Friday, December 4, 2009

Tonight May Not, In Fact, Be The Night

Since the dawn of well-recorded music, the fidelity has been a subjective factor in the listener's enjoyment, whether they know it or not. Those who are largely unaware of how audio recording works might not realize it, but that "something about it" that people often refer to when talking about their relative appreciation of a particular recorded work is most likely the constructed sound of music in a way that our ears wouldn't normally hear it.

Since the advent of multitrack recording, this problem/benefit has been compounded. In the early days, microphones and tape would pick up a performance live, as it was performed. But being able to record parts or instruments individually, a crafty recording engineer could now put each element in it's own space, so to speak.

For instance, you could make the drums sound like they were in a small, highly reverberant concrete room, but make a guitar or piano sound like they were down a long metal hallway, while putting the bass right next to the listener's left side. Of course, these are all illusions created by the signals your brain gets about REAL space... it's all a trick.

In some eras of popular music, certain production tricks became the standard, and often, eras with a higher number of standard "tricks" are what sound dated. Certain chorus effects and reverbs can come together to instantly scream "1980s". It was a colder, more digital sound than what was prevalent in the '70s rock arena. Until the legion of dimwit new-new-New Wave revivalists invaded the rock underground, the prevailing opinion was that "70s sounds were warm and natural and therefore good, '80s sounds were cold and harsh and bad". Now, aside from the phramaceutical trends of the ages, this is often true, in a purely rockist sense of the word. Some of those '70s classic rock moments stand up to the "timelessness" test because they have the same sound that people have had through the ages. Warm overdriven guitars and drums that sound like they're in a medium size room are going to be familiar sounds.


There was, in the 1970s, a particular production sound that was so weird and unnatural, despite all of its concessions to normalcy and regularness, that sound more unnatural to me than even the weirdest stuff from '85. So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I humbly submit two stone-cold-classic records that I have a hard time listening to - not because of the harrowing lyrical content, but because of the bizarre production values. Ladies and gentlemen: Tonight's The Night and Berlin.

"B'whaa?" you may be asking. These are what, to some eyes, should be my favorite albums by each of these artists. Harrowing raw-nerve lyrics set to road-burned melodies at the trough of each artists' downward spiral. Confronting the darkest impulses of the human condition. Considered by many their respective artistic peaks. Maybe so, but I pull them out so infrequently that I couldn't sing you most of the songs on either of them, even though I love them. The problem is that I haven't been able to pinpoint why.

The closest I can get is that every instrument has been over EQ'd to death. My ears don't hear like that. You can't spend weeks getting the drums to sound just the way you want them and then set the other instruments to an entirely different set of calibrations. This problem isn't quite as apparent on Berlin, which is largely a collection of "piano and strings" showtunes anyway. But I've been in a lot of rooms with a lot of sloppy rock bands, and while all the playing and activity on Tonight's The Night is "correct", the sound of it isn't. I'm betting that coke and quaaludes have something to do with it, too.

Are there others? By that I mean good records from the pre-punk '70s that just sound wrong to you? I'm sure somebody out there could come up with a good list.

1 comment:

  1. I have a hard time listening to many albums because of their production values. I don't know about pre-punk '70s, but I know that Kill Your Idols' "Funeral For A Feeling" could be a million times better than "Companionship to Competition", and I wouldn't know it, because the latter sounds so much better.