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No studio needed: how anyone can make a hit record with a laptop

The Future of Music, episode 4

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When I walk into music producer Oak Felder’s studio in the hills of Los Angeles for episode 4 of The Future of Music, it doesn’t feel like a “traditional” label studio. That’s because it’s not. Felder bought the property and transformed it from a house into a vibey, chill-out compound that happens to have a fully built recording studio in the lower level. This might be the upper echelon of what a modern home studio is, but it’s recognizable as a home studio nonetheless.

Oak Felder is a songwriter and record producer who is one half of Pop & Oak, who are responsible for crafting hits like Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love,” Alessia Cara’s “Here,” and Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry,” among many others. He splits his time between Atlanta, where his actual home is, and LA at this home studio on steroids. Even though celebs come in and out of this space regularly to create their next hits, if you look closely at the gear Felder uses to make all these songs you hear on the radio, it’s not much different from what bedroom producers use around the world. Instead of a big traditional mixing board, there’s a desk for his laptop, where he plugs in and works off of Apple’s DAW, Logic.

“My main computer is a laptop,” Felder tells me. “So, technically, I’m mobile everywhere.”

When you think about how famous artists make songs, you might imagine that it all happens in a big, professional studio — one with a fancy mixing board, perhaps with a soundproofed vocal booth attached — and you aren’t wrong. Most music has been recorded this way, and there are still plenty of studios like this, but they’re not as necessary as they used to be. With how quickly technology has advanced, we’re now at the point where many of the tools needed to build a song can fit in the palm of your hand — literally.

A few common digital music production terms

A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is an electronic device or piece of software that allows for recording, manipulating, and creating audio. Within the music realm, popular software DAWs include Ableton, Pro Tools, and Logic, which is what Oak Felder uses. These DAWs are incredibly robust, allowing musicians to have control over the entire process of writing music, from creating melodies, to adding effects, to mixing everything down into a final completed song.

Audio plugin
Audio plugins are software components that are loaded into host DAWs. Plugins can generally be grouped into one of three categories: audio signal processing (like a delay or compressor), analysis (like metering for peaks), or sound synthesis. (Oak uses one called Keyscape, which is a virtual instrument that can replicate any number of collector keyboards.) Plugins extend the capability of a DAW, and they are tools for users to create and manipulate their sounds in every way imaginable.

Audio interface
An audio interface is basically an external sound card. Most computer sound cards and outputs are meant for “consumer-grade” audio and can be less than ideal for recording professional audio. An audio interface upgrades the sound quality going in and out of your computer and generally has multiple inputs to connect instruments and devices. Oak uses an Apogee Duet, which has two combo inputs for plugging in anything from a microphone to a guitar to a keyboard.

Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) is a protocol standard that communicates note data. It’s sort of like sheet music, in that it’s not audio, but instructions on how to translate note data into audio. MIDI messages can contain information on what sound to trigger, and also parameters like volume, vibrato, or pitch bend. So if you press a note on a MIDI keyboard, it will send a data message about what note was pressed, how long it was pressed for, how hard it was pressed, etc.

The term “bedroom producer” has become so ubiquitous among those who make music that it’s sometimes hard to remember there was a time when you needed more than a laptop. Before the days of SoundCloud and GarageBand and Voice Memos, record labels used to own most of the studio facilities. This was a significant barrier for people who wanted to record and distribute their music, and these studios required a lot of space, people, and physical equipment. Using digital technology within music studios really only started in the 1970s, and at that time, it was expensive and slow. The first digital audio workstation (DAW) was built in 1978 by a company named Soundstream. Traditionally, a DAW consists of a mixing console, control surface, audio converter, and data storage all in one device. Soundstream’s Digital Editing System was a 50kHz / 16-bit process that stored audio on a high-speed instrumentation tape recorder.

By the 1980s, computers were powerful enough to be used in most studios, but the introduction of Digidesign’s Pro Tools software in 1989 was the tipping point for many to make the decision to go digital. The software was modeled after methods engineers were already used to and mimicked the signal flow in many analog devices, lending familiarity for those transitioning over to Pro Tools’ digital interface.

