Hate ‘em or love ‘em, lo-fi recordings have been with us since Thomas Edison first figured out how to retain sound in wax cylinders over 100 years ago. Now, bootlegs are one thing: you can forgive them under the idea that they are documenting a moment in time or are strictly for “historical interest.” Jon Landau’s treble-to-the-max mixing mess on the MC5’s Back In The USA is another, as is the coke-fueled original gonzoid mix of Raw Power. Those are curios, but in this day and age, there is simply no excuse.
So, why then have we been subjected to indie rock’s flood of lo-fi waste starting in the late 1980’s? The sudden availability of affordable and easy to use recording equipment in the market, along with the upsurge in independent music, was definitely a double-edged sword. Now anyone with a few extra bucks could record whatever and whenever they wanted, and it could (emphasis on could) come out sounding pretty decent. You’d no longer have to get on your knees to a record company and beg for studio time, let alone work with a producer who might not “get” you, nor an engineer who might try and muck with your sound, man. The future looked bright indeed, but the idea that releasing badly recorded music was cool was a major blow to the progress of modern sound.
Would-be Phil Spectors and Martin Hannetts could now experiment freely and cheaply, even open their own studios if they felt like it. “Hey man, all you gotta do is plug in the mic and hit record, right? And who needs EQ? It sounds so much better before all that mastering crap anyways. This is how music was meant to sound, man!” Support D.I.Y., sure, but there was far less good than there was a landfill of just plain bad and extraordinary ugly. Recordings that were often more effective as blackmail material were called innovative. “Hey, if Fleetwood Mac and The Monkees can record their vocals in bathrooms, so can I.” Wrong. Guitars tend to not sound exactly great when they appear to be broadcasting from inside a trash can underwater, as do distorted drums bleeding onto every single track. Many of the artists themselves, in attempt to dumbstruck their listeners, often admittedly deemed their recordings “crappy” (i.e. Space Needle), but still passed it off as inspired experimentation. Recording a demo on your front porch on a cheap Realistic cassette recorder with a faulty mic for your own reference purposes is one thing, but releasing it and calling it genius is another. Please, did you really think that you could pass yourself off as the next Alan Lomax?
The latest chapter in this charade is eBAY, which allows any stooge with extra cash and a subscription to TapeOp to now own the Neve console of his dreams. However, despite the endless re-reading of Recording For Dummies and a minute duplication of the mic placement chart for Sticky Fingers, the recordings still come out sounding like an old 8-track that was left on the dashboard of your car too long. You may have even used the same kind of amplifiers and vintage cables, but, surprise, you’re not Jimmy Miller, your studio is not Olympic, and your band is not the Rolling Stones.
I suppose this follows the same mindset that if one drops acid while mixing, your recordings will instantly sound like Funkadelic’s. Um, when was the last time you listened to Free Your Mind and noticed its incredible absence of mid-range?
Free your mind and bad recordings will follow.