Behind the Scenes

Has the Emotion of Our Music Become Lost in the Pursuit of Perfection?

About a year ago I was introduced to a documentary by legendary Foo Fighter & Nirvana rocker Dave Grohl. The documentary was, “Sound City” and it was a mind-blowing collection of stories and an eye-opening reminder of where our music is today as compared to 30 or 40 years ago. If you are under the age of 40 this is a MUST WATCH as we have been eyeball deep in the digital age for nearly 25 years and much of what was, is just a distant memory to some, and is non-existent to others. If you have not seen this yet please watch the Official “Sound City” Trailer here…

Unlike today, most people did not have recording capabilities in their own home 25 plus years ago. That’s right, you had to go to the studio, with an engineer and record to TAPE. Which meant you had to have your shit together and do things the right way unless you wanted to blow a hole in your pocket. There was no linear editing on a computer, no copying and pasting and no quick fixes or auto-tune to clean you up. This was organic and raw— but the feeling and emotional elements that came out of something so organic were amazing. Truly, the songs that have stood the test of time and probably always will were not pieced together on a computer. Case in point:  (Recorded at Sound City Studios)

             My son checkin’ the mic for me..

Fast-forward to today. I sit at home in the evening fiddling around with a melody and some chords that have been in my head. A brilliant song comes to me! I pull up Cubase, open up some tracks, lay down some chords on the keyboard (yea, I played it a little sloppy) but I can just QUANTIZE IT and then fix some bad notes in the midi editor. No problem. I usually always have my condenser mic set up as I do a lot of voice over work, pretty much on a daily basis. I turn on the phantom power on my pre-amp, test my mic levels and lay down my melodic idea. But wait! I have the perfect drum loop for this!! I pull open some loops and input something that gets the idea across. I’ve got my song idea laid down for further production in an hour! Amazing! Sounds great right? And for me it is! I’ve been given direct access to do the things I love in my own home and then collaborate with others across the country!

Listen to the music on the radio and on the top 40 charts. Whether you know it or not, or even care, most of these songs have been sliced and diced and tuned to absolute perfection. No human on his or her best day could ever duplicate this studio mix live, because well, 50% of it has been fine tweaked by the computer. Although it’s not immediately apparent to the general public, to a trained ear there does seem to be an alien-like/robotic-like tone to auto-tuned vocals, and it really makes me cringe. Why? Because it doesn’t sound like an honest to goodness flesh and blood human being! And no I’m not referring to T-Pain or Kanye West who use this, ahem… “Interesting” element as a vocal effect. I’m talking about when you watch “Glee” or when you watch the movie “Rock of Ages” or when you watch the “Pitch Perfect” movies, or listen to the majority of the Top 40 artists on the radio. Perhaps it doesn’t bother you but it makes my skin crawl! Here is an example: 

This goes for instrumentation as well, the “live” feeling is gone, as there is no push and pull with tempo or emotion of the playing. It’s safe to say, I’ve “lost that loving feeling” for the music of today. I always have and always will be inspired by Pat Banetar (yes, another Sound City grad), Foreigner (and another!), Journey and U2. All of which incorporate an “earthy”, true to the sound element. Hell, what about The Roots??? Come on people, this down to earth stuff. Perhaps, it’s my age or my experience, but it is a disturbing thought that some people think this is what music is. Music is supposed to make you FEEL, and without putting a FEELING into a recording you cannot express a FEELING to a listener. Much of the feel comes from IMPERFECTION—that’s right, a growl or a crack the voice, or a slightly imperfect vocal can give a song its style—and is relatable because nobody is perfect. This being said, although I find much top 40-radio material catchy, it’s fleeting.

