There’s never been a time more favorable for do-it-yourself producers and musicians. New technological advancements of the past decade have given the industry better sounding recording gear at more affordable prices.
Because of this, it can be easy to become caught up in buying more and more gear for your studio in search for a better mix.
It’s important to remember, however, that a great album often has more to do with imagination and how it was recording than what it was recorded on. You can’t of course forget about marketing – from news and radio appearances, to buying a million YouTube views , to local concerts and mentions.
For proof, here are two albums that were recorded almost entirely with a $100 Shure SM57 dynamic cardioid microphone.
Armed with just an Mbox and a limited “M-Powered” version of Pro Tools, Justin Vernon spent a winter in his family’s hunting cabin in the woods of Wisconsin tracking and layering guitars, vocals and horns with his SM57.
The resultant work, For Emma, Forever Ago , quickly gained viral notoriety and became an iconic indie album, launching Bon Iver's career. Among it’s praises, the album most commonly has been lauded for it’s aesthetic, organic sound–something many believe came from his use of just one SM57.
With very little recording knowledge and no professional studio space Sufjan Stevens produced his breakout album,Greetings from Michigan , using two SM57s and a Roland VS-880 Digital Studio Workstation.
He tracked guitars, woodwinds, drums, banjo, horns and vocals with the SM57s using only the preamp on board the VS-880. Even more, he set the workstation to record at 32 kHz (as opposed to Redbook standard 44.1 kHz) in order to save space on the internal hard drive, not knowing he was losing quality.
Stevens mixed Michigan on a pair of AKG headphones and had it mastered professionally by Alan Douches, who ran the mix through a Pendulum 6386 Tube Limiter/Compressor. The result was an indie album that is still revered 10 years after its release.
Both Stevens’ and Vernon’s albums are refreshing reminders that you don't always need expensive gear to produce a nice-sounding mix. With that right blend of performance, creativity and solid mastering, a great album can be made on the simplest of recording rigs.