Going to 'Sound City'

Mar 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Barbara Schultz

Dave Grohl Honors the Studio, Console That Helped Launch His Career


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Engineer James Brown at the Neve, with Grohl over his shoulder.

Engineer James Brown at the Neve, with Grohl over his shoulder.

It all started with this idea that I wanted to tell the story of the board,” says musician and (now) filmmaker Dave Grohl in his documentary Sound City. “The conversation became something much bigger: In this age of technology, where you can simulate or manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element?”

Sound City is the story of the Van Nuys, Calif., facility—now converted to soundstages and a private studio—where Fleetwood Mac joined with Buckingham Nicks; where Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cut Damn the Torpedoes with Jimmy Iovine, and Unchained with Johnny Cash; and where Nirvana made Nevermind. But it’s also a larger story, about “that human element”: the people who devote their lives to making music and to creating a community of musicmakers, and the ways lives have changed with the decline of commercial studios.

Grohl’s film begins with the history of Sound City—the artists, owners and staff, producers and engineers, and that Neve board, which now lives in Grohl’s personal facility, Studio 606. Then, about two-thirds in, the focus of the movie shifts to the process of recording the film’s soundtrack: Sound City: Real to Reel, an album of new songs written and tracked in 606 with producer Butch Vig and some of the artists who famously recorded at Sound City.

In the film, the soundtrack sessions are super-energized, with musicians mainly cutting live in Grohl’s tracking room—that human element. “Everybody who’s been to Sound City knows exactly why I’m making this record,” Grohl says in the film.

Engineering the Sound City soundtrack, and appearing in the film, was James Brown, who has worked with Grohl’s Foo Fighters and was in the thick of Kings of Leon sessions when Mix contacted him.

Early sessions for Sound City: Real to Reel included John Fogerty, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Corey Taylor (of Slipknot) with Rick Neilsen (Cheap Trick), and Rick Springfield. March brought Chris Goss (Masters of Reality) and Rage Against the Machine to the studio. “In April, we did sessions with Trent Reznor and Stevie Nicks,” Brown says. “We all realized we were working on something special, but then we got Paul McCartney and the bar was suddenly raised to a whole other level.”

Some songs were written and arranged on the spot in the studio, as in the film segment that shows McCartney working with Grohl, Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana. “Dave always came to the sessions armed with a riff or a writing demo in his back pocket, mostly as an insurance policy in case there wasn’t a better idea on the day,” Brown says. “But in all cases, 80 to 95 percent of the track would be conceived, recorded and overdubbed during that first day. The tracks always began with musicians playing together at 606, and we’d record that to the house 24-track Studer A827.

“The watch-word for the whole project was ‘real,’” Brown continues. “Pro Tools works just as well as tape at capturing those moments, but it also makes it incredibly easy to correct and perfect things, and that can be to the detriment of an artist trying to get a feeling across. Working in the analog domain, there’s less temptation to correct idiosyncrasies or human flaws. Tape brings an honesty to the process—to the production side of things, too.”

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