Most of you are probably used to reading how-to guides here at The Stereo Bus. Today I’m going to do something different and write some commentary. Audio Engineering as a profession is largely a dying industry. More and more musicians are taking a DIY approach to Music Production, opting for laptop and bedroom studios instead of booking time in commercial facilities with dedicated engineering staff.
A couple of months ago I joined a community called WeAreTheMusicMakers over at Reddit. I quite enjoy Reddit as a whole and am happy that there are people discussing Music Production and Audio Engineering over there. One of the more popular things to do is to take photos of your studio and share them with the community. There are some pretty common items present in the photos: a computer, a recording interface, a small mixer, and a keyboard and/or drum pad unit. Seldom does one see a drum set.
The Popularity of Hip Hop has Largely Marginalized Audio Engineering
I have a lot of respect for Hip Hop. It’s been a powerful force for empowerment and a beautiful art form in and of itself. It’s a form of music that grew out of necessity: you didn’t need a lot of equipment to make Hip Hop and, arguably, you didn’t need to know how to play any musical instruments. One’s musical intuition and raw talent can get you most of the way towards a compelling song and rapping can be practiced pretty much anywhere. As time progressed, the standard turntable setup grew into samplers, keyboards, and computers.
To this day Hip Hop remains music that can be made in urban environments such as the apartment where I live. Electronic compositions can be made with headphones and require minimal miking capabilities beyond something that captures vocals adequately. Unlike rock music, where guitar amps sound best cranked and where live drums necessitate well-treated rooms, Hip Hop can be made in unmanicured environments with stray ambient noises, sensitive neighbors, and bad acoustics.
One day my wife was discussing my Audio Engineering with a coworker. The coworker said she had “lots of friends” who do Audio Engineering. I was surprised when I heard this, but ultimately I came to realize that what is understood to be Audio Engineering has changed in the Hip Hop era. I might argue that what most Hip Hop artists do doesn’t constitute Audio Engineering, but that’s not really the point I want to make.
Recording Studios Aren’t Closing Because of Piracy
Recording studios are closing because the way we make music has changed. The perceived value of recorded music has changed. And the mediums in which people hear music, such as iPods and laptop speakers, has trended towards those with which it is harder to distinguish adequate recordings from excellent recordings.
Drums are the Litmus Test
Why don’t we see drum sets in the studios posted to WeAreTheMusicMakers? It’s because drums are freaking difficult. If you can pull off a killer drum sound, you can pull off just about anything. It means you have a variety of high-quality mics, have a room with good acoustics, and have an understanding of how to capture an instrument that most people expect to sound a very specific way.
In the past ten years we’ve heard a lot more experimentation with unconventional sounds in music. I would argue this is because fewer and fewer musicians are utilizing professional Audio Engineers and are instead taking on the role of a Sound Designer in their compositions. It’s hard to make well-known instruments sound like we expect them to sound, so it’s much easier to leverage synthesizers and sample libraries than it is to gain the technical experience and equipment needed to do so. And if you can produce compelling music that touches people this way, why not?
The Spirituality of Live Recordings vs. Overdubbing
I remember the first time I recorded a half-dozen musicians at the same time in a studio. We had a drummer in the live room, singers in the vocal booth, guitar amps in the hallway, bass amp in the dead room, and several people jamming out in the control room. Everyone was playing together. Music was happening. It’s a spiritual experience to have talented people bonding and creating a creative space between them. The recordings produced this way bear this idea out.
But, the prevailing pattern of music-making today is overdubbing (the process of layering single tracks on top of each other to simulate simultaneous performances). I use overdubbing all the time. I’m not harping on it. But I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something.
I’ve been craving returning to real rooms, real mics, real, physical equipment that takes up space in a room, and real musicians. We’ve left behind a wild world of gear maintenance, social musicianship, and imperfection.
You just simply cannot make music like the music of Steely Dan or Kate Bush (or The Roots, for that matter) with a bedroom studio. It hurts me to hear people saying things like “albums should be free” and “musicians should only earn money from ticket sales”. Music Production and the creation of recordings is an art. A sacred art. A legitimate art. I see people walking around with headphones on all the time, the recorded music enriching their lives and deepening their understanding of life. Sure, perhaps we need to find a better economic model for supporting the creation of albums, but I will continue to advocate for the appreciation and compensation of artists who strive to produce their best work in the recorded medium.
I don’t know the solution to reinvigorating the Audio Engineering world, nor how to change people’s perceptions of what makes the effort of their favorite artists valuable. But I’ll let you know what I come up with.