I am left a bit inspired and overjoyed after watching the Sound City documentary which was written and directed by Dave Grohl.
The documentary follows the Los Angeles based Sound City studios from its birth in the late 60s through to the present day and recent closure. It talks about the various musicians, producers, engineers who have worked and been touched by the studios. The list of albums coming from this studio is amazing. The Kyuss album “Welcome to Sky Valley” and The Queen’s of the Stone Age album “Rated R” take special places in my heart and since I found out that their sound comes from the Sound City attitude and ethic of doing things, I am left motivated in my own decisions regarding music production workflow. I do not want to give too much away but there is one point which I want to talk about in this blog. This point is the attitude and ethic I mentioned.
The most thought provoking point it raises for me is the development and modern use of digital audio equipment compared to the Sound City days. The studio itself revolved around a very special Neve mixing console.
Having no real knowledge of the Sound City story before this documentary, I sighed and rolled my eyes when Pro Tools was mentioned. Happily, it went on to criticising the DAW. I am not going to start slagging Pro Tools off because that is not what I mean. This line was one of the first indications to the theme of the documentary. This theme was that live, emotional and powerful music is what the aim of production should be and the digital revolution can and had some very negative impacts on this due to misuse. It outlined what digital audio workstations as a whole have allowed anyone to do and allowed cheaply. This could be a factor to production issues that we have had to deal with over the years, such as the loudness wars and overly produces, polished and edited music.
This is something I have believed for quite a while. It has never been easier to do some tracking and then edit or generally manipulate the material until it is deemed perfect. In essence what we are doing is opening the floodgates for the pushing of this concept to an extreme.
Newbies, through no fault of their own, can be sucked into The “fix it in the mix” mindset. Word processing and laptops do this too; I can now say to people that I am a writer. I am a blogger; I write important opinion pieces and post them on a fantastic server. Well, I am not that great. I don’t have perfect grammar and I am sure the spell check has made some confusing corrections in this regard for me. That and I am not for one moment going to tell anyone I am an authority on anything! Where I think my blog is decent, on the other extreme you can have utterly horrendous blogs which are just a means for someone to massage their ego or simply write about things badly. With fancy themes, they can be seen to be great.
To take what I am saying and bring it into an audio context let’s look at this in a digital context. Essentially, it has never been easier for people to write what they feel and post it to an audience which could possibly be millions of people. Digital has also revolutionised the audio industry which allows anyone to become a music producer. This dilutes the first principles which many people have worked extremely hard to work along and with. This dilution is in some ways something which every single one of us do. We all have phases of not knowing what we are doing so we will always produce something which is simply not done in the way it should have been.
In the audio world, vocals can be auto tuned heavily. Bass and drum takes can be edited to the point of technical perfection but all these examples result in musically deficient music. What this Sound City documentary told me was not to let the possibilities of digital to pull me into a place where I mix and produce this music without the music in mind. Record live, overdub what you really need to and keep the energy intact.
A lot of people say click tracks kill the musicality of a piece. I would argue that recording music track by track does this and as it happens, clicks are used a lot in that and get the blame. Something which I have done a lot is use the least number of tracks I can. What I would love to do in the ideal recording setup is live, live and live with minimal and only necessary overdubs. Id keep the editing to reasonable amount and learn when enough is enough and tell the musician we need to get it recorded better. Okay, maybe that is just so my job is easier but I cant help but think that a song which could sound amazing spread across 24 tracks would sound much better than a 40 track traffic jam.
Does it have to be Analogue?
The documentary talks about how the Neve mixing board contributes to the music. Where I felt that sometimes I was being told that the mixer was the reason I ended up appreciating that it is the analogue way of recording that stitches musicians together. This is not because it was recorded on tape, it is not because that particular mixing board was being used as such. For me I was being told that it was because of the limitations of a fully analogue system where we ended up recording bands live, overdubbing only when we really needed to and all I can say is that the music which we could hear being recorded in this way in the documentary is just fantastic. It may not float everyone’s boat but as an engineer I can feel the feel. I can sense the energy, the spontaneity, the music. What needs to be realised is that this production is not about DAW bashing and is not an anti technology group of people whining about the digital domain. What it is about is an attempt to get the audience appreciate the methodologies that the tape medium allowed or probably forced upon us. Even though it has been made extremely easy thanks to digital we should not to let these methodologies go.
So, for anyone reading please don’t get too caught up in the possibilities of digital. It is only going to offer us a consistently increasing number of possible track counts and plug in instances. This documentary shows us all how it used to be done and I think what we have to face is that maybe we reached the peak and musically best way to record and mix just as the digital revolution began. Maybe all the digital revolution has done is allow us build on and streamline aspects of the old way of doing things but at the expense of allowing more misuse and technique abuse in.
The title of this blog post is back to basics which, I hope you can appreciate actually are not basics at all. They are extremely complex recording and mixing techniques driven by experience and genius. They are techniques developed over years of work which demanded certain technological improvements which digital as delivered on.
Who are we to ask for unlimited track counts and millions of plugin instances with surgical editing capabilities when we are clueless about recording and mixing in a fashion which has produced some of the best sounding music ever? Who knows, maybe fighting the noise floor was a much more significant and positive development than any increase in track count or auto tuner could ever imagine to be.
Where does this change our development focus? Well, readers, where do you think?
Thanks for reading!