Is Modern Rock overproduced?
Philip Auslander states that ‘the authenticity of rock has always been measured by its sound and most commonly, by its voice. Obviously, given the contexts in which rock was made available to the majority of its fans, it is not surprising that its ideology would focus on sound’. Thus, if rock’s sound changes in the studio, which will result in a change in how it sounds live, where does that take the genre?
Since the early 2000s the production of rock music has experienced many interesting and progressive changes, aided by the invention, development and convenience of modern recording and mixing technology. While these developments have certainly been revolutionary in themselves, they have also had an impact upon both the role of the band member and their relationship with the fanbase. The days of recording on a four-track mixer as the Beatles had to do early in their career are long gone and now rock bands have, if anything, too much choice in how to record and make their music commercially available. Tools such as the ever-developing DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), precision audio editing, and auto-tune have made it increasingly easy to ‘fake’ a good performance, and difficult to tell which artists are truly talented. Should that matter? Many would argue, yes. Many, no. As little as twenty years ago it would have been both highly expensive and require a great deal of training to acquire and use a recording studio suitable for professionally recording a track or album. Now however it can be done with a laptop, cheap audio interface, and with relative ease. Again, this can be seen as both a positive and a negative. More people are able to express their creativity, which can only lead to more high-quality music of every genre, but on the other hand the grass-roots level of aspiring musicians can be lost in a sea of mediocrity, making it difficult for them to get their music recognised. The biggest consequence of increasingly produced rock music is that these changes can make it difficult for bands to sound even close to as good as they sound on the album.
In this article I will discuss whether modern rock could be seen as overproduced, with a particular emphasis on the effect that this has had on the live performances of artists. Are ticket-buying fans getting what they thought they paid for?
Many of the world’s biggest rock groups are evidence for the increasing popularity of creating music that might be a little complex instrumentally for the ‘standard’ rock line-up of guitar(s), bass, drums and vocals. Auslander notes that ‘in the 1970s, some rock groups (Queen for instance) wrote in the liner notes to their albums that they did not use synthesizers, thus stressing their connection to the traditional instrumentation of roots rock (‘real’ electric guitars, drums, etc.)’ Whilst some subgenres of rock share Queen’s view, other rock bands have emerged to challenge this, such as Linkin Park, who pioneered the use of a samplist/turntablist as one of the band members, while bands such as Muse and Foo Fighters include a keyboardist/samplist as a touring musician. Auslander also observes that ‘synthesizers, once not seen as musical instruments, but as machines that had no place in rock, have come to be seen as just another keyboard instrument’. The 1990s saw movements such as Grunge, Indie rock and the resurgence of Punk, all of which are relatively minimal both musically and instrumentally. It is understandable that there would ultimately be reaction to this in favour of increased complexity and experimentation. Take Coldplay, for example. Musically, the difference between their debut album, Parachutes (2000) and their most recent album, A Head Full of Dreams (2015) is huge and were it not for Chris Martin’s distinctive vocals, it would be very difficult to tell that it is the same band. Take for example ‘Shiver’ from Parachutes, in comparison to their latest single, ‘Hymn for the Weekend’. Shiver features; vocals, acoustic drums, electric bass, acoustic guitar and electric guitar. Other than Martin’s vocals it is difficult to immediately notice any of these instruments in ‘Hymn for the Weekend’, save for a small fragment of electric guitar, low in the mix, panned hard left. Despite this huge shift in instrumentation, the actual instruments that the band play are exactly the same as they were when they first started touring, with the addition of a keyboard and drum pads. The track also features vocals from Beyoncé who is unlikely to accompany Coldplay on every live performance of the track; therefore it seems that the track will be performed incomplete, or at least arranged differently to the studio version. Does this then mean that fans are not getting what they expected when they bought tickets to see Coldplay live? In a performance of the track at the BRIT Awards 2016, Beyoncé’s vocals in the breakdown section were substituted for backing vocals from drummer Will Champion. Furthermore, the band’s guitarist and bassist spent more than half of the performance playing electronic drums which sample the exact percussion used in the studio version. However, where the soaring synth pads in the choruses originate from in this performance, given that none of the band members appear to be actually playing, is a mystery. Were it not for the lack of Beyoncé, or tuning on the lead vocals, it would be difficult to tell that this was even a live performance. Obviously this far from means it was a bad performance by Coldplay. On the contrary in fact, the version sounded near identical to the studio version, the problem lies in the fact that the group has a set of instruments they aren’t really using. Thus, are you really watching them perform, or listening to them half-perform to a backing track? This is an argument you could make about live electronic music, but the difference is that electronic music gig-goers know full well that a laptop and backing tracks are likely to be used. Historically rock fans don’t expect to encounter such things.
