Recording Studios May Die, but the False Mythology Around Them May Not

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The fallacy that technology ruins music's soul may get aired in Dave Grohl's forthcoming documentary—or it may get debunked.

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Between its 1969 founding and its 2011 closing, Los Angeles's Sound City was the recording space for the likes of Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Santana, Pat Benatar, Rancid, Weezer, Bad Religion, Nine Inch Nails, and Johnny Cash—just to name a few. Classic albums including Neil Young's After the Gold Rush (1970), the Grateful Dead's Terrapin Station (1977), and Nirvana's Nevermind (1991) were made there. Producer Rick Rubin had a particular fetish for the spot, having worked on no fewer than seven records at Sound City.

The fabled studio will have its story told in the Sound City, whose premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was just announced (its wider release will come in February). The film will be the directorial debut for Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who would seem to have the right pedigree for something like this. After all, he was Nirvana's drummer when Nevermind was recorded.

But Grohl's an intriguing figure to take on this project for another reason: He's become in many eyes an avatar for the mix of short-term nostalgia and conflicted technological discontent known as "rockism." The film could either try to resolve the contradictions inherent in that term, or it could just amplify them.

Earlier this year, when accepting a Grammy for Best Rock Performance, Grohl said from the stage, "The human element of making music is what's most important"—adding, later in the brief speech, "It's not about being perfect. ... It's not about what goes on in a computer." (There's a lightly autotuned version of the speech on youtube.com.) Grohl's remarks got an enthusiastic response from the Grammy audience, but caused a firestorm on Twitter and elsewhere, and he felt the need to release a clarifying statement later. The statement went, in part:

"I love music. I love ALL kinds of music. From Kyuss to Kraftwerk, Pinetop Perkins to Prodigy, Dead Kennedys to Deadmau5.....I love music. Electronic or acoustic, it doesn't matter to me. That's exactly what I was referring to. The "human element." That thing that happens when a song speeds up slightly, or a vocal goes a little sharp."

This "human element" appears to be the core of Studio City, judging by the trailer that went live yesterday:

The fascinating thing about the trailer is that while its talking heads speak about the importance of the human element, they are at the same time surrounded by and praising technology. Just 45 seconds into the trailer, the narrative shifts from the initial survey of Sound City's remarkable discography to a single, still, geeky image of celebrated British engineer Rupert Neve. The voiceover praises the "next generation consoles" that Neve designed. Trent Reznor then lauds "the Neve sound." (A voice is heard later—it appears to be Grohl's—noting the expectation that a particular console, the Neve 8028, at Studio City would "just go straight to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." Grohl himself bought the 8028 from Sound City Studios last year.) The studio's origins as "tape-based" are touted. As if to make up for too much gadget talk, a remark resets the narrative: "It's a place where real men went to make records."

While the trailer's talking heads speak about the importance of the human element, they are at the same time surrounded by and praising technology.

Such contradictions about whether technology is crutch or muse, adversary or compatriot, run through the trailer—sometimes consciously, but most of the time not. John Fogerty, of Creedence Clearwater Revival, recounts with some revulsion a young musician explaining that perfection is just a digital procedure away. The irony is that Fogerty is himself a studio aficionado who famously recorded his hit album Centerfield alone, playing every instrument from vocals to drums to guitar. Gains in multi-tracking technology provided him with what he desired: artistic control over every recorded element.

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Marc Weidenbaum runs the ambient-music webzine Disquiet, has contributed to Nature, and is writing a book about Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II for the 33 1/3 series.

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