The Legacy of 'Sound City'
By Scott Elliott
February 1, 2013
“Digital sucks!” is what one person proclaims in the middle of the documentary Sound City. This is the sentiment most of the people hold to in this new film directed by Dave Grohl. If that name seems familiar, that's because it should. Grohl has been a part of two of the biggest bands of the last two decades. He was the drummer for Nirvana and then went on to form the Foo Fighters. Now, Grohl steps behind the camera to give us the story of the studio behind some of the most famous music of the '70s, '80s and '90s.
Sound City is the story of a music studio located in Van Nuys, California. In the early '70’s a duo by the name of Buckingham Nicks recorded an album there. The album was not a success, but the duo continued to hang around the studio and eventually met an English drummer by the name of Mick Fleetwood. Fleetwood was looking for a place to record an album and was also in search of a new guitar player. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Mick Fleetwood and his band Fleetwood Mac and recorded an album at Sound City that would go on to sell millions of copies. This made the fledgling recording studio famous. Tom Petty and Heartbreakers, Neil Young, Cheap Trick and others would go on to record albums in the studio.
The studio continued to be successful in the early '80’s, but later fell on hard times because of the popularity of digital recording. Sound City refused to update and continued to record using an analog tape machine. The machine was invented by Rupert Neve and came to be recognized as one of the best recorders in the business. As Sound City was contemplating closing its doors in the '90’s, an unknown band from Seattle, Washington came to record an album there. The band was Nirvana—and the album was Nevermind. Once again, Sound City was a famous recording studio that everyone wanted to use.
At first, Sound City might seem like the latest episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, but as the film progresses, one realizes there is much more going on here. The film is not just the story of a famous California recording studio. It is also the story of the music industry and the changes that have taken place over the last 40 years. Most people tend to think of advancements in technology as a good thing. When they are introduced people flock to embrace them, and quickly leave older methods and technology behind. Sound City questions whether new is always better. Sure new technology makes things quicker and easier, but is the product better because of it? This is the question the film explores and ultimately asks the viewer to contemplate.
A third element concerning the recording process is introduced in the last part of the film. The final 40 minutes of Sound City brings the story up to the present. Dave Grohl has decided to record an album with some of the people who used Sound City over the years. He brings Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, Rick Springfield, Paul McCartney and others into his studio to record this new album. The focus moves from digital vs. analog to the importance of community in recording. Recording an album is not just about the sound, but it is also about relationships. It is about one human being interacting with another. This is something that many recordings in the digital age lack. A person can record their parts on their own hundreds of miles away from another person who is contributing to the same song. Many recordings lack the human interaction that existed when bands recorded at Sound City. Again, the film asks the viewer to consider whether this has ultimately made music better?
Sound City is a film about rock & roll, but do not make the mistake of thinking this is a movie just for music-lovers. Sound City is a film about us. It is a movie which asks us to critically think about advancements in technology. Our lives have gotten easier because of technological advances. We are able to accomplish certain tasks quicker. We have become more efficient, but are our lives better? How has our use of technology affected our relationships with other human beings? Sound City tells the story of a recording studio in Van Nuys, California, but it is a film about human beings and the culture in which we live.