Coldplay do not struggle to perform their music live, but rather have made several elements of their core identity redundant. Joe Bennett notes that ‘popular song is one of a handful of unsubsidised populist art forms (other examples being mainstream cinema or video games) that could be described as truly market-driven’ and it is for this reason alone that Coldplay has made this shift: greater production of their tracks, despite arguably nullifying them as a live act, has greatly increased their popularity as studio artists. There is a case then to suggest that making the shift to a different style of production, rather than ‘over-producing’ is a slight only to the core fans of bands who desire their music to stay in one style. Indeed, you might say there is a certain amount of snobbery attached to many older subgenres of rock. Who is to say that performing live is the essential concern of a rock band? Auslander notes that bands ‘known (or suspected) to have been created only as studio aggregations were dismissed by rock critics and fans as mere pop even when they did perform live’.
So what is it about the production of many modern rock bands that prompts questioning that it might be a little over-the-top? Firstly, the vast majority of rock bands record using DAWs such as Pro-Tools. This program in particular includes extremely powerful tools such as auto-tune and precision editing. It has become very easy for a vocalist who may be slightly flat or sharp on each note to become pitch perfect in a matter of minutes. Whilst it would require an extremely talented vocalist to accomplish a fully perfect take, there seems to be a consensus that using auto-tune cheats the listener and creates a simulacrum of a live vocal performance, where actually the single vocal track consists of a plethora of takes, arranged with the best ones, and then edited to be perfectly in time and in tune. While allowing the capture of multiple takes may not seem harmful to the perception of the end product, the use of auto-tune I would argue, does. In a 2009 interview for Music Radar, Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard noted ‘We want to bring back the blue note, the note that’s not so perfectly in pitch and gives the recording soul and real character. It’s how people really sing’, also declaring that a ‘little use is OK, but there is a difference between “use” and “abuse”’. ‘Otherwise’, added bassist Nick Harmer, ‘musicians of tomorrow will never practice. They will never try to be good, because yeah, you can do it just on the computer’. The fight against auto-tune has been going on since its invention by Antares in 1997 and is considered particularly problematic when used in rock music. In 2006, Rascal Flatts released a cover of Tom Cochrane’s ‘Life is a Highway’, which was criticised for using auto-tune heavily throughout. Studying the available live performances of this cover also reveals that the song is transposed a semi-tone down from the original. While not a huge difference to the song in order to make it performable, this indicates a further layer of editing one’s way to the end product. While not perfect, Rascal Flatts’ lead vocalist sounds in-tune live, begging the question, why did they also need to play it in a different key while recording?
Because of the prevalence of creating ‘perfectly’ produced rock music, there has been a resurgence in recent years of both unknown and well-developed bands preferring to stick to the principles of getting the performance right, rather than editing it to be so.
In 2011, as documented in Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, Dave Grohl decided that he wanted Foo Fighters to record their album Wasting Light entirely analogue, with Nate Mendel mentioning that when recording on tape ‘it’s got a certain sound, it’s got a certain set of limitations, you can’t go in and just go, “well that’s close enough” ’. Listening to the album all the way through it is extremely difficult to notice any mistakes at all, despite the lack of editing. Other artists who have tried to only record what they are capable of playing on the spot are Royal Blood, a two-piece band who use only a bass guitar, drum kit and one vocal track. Despite their hugely limited line-up, they are capable of creating full dynamically contrasting songs that sound very similar live. The tracks also sound balanced both live and on their debut, self-titled album.
