Perfect Sound Forever

The Outsiders: Home Recording Comes of Age

Article and photo by Jesse Jarnow

Walking into the hallway, I hear the muffled thud of drums through Brooklyn loft walls. I can't quite make out the genre: Indie punk? Hip-hop? Hippie funk? Which room are they coming from? I'm in my pajamas, on my way to get the mail. I run into two neighbors from opposite sides of the floor. "Ah, guess who's unemployed?" Charles laughs.

"What're you up to, man?" Oliver asks.

"Eh, goin' to work now," Charles calls back as he trundles towards his room. He considers. "Maybe not. I might put down some tracks." Both Charles and Oliver have studios in their lofts. Studios. They've got rooms that they've built that block out the sound for the neighbors. Charles has been dealing with the landlords, working out some special arrangement so he can find the tenants who will soon occupy the new room just below his, on the first floor -- tenants who don't mind hearing the crash of drums and electric guitars.

For a while, my roommate and I couldn't play our drums, and had to concentrate more on the plinky and ethereal. But then the neighbors moved out (at the moment, my roommate is performing a particularly loud and crunchy overdub with his new amp).

I don't think our building is abnormal. In fact, I get the sense that it's the standard in some parts of town. I suppose it's hip. Warren St. John wrote about the trend condescendingly in the Fashion & Style section of the March 3rd New York Times. Even the filing of the piece was a bit underhanded: the subject couldn't even get the dignity enough to be included in with the meaty substance of Arts & Leisure. "For lots of New Yorkers in their 20's and 30's," St. John wrote, "the vanity CD has become the cultural equivalent of the novel in the dresser drawer". Sounds like the stuff of a Tom Wolfe piece to me.

Why now, though? "American culture is centered around entertainment," Sean Grant says in the St. John piece. "Making a CD is one of the easiest ways to become part of that." While this might be true to some extent, it would seem to me that the reason people are making their own music isn't precisely because they want to be "part of" entertainment so much as an acknowledgment that popular entertainment is no longer serving the real emotional needs of a portion of its intended audience.

Disdain for the music industry seems to be steadily heating to a boil, to say the least. Within weeks of the St. John piece, Newsweek ran an article titled, charitably, "Looking Grim at the Grammys," accompanied by an ominous graphic of a black reaper wielding a scythe and a Fender. People reach to music for comfort. If the music around them no longer serves to do this, then - for some - the only reasonable solution is to create one's own music. Songs seem like a pretty productive, self-sustaining way to deal with the world. Being dependent on one's self for comfort (or art or entertainment or anything else) seems downright healthy to me.

Didn't we learn anything from Pete Seeger? "Modern artists have an additional responsibility -- to encourage others to be artists," he wrote in the liner notes to 1996's Pete. "Why? Because technology is going to destroy the human soul unless we realize that each of us must in some way be a creator as well as a spectator or consumer... Make your own music, write your own books, if you would keep your soul."

Many critics seems to wonder why people are sinking so much money into making music when a given musician likely has no idea what he's going to do with it when it's done. "What he's going to do" of course means "who he is going to sell it to," and you might quote the massive odds against commercial success for recordings of this nature. They are vanity CD's because they will never turn profits.

Then again, most albums released by major labels never recoup their expenses either. It is not rare for a band to find itself indebted - and practically indentured - to its employers because it has failed to sell the requisite (and often ridiculously high) amount of records necessary to break even -- a figure quoted by Newsweek as being somewhere near 500,000 units. So, clearly, profitability - or the ultimate source of the losses - has very little do with what is unique about this trend (the issue of actually distributing this music in the age of the Internet is an entirely different discussion).

The technology that has made all of this possible is ProTools, that (relatively) affordable studio-on-a-screen application that has supplanted four-tracks in recent years as the tool of choice for home recording. In the bargain, non-professional musicians have been put - for the first time - on a level technological playing field with the pros. While musicians have long referred - somewhat pompously - to the use of the studio as an "instrument", it is the first time that access to that instrument has been made so public.