To further dive into this issue I made a phone call to a long time friend Dan Brenner, who happens to be a former band mate, writing partner, amazing drummer and vocalist as well as a High School Jazz Teacher and quarterfinalists for GRAMMY Foundation Music Educator Award. He is a massive Chicago fan and informed me about a recording technique I was relatively familiar with to a point. It’s the use of drum replacement. Mid 80’s this technique started to catch on (due to the advancement in digital technology which is also covered in the Sound City documentary). When using drum replacement, the producer of the track can simply replace any or all of the drumming with drum samples of their liking. It sounds real because it’s samples of REAL drums but it is almost too perfect. You can learn a little bit more about drum replacement here: Drum Replacement: The Dirty Little Secret that Changed Rock. My buddy Dan also mentioned a story about the legendary band Chicago that I wanted to share. Obviously, I did some digging to find a 1994 interview with Danny Seraphine, original drummer and co-founder of Chicago to authenticate his claims. Below is an exerpt from the interview..

JD: The last few albums you were on with Chicago, the drumming got more and more computer-oriented.

DS: Yeah. Absolutely. At first I really, really fought it. I hated it. And then, what happened was, whenever there was any programming done–none was done on 16, 16 was all live drums–but 17…I was one of those guys that really, really tried to stay away from anything to do with drum machines. Hated ‘em. In those days, it really put the drummer in a very subservient position. People started really bashing drummers, you know? Keyboard players, especially. It was terrible. “We’ve got a machine now that’s gonna replace you guys and it doesn’t talk back, it keeps perfect time, and we can program it to play exactly what WE want.” You know what I’m saying? And then I started hearing all these records that were being programmed by what I could tell were keyboard players–non-drummers. You could just hear it. So I said to myself, “Well, you can fight it or you can learn it and take it to another level,” so I bought a SP-12, which at that time was the top drum machine. It was the only sampling drum machine. So I bought one, and we were off the road for quite awhile, so I just took it and learned it inside and out. And then I got myself this really extravagant MIDI setup, with pads, and a computer, and the whole shot, and in fact I just put my sticks down and started programming, because I thought, “Shit, if I want to hear better programming, then I better do it myself.” So the 17th album, I didn’t like some of the parts that were programmed off that 17, but it’s a great record. It wasn’t all programmed, but parts of it were. Now the 18th album, I think I programmed every note except for one ballad–I forget the name of the song–I overdubbed some drums” -10/21/94, Hofnet Communications, Inc, Read Full Interview Here

Granted, I’m friends with many great studio engineers and producers with a lot of mileage under their belts, and some amazing credits to their names. I’m sure they are all laughing at what I am saying right now…. “duh, we do this stuff all the time, it’s industry standard now.”

I suppose the question I am posing is, what is more important? Striving for absolute perfection in a recording? Or is it more important to have more humanistic elements that have feeling? After all, songs are written to make you feel an emotion. Does this pure perfection (that is simply unattainable live) make you feel the same kind of emotion? Or does it trick a generation of ears that know nothing about music into thinking that this is the standard, and then wonder why someone’s performance totally blew live or why they can’t personally sound like Arianna Grande when they sing? As a former vocal coach myself, I can attest to having students who have tried to learn to sing by duplicating the odd auto-tuned vocals of Britney Spears, including the computer generated vocal movements. By all accounts they were pretty good at duplicating this unusual effect. I however, was pretty disgusted with the fact they were learning technique off of something like that. Perhaps it is a matter of balance. I’m not a Top 40 artist but I do write, record and distribute my own material, and it is my own personal expectations that I use live instrumentation on most of my tracks. I however have used plenty of samples and loops as well. I have also made it a point to not have vocals tuned to the point of ridiculousness. I’m pretty sure most of us artists distributing material want slight perfection in our recordings. However, does this perfection take away from the song in the way it is perceived by the listener? What are your thoughts?

Do you think in the pursuit of recording perfection that we have lost the emotion and feel in our music?

 

 

A “Golden Ears” Perspective – What Your Sound Engineer REALLY Thinks…

Sound Engineer

 

Okay, okay, before I even start, this article pertains to the real sound heroes of the world. We are not talking about amateurs, or the ones who “think” they’re professional sound guys or gals because they can throw up a couple of subs, sticks and tops and get a band ready to rock. This also does not pertain to the guys (or gals) who run the church band on Sunday mornings as a hobby. We are talking about the “golden ears” of the industry, those responsible for taking that terrible room or that piercing vocal and making it sound like butter. I’m talking about the engineers that are sought out by so many artists for their incredible sense of sound. To make this extra clear, this interview also pertains to the artists who make use of professional sound services on a regular basis and or those who don’t make regular use of their own front of house engineer.

