Destroy Your Fancy Gear, You Don't Need It
Are you familiar with any of the following websites? Tape Op, Gearslutz, Harmony Central, Guitargeek or the Electrical Audio user forums? If so, you're either a professional studio engineer, or you've got a gear problem.
I know, I know; we're Noisey Gear. Gear is what we write about, nerd over and fetishize. But consider this a brief time out from your regular broadcasting; I'm here to evangelize to you about the equipment you already own, using examples of famous albums recorded with virtually no equipment at all.
Maybe you're not recording to 2" tape. You think that vocals recorded with a Neumann U87 are really what the head of Def Jam wants to hear; for instant money and honeys you're gonna need a modular synth system for authentic analog sounds.
The equipment you already own is sufficient.
We live in the age of digital recording. Inside whatever laptop you're reading this on, you not only have more computing power than NASA (who tricked us into thinking they went to the moon, after all) but you have considerably more scope for recording than The Beatles had at any point during their career. It was the limitations of their setup that inspired invention.
Necessity …something something something… of invention.
I have a friend who's spent the last three years building a recording studio in his parents' house. In that time he hasn't made any music. He's built absorption panels, spent thousands on microphones, preamps and plugins, and drank endless cups of coffee doing it. I have no idea why.
So just to make him feel bad, here's a list of people who made albums with a lot less power than the Garageband app on the iPad.
Bon Iver, 2007
Famously, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon (or Justin Vernon's Bon Iver; or Kanye West's one hipster friend) recorded 2008's For Emma, Forever Ago while crying his eyes out over a break-up with a girl, at his family's hunting lodge out in the deep Wisconsin woods.
This is a myth that has been spun and spun and spun. Not to say that it's not true, it's just endlessly talked about because people like to see Bon Iver as an eccentric, bearded loner. The kind of mountain man last seen on Alan Lomax's recordings of shriveling American folk communities. Accompanied by the creaky cabin, an acoustic guitar and an old tape machine, Vernon recorded his 9-track debut as winter set in around him.
Records don't even exist to show what equipment he used. Whatever it was, it supported the bare bone spirit of the recorded material.
Bruce Springsteen, 1981
The original blue collar millionaire, Jersey's Springsteen was in low spirits when he set about making demos for his new album with the E Street Band.
He still hadn't written Born in the USA (or Born Slippy; but he had written Born to Run), and being a multi-million sellin', Telecaster-wieldin' blue jean wearin' megastar was probably getting old. So he stayed home and accepted his destiny. When he appeared on the scene he was hailed as the new Bob Dylan, and the collection on Nebraska delivers on this promise.
It's darker than his previous, with less gospelly grandeur and more anguished yelps and maudlin harmonica.
The demos were recorded at home, using what was at the time a pretty new piece of gear; the humble Tascam Portastudio. Guitar tech Mike Batlan bought it and set it up at The Boss' house in Long Branch, NJ, with two SM57 microphones.
They did just about everything "wrong" possible. The recordings peaked in places. The varispeed knob was turned up then turned down for the mixdown. The whole set was mixed down to a boombox that had fallen in a river the year before.
But they were demos, right? So no great matter.
So Bruce took the demos to a proper studio to work on them with The E Street Band; after weeks and weeks of work, nothing they did came close to the vibe of the demos.
Vibe. Remember this word.
Bruce holds up the cassette tape in front of a bunch of audiophile engineers and says, "There's just something about the atmosphere on this tape. Can't we just master off this?"
When The Boss tells you to do something… well, obviously when any boss tells you to do something you're meant to do it. And they did it.
They had the balls to release those original demos. If you didn't think The Boss had balls, know this: his home-recorded tape cassette recordings will crush your band's puny 96Khz/24-bit Pro Tools Neumann Abbey Road sessions.
Four Tet, 2001
Warp Records-signed Kieran Hebden makes exciting, forward-looking electronica, remixes people like Aphex Twin and does mind-melting live sets. Oh, and he's also about as technologically-minded as an aged inner city librarian.
As most of the world's electronic musicians enter a nuclear arms race, gearing up with complex MIDI/USB/Firewire/Fiber Optic industrial cable combinations, multiple laptops, iPads, giant mirrored pyramids and huge synths, Hebden keeps it simple.
He uses a program called Cool Edit Pro, which you only remember if you used to use Windows in the age of dial-up modems. Cool Edit Pro is like the creepy uncle in the corner. The one who no one's sure if he's even related to the family, mumbles to himself, and always has one hand in his pocket.
Equipped with this revolutionary software (in 1993, anyway) Hebden plays shows to thousands of people, who don't know the difference. He doesn't use MIDI, preferring everything to groove along relatively organically. And instead of wasting valuable dollars on a soundcard, he just feeds the PA using the headphone output of his PC laptop.
Sufjan Stevens, 2003
Sufjan Stevens recorded everything on Michigan himself. He got the sample rate "wrong," couldn't use one of his microphones because he didn't understand phantom power, and converted everything out the tape machine using a 1/8" jack socket.
If you're a musician, care not for sample rates. Ignore this sentence. Record however you like.
If it isn't clear by now, we're attempting to emphasize the point that the material is king and queen, not material objects.
The Streets, 2002
To round off proceedings—and to prove that it's not just fumbly beard-acoustica that suits primitive recording techniques—we turn to British act The Streets. Head Street Mike Skinner was dubbed "the British Eminem," but he was a lot less homicidal and you could go for a beer with him without incident. And he wouldn't badmouth his mother (or yours).
Original Pirate Material stormed the charts in 2002, packed with witty urban truisms about life in Britain and getting wasted on cheap alcohol. Which is tautological. Life in Britain is getting wasted on cheap alcohol.
Skinner recorded the album in Birmingham at his mother's house. If you've ever been to Birmingham, you'll know that a) you're safest staying in the house and b) you'd do anything in your power to record a multi-gold selling album to escape the place too.
Though the album sounds polished and radio-worthy, it was recorded on an IBM Thinkpad—I didn't know this was possible—inside bedroom closets repurposed as vocal booths.
(An honorable mention should also go to that proto-Streets, Britain's White Town, who in 1997 recorded "Your Woman" which was probably the first home production to hit number 1 on the charts)
So what have you learned from this article? If you're anything like me, you probably already have several other tabs open; looking up Tascam Portastudios, beat-up SM57s and upstate cabin property. I beg you, STOP. Close the browser and pick up the guitar; grab whatever recording device is to hand (and you probably have several. Hell, you could record your new EP on your Xbox for all I know). Just press record.
Davo knows too much about gear. Clearly. He's on Twitter - @battery_licker.