If Bruce freaked out, so can we.

Springsteen in the Studio, 1974

Springsteen in the Studio, 1974

You can’t imagine what a relief it was to read Slate.com’s article about the recording of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run”.  And I’m not really a Springsteen fan.

I LOVED IT.  Here’s why.

Mixing a record is one of the weirder artistic processes.  It’s like carving a sculpture  – the performance is replayed perfectly every time , especially in the current era of total automation.   You can replay a mix with every detail captured, every effect dropped in at the perfect moment, the volume of each track scooting up and down on computer-command… and this means, in short, that IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.  There’s nothing you can’t fix.  Don’t like what you hear?  Grab the fader and make the change, edit the reverb parameter, mute the percussion, whatever.  You have total control.

But it’s NOT sculpture.  Every playback happens in real time, like a film, and you can’t stop time and you can’t slow it down.  You play the mix and it passes before your ears, and everything is great, and you’re a happy listener, and then YUCK WHAT THE HELL IS THAT? (or not so obvious – you just lose the thread, the awesomeness fades, the energy drops).  And you have to rewind what you just heard and try to understand.  Were the drums too loud for a moment?  Was something harsh and lame sounding? Did the vocals go out of key in a bad way?

Painting is static.  Film can be paused, and you can look at one frame at a time.  But music is relentless – it is experienced in real-time, only, and crafting it forces a rhythm on the maker.  You have to constantly switch your mindset from generator to receiver, from studio wizard to general audience member, from a guy IN the band to someone who’s never heard OF the band or the song before, changing channels on the radio, hearing some random new song.  Does the song work, or does it suck?

Making music is like carving a sculpture on powered roller skates.   And Satan help you if your listening environment is bad – then you can’t really trust what you’re hearing (bass will be weird, at a minimum) – then it’s like chopping up a piece of granite on skates under a strobe light.

So you can imagine how nice it was to read about Super Legend Bruce Springsteen, sweating it in the Seventies as he and his crew struggle to make their 3d record – their last chance to have a music career, their over-committed, swan-dive, crash and burn attempt to translate his ambition into a record that didn’t make him want to puke when he listened to it.  And this was the era of tape – rewind slowly between each take, only so many tracks to put the music on, the high-frequencies slowly erasing themselves with each playback… I actually felt bad for Bruce for a minute – leaving the studio each night, burnt out, tired, ears fried, unable to figure out if he’d wasted the whole day.

You hear about the seventies (in the pro-audio, recording sense) like they were lived in a holy glow of awesomeness – all the gear was vibey, tube-powered and great, everyone could play well, the music industry was semi-friendly and cool, all the lights were incandescent, and times were generally OK.  Awesome bands just strolled into the studio, kicked out a SLAMMING track under the benevolent gaze of the super stoned  Engineer, and Voila! you got the Eagles Greatest Hits, the Hall and Oates catalog, and the entire Yacht Rock genre.   Meanwhile, we miserable digital-age fucks sweat and slave to get the slightest bit of soul into our recordings, while the old-timers say ‘oh you poor devil, you should have been around back in the day’.  Of course, this is pure Survivorship Bias, and plenty of talented people crashed and burned in obscurity… but those classic records we all know and love from that time seem to have sprung to life sui generis, perfect, effortless and whole.

But here, AT LAST, we hear-tell that things weren’t so simple.  That life was hard in the 70s.  That the music industry was horrible, (and is still, as Steve Albini would like to remind you). That making good work was difficult,  that THE man, Bruce, the Boss, struggled and lost faith and was killing himself (rewind after endless rewind) trying to get it right, to wrangle his band, to make the lyrics click and the groove cook.   And it’s probably been the same forever, and always will be.  Doing good work is usually really fucking hard.  Amen.

Now I want to go read up about the making of Siamese Dream

Check out preview mixes from the new Too Late for Roses » right here

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