'Sound City' playing at the Normal Theater. (Photo courtesy of Variance Films.)
By Dawn Riordan
For those of us who listened in the 1970s and 80s, contemporary music was recorded with analog equipment – as it had been since sound recording began. LPs and 45 rpm records are a great visual aid for describing the analog process – if you look at the grooves, you’ll see bumps and valleys; each one represents a sound that was pushed through a microphone, sending a signal to a corresponding device that created the bump or valley. When played back through a system that can amplify sound, these peaks and valleys reproduce sounds incredibly close to the original. The sensitivity of such recording devices, especially in the heyday of recorded music is remarkable; recording not only the basic sound but an incredible depth and dimension of the sound – a full spectrum - to capture a recorded moment forever (or at least until someone breaks the LP). Analog is praised by the music demigods for its richness. Sure, digital is now and the future; and digital captures every dimension and nuance of the sound a recording artist makes, but some say it lacks the warmth of analog sound.
This is why any audiophile worth their weight utilizes a variety of recorded mediums to store their favorite music. CDs, those little silver discs that swept in a replaced those cumbersome LPs have now given way to digital downloads – to our phones, to other devices where the digital world reigns supreme as a compact and an endless storage unit for an entire collection of LPs that used to take up shelf after shelf of space. But collecting your music this way has a price.
‘Sound City,’ the documentary featured at the Normal Theater this weekend demonstrates that the digital world may indeed be the future, but it’s not the perfect atmosphere or medium for every recording artist. ‘Sound City’ is really about a small, unassuming recording studio in Van Nuys, California that operated from 1969 to 2011, when it closed its doors because of the digital revolution. Citing the amazing abilities of the recording equipment inside the studio and it’s simple set-up for sound recording – it had shag carpet on the walls for insulation to reduce bouncing sound feedback – the studio is mourned by those whose legendary hits were set in analog preservation at Sound City. Big names like Santana, Rick Springfield, Fleetwood Mac, and Tom Petty recorded timeless hits at Sound City. And David Grohl, Foo Fighter and drummer for Nirvana admired the studio so much that, when it closed, he purchased its equipment and set it up at his home, then invited other musical folk in for sessions. What came from this is a wicked set of songs produced into an album and this wonderful movie that makes a statement about real music makers vs. those who can only make music using virtual tools.
It doesn’t dis contemporary songsters who have enough talent to go on tour or perform truly live. It does call out those who have made it in the music business because digital forgives too much, covers too many mistakes, and can make some guy who sings in the shower sound like a professional. In a way, digital is taking a playing field that doesn’t need leveling and making it way too easy to make someone with the right looks and average talent a star. ‘Sound City’ sets the record straight by showing us that talent isn’t manufactured, it’s bestowed.
‘Sound City’ screens at the Normal Theater this weekend, Saturday and Sunday (May 4 &5) at 7pm each evening.
By the way, if you want to catch a fun movie that feeds the fire of urban legend and you are an admirer of the classic horror film, ‘The Shining,’ you would do yourself a kindness by seeing ‘Room 237’ this Friday, May 3rd at the Normal Theater (7 pm show only). This clever movie takes the folklore and crazy conspiracy theories that have built up in pop culture surrounding enigmatic director Stanley Kubrick’s eerie movie – taking product placement to a whole new level of symbolism and reading way too much into set design. For those of you who think the brainy Kubrick must have been making a hidden statement by directing ‘The Shining,’ or for those of you who just love the film and need a good laugh – see ‘Room 237’ at the Normal Theater. It’s a great way to spend a Friday evening!