Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Old Time Rock And Roll

I was driving between gigs yesterday and fiddling with the radio. A lot of radio stations have gone digital and broadcast a second channel with deep cuts and other stuff more off the beaten path. I was listening to the second channel of a classic rock station and had a bit of a flash back.

It was a tune from the late Sixties or very early Seventies. American folk rock, male lead singer. I almost turned it off because it's not an artist I'm fond of but then I let it slide and started picking through it. My first thought was, "We made better stuff on four track cassette machines back in the early Nineties!" Granted it wasn't a big hit but it had to have sold some copies to still be of interest, even on deep cut radio.

There was basically no kick drum. The snare sounded distant. The ride cymbal had some weird phasing going on with another mic in the room. The bass was louder than the guitar solo and there wasn't a stitch of compression anywhere. Twenty years down the line, what a national recording artist had paid big bucks for was easily doable by some kids in a garage with a $200 tape machine.

My thoughts went on to the desire to get that "vintage" sound on new recordings. There's a whole community of people trying (and mostly succeeding) to keep tape alive. But apart from a very small minority of real purists, nobody really goes after that bare bones production. It happened back then because there literally wasn't any gear on hand at some of these studios.

So today, when someone like Jack White or The Foo Fighters go for that vintage feel what they're really doing is picking and choosing certain elements of that sound and packaging their music with them. Don't buy the hype. Jack White's stuff is still manhandled in the mix and master phase. That's what makes it exciting. You get something that's as loud and vibrant as everything else you hear today, but that contains a certain raw energy that's lacking in a lot of material.
When you think of a studio like Muscle Shoals that turned out these towering monoliths of Southern Rock it'll really make your head spin when you find out how little there was on hand. I may be getting this wrong but I think it was sixteen tracks, an analog desk and some mics. There wasn't even that much EQ available in the board! So how did the records turn out so great? The people working on them had an incredible intensity for one, and for two they didn't know what they didn't have and shot for the moon with what they did.

In a rambling sort of way I'm trying to get back to my basic philosophy here. While it's great to have a ton of stuff on hand, you really need to make intelligent decisions about everything you use. Sure, you can have a Massenburg plugin on every channel. But what if you only had one dbx? It was a different arena but the same idea when my lighting professor asked us, "What is that light's motivation? Why did you hang it there". It's not just a question of accounting. You almost need to treat every decision like it's live or die, and learn to do it quickly or you'll get bogged down.

As usual Brethren of the Knob and Fader, I think I've asked more questions than I've answered. But hopefully those of you who are out there pushing the buttons on transports already have an idea of what I'm talking about and you'll dig a little deeper when you're putting your sessions together.

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