Creativity And Home Studios: An In-Depth Study Of Recording Artists In Greece

Introduction

The aim of my research is to identify whether the use of DAWs in home studios has influenced the way Greek artists produce music and if so, in which ways this medium can influence creativity. The nature of the topic dictates the full understanding of how musicians and producers in Greece work, what are the reasons they choose a home or a professional studio and what they feel they gain from this way of working.

Defying Creativity

Creativity as a subject is one of the most difficult issues that scientific psychology is currently facing (Deliege, Wiggins, 2006). The major issue with Creativity is that it scopes on various fields of academia thus defying the term is extremely challenging. What is now common in most research papers is the researcher defining the term in his own way based on the subject of his interest. Psychologists for instance, approach the definition on a variety of angles but tend to focus on the creative person or the creative process (Hennessey, Amabile, 1987).

Because of the complexity of the subject, defining creativity in recording is difficult but Phillip McIntyre (2008) provides us with maybe the best definition of musical creativity based on his research:

Creativity is a productive activity whereby objects, processes and ideas are generated from antecedent conditions through the agency of someone, whose knowledge to do so comes from somewhere and the resultant novel variation is seen as a valued addition to the store of knowledge in at least one social setting.

Methodology

Because of the complexity of the subject I used primarily focus groups for my research. This was done because that this research method has the complete view on people’s opinions and feelings and gives a wider perspective (Bertrand, J., Brown, J., Ward, V., 1992). This and the openness of the discussions that arise during the focus groups provide an ideal setting that is not possible with other research methods, especially for such a personal topic as music creativity.

Choosing the right participants for a focus group is a key element of the planning process. Because of the nature of the results that focus group research can produce we know that the results will provide us with the way in which the participants “see” and “feel’ (Bers, T. 1989) the world and do not represent the opinions of a larger population. Planning the groups I wanted to have a broad palette of people in order to cover the broadest and diverse possible data. I decided to divide the participants into four groups based on their occupation so that I would avoid possible issues that were going to be created by their different approaches to recording music and because participants often feel comfortable and secure in the company of people who share similar opinions and behavior (Folch-Lyon, E., Trost, J., 1981; Richardson, C., Rabiee, F., 2001; Krueger, R., 1994).

The participants

The Sound Engineers group:

GP: owner of one of the oldest and biggest studios in Greece.
DG: studio owner, musician, composer and sound engineer with a degree in music technology.
DB: studio owner, musician, composer and sound engineer with a post graduate degree.
YI:   sound engineer.

The Hobbyists group:

DD: guitarist, studying audio technology at a local school.
TP:  plays French horn   on   the   Municipal   orchestra   of   Thessaloniki with minor recording experience in big commercial studios.
YK:  saxophone and clarinet player, with postgraduate studies abroad and minor recording experience.
AT:  amateur composer with a couple of released albums.
AB:  bassist, guitarist and lead singer, with years of experience in recording and touring.

The Professional Pop/Rock Musicians group:

YA: keyboard player with years of experience on performing, recording, composing and arranging.
PK: bass player with several collaborations on CD releases. He is also a part-time singer, composer and guitar player.
DK: drummer with years of experience of performing and recording. He is also one of YA former band mates.
TH: drummer with years of experience of performing, recording, composing and arranging. He also plays trumpet, guitar, melodica and other instruments. He has produced several releases.
PA:  bass player with several collaborations on CD releases and a solo album.

The Professional Classical Musicians group:

KP: session musician, multi-organist (flute, guitar, bass, keys etc), composer, arranger conductor with several orchestras and choirs.
AS: violinist, soloist and concert-master of the Thessaloniki State Orchestra, composer,  arranger  with  huge  experience  with  orchestras  in  Greece  and abroad.
DN: musician (guitarist), composer, sound engineer and studio owner.
TM: session musician (pianist) that has many years of experience in the music business with the biggest names in Greece.
FK: musician (cellist) that plays with the Symphonic Orchestra of Thessaloniki.

The Focus Groups

The opening questions of a focus group are always broad and help to get the discussion started (Morgan, 1998). The first two questions appertain to this category of questions and worked mainly as “ice breakers”.

The third question: “The use of computers has changed the way we record music. Professional  recording  equipment  is  now  at  a  low  price  and  near  the  reach  of amateurs. Do you believe that this is a step forward for musicians, producers and sound engineers?”. In the sound engineer group, the discussion started to get really personal, as was expected, because the issue has a financial impact to their profession. DG said “Technology helps the musicians […] but its damaging for  the  professionals”  and  then  further  added  that  sound  engineers  lose  money because of the equipment that is available in the market although it also provides opportunities to people that couldn’t pay for studio time to be creative and record their music.