The desire for many professionals to record at home has often been linked with desires to separate themselves from the tentacles of distraction (from labels, hangers-on, and others) -- in other words, to deliberately make themselves outsiders Beginning with Bob Dylan and The Band's Basement Tapes (recorded in 1967, released some half-dozen years later with the "home recording" aspect now available as a marketing ploy), audiences and musicians came to cherish the intimacy of lo-fi, removed from the polished gloss of antiseptically isolated recording studios.

In the 1980's and '90s, the attraction blossomed into a full-on aesthetic, with artists like Guided By Voices, Beck, Pavement, Sebadoh, the Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and countless others embracing the approaches suggested by consumer-grade technology (the trend is treated interestingly by Tony Grajeda in his essay "The 'Feminization' of Rock").

The upshot of ProTools' arrival is that rock and roll has finally become a kind of folk music -- that is, if one is willing to accept folk genres not the result of staunchly held traditions, but as natural byproducts of industrial developments. In that sense, ProTools might be likened to, of all things, the accordion.

The accordion was invented in 1829, well into the industrial revolution. Within 10 years, it was one of the world's predominant instruments. It was loud, portable, and had the ability to condense an entire band (melodic part, bassline, and rhythm) into one box. Older songs were adapted to the instrument and made their way across the world.

The same might be said for ProTools which, as a product of developments in personal computing, has basically allowed old forms to be recreated and transformed via a new technology. Presumably, then, all that differentiates these productions from professional ones is the measure of talent involved. Many cite the ease with which one can scrub out blemishes as evidence that ProTools does little more than make the "musician" (now in quotes) feel better about himself.

The implication is that the results are nothing but favorably distorted mirrors. If they weren't, then why would this be the chosen form for the music? If these people were real, competent musicians, then why not play the instruments themselves? Or even perform the material live? Or get signed by a label?

Consider this, though: the same logic that allows one to digitally correct selected notes also allows him to enter the music at any given point to do anything he wishes. He can correct a note, yes, but he can also do myriad other things. He can slide entire chunks of sound around the piece without worrying about the other tracks. He has, in short, been freed from linearity.

A portion of the people recording at home, or even employing producers to help even out their sound, are what might be called non-musicians -- not out of derision, but because they frame their ideas differently. Where a singer-songwriter might wrap his ideas around a chord progression, a non-musician might have only have the inclination of a melody. It doesn't make it any less real, it just happens to be outside the traditional language of music. In fact, it might just make it more real. All that matters there is the effect (a war-horse of an argument, for sure, but still important).

In other words - in the midst of one of the most media-rich cities in the world - these might just be outsider artists, that strange breed of folklorics that emerges on the fringes of popular culture -- that is, if one is willing to redefine "outsider" in a manner similar to the way he might redefine "folk". If "insider" music exists as the result of a complex arrangement of record companies, marketing techniques, bands on tour or tucked in soundproof bunkers, and the dread "product", then "outsider" music might now be anything produced without regard to that arrangement (or, if you prefer, that illusion).

Outsider music is far more than the flotsam and jetsam of the stylish jet stream. It is rawly and objectively beautiful for its striking honesty. After all, isn't that what we value about our favorite singers? Or do we only favor the illusion of honesty? In Songs In The Key of Z, outsider scholar (and WFMU DJ) Irwin Chusid offers the following advice: "when hunting for undiscovered gems, a good clue is a label catalog number that ends in '-001.'"... the sign of a vanity label, a vanity pressing. Is it possible that we are breeding a culture of outsiders? And if so, then what exactly is wrong with that?

Or maybe it does suck. Before the Times article appeared, my roommate actually played with one of the folks featured in it. "He sang with a faux-British accent," he said when he got home, visibly shuddering. There is really little around this: some of the music is really godawful tripe that no one would really want to listen to. There are a lot of bands out there, and there's a lot of music. Now, more than ever, there is a lower ratio between musicians and listeners.

But if one person's songs can only make even one person happy - a friend or a lover or a stranger or maybe even himself - then it has a right to exist. It might not be meant for a mass audience. If anything the Internet will create a rich world of niche markets. And, of course, the ultimate niche market is an individual. And it's sure as hell too expensive just to market to him.

ED NOTE: More of Jesse Jarnow's writings and work can be found at

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