Taking care of business

Andrew Gilstrap, in search of redeeming social value in the classic-rock universe, finds, of all things, sound quality:

This stuff just sounds fantastic. Part of it is surely the Darwinian passage of time, in which less beloved songs fall out of the playlist, but just about any song you hear on classic rock radio sounds great. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s three-guitar attack is as clear as day. You couldn’t ask for a clearer sounding song than Heart’s “Crazy On You”, and all those Steve Miller hits coat the ears like honey. Maybe that’s one good thing that came from the massive studio bills that bands used to rack up, maybe no one knows how to mic instruments like they used to, or maybe it’s the price newer albums are paying for participating in the loudness wars. Whatever the reason, I’m hard pressed to think of many new recordings that have the warmth or dynamics that seem so plentiful in classic rock.

Shoulda heard ’em on vinyl.

There seem to be exactly two recording techniques in use today: semi-minimalist and kitchen-sink. The latter needs no explanation: we’ve got 32 tracks, and we’re gonna use them. Often as not, they get used for people who fly in, play their few bars, and disappear again. But even if you have no guest artists, the temptation to piddlefart around with all those extra tracks is well-nigh irresistible. (Trust me on this one. In the middle 1970s, I had actual four-track recording capabilities at home. Things got thrown in just so I could see all four VU meters jumping around.)

Simplified recording techniques may yield better-sounding results, but better-sounding results may not necessarily be the goal. The quest for airplay usually results in something that sounds like everything else on the playlist, just so it will fit in better. And these days, everything else on the playlist is loud, louder, loudest: it is now understood that you cannot exceed 0 dB in the digital domain without horrendous distortion, so everything is cranked up as high as possible, with a hard limiter shoved in right below the distortion point. Dynamic range is conspicuous by its absence. And once we’ve compressed the life out of it, we compress it some more to save disk space.

Few things today jump out at you like the opening grooves of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Not Fragile LP. (This YouTube version almost manages to do it justice.) At no point do you have to wonder what’s going on: it’s all there, loud and proud but never blurry. Perhaps we can blame this on Randy Bachman, who sometimes wanted to play arena-rock hero and sometimes wanted to do Wes Montgomery licks; either way, he wanted you to hear what he was doing.


  1. Mark Alger »

    4 August 2010 · 10:47 pm

    Listening to classic rock FM in the car this evening, I found myself singing along to “The Sultans of Swing.” (Dire Straits, ca 1980-ish, for those of you too young to remember.)

    Talk about minimalism.

    Surprisingly, it has a melody. Easy to follow, too.


  2. Nicole »

    5 August 2010 · 6:48 pm

    I was pointed to this:


  3. CGHill »

    5 August 2010 · 7:34 pm

    Phil Spector was pretty much sui generis. (Then again, there are enough Spector soundalikes out there — there exists a series of CDs called “Phil’s Spectres” which documents them — to indicate that it’s probably not rocket science.)

    Spector, though, was not interested in fine detail: on his best discs, everything melds into this Bigger! Than! Life! noise. (Also on his worst discs, come to think of it.) A couple of minutes of “Be My Baby,” though, and you won’t care. There exists a studio tape of take 25 with about twenty seconds of extra outro, during which drummer Hal Blaine seems to go berserk without once losing control.

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