The classical musicians group started as well with a definite “of course” but it doesn’t always help the sound engineers. From that point on, a discussion started within the group about the rise of professional studios and music schools in Thessaloniki (where the focus groups took place) and how even the use of home studios can benefit the professionals by bringing more clients when in the old days those people couldn’t afford to record. This opinion wasn’t shared by the sound engineer group, but the change to a “mixer’s market” is something that is happening to the industry because of the increase of home studio recordings that: “…need someone to straighten them up”. So in a way a home-professional hybrid benefits in the end the professionals giving them a bigger target group for the services that they offer. On the other hand, there was a discussion about the downgrade of quality, thanks to not having full control over the product that the professional studios put out because of the use of home studios. KP talked about his own experience with home studios and in the end said: “I prefer somebody paying me to sit down for ten hours in the studio, do 400 takes and just say this is it! Let somebody else do the sound, I don’t care!” adding a completely different point of view in the discussion, that of a session musician that gets paid to go to the studio and not having to pay for the studio himself. TM also added that many people may use recording software without really knowing how to use them, but even that isn’t helping the sound engineers because it’s taking a lot of their customers away.  The discussion continued with KP saying that all these software helps the musicians only if the musicians want to serve their music! If the musicians don’t really care for their art, they get sucked into the process of trying to get the perfect sound. Here again, DN didn’t agree with KP saying that recording has helped the musicians fully understand their sound. For example, we know that Chuck Berry developed his unique sound with the use of a tape recorder. The veteran engineer Clarke Scheicher (2000) also noted that a lot of musicians have also become engineers thanks to the home studios and their new-found knowledge on recording.

On the other hand, the pop/rock musicians started their discussion with a strange and vaguely answer from PK talking about effects that reduce the musicality (“an effect that  makes  the  vocals  sound  like  an  alien  or  something”), something that Prior (2009) names de-humaniser (primarily the use of the software autotune with extreme settings).  The discussion ended with the conclusion that technology enhances the productivity, and that leads to a lot of “garbage” music. That was something that stirred up the whole discussion leading to a later bigger debate with two different sides. One side with YA saying that there isn’t any “garbage” music, only “…CDs that we don’t need to own…” and the other side with PK and DK that argued that some “CDs shouldn’t exist”. Hewitt (2009) argues that this shift of technology created the need to search more, because of the quantity, “to find the good stuff” and in the end he comes to the conclusion that: “it comes back to the percentage thing”. This is also the conclusion that the debate came to later in the discussion. The technology changed the ratio of “good/bad” records only because of the advances in technology, which gave the recording capability to far more users, boosting productivity that results to mediocrity. Another thing that was discussed was the fairness of the new technology. This question was not clearly addressed by this group. All participants chose to answer  with  philosophical  answers  rather  with  a  simple  “yes  or  no”,  with  the exception of YA who was in favor of new technologies because of the “freedom” that it provides. He was also the first to add a financial and more practical aspect to the conversation. Later on, he continued his thoughts by adding the independence of musicians from record labels, something that we can easily see happening with the music industry today. PA had a bohemian approach to the question talking about the beauty of imperfections in music and how this element can suffer with the more “sterile” approach of technology but TH quickly underlined the positive outcome that can come from the internet in order to send recorded music quickly to another part of the globe. DK also had a different angle on things by adding that technology has helped people that can’t read sheet music (or don’t want to learn) to fulfill their creative needs to learn an instrument and express themselves. This newfound freedom that digital technology is presenting to the users, provides the ability to bypass notational constraints and help pop musicians who often learn by listening to other recordings rather than by the traditional way of going to a conservatory.

The hobbyists discussed the overuse of the technology that is given to them producing in the end “too perfect recordings”. Here YK describes the recording as “the big con”, adding that he feels cheated by the engineer and the musicians. That led to a conversation of how errors in the recording makes the product more human and acceptable in contrast to the “too good to be true” recordings that we now are used to listen. This “big con” is not a secret, and we can see that famous engineers are alarmed by this issue. Jimmy Douglas, an engineer that worked with a variety of artists from Rolling Stones to Justin Timberlake, expresses his disappointment when collaborating with artists that rely mostly in technology for their performances.

