Sound City


Much has been made about links between music and painting as complementary art forms. I’m not here to advance that concept; I just want to provide an abstract and unexpected example that comes out of great storytelling.

Recently, I watched the 2013 documentary “Sound City” which explores the history of a now-defunct San Fernando Valley, CA recording studio. Directed by Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame, the story unfolds over decades of risk, luck, prosperity, change, growth, heartbreak, and reunion. And, at its core is the interwoven story about a large electronic sound board that revolutionized music.

I’m a sucker for a great story, especially one that resonates with me on multiple levels. Putting aside the fact that I have memories of many of the bands included in the film, I found several links to the story arc and themes from an artist’s perspective.

 The Spontaneous

The founders of the studio purchased a specialized sound board from England that was revolutionary at the time. It was a tool used in their success. The irony is that its use of tape as the recording medium required a significant amount of human contact to edit. That notion led to greater restrictions on the manipulations of recorded music and put a premium on the one-take, pure human element to playing. The fact that this extravagant piece of technology allowed for meticulous sound setup did not override the fact that it took true musicians to perform.

This strikes me from an artistic perspective when balancing plein air (painting outside from life) and studio work. As others will attest, plein air has a spontaneous feel and flow that is difficult to replicate indoors. Painting outside allows you to immerse yourself in a full experience and the painting usually reflects that. As a result, that form of painting will normally retain the purest reaction to the landscape.

 Luck and Momentum

As luck would have it, Fleetwood Mac (as we came to know them) was born at Sound City and recorded the “Rumors” album there. It put Sound City on the map.

Word of mouth led to multiple artists to this, relatively speaking, dump of a facility and soon the walls filled with gold and platinum records. Sound City had momentum on its side, a unique combination of industry success, cutting-edge technology, and the luck of a warehouse that could produce drum sounds that were impossible to find elsewhere. Some of greatest albums in rock ‘n’ roll history were recorded there.

Sure, there may be some luck to start artistic momentum, but that is likely due to an underlying talent and purity of the pursuit. Luck helps; however, real, honest, and direct communication is required to leverage that good fortune as you can’t fake a product worthy of word of mouth recommendations.

 Times Change

There is just something special about things people touch. I love this aspect of making art, just as I’m sure the musicians love what was created at Sound City. This notion introduces the difficult topic of technology and its constant and rapid evolution. Just as Sound City found out with the advent of digital recording, the world of art grapples with advancements that are bound to replace the hand-made.

I suppose the important takeaway is there is a time and place for everything. Sure, I enjoy reading an actual book or newspaper over a digital article, but there is still an author behind the words. Same goes for photography. I love photography! There are artists doing amazing things with a camera and the results are spectacular. It is just important to remember that neither is better or worse, just different. Where that crosses the line, though, is when technology is used as a crutch or shortcut. The film points out that a musician can edit and distort poor skills through digital enhancement and that isn’t right. Same goes for other forms of fine art as the line between reality and impostor can blur.

In the end, one makes those assessments for themselves and, so long as they are honest in presentation, I hope they find pleasure and solitude in the pursuit of creation. The bottom line is that there are really no shortcuts to hard work, patience, practice, and the journey itself.

Even if you’re not a fan of the bands or type of music that form the foundation of Sound City, I think it is worthwhile watch for the story alone. There will always be a place for the hand-crafted built on a feel and chemistry between people, places, and things. That is what makes us human, after all.

In this age of technology where you can manipulate anything, how do we maintain that human element?
— Dave Grohl
Deep in the San Fernando Valley, amidst rows of dilapidated warehouses, was rock n' roll's best kept secret: Sound City. America's greatest unsung recording studio housed a one-of-a-kind console, and as its legend grew, seminal bands and artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Metallica, and Nirvana all came out to put magic to tape.