One of the inescapable realities of the music industry in the 21st century is that more musicians are recording themselves today than ever before.
Some engineers and studio owners lament this trend, citing shrinking budgets, dwindling audio fidelity – even the decimation of genres that rely on the sound of seasoned musicians coming together in real-time.
But for each of these critiques, it’s not hard to find a counter-example – some recordists owe their whole careers to this same trend. Although average budgets may have decreased, the sheer volume of self-recording musicians who seek help with basic tracking, mixing and mastering has doubtlessly contributed to the recent rise in the number of working audio engineers.
This new abundance of self-recording projects doesn’t tell a story of full-scale retreat from the conventional studio world. Instead, many of the self-recorded albums that register on our radars are ones that – just a generation ago – might never have been made at all.
Regardless of how you feel about home recording, the reasons why musicians choose to self-record may be different than you think.
Of everyone I interviewed while selecting bands for this story, none focused on the cost of recording. Although a handful of them did incredible things on rudimentary systems, a number of the musicians I asked spent far more in making their self-recorded albums than they would have for a week or two of tracking time at a mid-level studio. Even the ones for whom money was a limiting factor stressed the personal reasons behind their choices.
Likewise, not one of them told me that self-recording was simpler, easier, or faster. “I’m not sure if it’s actually possible to record quickly when you record at home,” one confided. “The process honestly, was really, really drawn out and very inefficient,” said another with the kind of laugh you make when you’re remembering something that wasn’t quite as funny when it was happening.
But for all their playful commiserating, none of these artists regretted their choice – even if they’d do things differently the next time around. That’s why I wanted to hear the stories in their own words. Too often, we studio people focus on what self-recording musicians lose, rather than on what they gain.
Spanish Prisoners: Gold Fools
This past fall, Spanish Prisoners released Gold Fools, and with it, one of the best recent singles you’ve probably never heard: “Know No Violence.” This is a band that may alternately remind you of Prince, New Order and Sonic Youth, all translated through the swirly, undulating haze of a contemporary dreampop record.
For Leo Maymind, guitarist, keyboardist and primary songwriter, self-recording was a predilection more than a choice. “It’s just what I’ve always done and what I’ve always enjoyed doing,” he says.
“I like the idea of being able to record whenever you want. I get very obsessed with songs, and there would be days where I would literally do nothing else but sit at home and work on these songs, drinking endless cups of coffee.”
In an approach that seems to be a standard for many beginning self-recordists, the finished album grew from the original demos. Maymind says, “There was really no distinction between demos and final tracks.”
“Everything we recorded, we treated as a final track. It was a very long process of adding and subtracting until we thought it was ready. There were even some sessions that dated back two years or so.”
For all that extended effort, and for the countless hours devoted to “carefully layering and sculpting sounds”, Gold Fools doesn’t sound stiff or labored-over. But that doesn’t mean Maymind wants to go through the same process again. Today, he and the band have essentially reversed their approach, and for their next recordings they’re “going to use the demos as demos, and then record everything together as a band.”
“We didn’t learn to play the songs on Gold Fools as a band until we were pretty much done writing and recording them, so in that case, we were chasing a sound that was already there. That worked sometimes, but sometimes it didn’t work at all, and it could be very frustrating.”
“I’m pretty burnt out on that approach now. Now I’m looking forward to just playing and letting someone else handle the engineering…A lot of this album was about finding myself as an engineer and producer, and I feel much more confident about it now that it’s over. I’m still doing a lot of demoing and writing on my own, but now we’re taking those songs into our practice space earlier on in the process to work them out as a band.”
Spanish Prisoners have already begun bringing some of their work into more conventional studios. Gold Fools was mixed by Dan Huron and mastered by Carl Saff, and they also completed a recent session with Jason Finkel at the Converse Rubber Tracks Studio.
But while Maymind says that working with all three of them was a great experience, it’s not always easy letting go: “We still usually engineer most of our own sessions,” he says. “All of us are kind of control freaks.”
Ghost Pal: Extended Family
Oliver Ignatius of Ghost Pal came to self-recording from a different angle. Raised by Americans stationed overseas as foreign correspondents, Ignatius grew up in Hong Kong, Belgium and Russia. When he finally came to live in the United States as a teen, his high school band “Rode a wave of hype in the early days of music blogs,” and even appeared on MTV’s “You Hear it First” and “TRL.”
“We weren’t really ready to ride that wave,” he remembers. “We made our record and had a good time, but the band broke up under the weight of all that.”
Ignatius would keep writing and performing in private, but put out nothing for years. He turned to self-recording, in part because he was never able to get comfortable in a studio environment otherwise.
“I always found that atmosphere kind of harsh in a way, and have always been frustrated with my experiences in professional recording studios. I’d never felt I had as good of a time as I wanted to, or was as satisfied with the execution as I could have been. Music is about being connected; finding your own center and getting deep into it. I could never really get relaxed enough in that environment.”
He seems to have gotten past that block through self-recording, and to hear Ghost Pal today is to hear a group of musicians that sound comfortable with being as weird as they want to be. Filled with calliope-like arpeggios and vocals recorded in a reverberant stone hallway, Extended Family is an EP that’s entirely unafraid to be itself. From the audacious Beatles cover that opens it up, through the Syd Barrett-inspired originals, to the meltingly-unusual Supremes cover that closes it down, EF is a record that’s playful, imaginative, and at times, unhinged.
Ignatius recorded the EP in downtime between sessions for an ambitious full-length concept-album that the band has scrapped and rebooted from scratch on two occasions. Compared to this, the process for EF was quick, unpressured, and the band saw it as a good way to decompress. “We overdubbed multiple players at a time, and tried to let them bleed into each other a little bit,” Ignatius says. “We’re very influenced by the Phil Spector/Brian Wilson school of production where you try to meld sounds together to make new ones, using their interactions in the room itself to let them coalesce.”
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