Ian Button is Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences’ drummer and producer, and has played for and produced various other bands too (most notably as the guitarist in Death in Vegas but he’s also been in Thrashing Doves, played sessions for Pete Doherty, Cathy Dennis and Brandon Block and has recently produced David Cronenberg’s Wife, Extradition Order, Deep Cut, 4 or 5 Magicians and more, and is working currently on projects with Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, and Go Kart Mozart…). He also teaches music production courses at Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury College and Point Blank.
Over a series of articles he will talk about DIY production and home recordings. We hope you find them useful.
DIY Record Production – Part 1: A View – by Ian Button July 2009
Absent-mindedly scanning the 2009 Mercury Prize nominees in the paper the other morning, I noticed that one of the contenders’ biog/blurb seemed to be making a big point about their album being recorded ‘on a laptop in a shed’.
While on the one hand I’m glad to see that Sweet Billy Pilgrim are proud of their work and how it was made, I was frankly surprised that in 2009 their ‘DIY’ approach was worthy of such note (it was practically the only thing the feature mentioned about them). People have been making records ‘at home’ for many years if you think about it – from Les Paul’s early multitracking experiments in his garage, to Joe Meek’s hit-factory flat in Holloway Rd, to Daniel Johnston’s cassette recordings – artists and producers have been putting so-called ‘professional’ production values into perspective by doing it themselves. Some are being subversive, some are just being practical.
Over the years, a variety of acts have occasionally surprised/annoyed the traditionalists with releases that weren’t recorded…er… ‘properly’: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was recorded on a 4-track portastudio; The Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions used a single microphone and no overdubs. Ok, it was quite an expert/expensive microphone, but it made a point; Baby Bird was hailed as a bedroom genius; White Town got to No.1…the list goes on, with Bon Iver being one of the most recent artists to become famous for locking himself away in a hut with some simple equipment and coming out with an acclaimed album. I myself can vouch for the fact that much of Death In Vegas’ first album Dead Elvis was made in a bedroom, using some fairly non-standard approaches to recording guitars, editing, mixer controls way beyond safe settings etc etc.
But the point is that it’s the content on these recordings that matters – they were all accepted on their own particular terms. I’d like to think the same applies to the production I do now, for Paul’s stuff, Extradition Order, David Cronenberg’s Wife, Deep Cut and all the others (of which more in a future article).
No one took Springsteen’s album back to the shop because he hadn’t used enough tracks. Thankfully Radio 1 didn’t send Thee Awkward Silences stuff back and tell us to record it again.
Sure, there are nerds like myself who like to go on about how albums are made, and as producers/artists pride ourselves on attention to detail and doing what we think is right to make the best of the project, but the fundamental point and goal of any production, DIY or otherwise, is that we are able to make something convincing with whatever resources we have, or choose to use, and the consumer/listener either likes the result or doesn’t, but accepts it as a record alongside all the other records that have ever been made.
That attitude has always been there – I’ve had it myself for over 20 years, at the same time as working in countless projects that – for whatever reasons – had to do it the textbook (i.e. expensive, studio) way. I’m talking about making DIY ‘rock’ records (e.g. The Anthony Anderson Project), but anyone who’s been involved in making electronic/dance music will have been aware of that same production ethic for just as long.
The main difference between home and studio recording used to be sound quality (tape width, number of tracks etc). That issue is no longer there. Today’s technology and the accessibility of recording/production tools means it’s even more feasible to make a musical product independently/at home/cheaply/in any style, and send it out there into the big wide world and no one will know (or care) how you recorded it – they will judge it, of course, but it will be about how good your lyrics/chorus/haircut/bandname are, not your mics or reverb settings or whether you used Protools (thousands of pounds) or Audacity (free). There’s another issue here too: the current music consumer ethic and sales trends are going to mean that expensive recordings won’t make any sense for any but the most massive artists. It’s going to be no bad thing for us all to learn how to create our art quickly, cheaply and realistically.
Basically, the same thing applies to production as it does to playing/writing/performing – if you are confident about what you can do, and honest about what you can’t do, you will find a sound, an approach, and a way of working that will fit.
In the next article I’m going to go into a bit more detail about how I record Paul’s and all the other bands’ stuff, with a few suggestions for what you are going to need if you want to get started yourself.