Many of us on the stage have had varied experiences with sound companies or the people running the rig. Some experiences leave you basking in the glory of “ooh’s and ahh’s” because it was pure unadulterated sweetness. Others have left you praying someone would just get it over with already and knock you out with a beer bottle. When festival season rolls around we all hope and pray that when we arrive to plug in and do our “thing”, that the folks REALLY running the show REALLY care about how you sound. Let’s face it, the sound guy (or gal) can make you or break you. If you’re simply a shitty band… well, you’re shitty and there is only so much someone can do about your bass player who can’t seem to play in the pocket, or the vocalist who is consistently flat. I have decided to ask a real “golden ear” about their career and some issues artists deal with consistently and how he would handle certain situations from his perspective. He’s requested to stay anonymous but has toured with artists like Blues Traveler & Nelly Furtado and has worked the corporate circuit for top CEO’s who entrust him for sound perfection. His experience has been broad and has proclaimed to have been in every type of sound “situation” you can think of. Here is what we discussed…

How long have you been a pro sound engineer? “20 years”

How long has it taken you to get to the point you a felt truly confident about what you do? “Immediately—I knew right away that I was good at what I did. I have never questioned myself.”

As a professional, what is the first thing you do when you walk into a venue? “Honestly? Find the food— or I log onto Yelp to find the nearest food joint. In all seriousness, I look at the gear—more importantly, I find the house tech. I will know how brutal my day will be right away. If this guy is an idiot, I’ll be doing everything myself and relieving him of his duties for the duration of the evening.”

Do you care about the performers on the stage and how they sound? “100%— Essentially what I am doing in a nutshell is making everything louder. However, if the source isn’t a home run then I can’t hit a grand slam.”

What about the sound is most important to you? “Vocalists love me. Getting a vocal to sound like a vocal is the most important. The audience doesn’t go home humming the kick drum.”

What is your favorite thing about your profession? “I love to mix.. I love sound… I’m very passionate about it. Whether mixing a band for 30 drunken wedding guests or whether I’m mixing Nelly Furtado as an opener for U2 in front of 100,000 people, I had an immediate passion for this.”

What is your least favorite thing about your profession? “Human beings are terrible. Travel and the human beings… both terrible.”

What is the most difficult thing about your profession? “Relationships— This profession has more to do with people and how they perceive you. It’s people based success and you become successful through the relationships you build—- I also got lucky early on. There are a lot of engineers I could mix under the table that are a lot more successful than me, it’s all in who you know.”

What do you find frustrating about working with artists? “Artists needs to feel heard— if they feel heard, then they feel like they are being taken care of and they have a better performance. Many artists try to tell me how they like things to be done… and I listen. When I get off stage though, I do what I want and make them sound great. Often times they bring personal matters onto the stage with them, and those things can majorly affect their performances. Sometimes they will take it out on me, but I don’t take it personally.”

How do you deal with a horrible sound guy as an artist? “Well, that’s a PROBLEM, If the sound guy is under qualified then too bad for you. They may listen to a request if you’re a pretty chick and you get out your…. I mean, bat your eyelashes at them.”

“There are two groups of engineers out there. One group thinks it’s about THEMSELVES and the other group thinks it’s about the PERFORMER. Even though I have a huge ego… it’s not about MY ego, it’s about the PERFORMERS ego and making them feel and sound good. That has been the key to my success. The sound engineer needs to ALWAYS be there for the artist, not the other way around.”

So there you have it folks, from a self-proclaimed egotistical, very honest, and successful sound engineer. Your sound engineer should always put you first and listen to your needs. Bottom line is that their job is to make you sound AWESOME! If you simply have no choice but to work with someone unqualified… well, better luck next time!