Home recording is more popular than ever, thanks to inexpensive multi-track recording programs that can turn your home computer into a functioning studio
How important is recording in Troy De Vault’s life? Extremely.
“I don’t think I could live without it,” he says, appearing to mean it. “There’s so much stuff that has to come out of me.”
We’re crammed into his “studio,” which also serves as his living room, dining room and bedroom for the simple reason that he lives in a small motor home. It’s here that De Vault records himself playing guitar on a cassette four-track recorder commonly available for under $100.
“I keep a notepad by my bed, so if I get a cool idea or I remember something as I’m falling asleep I can write it down,” he explains, “My four-track is my notepad for my guitar; everything revolves around those guitar parts that I put down in moments of inspiration.”
He speaks fluently and effusively about his love of recording, but when asked to give an explanation for the rising popularity of home recording, De Vault’s response is as short as it is surprising: “Is it popular?”
Quite popular, actually, and the business community is starting to notice. For example, at this year’s MacWorld Expo, in San Francisco, Apple Computers unveiled GarageBand, an inexpensive piece of software that Apple promised would “turn your Mac into a home recording studio!”
Even more amazing was that GarageBand was presented by Apple as the most important of its new products, winning a more prominent place at the Expo than the wildly popular iPod Mini or the expensive G5 server.
Apple is not the first company to introduce a low-cost recording product within the last year, and it probably won’t be the last. The idea of recording the next Sgt. Pepper’s or Pink Flag from the comfort of your own living room is, for most musicians, irresistible.
“Recoding is easy, affordable and fun,” says Zeke Rogers, co-owner of Black Lodge, a recording studio in Chico that mainly records indie and punk bands.
Rogers and his partner Shawn Pawn have built Black Lodge into a hub for the punk and indie communities, headquarters for Manifest Destiny Records and the many political, social, and musical movements derived from it. Black Lodge’s rise to prominence in the community in only a few short months is a testament to the will of its owner/operators.
“My regular job as a computer programmer pays pretty well,” explains Rogers, “which was nice, because, for a while, we weren’t even making enough here to cover rent.”
Despite owning a studio, Rogers believes he understands artists who wish to record at home; it is, after all, where he got his start. “Who wants to pay big bucks to go into a studio with some people who don’t know what your music should sound like anyway?” he says.
But then he cautions, “I also think bands should be realistic, and if they think they’re really good and want to make a great album, working with a good engineer is a really great thing to do.”
Larry Crane, owner of Jackpot! Studio in Portland, Ore., agrees, “A major mistake of people who record at home is thinking that they can do everything themselves: write all of the songs, play all of the instruments, record everything. They think that collaborating with other people is unneeded or unnecessary.”
The results of such a process, says Crane, can often be uninspired and under whelming. “They emerge with a record that they may like but that the world at large doesn’t need or care about.”
Crane, a former resident of Chico and member of the seminal Chico band Vomit Launch, is widely known in music circles as the founder and editor of TapeOp magazine, which is seen by many as the Bible of home and small-studio recording. Local musician and recording enthusiast Kelly Bauman is even more direct, “The reason home recording is so popular right now is because of TapeOp.”
TapeOp is more than just a magazine. In recent years it has expanded into events such as TapeOpCon, an annual conference at which industry leaders and insiders rub elbows with musicians and home recordists. The magazine has a vibrant online community, with members from all over the world. Crane also teaches a workshop at his studio for recording hobbyists.
At these workshops Crane tries to impart what he calls a “realistic understanding” of the music industry: “The world is probably not going to come knocking at your door. It’s important that people realize how important follow-through is. If you want your recordings to be heard, you need to get out and play and promote what you’ve done.”
The people who have the healthiest attitudes toward recording are those who view it as a hobby, Crane says.
Bauman is a perfect example. “My dad loved to fish,” he says. “Some people go to Puerto Vallarta; I record music and build recording stuff. It’s pretty pathetic. I can’t explain it to more than a handful of people my own age, which is probably a bad sign.”
Bauman represents a class of home recordists whose recordings can actually compare in sonic quality to recordings made at professional studios. Along with the tremendous time and energy he expends making his meticulous recordings, Bauman seems more willing than most hobbyists to spend money—sometimes big money—to get the sounds that he hears in his head onto tape. “Capturing sound genuinely is still the most mysterious aspect of recording, and it’s still very expensive to do because of the costs associated with good recording gear.”
A former member of some of the more popular local rock bands of the past decade—Deathstar, Harvester and the North Magnetic—Bauman, 31, now teaches Spanish at Red Bluff High School. Not that teaching would get in the way of rock, of course; besides working on his own recordings he has a new band in the works.
Perhaps because of his long experience in music, Bauman is not as enthusiastic about inexpensive recording gear as is, say, the marketing team for Apple Computers: “That kind of gear does what four-track cassette recorders have been doing for years, only now it just sounds worse. You can layer track upon track, master your project with fancy plug-ins, burn it on a CDR and it still sucks. Go figure.”
In contrast, his friend and former band mate Ken Lovgren is the kind of guy the phrase “home recording enthusiast” seems coined for. “The proliferation of cheap ways to record music is reintroducing rock to its grass roots,” Lovgren shares, “It seems like almost everyone has a CD of his or her own music. This is wonderful.”
“As kids,” Lovgren explains, “my friends and I would drool over expensive high-end recording equipment pictured in trade magazines: compressors, reverb units, pre-amps. Today, with the advent of computer-based home recording, virtual versions of these highly sought-after, mind-blowingly expensive toys can be purchased for a fraction of the price, or even downloaded as freeware.”
Like Bauman, Lovgren considers recording a hobby, though he is more tortured about its place in his life. “Too often I find myself straddling a fine line between constructive hobby and obsession,” he says. “I would literally spend every spring weekend holed up inside a cramped, murky garage making music that quite possibly no one would hear if my wife Mary would let me.”
Lovgren’s studio sits in a converted garage behind his house and is basically a computer with some software installed. There, he makes high-quality music, alternating between rootsy folk-rock and pure electronica—that is, when he can squeeze time into his busy schedule as a stay-at-home-dad.
Across town, in a converted garage in his back yard, Scott Derr uses slightly different methods to capture his music. In contrast to Lovgren, Bauman, and Rogers, who record directly to computer, Derr prefers his 8-track reel-to-reel tape recorder.
“I only use the computer to burn CDs,” Derr explains. “It doesn’t get used all that often.”
Although he occasionally records bands for money, beer or gear, his studio is obviously meant to cater to his own musical tastes. Every corner and shelf is filled with a gee-whiz collection of instruments and effects boxes. A walk through his space is like a tour of the coolest museum ever.
“I’ve got too many keyboards,” Derr says, “especially since I don’t know how to play keyboard.”
One of the “too many keyboards” is a beautiful old synth, bought at a local antique store and restored by a German immigrant living in Paradise. On top of another keyboard sits a plywood-encased Theremin, star of many horror and space flick soundtracks. A well-used Space Echo sits within easy reach of the mixer and recorder.
“I like to view recording as part of the music-making process. In other words, the studio can be an instrument unto itself.”
Derr, a high-school teacher, is married with a child on the way. Like other recordists, he views recording as a hobby of sorts, though one with a very important function: “Like any other form of art, it’s a means of processing and releasing the daily buildup of gunk that accumulates on the brain. It helps keep me sane, sort of.”
A few blocks away, in his motor home, De Vault again considers the place of recording in his life. “I’m not looking for this to lead anywhere,” he says disarmingly. “I don’t consider myself a great musician or anything. I guess recording allows me to share music with the people I care about.”
“Want to hear something I’ve been working on?"