[Paleopsych] NYT: Home Sweet Studio

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Home Sweet Studio
March 20, 2005


    THERE'S a tambourine in Adam Pierce's bedroom, two upright pianos and
    some Balinese gamelan instruments in his living room, a Celtic harp
    near his television set. Piled up next to the basement stairs are four
    drum kits in their cases. Take a left at the laundry room and there's
    the recording studio, a low-ceiling den where drums, a guitar and a
    vibraphone are set up and battered amplifiers and reverb units are
    stacked against a wall. The control room, where Mr. Pierce records
    nearly everything on an old 16-track reel-to-reel tape recorder - 13
    of the tracks still work - is a few steps away. It smells a little
    dank, since bathroom pipes run behind the mixing board.

    Here, at the house he shares in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Mr. Pierce has
    recorded nearly all of the music on the five albums he has made as
    Mice Parade (an anagram of his name). "Try not to move that
    microphone," Mr. Pierce said, dodging a stand as he showed a visitor
    around the studio space. "It was getting a certain sound in that

    Mr. Pierce is part of a quiet revolution in music-making: the move
    from professional studios to home recording. Making an album used to
    mean booking a fixed amount of very expensive time in a well-equipped
    but unfamiliar room; now, it can be a matter of rolling out of bed and
    pressing a button. Whether it's Mice Parade's indie-rock, Aesop Rock's
    underground hip-hop, the twilit ballads of Keren Ann, the mercurial
    California rock of the Eels or sweeping Top 40 contenders from Moby,
    more and more music is emerging not from acoustically perfect
    state-of-the-art studios, but from setups tucked into bedrooms and
    basements or simply programmed onto a laptop.

    The growth of home recording is a convergence of technology, thrift
    and shifting musical tastes that has been building for decades. In
    1984 Bruce Springsteen released "Nebraska," with its songs recorded as
    demos on a four-track cassette recorder. It had a haunted sound that
    more professionally recorded versions of the same songs could not
    improve; he had tried. But "Nebraska" was an anomaly.

    Then along came hip-hop, and hit songs made with two turntables and a
    microphone, convincing musicians and listeners that lo-fi sound has
    its uses. And along came digital recording: first in elaborate studio
    machines and then, as processor speed increased, in home computers.
    Now a virtual recording console, effects and instrumental sounds are
    all tucked into software like Pro Tools, the nearly ubiquitous program
    that was introduced by Digidesign in 1991. It simulates a multitrack
    studio capable of recording, overdubbing, mixing, editing, even tuning
    up missed notes or placing a sound on the beat. In the 21st century,
    homemade recordings can be indistinguishable from studio products.

    "I avoided the computer generation for a very long time," said Aesop
    Rock, a rapper who produces most of his own tracks; he made his first
    albums with a turntable, a sampling keyboard and a few instruments.
    But after he invested some tour profits in a Pro Tools setup, he was
    hooked. "The ease of manipulating everything is amazing," he said.
    Studio costs vary widely, but can easily run hundreds of dollars an
    hour. A basic 32-track Pro Tools LE system, to interface with a
    computer, costs about $450.

    Studios still excel at recording ensembles and making them sound
    lifelike (or better). Songs with the grandeur of Phil Spector
    productions or 1960's Motown hits, which had a full studio band
    chiming away, are unlikely to come out of home studios. And musicians
    working alone, or mostly alone, can't count on a group's creative
    friction - or an engineer's involuntary smirk - to sharpen their
    ideas. But for music that can be built by overdubbing - like the
    intricate patterns of guitars and drums that Mr. Pierce spins as Mice
    Parade, or the sampled and looped riffs of hip-hop, or the layers of
    synthesizers within Moby's songs - a home studio is just the thing.

    As home studios gain, actual studios suffer. "They're dropping like
    flies," Mark Oliver Everett of Eels said mournfully. This year such
    well-known studios as the Hit Factory in New York, Cello Studios in
    Hollywood (formerly Western Recorders, where the Beach Boys made "Pet
    Sounds") and a renowned rock and soul crucible, Muscle Shoals Sound
    Studios in Sheffield, Ala., have all closed.

    Under the same pressures as any commercial real estate, studio rooms
    that can hold orchestras or big bands in prime acoustics are
    disappearing. When Jazz at Lincoln Center built its headquarters in
    the Time Warner Center, it defied that trend, and ensured itself a
    place to record, by earmarking some of its precious midtown space for
    a rehearsal room that can accommodate a symphony and a jazz band,
    effectively building the first large New York City studio in years. It
    also wired its acoustically isolated theater and its club spaces for

    Home studios can be shoehorned into tighter quarters. Years ago, Moby
    moved his bed into a closet and converted the bedroom of his downtown
    Manhattan loft into a neat, skylighted studio full of keyboards, patch
    cords and computer gear. Out of it have come million-selling albums
    like "Play." Aesop Rock's studio is an alcove littered with cigarette
    packs and running shoes, tucked between the living room and kitchen of
    his ground-floor apartment in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of

    When a musician lives in the studio, family and neighbors have to
    adapt. "The neighbors prefer I don't do vocals at night," admitted
    Aesop Rock. "It gets a little iffy when I'm screaming."

