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A Machine with Soul

August 19, 2013

Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Nirvana made a documentary earlier this year, which was a celebration/memorial of the Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, where he recorded Nevermind with Nirvana over a “life-changing” 16 day period in the early 90s.

The film documents the life of the studio and chronicles the great musicians who made music there.

The place was far from spectacular, it had none of the mod cons, but musicians flocked there.

They went there for its sound- that intangible and ethereal thing that can make the difference between great and good, fake and real, warm and cold.

Studio City’s sound was down to two things; the “sound” of its studios (they were never designed to sound great, they just were) and the Neve 8028 sound board, purchased for the astonishing sum of $75k back in 1972.

Grohl’s doc shows how Fleetwood Mac’s 2nd incarnation happened because Mick Fleetwood was checking out the board, but found Lindsay Buckingham and Steve Nicks in another studio. Once Fleetwood Mac had a hit record that was recorded at Studio City, bands flocked to the place, including the likes of Foreigner and R.E.O. Speedwagon and once the 80s hit, pretty much all of LA’s “hair bands”. By the end of the 1980s, digital technology had started to arrive in force and the studio fell upon hard times. It took Nirvana in 1991, to give rise the second resurgence of the studio, but ultimately digital caught up and the studio closed in 2011.

While Grohl didn’t buy the studio, he did end up buying the Neve board and installed it in his new Los Angeles studio.

In an interview with NPR, Grohl explained what makes the Neve machine so special.

“The late ’60s and the ’70s, a lot of this really beautiful equipment was being made and installed into studios around the world and the Neve boards were considered like the Cadillacs of recording consoles. They’re these really big, behemoth-looking recording desks; they kind of look like they’re from the Enterprise in Star Trek or something like that. They’re like a grayish color, sort of like an old Army tank with lots of knobs, and to any studio geek or gear enthusiast it’s like the coolest toy in the world. But they’re pretty simple. They’re not filled with miles and miles of cable and wires — they’re pretty simple. And what you get when you record on a Neve desk is this really big, warm representation of whatever comes into it. What’s going to come out the other end is this bigger, better version of you. And so it makes you sound real, but it makes you sound really good.”

Sound City Studios and its Neve 8028 board did something that could not be replicated with today’s digital tools; it made the sound warmer, richer and more alive.

The board is a relic of a bygone age of human craftsmanship; each one took 2,500 hours to put together.

As we move deeper into the synthetic and digital age, there’s something about the machines of the past that endure; the have imperfections, warmth and seem to acknowledge that people were involved in their creation, they have soul.


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