I just kind of stumbled across this article over at npr.com about the Sound City music studio in the San Fernando Valley back in the 1970′s. The point of the article is that the soundboard they used there for over 20 years had as much to do with the sounds that the studio put out over the years by artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine and others as it did with the musicians themselves.
Dave Grohl was a member of Nirvana who recorded there and gave an interesting description of the Neve 8028 soundboard that was used there:
The late ’60s and the ’70s, a lot of this really beautiful equipment was being made and installed into studios around the world and the Neve boards were considered like the Cadillacs of recording consoles. They’re these really big, behemoth-looking recording desks; they kind of look like they’re from the Enterprise in Star Trek or something like that. They’re like a grayish color, sort of like an old Army tank with lots of knobs, and to any studio geek or gear enthusiast it’s like the coolest toy in the world. But they’re pretty simple. They’re not filled with miles and miles of cable and wires — they’re pretty simple. And what you get when you record on a Neve desk is this really big, warm representation of whatever comes into it. What’s going to come out the other end is this bigger, better version of you. And so it makes you sound real, but it makes you sound really good.
Back in high school, one of our music teachers, Bill Perkins, who was the marching band teacher during the glory years — such as they were — of the Campbell High School marching band, decided to try an educational experiment in my junior year. He wanted to put together a group of kids who could sing and follow simple choreography instructions and play instruments and create a singing/dancing/live music entertainment group that was eventually called “Fantasma”. I don’t know why he thought I was worthy of consideration for membership in this group, but he strongly encouraged me to try out for it. Given my experience singing tenor in my ward’s choir, I could carry a tune in a bucket and harmonize with others while not being thrown too badly off key by the alto or bass singer sitting next to me, and so I was one of the lucky ones to get picked to be in the group.
We were kind of our high school’s version of “Glee”, just not nearly as good. We could dream though.
Anyway, Mr. Perkins’ idea was that we would perform for local schools and whatnot to get some experience in performing in front of other people, and at the end of the year we’d go down and do a performance at Disneyland at the Carnation Cafe at the back end of Main Street. (He kept Fantasma alive for at least 3 more years beyond that first one during my junior year; at the end of ’74, we went up to the World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington and did a show there.)
To get us accepted to perform at Disneyland, Mr. Perkins had to put together a demo tape of Fantasma doing its thing. So he arranged for someone he knew to come in to our school auditorium one day with a nice sound recording system and he set up mikes all over the place so we could sing a few of our numbers and create the demo tape.
I don’t remember how many musicians we had in our band — and they were awesome — but I always kind of felt that during our performances the singers were kind of overpowered by the band.
Well, Mr. Perkins’ sound guy fixed that.
After we were finished with our mini-performance for the sound guy, we eventually got to sit down and listen to what he had created, given his magical ability to balance the sound coming from the band and the sounds from the singers and whatever other powers the sound equipment put at his fingertips and it was, well, unbelievable.
I wasn’t the only one listing to the playback asking skeptically: “That’s US??”
Yes, it was us, and we sounded better than I would have ever believed was possible.
When I read the Dave Grohl interview at the NPR website, I was reminded of our own recording session all those years ago. Good sound equipment and good sound engineers are worth their weight in gold.
When we watch movies, or see live performances somewhere, we tend to focus on the people singing and dancing and acting; the people who are up front and center. We tend to not think about all the other people who work behind the scenes who help shape the performances just as much, if not more, than those in the glory positions. Choreographers (we had Marie Stinnett coming up with moves for us so we wouldn’t be these static stick-figures standing in front of microphones), editors, writers, orchestras, composers, directors, stage managers, make-up people, costumers, model-makers, set designers and so on and so forth, tend to get overlooked in favor of the “stars”.
When I go see a movie, when it’s over, I always sit through all the credits, mainly to hear the closing credits music. Sometimes there’s a surprise at the end of the credits that those who walk out early miss out on (Ferris Bueller telling me “It’s over; go home!” comes to mind). But I’d like to think it’s also to pay a little respect to all those people behind the scenes who are never seen but who are just as important to the end result.
As one of the beneficiaries of a good sound man all those years ago, it’s the least I can do.