From early '90s releases by Polvo, Superchunk and Finger, to platinum records by Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, Triangle artists have a tradition of bypassing traditional recording facilities and making their records in the low-key comfort of home studios. Says engineer Tim Harper, who's worked on national releases by Son Volt, The Connells and Whiskeytown: "A musician looking to make a record before 1996 had to go to a studio. It was usually about $300 to $1,000 a day depending on how 'cush' the studio was." Add to that the cost of recording tape (about $150 for 27 minutes of 2-inch tape) and the banks of most struggling young bands were close to being broken. It's no wonder more and more artists are going the DIY route.
And the advent of digital audio tape and computer-based recording programs has not only made it easier for musicians to record under their own roofs, it's revolutionized the recording industry and the way people make records.
Some former band members like ex-Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge (their 1997 breakthrough album, Whatever and Ever Amen, was recorded in a Chapel Hill student rental house), ex-Collapsis guitarist Ryan Picket and Jennyanykind's Holland brothers have opened their home studios to the public, charging rates much more in line with the budgets of struggling young musicians than those of more professional top-of-the line studios.
"There's a lot of people who have their own gear in their houses," says Bryon Settle, former co-owner of Yellow House, a Chapel Hill recording studio where bands like Pipe, Small and Zen Frisbee recorded throughout the '90s. "And the only reason I know that is because I work part time at a music store and I sell them stuff." Settle has noticed that much of the gear he sells to excited home recorders eventually makes its way back to him. "I'm thinking that 90 percent of the people who get this stuff fool around with it for a year and get frustrated and sell it," says Settle. "The first thing I say is 'get a book and read about it before you do this.'"
Settle notes that even though a sizable number of his customers do get discouraged, some stick with it and thrive. "There's also a fair amount of people who buy the stuff and do know what they're doing and make great recordings," he says. One unsurprising characteristic of those who do excel, according to Settle, is a solid background of hands-on recording with their own bands. "The best experience is experience," says Settle. "It's like chefs--all the best ones I know never went to CIA."
Recording aside, many artists continue to struggle to find someone to put out their finished work. So they're diving into a world that seems to not only go hand in hand with home recording, but one that might be their only option for getting their music heard: the Internet. A quick look around the Net shows that thousands of unsigned artists are posting their music in cyberspace.
This brings up a very real problem: There's more music available than people could ever conceivably check out.
"Everybody is going to have their home studio and shovel their stuff onto the Net," says recent Triangle transplant Jason Ross, whose band Seven Mary Three scored massive rock radio hits in the mid-'90s. "There's just going to be too much stuff to sift through.
"There's another Beck out there," says Ross. "He's going to blow everyone away and that's a wonderful thing. But for every one of him there's going to be 1,000 people who probably have no business doing it." Some of these would-be Becks, after being smitten by the idea of launching their assault on the music world from the privacy of their bedrooms, have found that home recording isn't as easy as they thought it would be.
"One great thing about booking time in a larger, more expensive studio is that it makes you commit and focus," says Chris Stamey, perhaps the area's most successful home studio owner, having recorded such high-profile artists as Whiskeytown, Tift Merritt, Le Tigre and Alejandro Escovedo. "Basic tracking and mixing is still the domain of the better-sounding places," says Stamey, who often begins projects at larger studios such as Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium in Kernersville, so he can utilize its massive "live" recording room. After cutting basic tracks, he'll finish the project at his Chapel Hill home with the aid of Pro Tools.
What a program like Photoshop can do for altering images, Pro Tools does for sounds, allowing artists to cut, paste and change their basic tracks. Instead of recording on magnetic tape, it records on magnetic computer hard drives, then "backs up" the sounds to CD or other storage media.
"Pro Tools has changed forever how recording is done. It's probably the single most important development in recording music since tape emulsion," says Sledge.
While the increased number of home studios has not exactly been running state-of-the-art studios like Easter's out of business, it has had an adverse affect on middle-tier facilities. Jerry Kee's Duck Kee studio has existed in several locations over the last decade and a half; the one constant is that it's always been in Kee's home. The Mebane-based musician/engineer has seen a somewhat sluggish recent period for Duck Kee. "Money is tight for a lot of people," says Kee. "And if they can get a decent recording in a friend's living room for free, why not do that?
"Several records that I felt would've come my way in the past have gone the home route. On the other hand, other records that might've come my way have increased their budget, hiring producers and working in slicker places." Kee finds it hard to compete with these larger facilities even though Duck Kee, which features a 2-inch 24-track analog tape machine and high-quality outboard gear and microphones, has much of the same equipment.
"In many ways I'm offering the same service they are, but with less bells and whistles," says Kee, who is yet to fully embrace the idea of recording software. "I've wondered if I'm going to have to get at least the 'baby' version of Pro Tools," says Kee. "Overall, I don't want to track onto a computer."
"It's definitely having an effect on all studios, but in my opinion that's not a negative thing," says John Plymale, a freelance producer who works primarily out of Durham's Overdub Lane recording studio. "There's still no substitute for high-quality engineering skills that are generally available at more professional-level facilities," he says. "It's actually become a very common thing for artists to begin their projects at home and then bring them in to a studio to help finish and mix them."
While programs like Pro Tools have allowed recording enthusiasts to do things that were previously only possible in larger, better equipped studios, some have voiced concern that reliance on the software could lead to a new era where only perfect, mistake-free recordings are the norm. "This is one of the problems of home recording," says Harper. "Too many options and too much time can remove the spontaneity and result in much fewer happy accidents."
Michael Holland, whose Big John's studio is located in the basement of an old Chapel Hill schoolhouse, is philosophical about the future of home recording and the possibility of its technology getting out of hand. "Technology can lure you away from reality out of fear because it's safe," says Holland. "But you can harness that devil and make him work for you. It's a tool, like a knife," he says. "You can hurt someone or yourself with it or you can slice up a peach and share it with someone you love."