Sundance 2013 Review: ‘Sound City’ Rocks (with Dave Grohl on Drums)

By  · Published on January 23rd, 2013

There are many legends that surround the music industry, but Sound City was an actual place that embodied a mythology. Located in Van Nuys, California (i.e. the Valley, i.e. this is when you groan), Sound City was an outdated dump that refused to let the digital revolution through its front doors, but bands continued to seek it out because of two reasons: the staff that welcomed you in like you were one of their own, and the Neve console.

The beautiful board that lived at Sound City was custom ordered and gave the studio its signature sound – a perfect distribution that made even distortion sound good. But it was not that this board was magical or that the studio was designed to create this effect (it ironically was not designed at all, just lucked out on having such good acoustics), it was thanks to the “magic” of analog recording which provides a warmth that digital is not yet able to duplicate.

Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City is certainly a story about the studio and all the artists that recorded there, but that story focuses truly on this board and the one-of-a-kind sound it was able deliver.

Sound City got its first big break when they brought together Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks with Fleetwood Mac, giving the studio its first hit record, and making it a destination spot for some of the industry’s top artists. The studio flourished in the 1970s, but when the 1980s hit, and the digital revolution began, the studio suffered. Seeing as their analog console (which allowed for imperfections and happy accidents) was what drove artists to the studio in the first place, those at Sound City had no interest in letting their sound get glossed over by digital perfection.

But this is where Grohl’s history with the studio (and the console) comes into play. Sound City is where Nirvana recorded one of their most memorable albums, “Nevermind,” revitalizing the studio and putting it back on the map (much like Fleetwood Mac did when the studio first started.) Sound City’s analog set up was suddenly back in style as artists (burned out on the overly stylized and processed sound of the ’80s) wanted to get back to the raw side of music, one that was more about performance than perfection. But before Sound City could have its happy ending, digital technology reared its ugly head once again with the advent of ProTools, which started allowing absolutely anyone to become an artist, engineer, and producer, threatening to once again make recording studios obsolete.

It is impressive to see the number of prolific artists that recorded at Sound City, but more impressive is how Grohl not only gets many of these artists to recall their time at the studio, he gets them to return to the board and record brand new music. While it is clear this film champions analog, Grohl did not completely dismiss the digital aspects of recording, bringing in the famously digital Trent Reznor, but he uses it in a creative and interesting ways. Watching Grohl in the studio with Reznor on his electronic rig collaborating seemed to hint at how these two ideals could, one day, come together.

Grohl creates a compelling and personal documentary that is both educational and inspiring, reminding audiences it is the love of creating exciting music that makes the ups and downs of the music industry worth it. Grohl does not simply tell you why Sound City was important, he takes you through the studio’s journey and after hearing all the different and groundbreaking albums recorded there (and seeing the artists clamoring to have a chance to record on that board again), he shows that the studio was an important part of music history.

The Upside: A comprehensive look into the recording process and how it has changed over the years (and continues to change) while taking audiences on a journey from where music was in the ’70s to where it is today, giving Sound City a rocking soundtrack with a personal touch.

The Downside: It was cool to see artists like Nicks and Paul McCartney in Grohl’s studio creating new music and recording with the Sound City board once again, but the jam sessions were a bit long and could have been trimmed down or saved for the DVD extras or as bonus content on the soundtrack.

On the Side: Sound City is available for pre-order now and will be available on VOD February 1st.

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