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Dave Grohl Revisits Sound City: Capturing the Studio’s Music and Memories

“It all started with this idea that I wanted to tell the story of the board,” says musician and (now) filmmaker Dave Grohl in his documentary Sound City. “The conversation became something much bigger: In this age of technology, where you can simulate or manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element?”

Dave Grohl on the Sound City set. Photo by Sami Ansari

Sound City is the story of the Van Nuys, Calif., facility—now converted to soundstages and a private studio—where Fleetwood Mac joined with Buckingham Nicks; where Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cut Damn the Torpedoes with Jimmy Iovine, and Unchained with Johnny Cash; and where Nirvana made Nevermind. But it’s also a larger story, about the human element: the people who devote their lives to making music and to creating a community of music makers, and the ways lives have changed with the decline of commercial studios.

Grohl’s film begins with the history of Sound City—the artists, owners and staff, producers and engineers, and the studio’s famous Neve board, which now lives in Grohl’s personal facility, Studio 606. Then, about two-thirds in, the focus of the movie shifts to the process of recording the film’s soundtrack: Sound City: Real to Reel, an album of new songs written and tracked in 606 with producer Butch Vig and some of the artists who famously recorded at Sound City.

Producer Butch Vig at the famous Neve console in Studio 606. Photo by Billy Pavone

In the film, the soundtrack sessions are super-energized, with musicians mainly cutting live in Grohl’s tracking room. “Everybody who’s been to Sound City knows exactly why I’m making this record,” Grohl says in the film.

Engineering the Sound City soundtrack, and appearing in the film, was James Brown, who has worked with Grohl’s Foo Fighters and was in the thick of Kings of Leon sessions when interviewed for this story.

Early sessions for Sound City: Real to Reel included John Fogerty, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Corey Taylor (of Slipknot) with Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), and Rick Springfield. March brought Chris Goss (Masters of Reality) and Rage Against the Machine to the studio. “In April we did sessions with Trent Reznor and Stevie Nicks,” Brown says. “We all realized we were working on something special, but then we got Paul McCartney and the bar was suddenly raised to a whole other level.”

Director of photography Kenny Stoff shot Sound City with RED EPIC cameras. Photo by Sami Ansari

Some songs were written and arranged on the spot in the studio, as in the film segment that shows McCartney working with Grohl, Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana. “Dave always came to the sessions armed with a riff or a writing demo in his back pocket, mostly as an insurance policy in case there wasn’t a better idea on the day,” Brown says. “But in all cases, 80 to 95 percent of the track would be conceived, recorded and overdubbed during that first day. The tracks always began with musicians playing together at 606, and we’d record that to the house 24-track Studer A827.

“The watchword for the whole project was ‘real,’” Brown continues. “Pro Tools [Avid] works just as well as tape at capturing those moments, but it also makes it incredibly easy to correct and perfect things, and that can be to the detriment of an artist trying to get a feeling across. Working in the analog domain, there’s less temptation to correct idiosyncrasies or human flaws. Tape brings an honesty to the process—to the production side of things, too.”

Engineer James Brown at the Neve 8028, with Grohl over his shoulder

Brown set up dozens of mics to cover the ever-changing musical lineup. “The brief from Dave was, ‘Be ready for anything,’” he says. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to spend a ton of time getting sounds, so it became about creating a one-size-fits-all system. We had a drum kit mic’ed, tuned and ready to set levels as soon as anyone picked up a pair of sticks; we had a bass cabinet mic’ed and ready; we had four guitar stations with mics routed to tape and ready to slot in whatever amp we wanted; we had four live vocal mics; we made provisions for keyboards, ready to patch, and so on.”

In the preamp department, “The Sound City console took care of drum, bass and guitar recording; an extra eight-channel lunchbox of Neve 1073s took care of the vocals and acoustic guitar; and 16 channels of Pat Schneider custom preamps took care of keyboards and percussion,” Brown explains. “We also had a full backline rig in the live room with Ian Beveridge on hand to mix monitors, and a slew of Mackie headphone mixers waiting for balances to be dialed in if that was the preferred method of monitoring. We tried to be all things to all men and women.”

Brown mic’ed live vocals with Shure Beta 58s. He says that, with wedge monitors in the room, he appreciated the 58s’ tight pickup pattern. “Those would go through a 1073 pre/EQ,” he says, “and then get compressed to tape using an Empirical Labs Distressor. I like that you can smash a vocal with it without it getting too sibilant.” For re-recording or overdubbing vocals, Brown says he would switch to a Bock 251 mic, also through a 1073, and to another Distressor or UREI Blackface 1176.

Dave Grohl. Photo by Sami Ansari

To capture the multitude of electric guitars, Brown says, “I like pairing a condenser with a ribbon; you have two very different, and two very complementary, sounds to blend, regardless of whether you need an amp to sit above or in a track. Two amp stations had a Josephson E22 and Royer R121 each; the third had a pair of Butch Vig’s RCA BK5 ribbons to cover harsher-sounding amps; the fourth, a pair of Shure SM57s. I also had a Sennheiser 421 on hand in case I wanted a more scooped tone. All of these mics were handled by the console preamps, and they would get some light limiting on their way to tape using UA LA3As.”

As would be expected of the talent roster on this project, the soundtrack recordings rock hard, with a lot of spontaneity and heart. “The McCartney/Nirvana session was a highlight for all of us, not just in a career sense but in a life sense,” Brown says when asked about memorable moments. “How many people do you know who can tell their children they were in the room when the Mozart of our generation wrote a song?”

However, Grohl points out in the film that, to him, almost as important as the human element is the unsung hero of these sessions and so many others: the Neve 8028 console that Tom Skeeter paid twice the price of his own house for in 1972.

Obtaining the Sound City Neve must have been bittersweet for Grohl; he’s one of many musicians who found it hard to say goodbye to the studio. But as long as he’s got that board, Sound City lives, in a way.

“I think they knew I wasn’t going to bubble-wrap it and stick it in a warehouse,” Grohl says in Sound City. “I was going to f–king use it. A lot.”