The fourth question: “Do you believe that an amateur can produce a good recording with a computer, recording software and a decent sound card?” was quickly positively answered by everyone in all groups. In the sound engineer group, GP went as far as to comment “he doesn’t have to be an amateur, even a hacker can [produce a good recording]!”. DG added “he should know music” and later added “the companies [that produce hardware] have made everything very easy”, a point that is also shared by many well-known sound engineers. Trevor Horn for example, said in an interview that “with autotuning and the ability to line up everything in time it’s pretty difficult to create something that’s crap”.

In the other groups, some participants expressed their doubts. In the classical musicians group DN said: “An amateur even in a real studio cannot produce a decent outcome” and AS argued  about  the  performance  and  not  the  recording  part  of  the  process.  In the pop/rock musicians group DK added that the expertise is needed. Highlighting maybe the most important asset that a good engineer must have, being able to get a good sound no matter where he records. The hobbyists added that because we were talking about an amateur musician and not a sound engineer we have to take into consideration the space, the knowledge of computers and the musical instrument (for instance, the differences between an electric guitar and a trumpet). This  comparison  led  to  the complains of YK and TP about the sound that their instruments have inside a professional studio due to the sound absorption and how a “dead room” can destroy the psychology of a musician, resulting to a bad performance.

Home Studios

The next question was about the definition of the term “home studio” and this is where things started to get very interesting. A clear definition of the term home studio isn’t available in the literature because of the broad meaning that the term implies. White (2003) presents the definition:

“…making music recordings that sound as much like commercial records as possible by using affordable equipment in a home environment” ,

and Coryat (2005) also provides a similar definition:

“…the pursuit of professional sound in ways that don’t require you to spend a lot of money”

Both definitions have certain things in common; both have the financial aspect, which is the hypothesis that the home studio is far cheaper to build than a professional studio, and both have the professional sound/commercial record as the main pursuit of the engineer/musician. White’s definition also implies the particular environment where the studio is built; a home environment, something that we see in more studies as well (Stobart 2011, Theberge 1997). But during the focus groups though, we could clearly see that all these aspects are relevant according to the views of the owner and user of the home studio. We also found out that a home studio doesn’t have to be inside ones leaving space; it doesn’t have to be cheap, and the outcome can have professional use (Filipetti, Visconti, Levine etc.). Below there are a few definitions from the participants:

  • DB said: “It’s a good place where you can record a few good tracks and then go to the studio and record them”.
  • DG said “it’s a term that implies something cheap. It’s low budget and not for professionals” but later added “there are [some] great home studios, even better then professional ones…” commenting on the need for a new term for such establishments.
  • GP added by saying: “What is a home studio? Nothing! Somebody that bought a computer and is experimenting in his house. The term home studio is inappropriate! It has to be banned!”
  • DN  started  by  saying  that  by  definition  is  the  exact  opposite  of  a professional studio and continued by saying: “…when I am recording alone, I feel it as my home studio [he owns a professional studio]… I have to record someone else in order to feel it as a professional studio…”.
  • AS said that a home studio has to be private: “If you record by yourself with your sleepers and your piano, it’s a home studio”. He also said that if he is at his home studio and there is a sound engineer present, offering his services for free, it’s no longer a home studio.
  • TM said that, at his opinion a home studio has something imperfect about it, “in the mind of people, home studio has a sense of an imperfect studio in comparison to a professional one”.
  • DK started by saying that, for him, a home studio has to be available at all times, it has to be inside the owner’s living space where he can just pop inside and record his ideas instantly.
  • YA commented again on the financial aspect saying that a home studio is where everything is free. He also said that a professional can have a home studio but if he uses it for a professional job then it’s no longer a home studio and it all depends on the use of space.
  • PA said that a home studio has to be near your living space, but it also means that there are limitations of space, equipment and funds but this again has to do with the financial background of the owner.
  • PK said that a home studio has to be private in use, if it’s only used just for the owner as his way to express his creative needs, as a hobby “if the guys that record there are professionals, even if you are at your shower, then that isn’t a home studio”.

So it’s clear that the term “home studio” represents completely different things to different people, depending on the user, his relationship to music and his financial condition.

Concerning the differences between home studios and professional studios, the musicians were clear. The difference is the producer and the experience of the sound engineer. Adding that guidance and feedback from someone with the proper training is really important. Later TM added that the producer has to inspire you and DN said “he has to get the best out of you”. The bottom line of the discussion was “it’s not about the tool: it’s about the skill of the person using the tools”.  Going to a professional studio is a financial investment and you expect better results and something extra for your money. Of course, the conversation had reference to the technical differences (soundproofing etc.) but it was mainly focused on the financial aspect.

