Mark your calendars, music lovers, March 22nd is Dynamic Range Day and March 12th is the day Dave Grohl's new documentary Sound City Studios gets wide release. What does this mean, you ask, and how are these things related? I’m getting there, hear me out. The digital age has brought us many bountiful rewards, it’s true, but it has also brought us the so-called “Loudness Wars”—basically, for several annoyingly boring technical reasons, digital recordings can be very highly compressed so as to sound subjectively louder than anything analog recording can produce. Sounds like a real bonus, right? Louder is better? Not so, say the organizers of Dynamic Range Day. Not so, say the participants in Dave Grohl’s documentary about the legendary Sound City Studios (trailer above) and his album of recordings using Sound City’s vintage analog Neve console.
See, highly compressed digital recordings basically sound like crappy walls of distorted noise after a while, which is ugly and tiresome. Gone is the dynamic range--the nuance, or light-and-shade, as music people sometimes like to say. This phenomenon---combined with the proliferation of low-grade mp3s and the digital trickery that makes bad singers sound tolerable---is ruining recorded music, and musicians know it, which is why so many great ones were excited to work with Grohl on his film and recording project, celebrating the lost art of live, all-analog recording. Well, that’s not the only reason. Founded in Van Nuys, CA in 1969, the dive-y Sound City Studios also happens to be where some of the most-loved rock and roll records of all time were made, including Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. (Rick Rubin also recorded Metallica’s Death Magnetic there—according to the purists and fans alike, one of the worst casualties of the Loudness Wars—but that’s a story for another day).
Now, Sound City Studios is no more, but its history has been documented by Grohl in Sound City, the movie, and Grohl preserved the studio’s beautiful analog gear, now housed in his Studio 606, and recorded a suite of songs with special guests from the film like Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, punk legends Lee Ving and Pat Smear, and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme. That record, Sound City: Real to Reel is streaming free now on NPR. Listen to its sweet analog goodness above for a limited time (through your digital machine—hey, it is what it is, right?). Then, if you’re so inclined, you can purchase the record (or individual tracks) from iTunes or Amazon. The film will be available shortly on Blu-ray and download too.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness