Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Foo Fighters And The Beauty Of Analog

There's a great article on emusician.com that has a interview with everyone involved with the latest Foo Fighters album, Wasting Light, which was done in leader Dave Grohl's garage with producer Butch Vig. The album was also a return to recording analog in that not a piece of digital gear was used in its making.

Those of us who grew up in the era of tape machines are all too familiar with some of the things that the Foos willingly put themselves through. First of all, especially back in the 8 track days, you didn't just go for a good drum track when recording basics, the whole band had to be spot on before you moved on. This lead to a lot of takes.

As Grohl says in the article:
“I am no stranger to tape,” Grohl says. “Call me dumb, but the simple signal path of a microphone to a tape machine makes perfect sense to me. There’s not too many options, and the performance is what matters most.”

But not everyone agreed with Grohl’s “analog only” rule. “The first song we recorded, we get a drum take and Butch starts razor-splicing edits to tape,” Grohl recalls. “We rewind the tape and it starts shedding oxide. Butch says, ‘We should back everything up to digital.’ I start screaming: ‘If I see one f**king computer hooked up to a piece of gear, you’re f**king fired! We’re making the record the way we want to make it, and if you can’t do it, then f**k you!’ Nobody makes us do what we don’t want to do. ‘What if something happens to the tape?’ ‘What did we do in 1991, Butch?’ You play it again! God forbid you have to play your song one more time.” 
The good part about this is you're forced to make decisions while you're recording. You get the sounds, the arrangements and performances that work up front. As a result mixes go faster because you don't have so many options that you can get paralyzed.

The other thing is that mixing becomes a performance in itself. Before console automation (which started out only on faders and mutes), you'd get as many people from the band involved with the mix, all with a specific assignment as when to move a fader, or a mute or a send at a specific time. Just like playing, you did it over and over until you got the part right. That made the mix much more of a performance and gave it a much more organic feel.

According to the article:
Everything was mixed with all eight hands (Grohl, Vig, Brown, and mix engineer Alan Moulder) on deck, riding faders in real time to tape. 
There was something that was very pure about those times that's been lost in these digital days. Bravo to the Foos for turning back time if only for one album (it's a great one, by the way).

Read the entire article here. It's long and goes into a lot of depth about how they did it.
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4 comments:

Steve (a-roonie) said...

This is a great article, Bobby. Thanks for the heads up. I was around during the analog era, but I didn't get into recording until late into the digital times. This article is a heckuva lot better than that youtube video of Grohl spitting expletives every other word touring his home recording space.

Andrew Hicox (aka "Dr. Plurgid") said...

I was completely psyched for a new Foo album, after "Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace".

Though I'm not monied enough to actually OWN any vintage gear, I'm pretty enthused about vintage techniques as well, so I was DOUBLE psyched about "Wasting Light", given all the "We did it on our garage on tape, everything old school" hype.

After a month or so, of giving it a chance to set in, I have to say: it's really not that good.

It goes to prove something I read around the internet (maybe here): it's all about the song. You could record the world's greatest song on an answering machine tape, and it'd still sound like the world's greatest song ... the inverse is also true.

For all the cool analog-ness or whatever (which I sure as heck can't hear, but maybe I'm a donk), "Wasting Light" is completely forgettable (unlike most of the Foo's other work) ... the songs just aren't that good.

Anonymous said...

I have only heard one song from this album so far, but in my opinion it sounded very 'mushy' and ill defined. Some of the instruments levels seemed out of place.

Matt said...

I'm disappointed that it's almost impossible to tell they recorded the album in a garage on tape.

It's a testament to the band and the mixing team that it sounds so tight and polished, but come on, give me some room mic!

If you're going to go through all the effort to record 100% analog AND BRAG ABOUT IT, the record should have a little more color and character than it does.

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