You’ve may have seen soundboards in the news of late. Last year, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl made a documentary about the legendary Van Nuys studio Sound City, and he purchased its equally legendary board, the Neve 8028. You may have also read about the guy who tried to sell the soundboard that recorded Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and how he had a hard time getting anyone to buy it. Seriously.
Like the recent resurgence of vinyl, you sometimes have the feeling this could be a harmonic convergence of some kind. Perhaps it’s the universe’s way of saying digital isn't the end-all-be-all answer to music production, and to bring back analog recording. But no matter how much the fans love the sound, it’s too late to go back. As Grohl told Rolling Stone, digital has enabled everybody to make music easily, but it also put the classic studios out of business.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Grohl said. “It’s inspiring that any person, any kid, any musician, can now make an album in their living room and distribute it around the world with a click of a button. But the downside of it that these places that were, like, museums and churches and hallowed ground are closing doors, because they can’t survive in a world of that accessibility.”
In its review of the Sound City documentary, the L.A. Times called it an “homage to recording studio equipment.” At first, Grohl was going to make a twelve-minute short on the Neve board that would primarily be released to the internet, but it eventually grew into a full blown movie.
The historic albums that were recorded at Sound City include Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, and Nirvana’s Nevermind, just to name a few. Sound City eventually got left behind when they refused to bring in Pro Tools, and Grohl bought their Neve board when they went out of business.
When Grohl found out the board was available, he thought, “I have a studio, I make records every day. If I could be reunited with this piece of equipment that I consider to be the best sounding board I’ve ever worked on and the board that’s responsible for the person that I am, it would be a huge full-circle emotional reunion for me.”
The benefits of the Neve board are it’s reportedly great for recording vocals and drums. Drums can be especially tricky to record, and Grohl loved how the drums turned out when working at Sound City. He told Rolling Stone that the studio “used to be a warehouse. It was never acoustically designed, it was just a room. But for whatever reason, if you put a drum set in this one spot, it sounded incredible…the board and that room. That’s why we went there.”
Neil Young has experienced similar soundboard nostalgia, and he owns the board from the legendary Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. Young recorded his self-titled debut and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere at Heider Studios, and David Briggs, the late producer who worked extensively with Young, preferred the simplicity of the old soundboards.
Briggs told writer Jimmy McDonough, “If you look at the modern console, there’ll be thirty knobs – teeny tiny degrees – and it’s all bullshit…None of it touches the old tube stuff – like the board from Heider’s. It has two tone controls – high end, low end and a pan knob – and that’s it.”
In the case of the soundboard used to record Michael Jackson’s Thriller, it was a Harrison 4032 from Westlake Studios. As the New Yorker reported, it was purchased by a studio owner named Clayton Rose, and he tried to sell it for a million dollars. Then half a million. Then $250,000. Then $125,000. He finally sold it for $17,000 on EBay, down from his asking price of $32,000.
The Harrison board was bought by the band Phoenix, who were surprised at how well the old school technology worked. Thomas Mars, lead singer of Phoenix, summed it up with a line from Spinal Tap: “It’s almost like ‘This one goes to eleven,’ for real.”
In today’s day and age, these soundboards are a symbol of another era, another incarnation of the music business that will never return. With so many artists just putting out a song at a time, even the era of the full length album may soon be behind us. Grohl’s Sound City documentary is what the critics have called a love letter to a legendary studio, and he was lucky enough to save an important part of its history before the ship went down.