FilmInstituteMirek Stiles, our Head of Audio Products (and a former recording engineer) explores how some of the most inspired creative work was created in isolation.
Chances are whoever you are and wherever you are, at this moment in time you might be experiencing an Eleanor Rigby moment (to quote The Beatles lament for the lonely). The current climate and extreme importance of social distancing and staying at home will have put many in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar scenario – many amongst them will be musicians and songwriters.
Putting aside the bigger implications, difficulties and concerns this unprecedented situation has put us all in, I would like to try and offer some small comfort to all aspiring songwriters and producers that some of the most beautiful, exciting and inspiring work ever recorded has been created in moments of complete personal lock down and (although admittedly voluntary) social distancing. One can take further comfort in the fact these important works of art have been created at home, using a mixture of surprisingly primitive equipment and inspiring resourcefulness.
One famous example of recording in self-isolation with extremely limited equipment was Bruce Springsteen who, after his 5th studio album, decided to buy a four-track cassette recorder and record 15 songs alone in his house. Vocals and guitar were laid down onto tracks 1 and 2, while tracks 3 and 4 were reserved for harmonies and additional guitar overdubs. The original plan was to use these as demos to teach his band in the studio for a more traditional recording session. However, Bruce came to the conclusion that the songs were just too personal to be ‘produced’, so decided to release the songs as they are.
The resulting album Nebraska is still considered one of his best. It’s pure and from the heart, and there was no need for complicated recording or production processes to deliver these beautiful songs. Even one of the tracks recorded for the album, then shelved, was eventually given the E-Street Band treatment and became his biggest hit - Born in the USA.
On the other end of the spectrum comes the debut album from The Streets. Recorded mostly at home in Brixton, South London, the album is a hugely creative collage of beats and loosely delivered lyrics about working class London that’s proof you can find inspiration from all around you. Once again, this album was tracked using basic equipment; this time via a computer, but still very much a home recording just like Nebraska. Mike Skinner even resorted to clearing out wardrobes and lining them with duvets and pillows to deaden the sound, thus creating a makeshift vocal booth. The album peaked at No 12 in the album charts – not bad for ‘home’ recording.Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon wrote, recorded and self-released his debut breakthrough album For Emma, Forever Ago, in his dad’s hunting cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. He recorded the entire album in the cabin, on an old computer, throughout the winter of 2006 into early 2007. The album was focused on the breakdown of a relationship. "I had nothing but the sound of my own thoughts, and they were really loud when that's all that was going on," Vernon later said on his near-complete isolation. The recordings were never intended to be released but after encouragement from friends and some help in the mastering process For Emma, Forever Ago was self-released in July 2007 and Bon Iver was introduced to the world.
And Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker [pictured in the header] is no stranger to working in isolation, having developed this year’s The Slow Rush in seclusion.
There are many more examples of important and brilliant works of art being created in isolation and with less than ideal equipment, so you should be encouraged and take inspiration from this fact. I know we have other very important concerns, but I hope you can take solace in the fact you can also be creative right now, where ever you are and with whatever equipment you currently have at your disposal.
So you can’t get to your usual studio, then use one of the countless free DAWs out there, from Pro Tools First or Studio One Prime and teach yourself how to record on your laptop, just using the onboard inbuilt microphone if need be – why not? There are hundreds of YouTube videos covering every aspect of the recording process, many of them aimed at complete beginners.
Or use an app like Abbey Road’s Topline to get those ideas down and in the bank for when you can get back in the studio. Although online collaboration for live jamming with other musicians isn’t really available right now due to delay issues, you can still use apps like Skype or Zoom to speak face-to-face with other musicians, producers and songwriters just to riff from one another in real time. Who knows where it might lead?
The whole world right now seems (and needs) to be getting back to basics. Making music should be no different. Even if you wanted to record in one of the best studios in the world, at the moment you can’t. Time to get those ideas down and shared with potential collaborators in whatever way you can. Bruce Springsteen, Mike Skinner and Justin Vernon did this; so can you.