DIY is a word that goes hand in hand with rock music. The early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers were blues singers (i.e. pretty much street singers) who were trying to do something new by incorporating country elements to their tunes. Most rock and pop artists, from The Beatles to Madonna, learned the art’s chops the hard way – through endless rehearsals and merciless self-discipline. Routinely, subversive musical waves like psychedelia, punk, no wave, lo-fi and hardcore have stated in a way or another that this music is an expression of freedom, and as such, it’s only true to itself when done in the musicians’ own terms – i.e. the DIY way.
But this term also has a wider significance in music. When Tascam released the Portastudio 4 Track cassette recorder (pictured) in the 1980s, artists could suddenly create low quality multi-track recordings at home. WFMU DJ William Berger dedicated a segment of his program to this new phenomenon, and the term “lo-fi” was born.
This spurned a slew of records made by artists who, due to their lack of means or sometimes by choice, recorded on 4-track cassette. These include Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, East River Pipe, Neutral Milk Hotel, Daniel Johnston, Beat Happening, Elliot Smith, and even Bruce Springsteen (his 1982 masterpiece, “Nebraska,” was recorded on a cassette). The sound of the third Velvet Underground album was very influential to lo-fi records to come, with its small, cramped sounding mixing style becoming known as the “closet mix.”
Even though in the last 15 years, DIY (or home) recording has improved immensely with the advent of digital audio, hard disc recording and virtual plug-ins, many artists are still faithful to their Tascam or Yamaha 4-track cassette recorders, and use them in conjunction with inexpensive Shure SM-57 and SM-58 microphones, which work well both for vocals and guitars (electric and acoustic), the genre’s main instruments.
The true beauty of lo-fi recordings is that their bare-bones simplicity strips the songs of any pretentiousness or distracting “production values,” highlighting instead the quality of the songwriting, the character of the vocals and the significance of the lyrics – as long as they are there, of course. – By Howie Statland of Rivington Guitars and PDG