Dave Grohl Finds Music's Human Element — In A Machine The Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters founder says he wouldn't be the musician he is today if not for one piece of equipment in a now-shuttered L.A. studio. Rediscovering it, and connecting with other musicians who shared the honor, is the subject of his new documentary, Sound City: Reel to Real.

Dave Grohl Finds Music's Human Element — In A Machine

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. It wasn't much to look at - a nondescript building in California's San Fernando Valley; with hideous, brown shag carpeting on the walls. But from the 1970s on, the Sound City recording studio turned out a ridiculous number of hits.


BLOCK: Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Foreigner.




BLOCK: That's Dave Grohl, who pulled into Sound City in 1991 in a rusted, white van with his bandmates in Nirvana. They were unknown when they got there, but the album that came out of that studio - "Nevermind" - turned rock music on its head.



BLOCK: Dave Grohl, the Nirvana drummer and founder of Foo Fighters, from his new documentary film "Sound City," which is really a love story about that studio and in particular, that board he just mentioned. Dave Grohl joins me from his own studio in Los Angeles. Dave, welcome to the program.

: Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

BLOCK: Let's talk about that board. It's a Neve soundboard, N-E-V-E, and that was the studio console. What was so great about it?

: Well, you know, that was a great era for recording equipment. 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 just 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. And what you get when you record on a Neve desk is this really big, warm representation of whatever comes into it.


: So Sound City had this Neve board, and I think it's the only thing we knew about Sound City when Nirvana went there. We'd never been to the studio. So when we came down in that old van and opened the doors, to see that the place was a total dump...


: ...we were kind of shocked, you know?

BLOCK: What are we in for?

: Yeah. We had no idea. I mean - and it really did change my life forever, those 16 days. I don't think I'd be here now if it weren't for that time at Sound City.

BLOCK: It's a really fun thing to watch in the movie because your face lights up every time you talk about this board. Let's take a listen.


BLOCK: You know, the thing I don't get, Dave, is when I think about how music sounds, I might think about the room it was recorded in - right - or the microphones that were used. I wouldn't think about the soundboard. How does that work? What does it add?

: Well, you know, it's funny. Most people don't take those things into consideration. When they hear an album, they hear the artist or they hear the lyric or they hear the melody; but they don't really think about the environment in which it was recorded, you know - which is so important. It's kind of like that fifth element. It's that thing that determines what the album sounds like. And had any of these albums been made at a different studio, they just wouldn't sound the same.

Every one of these boards, these old boards, they all have personality. They all have a different life to them, and they all have different history. It's almost like they have ghosts in them, you know? And when we installed the board at my studio, we had to open it up and clean it out. I mean, there was, like, 40 years of cocaine and fried chicken in that thing, you know?



BLOCK: There's a great moment in the film when you go to interview the actual inventor, the creator of the Neve - Rupert Neve himself - and he tries to explain...


: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...the nuts and bolts of what the board does.

: Absolutely. Yeah.


BLOCK: And Dave Grohl, you get this big, goofy grin on your face like you have no idea what he's talking about.

: I haven't the foggiest notion.


: I knew that if we had Rupert Neve in the film, we had to ask something so technical that no one would understand - and then subtitle it.

BLOCK: And what - the subtitle reads, as you're listening to him, it says...

: It says, doesn't he know I'm a high school dropout?


: Or something like that. Yeah, I mean, that's why he's Rupert Neve. He's a genius.

BLOCK: Well, in layman's terms, for those of us who aren't studio geeks, explain what a console does; how it shapes the music that comes through it.

: Basically, a recording console - it's like a big stereo. What you do is, you take a microphone, and you plug it into the console. You sing into the microphone; the sound goes through the cable, into the desk. And in the desk, you can manipulate the sound by making it brighter, giving it more bass - basically, like an EQ on your stereo. An old Neve desk gives it this personality. It does embellish it in a way that it makes it sound sort of bigger or warmer. And for rock 'n' roll, I mean, you know, it really suits rock 'n' roll.

So musicians like me are drawn to those older desks, not just because of their legend and lore but also because they do something really specific that is hard to emulate or re-create digitally.

BLOCK: You mentioned earlier that you have this Neve console now.

: I'm staring at it right now.


BLOCK: You're looking at it right now?

: Lovingly.

BLOCK: And is your voice actually coming to us through that console?

: Yeah. We're going right through the desk, right now.

BLOCK: You're using the Neve.

: See, doesn't it sound great?

BLOCK: You sound fantastic.

: Thank you.

BLOCK: Well, why did you buy it? You bought it when Studio City shut down. Why?

: Well, I'll tell you. It might sound ridiculous to be so emotionally attached to a board that's just a big hunk of metal and knobs, but I look at it like it's the house I grew up in, you know? If you had the opportunity to buy the house that you grew up in, that you became yourself in - anyone would do that, I think. And I looked at it that way. And to be reunited with this thing, I was just - it was beyond me. I just - I couldn't believe it. And so I didn't even ask how much it cost. I said, absolutely because I really did imagine this thing was going to wind up in the Hall of Fame.


BLOCK: Well, Dave Grohl, it's been really fun to talk to you. Thank you so much.

: Awesome. Thank you a lot.


BLOCK: Musician Dave Grohl is director of the new documentary "Sound City." And we're listening to Stevie Nicks on a song from a new album that Grohl has recorded on that Neve board. It includes many others, from Trent Reznor to Paul McCartney. You can hear the album "Real to Reel" at nprmusic.org.


CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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