Over 20 years have passed since Napster shook up the music industry and rendered decades-old distribution practices obsolete. Shortly thereafter, Asheville-based composer, producer and engineer Patrick Doyle says composers for TV, film and radio began shifting to home studios, where they could be just as creative but with a lower overhead. And as recording equipment technology has improved and costs have decreased, an increasing number of artists from various genres have followed a similar path.
“We are in the second wave of that right now,” Doyle says. “My career started on 2-inch tape, but I’m definitely a Pro Tools guy [now]. I think technology is neat and cool, so there is no part of me that thinks things have to happen in big-budget studios.”
At the same time, however, Doyle adds that there are downsides for artists going fully DIY. Newer bands in particular may not have the industry knowledge that seasoned producers have about licensing music and getting songs played on the radio to reach a broader audience.
“It’s just a riskier proposition,” Doyle says of those going it alone. “At a certain point, it’s a very hard thing to achieve any of this. So if you’re playing the odds, you’re trying to always put yourself in successful positions.”
Such are the dilemmas facing local artists attempting to create recordings that catch the attention of industry tastemakers without going bankrupt in the process. Precisely what rubrics need to be met can change from person to person, but as area radio hosts, publicists and studio professionals note, triumphs are attainable.
When it comes to the quality of recording, mixing and mastering, the industry standard is quite flexible.
“Mostly it comes down to taste and finding someone with the skill set to achieve a desired outcome,” says Adam McDaniel, co-owner of Drop of Sun Studios in West Asheville.
“We work with both mainstream and independent artists, and for all clients, we deliver the highest-quality recordings,” McDaniel continues. “But the subjective qualities of tone and fidelity are dictated by the songs and the artists’ preference. Personally, I can’t abide an attitude of ‘that’s good enough.’ If something can be better, then let’s go further.”
That commitment is appreciated at area radio stations such as Spindale-based WNCW, where music director and host Martin Anderson says songwriting and musicianship worthy of airplay go hand in hand with high-grade recording. But as noted by his colleague Joe Kendrick, director of programming and operations, many factors can determine whether a song sounds “good enough.”
“It’s completely subjective. However, it also depends on the style of music and what the artist is going for,” Kendrick says. “A good song is a good song, but there are a lot of songs that really benefit from having more studio touch.”
When Anderson interviews artists playing in the station’s Studio B, production will frequently come up in their conversations. Often, the musician will mention the name of a producer and the studio where the album was recorded. But on occasion, musicians will tell him that they handled the process themselves.
For Anderson, the latter is inspiring. “Not only are they a musician and they came up with these songs, but they know their way around the recording studio and they made it sound this good,” he says. “And there’s more and more of those.”
Kendrick adds that every musician he knows is “at least a little bit of a gearhead.” That interest may take the form of collecting instruments, building one’s own pedals or having their own studio, all of which he feels contributes to high personal standards for recordings.
Danielle Dror, founder of Asheville-based Victory Lap Publicity, agrees that artists want to be viewed as professionals by industry tastemakers and are unlikely to compromise those connections with subpar recordings.
“A lot of artists have an inherent sense of perfectionism, and they put a lot of pressure on themselves to get it right,” Dror says. “A lot of times, they have their own strong opinions about how they want something to sound because they’re the ones listening to that one bridge over and over and over again until they get the levels where they want.”
In deciding whether to work with an artist, Dror seeks collaborators whose musicianship accurately reflects the sound they’re trying to create as well as their identity as an artist. She adds that it goes a long way when listeners can tell that everybody in a band is not only on the same page but clearly invested in what they’re creating. And it’s important to have a solid outfit where all involved know their places and the instrumentation complements the song itself, as opposed to trying to embellish an arrangement just for the sake of having bells and whistles.
“That’s one of the biggest things that I personally pick up on,” Dror says. “I think it’s a testament to the professionalism and sense of maturity of a band when it’s clear that what they’re doing is very appropriately fitting to the song. There’s a time and place for gymnastics and showing off their skills, but I think you can tell when it’s within context.”
On a mixing and mastering level, Dror similarly looks for a sense of cohesion and an absence of one instrument overpowering the others. Here again, she notes, intentionality plays a major role. Dror identifies the late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith as someone with a lo-fi, crunchy sound that gives the impression of his songs being recorded in a bedroom. While that production style fit Smith’s music and became part of his identity, going that route isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
“You can tell, even if it’s something that’s a little bit more gritty and rough around the edges, that that is sound they’re intentionally trying to make versus it just came out this way because [they] have very limited equipment,” she says.