William Moylan’s Understanding and Crafting the Mix is particularly relevant when discussing the replication of artists who want to sound live on the recording, and those who wish for the inverse. Generally speaking, a band that knows that they sound professional as a live act will want to replicate that when it comes to recording their material. In bands such as Royal Blood, the listener gets a fully authentic experience and ‘the recording represents an illusion of a live performance’. Moylan notes that the listener will conceive the performance as existing in ‘a real, physical space’ and that the listener ‘will imagine a performance space wherein the reproduced sound can exist during the re-performance of listening to the recording’. Both of these points can be used to understand why acts who are able to perform their music live authentically are held in such high esteem, and that many festival goers watch bands that they may not even be fans of, because they have heard that they are impressive live. I have a undertaken a Moylan-style analysis of the studio version of Royal Blood track, ‘Figure it Out’, and also studied a live video of the same track to confirm whether the sound stage was replicated live. I have discovered that the sound stage of the track is arranged as shown below:
After viewing several different live versions of the track on YouTube and actually experiencing it live myself, I can confirm that the sound stage of the studio version is replicated almost identically when the band performs the song live. While the two musicians are positioned in different places on the physical stage than they are in the sound stage, the actual distribution of stereo spread comes from the monitors used in the venue, and therefore from whoever is mixing the concert. While the stereo spread of this track is very narrow and the instrumentation limited, the band regularly performs truly authentic live versions of their own tracks, understanding the limitations of a stereo field with their instrumentation. To quote Moylan once more, ‘in recordings that closely match a live performance, environments of individual sound sources are typically very similar, if they are different at all’. Royal Blood certainly fit into this viewpoint. Thus there are modern rock artists who fully respect authenticity, and who don’t want to diminish their live presence by over producing in the studio. Whilst an altered sound stage will barely be noticed by the typical fan of a group without prior knowledge of a stereo field, it is nonetheless a way of mastering the art of performing one’s tracks live authentically. Knowing the limits of a group’s stereo field while mixing them in the studio will create a more realistic replication of them.
A resurgence of realistic production in rock though doesn’t negate the fact that rock music has always been closely associated with advanced production. In his article, ‘Rock Aesthetics and Musics of the World’, Regev states that the creation of rock music with ‘studio craftsmanship’ is one of the genre’s ‘wider aesthetics’. The argument in this case however is whether the intensive use of music production tools negatively alters, or ‘taints’, the key features of rock. A group who were unable to play their track correctly, at the right tempo, or in the correct tuning at all are British power metal band Dragonforce. In 2006 there was controversy on their tour of the album Inhuman Rampage. ‘Through the Fire and Flames’, generally considered to be one of their most popular tracks is 7 minutes and 22 seconds long and runs at 200 bpm throughout. Early performances of it threw up incorrect guitar tunings and noticeably out-of-time drums. Guitarist Hermann Li is quoted saying ‘Graspop Metal Meeting of 2006 was [a] total disaster. The technician we had back then didn’t even tune the guitar, and no monitoring was done properly’. For a while after this Dragonforce were accused of speeding up their tracks in the studio. While these claims have been proved untrue and they are now able to play the track accurately, the band still greatly exaggerated their own skills and overestimated their abilities by recording at such a tempo. Technologies such as Pro-Tools have enabled them to create music that they were not originally able to perform, which you could potentially regard as cheating their fans out of ticket sales.
Do fans expect the track to be exactly the same live however? There are obvious areas of production which are impossible to replicate. For example, if the vocalist of a group sings more than one vocal part that coincides with others on the recording, it then becomes impossible for it to be replicated live. In this situation it seems fair to assume that there will be a change in the live version.
After all, most bands’ backing vocals are recorded by the lead singer. Whilst I fully endorse the idea that bands should at least try and make sure that their live performances are up to scratch with their studio counterparts, I also understand that many artists would feel restricted by these boundaries. Many, such as the aforementioned Royal Blood thrive on the boundaries and their own capabilities as live musicians. Despite the fact that live music is never likely to sound exactly as it does in the studio, artists who value their fanbases as live music consumers ought to understand their key limitations and either adapt the band when performing live, by adding session musicians, or find ways of stripping back their music without adversely affecting the message.