Self-imposed technical limitations in music production can hurt so good

A few days ago I picked up a copy of No Better Than This, the new Rounder Records debut album from John Mellencamp (AKA “Johnny Cougar,” “John Cougar,” “John Cougar Mellencamp”). I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as a fan of the Coug, but this particular collection of recordings was produced by T-Bone Burnett.

I would buy a $300 box set of audio test patterns if it was produced by T-Bone Burnett.

What’s intriguing about No Better Than This is that all the tracks on the album were recorded at historic locations with a single microphone on a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine (with no overdubs).

We’ve written before about the benefits that self-imposed limitations can bring to creative work. In the particular case, the low-tech (and deceptively simple) approach to the audio production lends many of the songs on the album a raw and honest quality that you don’t usually hear on modern recordings.

Over the years I’ve actually noticed that quite a few of my favorite studio recordings were produced this way, direct to tape with only one or two microphones:

The Trinity Session by Cowboy Junkies (1988)

It’s mind-numbing to think that this whole album was recorded (under false-pretenses) at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Ontario in just over a day with a budget of $250.

They even ended up with so much good material that not everything from the session ended up on the original Latent Records release.

A Meeting by the River by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (1993)

This impromptu recording actually won the the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album in 1994. All the tracks on the album were entirely improvised by the four musicians involved in project. If you have any affinity for acoustic slide-guitar recordings, this Water Lily Acoustics release is a must-have. It’s also possibly the “warmest” sounding recording that I’ve ever heard.

How to Grow a Woman from the Ground by Chris Thile & the How to Grow a Band (2006)

Single-mic recordings aren’t all that uncommon for bluegrass bands trying to capture the same sound that’s present on early Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs recordings. It is, however, quite rare to hear that kind of unvarnished production on bluegrass covers of angst-ridden songs by The Strokes and The White Stripes.

If anything, these recordings should definitively prove that you don’t need the newest or most-technologically advanced tools to produce great music.

18 Comments for “Self-imposed technical limitations in music production can hurt so good”

  1. posted by Heather on

    Indeed! Most of us can benefit from putting away distractions and getting back to basics every now and then. I have family members who fill their houses and workshops with expensive, top-of-the-line camera gear and specialty tools when they haven’t even mastered the basics. When they get frustrated about not getting something right, they go out and buy more stuff instead of learning to use their current tools properly. They are not happy or fulfilled people.

    There is something that feels very right about having the correct tool for the job (try cutting drywall with a dull knife), but there’s a difference between that and being obsessed with the gear. I have to remind myself of that whenever I get bogged down trying to find the perfect task management system or word processor. I always go back to pocket notebooks and plain text editors, in the end.

  2. posted by Lain on

    Kinda sorta lovin’ this whole old school trend. I’m tired of the overly-processed, whether it’s music, photos, or hair.
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. posted by Christine on

    It reminds me of my first poetry writing seminar in college. I had some great phrases here and there, but I know the stuff I was putting out wasn’t great. Then about 4 assignments in, my teacher had very specific requirements for the assignment (10 odd words we had to use, style, etc) and that was the start of my first good poem. After getting to that point, I could throw off the restrictions and edit as needed, but it sometimes takes those kind of limitations to write well.

  4. posted by Jess on

    Thanks-I’ve been trying to emotionally let go of my electric guitar that hasn’t been played in over a year. I’ve realized that my trusty acoustic is what I’ve created music with for over a decade–why waste space and creative energy on guilt tripping myself over an object that could be better used by someone else.

  5. posted by Mike on

    Some of the modern prog and alt rock composers whose songs have enduring appeal have noted that they write with a piano and/or acoustic guitar, and if the song doesn’t sound good with just that, they don’t bother to continue with it. All the layers of production can’t save a song that doesn’t have emotional pull at its core. Neal Morse, Ed Kowalczyk, Ben Moody, and several others I can’t remember off the cuff have all said this.

  6. posted by Chris Shaw on

    Dirt Floor by Chris Whitley is another great live 1 mic recording. Recorded in an abandoned garage. Beautiful record….

  7. posted by Another Deb on

    Support live music. It’s harder to fake!

  8. posted by adam on

    The Trinity Session (and Trinity Revisited from a couple years ago) is one of the best albums I own. I’m pleased to see that other people like its stripped-down sound as well.

  9. posted by Academic on

    I heard a few songs from the new Cougar album on Fresh Air. I told my wife I want it for Christmas; I haven’t bought an album in 10 years. It sounds amazing.

  10. posted by Coyote Hunter on

    On your recommendation, bought the album by John Mellencamp. Wow! The last thing I would have expected at this site. Terrific tunes. We are playing it now-I think for the third time. Gooood stuff.

  11. posted by Andrew on

    Us audio snobs have known for quite a while that live to 2 track is the only way to go.

  12. posted by Mary C. on

    I just love this kind of music! Thanks for sharing!

  13. posted by lynne schiele on

    … please don’t forge the Alan Lomax collection !!

  14. posted by Felipe Borrero on

    All the common points for all quoted records are a bunch of very professional artist and excellent musicians

    The pros don’t ever are obstructed by technology. But they art is certainly enhanced by it. If you want to write a novel you might use the most advanced word processor or just a bunch of sheets of paper and a pencil. What makes the difference is what is written and not how it was written

  15. posted by Jen on

    I can’t agree with this more. I recently heard a brand new, live acoustic recording of a new song from an artist I’ve liked and followed for many years (I’d never heard the song before). I loved the song, I thought it was his best yet. I then went on to buy the whole album and heard the studio version of the song and it was really awful. I’d never heard such a stark difference like that before, although with many good performers, the live version is often better than the studio version. It was so overproduced I almost wrote a letter – except I didn’t know where to send it 😉

  16. posted by mydivabydesign - The Diva's Home on

    I agree with you that some of the best music comes out of simple recordings. One of the best concerts I have ever been to was all acoustic. I still remember it today!

  17. posted by sandy mathewson on

    simple recordings are the best but you cant use crappy equipment our two mic system is two neuman u87 a harrison mr4 desk and a studer r/r all works extremely well.

  18. posted by matthew on

    You might like Joe Jackson’s 1986 album “Big World” — he felt he and the band played better in front of a live audience, but hated all the fussiness and post-production work that went into making live albums sound good. So he recorded the whole album live, in front of an audience, and recorded it directly to tape, with no post-recording, mixing, overdubbing or anything else.

    The audience was asked not to clap or cheer — he didn’t want it to sound like a live album, but he wanted the energy and spontaneity of playing in front of a crowd.

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