Echoing her industry peers’ thoughts on DIY recording, Dror notes that technology has gotten to the point where artists can have a high-quality home studio at a reasonable price. But she and other experts caution musicians against diving in too quickly on a home studio.
Doyle points out that there’s an entire industry that’s popped up around trying to sell and market products to artists, convincing them that they need to do every part of the recording process themselves. Online courses are a prime example, and while he thinks these resources can be a positive force and encourage musicians to take control of their careers, they’re not a solution for everyone.
“There’s also a group of people that are incredibly talented and creative that have no chance succeeding in that realm,” Doyle says. “I hope that as we move forward and navigate some of that, we find a way to be sure that some of these people that aren’t so technically savvy but can write a wonderful song or play some of the most creative synth parts you’ve ever heard don’t get left out.”
McDaniel agrees that if artists feel as if they are falling short of their potential, they should reach out to people with experience producing and recording music.
“If you’re recording at home on an acoustic guitar, but you’re envisioning a dramatic piece with a densely composed arrangement of symphonic and electronic instruments, you can achieve that with the resources and experience of people who do that on a daily basis,” McDaniel says. “At the same time, a well-recorded, simple acoustic guitar and vocal can allow the message of a song to really shine.”
Throughout the years, Doyle says there have been lots of things that producers and artists can do to increase their production value.
“You’re not going to gravitate toward or remember the records that you made that didn’t reach that level of production,” Doyle says. “That’s the thing that you have to offer clients, too. They need to be able to look back on this — even if their band isn’t successful — and still want to be able to play their songs for family and friends on Spotify.”
To that end, Doyle also has a small speaker in his studio that mimics a cellphone. Since so many people listen to music on their mobile devices, he’s careful in his mixing and mastering to ensure that his work sounds good through those audio sources. But the space where he conducts these activities is also crucial.
“Figure out a way to treat the room that you’re listening to stuff in, because without some sonic attention, no room is going to sound good,” Doyle says. “You’re doing all of these different things that might be great decisions in the moment. You might be like, ‘This song needs more bass’ and whatever, but it’s just you listening in that room. And you might be completely, wildly off just because you didn’t build some bass traps or position your speakers correctly. That kind of stuff is a really big deal.”
But as important as sound quality is, Dror notes that it’s only one of many aspects of an artist’s brand and identity. She says that 85% of her press emails seeking coverage don’t receive a reply from journalists or radio personnel, and the other 15% is a mix of interest in providing coverage or a rejection. For the latter, she’ll often follow up to inquire about the decision and learn that the artist doesn’t fit in with coverage interest or isn’t compatible with the editorial production cycle. But she rarely, if ever, has gotten an answer from a media person saying that audio quality isn’t up to standards.
“It’s also a big priority to make sure that your website is polished and your press photos are high-resolution and look like they were taken with a professional camera and you have a well-written bio,” Dror says. “Those are just some of the steppingstones that catalyze people to pay more attention to artists and take you seriously. Sometimes, they’re the first things needed in order for a journalist to even put extra thought to click the SoundCloud link in an email and listen to your album.”
Meanwhile, Anderson confirms that timing has a lot to do with whether a song makes it on the air at WNCW. A submission may arrive during a busy week and get overlooked. Or, he notes, it could be “the 28th male singer/songwriter/guitarist record [I’ve] gotten this week,” suggesting that a quota has been met.
Likewise, echoing Dror’s comments on a holistic approach to publicity, Anderson says that a strong social media presence and easy accessibility to a song is a plus. And a certain level of name recognition in the credits can help WNCW hosts determine whether to press “play” on a song by a regional artist with whom they may not be familiar.
“If they did it at home, that’s not a mark against them. But when I see that it was recorded at Hollow Reed [Arts Recording] Studios by Chris Rosser or at Echo Mountain [Recording], I’m like, ‘OK, it’s probably going to fit our style and they’ve gone through the effort to pay the money and whatnot, or they know the right connections for it to happen,’ and that can help,” Anderson says.
“So, it can be worthwhile to make that kind of investment,” he continues. “But that said, I love that we’re in an era where someone doesn’t have to go down the road of shelling out a whole lot of money for any one particular studio. They can do it on their own, but you get a lot of unexpected benefits when you use a nice production studio, like the name recognition, and that can help with getting bookings at local venues as well as radio airplay.”