Sound City and the Analog vs Digital Debate

Like many of you, I recently watched the Sound City Documentary Dave Grohl put out. It’s a given that I found it entertaining, afterall its overflowing with good Rock n Roll! I’ve also heard the film discussed on many various talk shows, interviews, and podcasts as well as reviews. Most of the discussions focus on one of two story arcs.

The first arc is the story of the Neve board Dave bought from Sound City when they closed. In this arc much of the Sound City sound is attributed to this unique Neve console. Dave Grohl goes as far as to say that he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for that board. The discussion during Grohl’s appearance on the Marc Maron podcast certainly centered around this story. The second story people are quick to latch on to is the analog vs digital debate. A large chunk of the documentary revolves around big bad Pro Tools coming along and ruining both Sound City and the quality of modern music. Sound City was an analog studio. Period. Everyone who recorded there tracked to tape. Most of the artists featured in the documentary were tracking live as well. These great artists are then compared to those tracking everything separately in Pro Tools before editing the crap out of it to creat an artificial performance.

This second story arc really captured my attention. I love Rock n Roll and there is something special about old albums. Think about the magic you still here when listening to someone like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. Something is different. They seem timeless. Thats not to say that there aren’t classic albums being made today, but far fewer of them have the feel of older music.

Which leads us back to the analog vs digital debate. Some believe this debate revolves around the audio quality of the recordings. Tape is better because it sounds better. I’m not hear to debate the truth of that, instead I would suggest that it misses the point. The reason those old records have that magic about them is the constrainsts they were made under. A tape machine limits you to 24 tracks, or 48 if you run a second tape machine in slave mode. If you want to edit a performance you have to take a razor blade, cut out the edit and tape the new piece in. Clearly not something for the faint of heart. The result is that performances are real. Meaning the parts are played as a whole, not chopped up from a large number of takes. Listen to an old interview with Tom Petty talking about how many takes the Heartbreakers did of Refugee before they finally got a keeper. The limitations of taped forced musicians to focus on their performance.

It was also common to track most of the instruments together, live in a room and then do minimal overdubs afterwards (remember our track count limit). Everyone had to nail a take for it to be a keeper. Not many artists are even capable of pulling this off today. It requires an extremly high level of playing chops. The constraints lead not only to parts having the feel of a performance, but to things having a live, energetic feel. It sounds organic because it is organic. What you hear is what the microphone heard.

I believe the final constraint of recording in the analog realm is forced decision making. Not to beat a dead horse, but track count was very limited. Considering many records utilize at least 10 mics on the drum set alone, the number of tracks left for other parts quickly disappears. It was not uncommon to have to bounce a rough mix of drums down to 3 or 4 tracks. In fact this happened on the new Foo Fighter’s record which was recorded entirely to analog tape in Dave Grohl’s garage. This is pulled from a Sound on Sound magazine article about the making of Wasting Light.

Once everyone was satisfied with the drum take, a basic four‑track mix consisting of kick, snare and a stereo track of toms and overheads would be bounced onto the slave reel, which became the focus for tracking…..
“We were doing everything on the slave reel,” Vig points out, “so by the time we got all the guitars on there, there were usually only four tracks left for vocals and two left for vocal bounces.

And when it came time to mix the album…

And of course, we didn’t have inputs for 48 tracks, so we mixed off the ‘B’ reel. So the drums are all the second generation, pre‑mixed bounce. That’s just the way it was.”

As you read the article, you realize that it was the constraints they were working with that lead to Wasting Light sounding the way it does. Constraints bring focus. Sure analog tape has a unique sound to it, but that sound doesn’t make a performance great. The whole point behind pro tools is that it removes constraints from recording. You get a virtually unlimited track count and the ability to edit any piece of audio easily. It is a great tool but it is also easy to get sucked into editing everything to perfection. When that happens, you aren’t hearing a real performance.

Should we throw away Pro Tools? Absolutely not. Pro Tools is an excellent tool and has done wonders for making recording more accessible. Instead we should be conscious of the way we are working and not give in to the temptation to use every tool at our disposal. Focus on performance and maybe even try tracking things together instead of comping everything separately.

My band, Towers recently had a great experience with constraints. A friend of ours needed to record something for a recording class with the stipulation that only 8 tracks were allowed. This forced us to strip the song to its bare bones and be really conscious about what parts were played. Jonathan and I tracked our guitar parts together and only punched in and out twice (amateur hour haha). The drums were all done with two microphones and the vocals done on one track. The thing is, the song sounds really cool and it’s a sound we would never have discovered had it not been for the limitation of 8 tracks. And yes, it was all tracked in Pro Tools. The project’s constraints are what made it special.

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