In the sound engineers group, the participants again made it clear that home studios are not intended for professional use but we can see in pop music a lot of artists owning their own home studio and using it for commercial releases. The group continued the discussion saying that in a professional studio, the artist is more focused, and GP again said that, for him, home studios are nothing. What was interesting here was the response of DG to the question which added a different definition to the term home studio and how it influences him as an artist: “[…] even in a professional studio, when I am all alone, I sense it as my home studio. When somebody else is recording me, when I go to another studio, and another guy is recording me, even if it’s the guys’ home studio, for me it’s a studio! When somebody else is recording me, I perform much better.”

The hobbyists started by saying that the big difference is the architecture and the layout of the establishment leading to a response from DD saying that you design your professional studio to have specific acoustic elements where in a home studio environment “you adjust to what you have”. On the other hand, AT said that it is all in someone’s mind, a home studio can now easily surpass a professional studio on all accounts but it is just that feeling “you are saying to yourself that you are going to a recording studio” that makes the difference. But again here as with the musicians group the bottom line was the sound engineer.

Home-made aesthetics

Artists are now recording on their home studios; thanks to the gear that is available in the market and the capability of this gear to produce recordings of the same quality to a professional studio. The next question was about the effect that a home studio might have for the finished product. “A lot of artists are now recording exclusively on their home studios. Do you believe that this affects artistically the finished product? ”.

In the hobbyists group, the answer was given straight away from all participants, “Yes it does”. Following that positive response AB said that recording in a professional studio “[…]would be less creative!” and then mentioned what he thought were the negatives of professional studios. He later praised the home studio for its qualities (freedom to work at the artist’s pace, more control of the creative process etc.). At the end of the discussion AT said that he believes that the best way to record is a combination of home and professional recording.

TM started the discussion in the classical musicians group, by saying that he feels that the whole discussion was centered too much on the equipment, “…it’s like saying that the equipment is performing by itself…”.  He used the synthesizers as an example to make his point, by saying that when the synthesizers came out, all his colleagues were saying that it wasn’t a real instrument because it was meant to emulate other sounds and he concluded by saying: “It’s not the instrument by itself, is not a machine, it’s the performer that steps in and wants to contribute something”. TM afterwards made his opinion clear by saying “as a listener when I listen to a good recording I feel better but nevertheless the important thing is who is performing and what he is offering” making clear that for him the composition and performance with all the imperfection, are far more important than sound quality. The music is “what truly matters”, and he continued saying that the place and atmosphere where an artist is composing or performing doesn’t make a difference. This notion of putting music over sound quality is also stated by John Simon (2009) (producer for Janis Joplin, The Band and many more) who says that a bad recording is no problem when there is a good song. AS answered this question using Paul McCartney as an example. He said while McCartney used his home studio to record a particular album, the recording depended on the mood and what the artist wanted at the moment. He also talked about limitations and boundaries, which he feels are what an artist needs and wants in order to create. Titelman (2000) says about placing limits on recordings:

“I recommend it, yeah. It does something to your creative juices, and it does something to your decision-making process” .

This is something that comes in complete contrast with one of the biggest selling points of digital technology: the unlimited tracks.

Moving on to the next question: “If money weren’t a factor would you record home?” the hobbyists removed all the negatives of the professional studio that we talked in the previous question and judged only according to the creativity aspect of recording and got divided exactly in the middle with two “yes”, two “no” and one “maybe”.

In the classical musicians group, all the participants said no for various reasons. AS said that he feels the need of having someone to keep him focused, because when he is employing someone for a specific job, he is more concentrated on doing the job right. KP said that he prefers the communication that a professional studio has to offer. There is an active feedback from other musicians, the sound engineer and the producer. TM also said something similar with KP, that he prefers the professional studio because of the freedom that it gives you and the time that you can experiment while other musicians are recording, and you are free to jam in the control room or a different booth.

In the pop/rock group, the musicians were divided into three groups.

  • Recording in a home studio. YA said he prefers the home studio as a creative environment, “I would build a good home studio, and I will prefer to have my comfort, my inspiration, my time, my this and that, so I could call five friends and have them record fifteen ideas”. TH also argued by saying that he prefers a home studio (especially if he is recording something, he had written) because he believes that recording by himself is part of the creative process.
  • Recording in a professional studio. PK said he prefers a professional studio because he will have better results. DK also said something similar but added that he would also prefer a professional studio so that he wouldn’t have to worry with anything other than performing.
  • A home-professional studio hybrid where some recording take place in a home studio and some may be recorded in a professional. This hybrid is something that many sound engineers use, some to overcome limited budgets and financial issues (Schmitt, 2000; Killen, 2009; Niebank, 2009) and some for the benefit of being home relaxed (Bullard, 2000; Mardin, 2000; Visconti, 2000; Levine, 2000). PA talked about an “ideal studio” that would be a professional studio with the intimacy of a home studio.