    Songwriters have always recorded tales of their romances. Now, they
    might be doing it with their subject nearby. Mr. Everett records while
    his wife, upstairs, tries to ignore what he calls "the constant
    thumping and banging from the basement." Speaking by telephone from
    his home in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, he deadpanned:
    "She's not even a fan of my music. If the song's not about her, she
    doesn't care. I've started telling her they're all about her so she'll
    like them."

    Home recording is subject to interruptions not generally found in
    professional quarters. During one Eels session for "Blinking Lights
    and Other Revelations" (Vagrant), which is due in April, Mr. Everett's
    dog, Bobby Jr., was sprayed by a skunk. "And I'm the one that has to
    give him a tomato-juice bath in the recording-studio bathroom," Mr.
    Everett said. Bobby Jr. actually appears on the album, howling what
    Mr. Everett called a solo vocal.

    Mr. Everett works with a recording engineer in his home studio
    because, he said, "It's too advanced for me - I don't know how to turn
    some of the stuff on now." But many other home recordists work
    entirely alone as performer, producer and engineer.

    "It's so nice not having to wait for other people to show up," Moby
    said by telephone from Amsterdam. "It's a very lonely process, and you
    miss the gregarious interaction you'd have with musicians. But the
    flip side of that is your equipment doesn't argue with you, so it's
    easier being a megalomanical home studio despot."

    Working in solitude can nurture more eccentric, more private songs.
    Keren Ann recorded the hushed ballads of her new album, "Nolita"
    (Metro Blue), in two private studios: her soundproofed apartment in
    Paris and one in the downtown Manhattan neighborhood that gave the
    album its title, often working in the predawn hours when the city was
    quietest. Guest musicians could drop by after the last set at a jazz

    "Going back and forth, I often arrive here jet-lagged, so I'm awake at
    5 a.m.," Keren Ann said in an interview at her loft, where tom-toms
    sit on a kitchen shelf above pots and pans. "It happens that I have
    this idea on an instrument or an arrangement, and I'll wake up and
    turn everything on and record. It's also different when you can record
    your own vocals and nobody hears you. You can confess more. If I had
    not done 'Nolita' this way, it would have been less intimate, less

    When it's easy to record at any time, musicians don't hold back.
    "Because I work a lot," Moby said, "I figure I've got four or five
    thousand unreleased songs. A lot of them are not very good. If you're
    trying out a new idea in front of your friends or your bandmates, if
    it's a terrible idea they're going to throw stuff at you. I have a lot
    of terrible ideas. But working at home, you can be as embarrassing as
    you want, and you'll be the only person who will ever hear it. And
    sometimes the really dumb idea that you had could be a good piece of

    Home recordists still venture out when they need improved equipment
    and acoustics: a $10,000 vocal microphone, a specialized guitar setup.
    It's a relief, they say, to have someone else responsible for the
    technical details. They also take their songs to full-fledged studios
    for final mixes to try out the music on speakers and systems that are
    too big for a basement.

    While working in a rented studio can mean pressure, working at home
    can mean procrastination and endless second-guessing, and some home
    recordists appreciate the sense of urgency that the clock brings.
    "When I record in a studio," said Aesop Rock, "I know that on Tuesday
    at 3 o'clock I've got to go be creative."

    Mr. Pierce said: "At home I don't know what I'm going to record before
    I'm about to record it, or how the pieces of the song will be put
    together. But in a studio, the way a transition is going to be made
    has to be decided in the next 30 minutes."

    Although computers can mimic the reverberations of anything from a
    cubicle to a stadium, there's still no substitute for physical space.
    Mr. Everett compared his basement studio to a vintage keyboard
    warehouse. "It's so annoyingly small that it's gotten to the point now
    where I can't even buy another guitar. Every time I want to play an
    instrument I have to move another five instruments to get to it." So
    when he needed a string section for an Eels song, he went to a
    professional studio. "I could fit 32 people in the basement," he said,
    "but I'd have to stack them all on top of each other, and it's hard to
    play the violin like that."

    Moby's new album, "Hotel" (V2), simulates concert halls and pulsating
    clubs, although nearly all of it came from a space he describes as
    claustrophobic. "I'm a small person, and the studio is built to
    scale," he said. "Occasionally I'll invite friends over, but it's a
    place that I spend so much time in by myself that when anyone's over I
    feel like the moment they leave, homeostasis has returned."

    For musicians who record at home, the studio becomes a sanctuary: part
    sandbox, part confessional. "One of the greatest luxuries is having a
    permanent small studio space that's always waiting for me," Moby said.
    "It's secure when I leave, and it sits there waiting patiently for me
    when I get home. It's the perfect companion."

    And there's a certain symmetry in the fact that the music that emerges
    from home recording is increasingly heard by one person at a time,
    between the headphones of portable music players like the iPod. The
    sounds musicians have made alone at home end up in an equally private
    sphere. "It's not about being lonely," Keren Ann said about recording
    at home. "It's about being apart."


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=JON%20PARELES&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=JON%20PARELES&inline=nyt-per

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