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Ghosts In The Machines: Can A Legendary Piece Of Gear Make Music Magic?

Recording artists from Dave Grohl and Phoenix to your local indie band seek That Elusive Quality promised by magic rooms and pre-loved gear. But are they wasting their time?

Ghosts In The Machines: Can A Legendary Piece Of Gear Make Music Magic?

Dave Grohl made a lot of noise recently with his documentary, Sound City, which was ostensibly about his acquisition of the soundboard from Sound City Studios, the unlikely music factory that churned out countless classic albums including Nevermind, the river-bending, career-making record that rocketed his old band, Nirvana, to platinum status.

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In case you missed the film, and you really shouldn’t, Sound City studios wasn’t much to look at. Replete with shag carpeting on the walls better suited to the interior of a stoner’s van, the studio itself was a grimy space in a warehouse district deep within the San Fernando Valley. And yet, as Grohl notes, those walls leading into the building were also lined with platinum discs by other game changers, such as Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, and Tom Petty, and such diverse clients as Rick Springfield and Rage Against The Machine.

Harrison 4032

After the studio went out of business in 2011, thanks in no small part to the availability of cheap digital recording software, the building and its contents went up for sale. Grohl set out to acquire the studio’s coveted Neve 8028 analog console, custom-built by the legendary Rupert Neve himself, and move it into his own Studio 606. After inviting heavy friends like Paul McCartney, Josh Homme, and other Sound City alumni over to 606 to write and record original material together using the magic Neve board, Grohl explores questions of magic and human alchemy. Was it all about the Neve board? Was it the sound of the drums in the room? Or did everyone just get lucky? He also raised questions about the digital age and the lack of necessity for learning your craft. You can guess where he comes down, but that’s not the only point of his film.

The Human Element

“In this age of technology, where you can manipulate anything…,” Grohl asks at one point in the film, “how do we retain that human element?”

Since making the film, Grohl has spoken in interviews about how different boards have what he calls “personality” or “ghosts” in them, not to mention, as he joked to NPR’s Melissa Block, “about 40 years of cocaine and fried chicken” in the crevices. Yet, he also told Block that much of Sound City’s draw came from the humans who worked there and “kept the room alive . . . the studio managers and the runners and all of these people . . . it goes beyond performance and it goes beyond a performer. It goes all the way down to the people that made sure Sound City kept its doors open.”

The French Mystique

Hot on the heels of Grohl’s Neve rescue came news that the Atlantic-jumping French band Phoenix had acquired the Harrison 4032 console that was used on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, in addition to albums by Billy Idol, Paul McCartney, and Donna Summer. A widely read New Yorker story by Nick Paumgarten recounted a weird bidding war after which the band took possession of the board for around $17,000, substantially less than the original million-dollar asking price, and set about using it to record their just-released album, Bankrupt. In the New Yorker, Phoenix’s Thomas Mars admits that he and his bandmates “just liked the idea of working with a consecrated artifact, as well as having something strange upon which to fixate between albums”.

Phoenix, Bankrupt

Most of the best ghost stories are made up, or embellished anyway. Bands need a story to tell; a little credibility garnered by association with “consecrated artifacts.” I can attest to this firsthand. When I was a young guitarist in Toronto, one of my first experiences in a professional recording studio found me plugged into the original Neve board used by local heroes Rush to record their first two albums. This little factoid not only made for great band conversation over at Tim Horton’s donuts, it made me feel as though I was touching the faders of glory. Like I was on my way.

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The Ghostbuster

Not so fast says San Francisco songwriter and producer John Vanderslice. He says that even at a fraction of the price, Phoenix paid too much for the Harrison console. He says that even his own independent studio, Tiny Telephone, regularly fields inquires from indie bands who only want to record there so they can say they worked in the studio where Spoon, Deerhoof, Death Cab For Cutie, Okkervil River, and The Magnetic Fields rolled tape. Vanderslice, who recently recorded his new album, Dagger Beach, at Tiny Telephone, says that younger bands, in particular, often get fooled into thinking that by using a famous piece of gear or recording at a famous studio, they’ll tap into the greatness of those who came before. He says he’s turned away some clients, urging them to think more about their priorities.

