In Defense of the Laptop Record

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Many studio veterans maintain a certain stigma against “laptop records.” By laptop records, I mean recordings that are made outside of a traditional recording studio, without a collection of expensive analog gear. They are sometimes demonized in discussions during down time in pro-level sessions, even though many of them exhibit a higher level of artistry than professionally produced records. I would like to see this stigma dismantled.

Image by Nick Pope

People like Dave Grohl and Neil Young have taken to championing a belief that the “authentic” way to make records is live, on a console, to tape. While this is certainly a great way to make a record, I will argue that it is oftentimes not the most authentic way to do so.

Of course, there is a kind of authenticity in allowing the performance to be heard for what it is (which is what I assume Grohl and Young are talking about) but there is also authenticity in making a record that you believe in despite the fact that you can’t afford access to a vintage Neve, Studer, and a well-treated recording environment. Trying to convince artists that they need a premium level of gear to make their art is doing a disservice not only to the artists, but to the music world itself.

Real musicians make music under any circumstances, and they don’t have a lot of disposable income these days. Most records by new artists would turn out better—from the perspective of both budget and end product—if the artist were to complete a large portion of the process at home, given the technology that is so inexpensive and readily available today.

Older studio gear is more expensive than the newer tools. Because of this, purchasing new technology instead of vintage gear is very different than springing for a shiny new car over a used one.

In recording, it’s the new technology purchases that usually stem from economic necessity. An old, beat up vintage console is a luxury, and a new Mac Pro is the value buy. It’s an inversion of what has been typical in the pricing of recording technology in the past, and it suggests that it’s about time we change the way that the gear used in the recording process affects our perception of a recording’s authenticity.

Few among us can afford access to a collection of classic gear for any length of time, but many of us can save enough money to purchase a decent Mac mini and a UAD Satellite reasonably quickly. Together, they cost about as much as just one day at a studio crammed full of such prized vintage equipment. And yet, some studio veterans continue to paint the vintage classics as the gear that you need to use in order to be considered a “real musician.”

The likelihood of a label or other organization investing in an artist they’ve made something worth hearing is slim to none. And, if a great laptop record gets picked up by a label it will likely pass through professional mixing and mastering engineers eventually. Without the sufficient time to make the record great to begin with, though, the chances of it going anywhere are basically non-existent.

If we in the professional recording community want to be useful—to do our jobs in a way that helps great records get made—we need to champion artists who are willing to do whatever it takes to turn their ideas into WAV files. Real, working class musicians are using Macs and plugins, while white-collar folks end up being the only ones who can afford 70’s style recording. The schema for the authentic recording artist is no longer the troubadour in front of the Neumann; it is the hipster in front of the laptop.

We must ask, then—why is this happening? Why are we disparaging what are probably some of the most authentic recordings being made today? The obvious answer is fear: Fear that our jobs will become obsolete.

This is by no means an unjustified worry to have– production tools are now accessible enough for new artists and producers to get dramatic and impactful results without much engineering experience at all. But, while this may lead to fear of closing our studios (and perhaps spark overly enthusiastic justification of our gear’s worth to our clients) we must always remember one thing about laptop production: IT IS A TREMENDOUSLY GOOD THING!!!

Image by Flickr user Jon Elbaz

Artists and producers now have more control over their vision than ever before. This is the real benefit and drive behind all innovations in recording.
Technological advances may end or alter existing jobs, so it should be no surprise that the established professional’s role in the process will be different, but we don’t need to fear this natural progression. The relevant technological advances here truly areadvances for everyone involved.

If we are not needed for a certain part of the process on a given project, then we shouldn’t waste our time trying to falsely convince a client that we are. Authenticity gets lost when we try to do that—not when a young musician fires up GarageBand.

“Adapt or die” is a familiar sentiment, but it is often misunderstood. It does not just mean “learn the new tools or people will not work with you,” it means “if you find a great artist, adapt the process to their needs and their means.” That is the job of today’s producers and engineers.

The way many studio veterans do this is to try to cram more songs into less time at their incredible studio. Sometimes that works just fine (especially for basic tracking, and especially for veteran artists who are very well-rehearsed). Other times, the record would have been better if the artist had more time to work on her own. One problem is that since there is no way of telling what a record would have been if a different process had been used, studio owners will often try to convince the artist (and themselves) that the option where their studio gets to bill for the most time will definitely, without a doubt, produce the best product. Hey, they’ll never know if that’s not the case, right?

We should not be doing this. If you have the opportunity to work with a great artist and they can only afford a laptop record at this stage in their career, then figure out how to help them make a great laptop record! (Maybe even start investing your own resources into great musicians and not just into studio toys. Studio owners note: investing in musicians is just as tax deductible as investing in gear, and working on great music is likely to earn you a lot more in the long run than owning a few more fancy rack units.)

It’s important to note that many records today are hybrids of the ”pro studio” and “laptop” models, and this is usually an advantage. One popular plan is to track drums in a commercial studio and finish the rest of the recording process at home. The issue here is that while musicians are usually aware of how much a professional studio can bring to their music, professional producers and engineers often underestimate what musicians can bring to their own productions.

Image by Nick Pope

In my experience, if you give an artist time to lose herself in her laptop and headphones, good things happen. There will usually still be areas where we have skills that an artist may not possess, and it is part of our job to recognize each artist’s production potential and let them realize it, while also identifying the areas where we can help.

When we are truly helping artists actualize their art, our advice becomes valuable, our clients return to us, and better records are made. So let us do what we entered this industry to do: facilitate the creation of the best records possible. And let us not forget that in many cases this means encouraging, rather than discouraging, new artists who want to make records on their laptops.

Kyle Joseph is a freelance producer and engineer working out of Cowboy Technical Services and other studios in Brooklyn.

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