In the sound engineers group GP and YI said they prefer the professional studio, but DG and DB said something different. DG said he would build a home studio, “something professional but at home so I can be comfortable”. This was clearly an unexpected answer coming from a studio owner. And DB said that he would combine home and professional studio.

The last question was: “do you believe that the place that art is created can affect the creative process?”. In the classical musicians group TM was the only to say that space has a big impact something that’s noted by Delaney on his book “Laptop Music” where he compares the “ideal creative environment” of a quiet home studio to a table in a café, turning the distractions (noise, people) to inspiration. KP said that the place only helps to warm up and nothing else. AS commented on modern recording, that it’s done in pieces and thus you lose the performance, so the place doesn’t really help. Closing the discussion KP talked about how creativity has to do with how the artists are used in doing things, how they get focused and their need for boundaries, “those boundaries are that get you focused and get you excited, they help you reach your spiritual height”, and this was something that all the participants agreed on. In the sound engineers group the answers were completely different. All participants said that the location and the vibe is a huge factor in the creative process, with GP telling stories of Greek artists that recorded in his studio.

Williams (2007) compares studio design to Bentham’s “panopticon”, an architectural design for prisons where the guards are in a central tower having the power to observe all the prison cells

Similarly, the very design of recording studio control rooms, with their glass observation windows looking out on the inhabitants of the recording room, enables technicians to exercise power over the musicians involved in the recording process.

This view of the recording studio may be thought as extreme but is relevant to the musicians leading them to the use of the “friendlier” home studio. In the pop/rock musicians group, the participants agreed that recording in a home studio environment influences the finished product. In a home studio, everything is friendlier, making mistakes doesn’t really matter, and the musician doesn’t feel constantly judged by the sound engineer or other musicians. That final remark started a new conversation and the whole group commented on sound  engineers  that  add  sarcastic  comments  or  have  a  certain  kind  of  attitude towards musicians. The relationship between musician  and  sound  engineer  is  vital  and  all agreed that  a  musician  can  easily  overcome problems  when  the  engineer  creates  a  relaxed  atmosphere  for  the  musician  to perform.

Outcomes

a) Quality of sound recording available from inexpensive devices is now available in the home studio

The sound quality of home recordings is at top level quality, and this is something that all focus group participants agree upon. Even sound engineers who believe that the studio is a better place for recording go along with this position. Thus, the equipment that is available at home can produce a good quality recording. This is also evident through the present research and the accompanied literature, noting that the recording technology is now available not only to the professional but also to the everyday consumer, where with a small setup one can produce a sound result.

b) The importance of professional expertise

The tools are available to everyone, but the user needs to have the proper knowledge to use them. Musicians may use the internet more than other people, but they are not always technologically adept and giving them another task to do, besides performing, may result to poor performances and later on bad recordings.

c) Role of the professional engineer in guiding/advising/assisting the performer

Having on a recording session another individual with the musical and technical knowledge to hear things that need correcting is very valuable. A professional engineer can help the musician avoid common mistakes and can also give an outsider’s perspective to the musicians work. It can also positively impact the performance because the musician fully focuses his attention to the music. The engineer is there to keep the mayhem of controlling the machinery away from the musician, allowing the artist to have only the music on his mind. A lot of times we can see that the input of the engineer or producer can trigger a creative collaboration with the artist with positive results. Bob Dylan acknowledged that he would never have written the song “Man in the Long Black Coat” if it wasn’t the “nagging” of Lanois (his producer on the album “Oh Mercy”). It was that “nagging” that drove Dylan to be creative and produce a new song.

d) Relaxed or solemn working atmosphere

We can clearly see that there is no ground rule for the power that drives the musician to perform better. Like the classical musicians who cannot really agree on the nature of the relationship with the orchestra conductor, some people perform their best while they are under a lot of pressure and others need their time to work things through. The home studio environment can provide an artist a relaxed place for him to work at his own pace and also help him experiment on sounds and arrangements where, on the other hand, the professional studio can give a sense of urgency and pressure that some people need to concentrate on their music.

e) The “pen or pencil” question

It became clear from the focus groups that the tools that are used during a recording can have a positive or a negative effect on the creative outcome. Of course, this is not something that can be generalized using the data created by the focus groups but we can clearly see a specific pattern. The focus groups data could be used to produce a questionnaire that could lead to conclusions about a larger population sample (for instance Greek musicians).

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