The Problem With Home Recordings
Daniel Hall wakes up. Bleary-eyed and cloudy-minded from last night's whiskey, he sits up in his bed and rubs his eyes. When he finally gets his bearings, he is met with an unfortunate reality as he looks around his room.
It's filled with recording equipment—microphones, computers, speakers and cables are all strewn about. It's the last thing he wants to see.
He's already been working with this equipment around the clock, but he knows he needs to keep at it if he wants Fox & The Bird's debut album to make its self-imposed spring 2011 release deadline. Plus, Dan Bowman and Wheeler Sparks, other members of the band, will be coming over soon, so Hall has to get things ready.
"There's days when I don't really want to think about it," Hall says. "But I'm forced to think about the project, because the [recording equipment] is right in my room."
Making a record on one's own can be a good or bad thing, depending on whom you ask. But most of the members of Fox & The Bird swear by it. Their brand of energetic folk thrives in the moment. Making records, for them, is not about recording the perfect performance cleanly as much as it is capturing that moment, which is why the band prefers making records on their own time, rather than paying an hourly rate at a studio.
"You can work on it whenever you want, and since you're not paying a bunch of money, you have freedom to say 'Well, let's just try this,'" Hall says. "You can try something for six hours and scrap it. In the studio, that's $500."
You don't have to look far, though, to find a musician who believes that this method of recording can be quite dangerous.
In fact, there's already one in Fox & The Bird.
Sparks, who's known as the band's perfectionist, agrees that the method works well for Fox & The Bird. But his solo music relies heavily on worked-over arrangements tried and tested well before entering the studio.
"What's good for Fox & The Bird is not exactly what I want [for myself]," Sparks says. "I'm rehearsing and writing out all of the parts before I even step foot into the studio, and once I get in there, I have something to work with that's, in essence, a final product that I tweak."
Countless hours go into the preparation for his records before pressing the red record button is even an option. And while that may not be as glamorous as spending hours writing music in a decked-out recording studio, it's certainly a less expensive and more practical option for an independent musician like Sparks, who wants to make use of a proper studio and producer.
Plus, that professional environment helps eliminate one of the most damning aspects that many self-recorded bands face—the tendency to tweak endlessly.
"Having a producer who's objective, a third party, is so beneficial," Sparks says.
Singer-songwriter and producer Salim Nourallah knows firsthand the damage that can come from not knowing when to stop. Long before his own recording studio, Pleasantry Lane Studios, was the state-of-the-art facility that it is now, it was just a garage space that he and his brother Faris used to record their Nourallah Brothers record.
"My studio was born out of home recording," Nourallah says. "I've got what I've always called a 'tugboat studio.' It was born out of a DIY ethic. I couldn't afford to pay someone $100 an hour to experiment with my music."
Having been both the perpetrator and the victim of it during the Nourallah Brothers home sessions, Nourallah believes that this endless tweaking idea is the single most important reason to avoid recording a record entirely at home—that, and the lack of objectivity. The two go hand in hand, really. After spending hours and hours meddling with a set of songs, it's easy to get so attached to them that it becomes difficult to know if you even like them anymore.
"The biggest lesson that came out of [the Nourallah Brothers sessions] is the danger of having no parameters," says Nourallah. "Almost every musician will nitpick themselves when given the opportunity, and in home recording, there is no end."
But it's a lesson that many new artists are bound to learn the hard way. The idea of creating a home studio, as the Nourallah brothers did over 15 years ago, seems to be more popular with an increasing number of artists today. With the relatively inexpensive cost of Pro-Tools, a popular recording software commonly used in both studio and home recording, droves of bands are becoming weekend engineers. But it certainly doesn't come without its problems.
"I've noticed that more and more people are recording on their own" Nourallah says. "But at least half of them can't finish their records. Every time I talk to them, they're still recording."
The reason why? According to John Congleton, who, last year, produced The Walkmen's Lisbon and Sarah Jaffe's Suburban Nature, it's "the fact that you can endlessly sit there and tweak things is exactly what's wrong with [home recording]. That's why you get people who can't release anything, because they get paralyzed by endlessly tweaking things."
Congleton says that, more often than not, he has to play the role of the policeman in the studio. Being a producer, and a musician as well, he says he's familiar with the pain and a difficulty in writing and recording an album.
"When people are working with me and they get super tweak-heavy, I try to talk them off the ledge," Congleton says.
For artists like Sparks, who claims he has been talked off of the ledge several times by his go-to producer, Paul West, it can be a pivotal thing, having someone else around to make the tough decisions.
Too much leniency in either direction can prove to be a slippery slope. But, from where Nourallah stands (with an admitted bias), one can certainly prove worse than the other.
"You just disappear down the rabbit hole of home recording," Nourallah warns. "There is something about having restraints."
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