Lo-fi or die: A brief history of bedroom recordings.

bedroom recordings

The wonderful thing about the guitar is that you can just pick it up and play. You don’t need to put a reed into it, you don’t need to warm up the strings or wax your bow. It’s not the size of a double bass or church organ and it’s get acres of volume over the likes of the mandolin or an acoustic bass. It’s handy.

The spread of the guitar made music creating accessible for the masses. Anyone could pick up and play in a more universal manner than the previous array of instruments provided. It’s what makes the guitar ‘the guitar’.

The act of recording music is a different story. It has traditionally been an arena in which the recording studio is dominant, with studio hours and seconds being minutely tallied, paid for and awarded to bands at the end of battle of the bands competitions. Much love, money and time go into recording studios, whether they be made by large record labels or by artists themselves. Echo chambers are built, boards are assembled, a range of equipment is bought. There are small vocal booths, large orchestral rooms. It’s expensive.

If you don’t want to record in a studio but have the money to do so, there are still more options. You could make like Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and rent a mansion to use as a studio. All you need to do then is cart in all your amps and guitars, microphones and cables, mixing desks and the like. In addition to this, you can use the acoustic properties of the old staircases as a recording device, as the ‘Head did on ‘Exit Music For A Film’ or how Led Zeppelin did on ‘When The Levee Breaks’.

However, not everyone can afford to enter a studio (or rent and equip a mansion) and not everyone has the record label backing to do so, which leads to difficulties. These poor souls have to find new, economically viable ways of recording. For a long time, this meant using a 4 track recorder and this was a rather large phenomena. You have someone like Keith Richards recording the guitar to ‘Street Fighting Man’ on an early Philips cassette desk. One very distinctive aspect of this recording is the distortion, as Richards acoustic guitar overloaded the recorder.

The early seventies delivered a number of classic lo-fi home recordings, some using a 4 track, such as JW Farquhar’s bitter break up album ‘The Formal Female’, recorded in his apartment. Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ was partially recorded in his home studio, with the vocals being recorded while he lay on his bed. The Beach Boys recorded three albums in Brian Wilson’s home studio, ‘Smiley Smile’, ‘Wild Honey’, and ‘Friends’. These were recorded on an adapted radio broadcasting console.

This group of albums acted as a catalyst for a whole subgenre of popular music which celebrated the murk of low fidelity recordings, a genre now referred to as lo-fi. The legends of lo-fi include the likes of R. Stevie Moore, who recorded at home, Sebadoh, recorded at home for a time, Pavement, recorded in studio, The Microphones, recorded in studio… You get the picture, you don’t need to be in your mom’s basement to produce a fuzzy recording.

As not everything lo-fi is home recorded, neither is everything home recorded lo-fi. As the guitar brought music making to the masses, the laptop brought high fidelity recording to the masses. Over the past decade, there has been an ever increasing spectrum of laptop music, running the gamut from Skrillex’s ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’ to James Ferraro’s ‘Far Side Virtual’, from Odd Future’s early material to Glassine’s ‘No Stairway’.

One criticism that has been levied at laptops, Soundcloud and the like is that it has produced an overabundance of music. Apparently, there is now just too much music in the world to sift through and find the quality. Indeed, this was something that irked me while writing this piece, how was I to choose one album to be mentioned over another? Never mind the modern day, why wouldn’t I put Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, or ‘The Basement Tapes’ into the article? What was the point of going through hours of home recorded music when there must thousands of times more home recorded music these days than in-studio thanks to the proliferation of YouTube covers, no matter the style?

Home recording can be said to be amateurish in aesthetic, intentional or not. Amateurishness is a wonderful phenomena in art and it applies to bedroom music above all else, a celebration of a love of music in your most familiar surroundings. When you listen (and watch) MonoNeon and Mr. Talkbox cover another bedroom classic, ‘Back Pocket’ from Vulfpeck, you can’t help but be glad that hi-fi music recording has become widely available.

Follow Overblown on Facebook and Twitter.

Do you want to change music journalism?
  • Steve Walsh

    An article discussing the growth of home recording that doesn’t mention the internet or the digitisation of sound recording is not really an article discussing the growth of home recording. Both have facilitated the massive growth in good quality ‘home recordings’ and the relative cheapness of recording hardware have allowed ‘studios’ to be set up in basements, garages and warehouse spaces where bands and musicians can take advantage of the expertise of a sound engineer, who in turn is probably a product of a local college/uni music/sound tech course. Either route produces hi fidelity recordings miles away from the home recordings of the pre digital era. Hankering after the sound these old methods produce rather misses the point that these days bands can get decent sounding recordings ‘released’ much more cheaply and easily that they could even 10 years ago.