What do Neil Young, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Slayer, Johnny Cash, Guns N’ Roses, Fear, Charles Manson, Barry Manilow, Trent Reznor, Carl Perkins, Foreigner, Queens of the Stone Age, the Grateful Dead, Metallica, and Frank Black and the Catholics have in common? They all laid down tracks at Sound City, a funky, nondescript-looking, but altogether fabled recording studio in the San Fernando Valley, the subject of this rich, kaleidoscopic, rock music documentary.
The place was a former box factory in Van Nuys’ warehouse district in the late Sixties when owners Joe Gottfried and Tom Skeeter combined to add some improvements and make some money in the red-hot business of selling music to the youth market. Everyone wanted to sign the next Beatles.
In those analog days, Sound City was renowned for the quality of its live, single-take recordings, made with as few overdubs and backing tracks as possible. As one recording pro remembers it: “When you came to work at Sound City you knew what you were getting. It was a tape-based studio.” The anchor of that concept, Sound City’s Rock of Gibraltar, was the Neve Console — a massive, insanely intricate mixing board built in England by engineer Rupert Neve. No one else on the West Coast had one, and in those days it cost twice as much as a house in the Valley.
With its sweet, natural sound, the Neve board was perfect for Neil Young’s 1971 landmark album After the Gold Rush, and other musicians soon flocked to the studio — many of whom turn up as talking heads in the doc. Teen heartthrob Rick Springfield was the studio’s early champ, and such best-selling acts as Fleetwood Mac, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and REO Speedwagon cut albums there, alongside the likes of Pat Benatar, Santana, Cheap Trick, Ratt, and Vincent Price. Live tracks were Sound City’s specialty. “You had to know how to play,” as one recording pro put it.
However, at the height of Sound City’s glory the digital revolution was taking place. Analog holdouts like Neil Young may insist that digital algorithms were calculated wrong from the beginning, but starting in the Eighties, computers and the processed sound they produced took hold, and the tape studios were slowly left behind. To the rescue came Nirvana. That archetypal grunge band recorded its massive hit LP Nevermind at Sound City, and in the words of Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who went on to lead the Foo Fighters and eventually to direct this documentary, “Those sixteen days totally changed my life.”
The imperfections in the band’s sound “made it sound like people,” not machines, and Sound City continued to rock with Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other groups seeking to emulate Kurt Cobain’s success. Recording engineer James Brown, a Sound City stalwart, acknowledges a “24-track mentality” in which musicians and technicians “commit to what it is,” à la naked, unpolished takes, rather than relying on systems like Pro Tools and their endless possibilities. Computer hardware and software offered a sterilized alternative to the art of live recording. Anyone could make a record. You didn’t have to practice and it came out perfectly. What fun is that, to play or listen to?
Pro Tools eventually killed Sound City in the early 2000s. More music was being recorded on laptops than in pizza-box-and-beer-can-encrusted dens with gold records on the walls. Grohl, a dedicated believer in the record-live-or-die ethos, bought the hallowed Neve board and installed it in his own Studio 606. Sound City functions not only as a document of rock history but also as a promo reel for Grohl’s studio and its heritage. Late in the film, a roster of heavyweight rockers — Young, Springfield, Reznor, Lars Ulrich, John Fogerty, Lee Ving, percussionist Jim Keltner, and the granddaddy of them all, Paul McCartney — drop by to horse around, recorded live as always. Drummer Mick Fleetwood sums up the mystique succinctly: “Yes, you can do this on your own, but you’ll be happier doing it with other human beings.” Shivaun O’Brien, SC’s longtime studio manager, phrases it another way: “Sound City was a place where real men came to make records.”
Sound City, directed and co-produced by Grohl and written by Mark Monroe, plays theatrically for one night only, Thursday, January 31, at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley — after which it will be available on video-on-demand. We recommend catching it on the big screen, with other human beings.