The Fixer: DIY Recording and the Role of the Audio Professional #arp2015


Adam Patrick Bell, Montclair State University, USA

Abstract: Do­it­yourself (DIY) recording can be a misleading term in the current era of record production as the process often enlists the services of a professional audio engineer. Who performs the recording, mixing, and mastering of the DIY recording? At what point does the professional enter into the picture of production? This paper will examine the working processes of two DIYers who employ audio professionals to assist them in realizing their goals for their home recording projects. Conducted as separate case studies, the ethnographic tools of video­ recording and interviewing were employed to detail the participants’ experiences of producing a recording in a home studio environment. Given that both of the participants discussed in this study had aspirations of producing “professional” recordings of their work to support their respective pursuits of “making it” as professional musicians, how do they conceive of what counts as a “professional” recording and how do the audio professionals they employ contribute to this realization? While popular media ranging from parody (i.e., South Park) to promotion (i.e., Apple) reinforce the perception that the modern digital audio workstation produces radio­ready results in the hands of anyone, the case study participants’ DIY recording endeavours reveal that, at least in these instances, professional help is needed; DIY recording would be more aptly classified as DIWO (do­it­with­others). The implication of this reality for the audio professional is that their services are still in demand, but the point in the record production process in which they commence collaborating with the DIYer shifts on a project­by­project basis. The DIYer tends to remain self­sufficient as long as possible, until their record production aims can no longer be achieved independently. At this point they hire a fixer, an audio professional who must be able to see start mid­process and see the project through to completion.

Adam describes himself as an ethnographer. He discusses the rise of the home studio and notes its rise in popular culture, noting the Garageband marketing slogans and providing a quote from OK Go! We then see the ‘Feeling Good On A Wednesday’ Lorde South Park clip:

He challenges the simplicity of the ‘democratisation of home recording’ argument and the assumption that it automatically begets self-sufficiency. He intends to investigate this via case studies, focusing today on an early-career artist called ‘Tara’ (not identified in any more detail) and her ‘fixers’, documenting her journey towards making an EP. Adam uses an exhaustive set of ethnographic methods, including video, interviews, participant’s own data collection etc.

Tara’s creative methods include practising four hours a day for two months prior to recording – a traditional approach, Adam observes. The fixers, Felix and Tony, are called in to set up Tara’s apartment sonically, and Tony’s background as a professional engineer is used for mic selection. Tara perceives her fixers to be the solution to her work having an undesirable ‘bedroom sound’ (made worse by the J-train near to Tara’s apartment in Williamsburg). Adam explores participants’ different perspectives on the term ‘professional sound’ Tara’s recording inexperience is perhaps demonstrated by her requirement: “If we’re going to spend 10 hours on three songs, I want to have 10 hours of recordings from it”.

Recording sessions were documented in detail, including creative negotiations between Tara and Felix. Eric Clarke’s (2007) discussions of ‘fidelity’ (to the medium, and to the score) are cited, and Adam notes Tara’s devotion to scores and, particularly, Sibelius [the application, not the composer]. She self-identifies as a pianist and uses this to respond to suggestions that there might be pitch issues with the vocal.

We now see video of Tara’s tracking sessions and Adam provides notes and fixes from the Logic session, noting that Tara is ‘a little bit offended’ when pitch issues are highlighted. Felix (producer) keeps being given more ‘fixing’ work by Tara.

Adam concludes with the following observations:

  1. Less experienced fixers lack experience and skills but this is offset by affordability and flexibility.
  2. More experience fixers attempt to impose the brick and mortar studio model.
  3. DIYers like Tara strive for ‘professional’ recordings and remain self-sufficient for as long as possible.
  4. The end result is a compromise between ideals and practicality.

Adam asks – “is there a fix for people in Tara’s situation? Yes – they’re called mastering engineers!’. In the end Tara goes to a high-level professional mastering engineer who provides additional guidance.

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