February 28, 2013

A few months back I mentioned that Dave Grohl was directing a movie about the famous and now out of business Sound City Recording Studios.  So the movie premiered at Sundance and was released in select theaters and on iTunes shortly thereafter.  For most music production people, it was on the “must see” list and it seems from all the chatter in the online forums, that most did see it.  I’m not going to have this post be a “review” per se, but more of my thoughts on the idea and philosophy behind the movie.

Overall the concept of the movie was great: showcase a studio that contributed so much to music history and let some of the most influential people who ever recorded there to tell the story of it.  The movie was well produced and the documentary style stories were amazing.  But there’s something about the underlying motive that seems to have rubbed me the wrong way…

Let me start by saying I’m a huge Dave Grohl fan and an even bigger fan of the producers and engineers that he’s worked with since the early Nirvana days.  I’m very thankful he’s bringing this kind of mainstream attention to the studio world and that the people (and facilities) behind the scenes are being considered as an integral part of the process and product.  Now that you know where I stand on that, let me get into a topic I seem to discuss quite often with inexperienced or un-enformed clients.

The magic of anything really is the sum of it’s parts.  There is absolutely no way to pin down the success (or failure) of something subjective based on an individual component.  For instance, if you were to break up the contributing elements of a “hit record” into a pie-graph, The recording console would probably be such a small sliver of the pie that you couldn’t even read the text of it on the chart.  I’m not dogging recording gear, I’m saying that almost every slice would be very tiny, but would all add up to the final result.  From my experience if I had to guess, I’d say the biggest slices of the pie would be 1) the song 2) the voice signing the song 3) the band or musicians playing the song.  Those slices would be big enough to put a readable label on, but the console, the recording medium (ProTools vs. Tape), the model microphones that were used, etc…. those are all very small pieces of the pie… yet this movie insinuated that this studio superseded the other slices.  I know that might be reading into this a little too deep, but it’s the way I felt after watching it.  Dave’s become famous for dismissing technology as a good way to make records, but in all honesty, it’s the people who tell the technology what to do.  If you abuse it, it’s your fault, not the tool’s fault.

The flip side of this equation is what can’t be measured or accounted for.  How does all of this influence one’s attitude or inspiration or motivation?  That’s a conversation I do like to have and give a lot of weight to.  Let me give you an example.  If I was to make a record with a good band in a studio that was loaded with a bunch of fancy gear and was luxurious and comfortable it would most likely turn out different than if I recorded the same songs with the same band in a crappy, run-down, less equipped facility.  But who’s to say which one would be “better”?  I think this was the point that Dave Grohl was trying to make in a round-about way.  Maybe one of the reason’s why making music in an old, dingy studio with a bunch of vintage analog gear produces a great product is because of the mind-set it puts everyone in and not so much about the technical footprint it leaves.  I think this may be what some people refer to as “vibe”.

But that’s all it really is, a psychological state… if you happen to get inspired when using a certain piece of gear, great!  If get a certain feeling when recording in an old “vibey” studio, awesome!  And if you like “the sound” of analog tape better than digital, perfect!  But that’s not to say that it can’t be done with an alternative with the same or similar outcome.  If there’s one positive sentiment the movie left me with, it’s that it’s time musicians, engineers, producers focus on what’s important and try to eliminate some of the minutia and distraction that can accompany technology.  Don’t eliminate the technology, just learn to use it in a way where it’s not the focus.  Old studios and gear don’t “let” you do this, you don’t have to exercise any discipline, which is why I think a lot of people like it and feel that it’s contributes so much to the final product.

I truly hope more and more people continue to make movies like this, because the general music buying public needs to know what it takes to make “magical” music.  It’s not easy, it takes a lot of time and it’s a labor of love.  People need to know that so we can all start valuing music (and all art) again.

Sorry for the long rant 😉