Sonic Sleuth: Dave Grohl investigates a revered studio.
Sonic Sleuth: Dave Grohl investigates a revered studio.

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It’s doubtful that many people who see Sound City will be familiar with the titular Los Angeles recording studio itself. But they will know Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, and other titans of the music industry—not to mention the film’s first-time director and key curiosity factor, former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl.

Sound City isn’t just a glancing history of the now-shuttered studio, but an ode to old-school analog recording. Grohl, in a mostly effortless debut, starts things off with a cheesy voiceover of his own first encounter with Sound City: “We were just kids … but we had these songs, and we had these dreams.” A rundown of many of the acts who worked at the studio follows (including Nirvana, whose Nevermind recording spurred other bands to flock to the place).

The true star of the studio, however, was the Neve console, which revolutionized analog mixing and recording. Grohl talks to its inventor, Rupert Neve, who explains some of the technology. He also explores the enchantment of the location as a reason for its prodigious output, including the great drum sound that the ordinary block room produced. As Rick Rubin says, the results were due to a combination of “luck and magic.”

Grohl mixes archival footage and music videos with present-day comments from musicians, producers, and technicians who came in contact with Sound City. Petty is a big contributor, as is Butch Vig, the famed Nevermind producer and Garbage drummer. (Even Lars Ulrich, punching bag of the rock/metal world, makes an appearance.) We get lots of those-were-the-days stories that never become repetitive or tiresome. Of course, another big part of the conversation is the dawn of digital recording—boo, hiss!—and how its ability to so easily achieve “perfection” instead robbed music of its soul.

Grohl gets sentimental as he covers the stuio’s final days, but the doc’s overall tone and gist of its message is relayed by the studio’s second manager, Shivaun O’Brien: “Sound City was the place where real men went to make records.”