Sound City” is an education in sound. Every great record up to a certain point was recorded in studio on tape. Those records sound great because craftsman knew what the fuck they were doing and had the equipment and space with which to do it.

Even electronic music artists such as Boards of Canada know the value of tape and the manipulation thereof in a studio. This isn’t some dinosaur rocker funderal dirge, but a reminder that technological advances in sound aren’t always synonymous with quality.

As Trent Reznor says in “Sound City” after jamming with Grohl and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme:

I found now as processors have gotten faster and programs have gotten smarter there’s some pretty musical tools that have showed up in the digital world. The tools are much better today than they were five years ago, certainly 30 years ago. Now that everyone is empowered with these tools to create stuff, has there been a lot more great stuff coming out? Not really.

If there is one take-away to be found in “Sound City” it is that we, as music fans, need to pay for the music we want so that the music makers (to borrow Willy Wonka’s phrase) can continue making better records.