“The thing is,” says Vanderslice, “I get it. As content providers, you often have to be your own PR agent and generate all this energy. I just think audio tourism is an extremely expensive way to have a story to tell. The reason why you buy a console and put money into it, is because it’s a fucking great-sounding console. And if it’s not a Helios or a Neve or some badass board, then you’re just totally wasting your time. When I read about Phoenix, I was just absolutely laughing out loud. I mean Phoenix has got some money rolling through but this is a substantial part of their recording universe.”

Having said that, Vanderslice admits he’s not above acting on tips from respected peers.

“I was reading about Daniel Lanois, whom I really respect a lot,” says Vanderslice, “and he said ‘I miss my Neve 8068. There was just no other console that I’d worked on that sounded like that, that had the flexibility and sonic footprint.’ So I decided just from that one interview, that I was going to look for an 8068. So I’d rather take tips from them. When someone like Chris Walla [Death Cab For Cutie] tells me that he recorded at Sound City and that the room was unbelievably balanced and fantastic sounding, that means the world to me.”

Neve 8068

Portland-based recording engineer Beau Sorenson was behind the console at Death Cab’s Codes + Keys sessions at Sound City, which he describes as “magic sounding.”

“We did two tracking sessions there,” says Sorenson. “Amazing live room, great console, incredible piano. When we first got there, Ben [Gibbard] played [Fleetwood Mac’s] “Say You Love Me” on that piano. It was eerie; it sounded just like the record!”

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Sorenson’s point seems to imply that the hunt for magic might have more to do with that old real estate adage: “location, location, location.”

Get A Room!

If you’re looking for recording love, says Vanderslice, get a room.

“Rooms are such complicated acoustic environments that they really do matter,” says Vanderslice. “A legendary acoustician like Bill Putnam is a legend because his rooms were famous for being extremely versatile, balanced, and modern sounding, with live dynamic excitement but not overwhelming.”

House Music

Then there’s San Francisco indie producer Allen Clapp, who recorded Sun Moon,the new album by his band the Orange Peels, where he records most of his clients–in his own home. Clapp’s Mystery Lawn studio, however, is an Eichler Home, a Mad Men-era California modern bungalow with a low-sloping A-frame roof and a starkly geometric floor plan.

“The Eichler,” says Clapp, “has main living areas that are contiguous and all run into each other, so you have a lot freedom to breathe. The character is imprinted on the sound itself. The Eichler specifically has a redwood ceiling, mahogany wall, and floor-to-ceiling windows.”

He’s adamant that the ambient space on a recording is a large part of why we love 1970s albums by the Stones or Led Zeppelin, who brought mobile recording trucks to places like Villa Nellcôte and Headley Grange, respectively.

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“We record drums in the kitchen 90% of the time because of the unique sound, and we mic the room next door. We also mic the whole house to pick up the ambience.”

Sampling The Golden Sound

Home may be where the heart is, but many of today’s music makers continue to romanticize the golden era of the big recording studios. Finding those rooms without padlocks on their doors is becoming increasingly rare, which only increases their mystique. Upon hearing of the demise of Vancouver’s Mushroom Studios, where the much sampled break beat from “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band (hip-hop’s “God particle”) was recorded in 1973, my social media feeds were overloaded with RIP tweets from Mushroom admirers such as Questlove as well as engineers seeking to scavenge the remains of the classic facility. Dan Forrer, whose upcoming documentary, Sample This, touches on Mushroom’s magic reputation, says a combination of the room and its analog gear gave it a “golden sound.”

“The original board at Mushroom,” says Forrer, “was an all-tube affair that came from Western Recorders in Hollywood. Hits by the Mamas and Papas and the Beach Boys were recorded using that console. It’s been called one of the best places in North America to record drums.”

So whether you believe in ghosts or not, Vanderslice offers a cautionary note to any bands thinking of breaking the bank to chase down a haunted console.

“Bands can make terrible decisions when it comes to gear, and if your decision-making process has been undermined by your belief that there is a ghost in this machine, then you’re a moron because it’s hard enough to navigate this world.”

[Sounboard Image: Flickr user Glenn Tremblett | Neve 8068 and Harrison 4032 via Gearslutz]

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About the author

Paul Myers is a Toronto, Canada-born, Berkeley, California-based journalist, musician and songwriter, and the author of three music biographies including A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio (Jawbone Press, 2010). He is also one-half of San Francisco music duo, The Paul & John.

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