One DIY Record Please, Hold the DIY Aesthetic

On the spine of their 1994 album Further, Flying Saucer Attack emblazoned this sentence:

Home taping is reinventing music.

It’s a simple enough message, but it carries a huge implication. In the olden days, musicians were at the mercy of the suits—the record labels, the studio owners, the distributors…if you actually wanted anyone to hear your music, you had to convince the suits that you were worth spending the money to record, press, and promote.

Home taping was a revolution of Lenin-like proportions (Lennon-like too?). It imbued sonic creators with an autonomy heretofore unimaginable.

But even as DIY recording grew in popularity, there was an undeniable scrappiness to it. Even the most sophisticated DIY records (think In The Aeroplane Over the Sea) still fell a few pegs short of (finger quotes) professional records in terms of production qualities. And believe you me: most DIY records didn’t come anywhere close to ITAOTS.

Through the years, a lot of my friends have DIY’d their ways to MySpace uploads, burned EPs, and—very occasionally—a full-length CD with a full-color stick-on cover. I still have a sizable collection of CD-Rs, Sharpie-labeled cassette tapes, and low-res MP3s that I’ve accrued over the last two decades. Most of them are rendered unlistenable by poor production values. Granted, some of that was due to inexperience (what’s EQ? What’s panning?), but perhaps the majority was sloppy due to the lack of access. Not just the lack of access to professional grade studio space or equipment, but lack of access to expertise (or people with expertise).

But a funny thing has happened over the last few years…

Access has exploded.

My band SPACESHIPS just spent the last two weekends with our friend Dave Mantel recording our upcoming EP. And no, we didn’t do it in a studio—we did it in my house, with a drum set in the living room and guitar amps isolated in different bedrooms, all recorded with an interface we borrowed from analecta’s Patrick Quigley. It was about as DIY as it gets. But when we listened to the unmixed raws, they already sounded worlds better than all of the old CD-Rs sitting on my shelf. With a bit of mixing, I anticipate that most people won’t be able to tell that it wasn’t recorded in a “professional” studio.

There are several things that made turning my house into a makeshift studio a viable option. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to access.

First, there’s access to equipment. Over the last several years, professional-grade (or at least near-perfect soundalikes) have plummeted in price. Companies like Slate have released plugins that model old studio stand-bys for a small percentage of the price of the real thing. Even the cost of the DAW and the interface—while a little on the pricey side—is still less than we might have spent renting a “real” studio.

I feel like I hardly need to mention how access to expertise has exploded: if you’re reading this, you probably already know that a thing called The Internet exists. And on The Internet, there is a place called YouTube. And while many of us use YouTube to watch Vine compilations or interviews with celebrities eating hot wings, there’s also a wealth of information educating viewers on the finer details of just about everything—including audio engineering. A quick YouTube search for “basics of mixing” results in hundreds of videos, each with tens of thousands of views. I took an entire year of a recording class in high school (benefits of a big school), and I’ve learned more in a few fifteen-minute tutorials than I did that entire class—and I’ve barely just scratched the surface.

Not to mention platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud that put artists in direct control of their distribution. Heck, there are even free distro sites that will push your music to iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon.

The playing field has been leveled. The suits no longer have a monopoly on whose voice is worth broadcasting to the world.

While the state of home recording has changed a lot since Flying Saucer Attack made their revolutionary declaration, it’s never been more accurate.