Beck, Dashboard, White Stripes Proving 'Less Is More'

Lo-budget/lo-fi recording gaining new acceptance.

What do the White Stripes' White Blood Cells, Beck's Sea Change, Queens of the Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf, Bright Eyes' Lifted ... and Dashboard Confessional's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most have in common?

Aside from being five of the most critically acclaimed albums of late, all were recorded low-budget or lo-fi or both.

Since the music industry tends to latch onto what works, many artists and music professionals are predicting an influx of primal recordings, or least albums that sound raw.

"I don't see any reason to spend a million dollars in the studio. I think that's kind of silly," Dashboard singer Chris Carrabba said. "We made our record for a dime and we did all right with that. I don't get why you would pour more and more money on a record. It's like, how much can you polish it up?"

"I think a lot of people are kind of getting more used to hearing a kind of rawness, and I think that's going to open up a lot of doors," added Taproot drummer Jarrod Montague.

If recording trends are a pendulum, like music in general is often theorized to be, then they're certainly swinging toward the purer styles, perhaps as a backlash against the glossy sounds prevalent at the turn of the century.

"It seems like things progress and get very complicated as far as new techniques and stuff, and then people kind of regress and go back to their roots," Trust Company singer Kevin Palmer said.

Of course, as Sum 41 singer Deryck Whibley noted, low-budget and lo-fi recording is not for everyone. You won't see P. Diddy releasing basement recordings, but you could see punk bands going back that way. "Some music doesn't need a big slick recording, ... but some music does," Whibley explained.

"Didn't the White Stripes record their album for like a couple thousand dollars, that's it?" Sum's Steve Jocz interrupted.

Actually, it was closer to $4,000, which still makes it one of the most successful albums ever recorded, dollar for dollar. And though White Blood Cells is easily the most visible low-budget/lo-fi recording in recent years, industry experts point out the Detroit duo are just one red and white fish in a sea of cost-conscious artists.

"I think there are hundreds of thousands of albums made for that amount right now," said Marc Geiger, president of multimedia music company ARTISTdirect and co-founder of the Lollapalooza tour. "The White Stripes were a success story, but thousands of bands have been that resourceful 'cause they don't have the money."

Cost is certainly the driving factor, especially at a time when marketing and promotions costs for musicians are at all-time highs. Geiger estimates the average major-label album recorded in a studio with producers and engineers (which he calls "old school") costs about $300,000 but can be as expensive as $1.5 million. However, for a mere $2,000 an artist can buy a computer, software, mixer and microphone capable of making a decent home recording.

A majority of the recording expenses for bands on the ARTISTdirect label goes toward producers, Geiger said. The Blood Brothers, for instance, just finished recording with Ross Robinson (Korn, Limp Bizkit), one of most in-demand rock producers.

"The real cost-drivers are whether you are going to work with other people to make your music and are those people tested and cost a lot of money or are they untested and cheaper," Geiger said. "Most recording is not about the sound of the room, which can be manipulated with ProTools the same way Photoshop can manipulate photos. A home bedroom is almost is good as a big studio these days."

As home recording technology continues to grow, more and more artists are able to choose whether they want to record in a big studio or in their garage. And cost isn't the only factor. Musicians may want to work closer to their families or be away from the pressure of big studios where other bands are also recording.

There's also a certain coolness to making an album with just the basics.

"It's fun to do it that way because you just play and let it go," Queens singer/guitarist Josh Homme said. "It doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to be ... um, good."

As a musician whose many hits were recorded with drum machines, samplers and fancy effects, Beck knows the value of studio production. But with 1998's Mutations and last year's Sea Change, he learned to appreciate the other side of recording.

"Every so often I hope I will get to go in and do something like that," he said. "It's just healthy for me. It's going back to a real disciplined, direct approach. You can't really hide much behind an acoustic guitar and that real simple kind of production. ... It's like forcing a painter to just do their art with a pencil for a while and see what you can come up with. It's kind of a limitation. It's good to have a limitation. So it's good for someone to put a lock on the synthesizer and the drum machine and all the gadgets and see what you can make out of this piano over here."