Now artists don’t have to be in the same space

Of course, now a studio isn’t even technically needed to create or record music at all. High-end studios are still in operation and serve a purpose, but the power of a studio is now available to everyone, thanks to the processing power available in consumer computers, and, of course, the internet. You once needed a room large enough to hold an entire musical act at once and coordinate for everyone to be there at the same time. Now, artists don’t have to be in the same space — they can be across the planet, collaboratively working on a song at their own leisure by sending files back and forth using services like Splice.

It can’t be overstated how much of an impact affordable software has had on music creation. It’s provided access to music-making on a mainstream level that was never before possible. Plenty of professional-level digital DAWs, like FL Studio, Ableton, and Logic, are now available for a few hundred dollars. Samples and loops are free or often cheap, giving people endless supplies of source material that can be tweaked and manipulated in every way imaginable. And plugins for these DAWs can emulate expensive instruments for a fraction of the price. Take Keyscape, a plugin Felder regularly uses. It replicates hundreds of models of keyboards and pianos for just under $400. You no longer need to know someone who owns a particular instrument; you can download and use the virtual one instead. It’s not farfetched to say it’s entirely more likely that now, someone interested in music will pick up a DAW before they pick up a guitar.

“Now, it’s truly not ‘do I have access,’” Felder tells me, “[or] ‘do I know all the right people to get all my stuff out?’ Now, it’s put it out like everybody else does, which... that’s amazing. I love that about now, I really do … [It’s] more about my capability as a producer because I know if the next bedroom producer comes up and does a better record than I do, they’re going to overtake me.”

Felder might anchor a lot of his sessions at this studio he’s created in Los Angeles, but for him, that’s more about creating a space that has a vibe so artists are comfortable. He often produces on the go, and I attend one recording session where he’s set up shop in an artist’s friend’s living room. There’s a microphone, an Apogee Duet, his MacBook Pro running Logic, a small Akai controller, headphones, and two KRK Rokit 6 speakers. That’s it. And, he says the speakers aren’t even necessary; they’re only here for my benefit so I can hear him work.

The reality is that Felder’s rig isn’t that different from any other bedroom producer around the world. Felder’s client list might be more A-list than most, but what he uses to make their hits isn’t a heavy, pricey custom console, it’s software that can be downloaded right from Apple’s website. This has enabled him, and tens of thousands of others, to make music wherever, whenever.

“I recorded a song with Miguel,” Felder tells me with a laugh. “And it was during a camp with Alicia Keys in Jamaica. By the time we got there, all the rooms had been taken up. And so we ended up having to record on this top deck area where they do outdoor massages. we had a card table set up with my laptop, a Duet, a wire splitter cable for headphones, which allowed us to use two headphones at once, a little keyboard, a microphone, and a pair of speakers. And that was it. And we ended up recording a song called ‘Where’s the Fun in Forever.’ A lot of the vocals that we got while we were there had a lot of ambient noises in there, like the leaves rustling, and the wind, and the ocean. We kept all of it because we felt like it added a vibe to the music.”

All one really needs at this point to make professional-sounding music is a laptop, good headphones, and maybe an internet connection. Even that limited list is negotiable as music production apps can also be downloaded and used on tablets and phones (though the software is usually not as robust). Producer Steve Lacy made Kendrick Lamar’s “PRIDE” just using his iPhone. Skrillex has professed he can “carefully craft records on laptops — and blown speakers.” Flume’s introduction to producing music came from crude music-making software included in Nutri-Grain cereal boxes in the early aughts.

These stories, along with Felder’s, all have the same underlying thought. Technology has created a new generation of producers who aren’t beholden to having physical access to a studio. In a very short period of time, technology has zoomed to the point where much of what a physical recording studio is needed for can be achieved with a laptop and some software. And someone with these tools can sit at home or on a plane or, like Felder, on a rooftop in Jamaica and make a song with dozens of layers, virtual instruments, their own vocals, and slap on effects to create a finished product. As Oak tells me, “I think technology has become the great equalizer. I think we are all on an even playing field, and now it’s about skill. Now it’s about who’s just good.”

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