Home Studio Takeover: A Brief History of Chart-Topping DIY Productions

In late August 1976, the East Coast rock band Boston released their self-titled debut on Epic records and went platinum in less than 12 weeks. A decade later their first album had sold a staggering nine million copies, and by 2003 it had gone platinum 17 times. Hidden behind the group's breakthrough success was a tale of DIY home recording for the ages, one that has since become almost as celebrated as the music itself.

When Boston first stormed onto the scene 43 years ago, many fans and industry insiders were likely unaware that one of the group's founding members, Tom Scholz, recorded the vast majority of the group's debut inside his Watertown, Massachusetts home studio.

"It was a tiny little space next to the furnace in this hideous pine-paneled basement of my apartment house, and it flooded from time to time with God knows what," Scholz told Guitar World in a 2006 interview. "I put in some partitions, and I built a tiny isolation booth that was completely carpeted."

Undeterred by the lack of bells and whistles around him, he masterminded some of the most enduring hits in rock n' roll history in his basement. As Scholz watched a bandmate purchase an outrageous customized guitar that took thousands of dollars from the album budget during the creation of Boston, he instead opted to use a rather pedestrian stringed instrument to record Boston's biggest hit of all-time.

"The acoustic guitar on 'More Than a Feeling' was recorded using a $100 imported Yamaha 12-string guitar, through a relatively low-end dynamic microphone [the Electro-Voice RE15], and the drums were recorded by a few Shure SM57s in a little tiny closet," he told the EE Times in a 1998 interview. The song later peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December of 1976 and spent over four months on the charts.

Adding further intrigue and legend to the process behind Boston's debut, the band fooled Epic into thinking they were laying down tracks at a proper studio in Los Angeles while Scholz toiled away in his basement and did much of the recording himself. In the end, it cost the group a paltry few thousand dollars to capture the sounds you hear on Boston, with all but one track ("Let Me Take You Home Tonight") from the official release a near-carbon-copy of the original basement demos.

Seeing the remarkable success of music made with such limitations taught Scholz a valuable and enduring lesson. "That's when I realized that you don't need all that fancy stuff," he told the EE Times.

The Birth of Pause-Tape Production

As the '70s gave way to the 1980s, rock 'n' roll wasn't the only genre with artists making defining songs and albums out of DIY home recording techniques; rap music provided an exciting new pocket of the industry that expanded every single year in size and scope. As the emerging genre grew in popularity and commercial success, the astronomical cost of proper drum machines and samplers remained a significant barrier to entry for many aspiring producers. An in-demand Akai S900 sampler cost roughly $2,800 in 1986, the equivalent of $6,260 modern US dollars.

Rap music pioneers adapted to steep equipment prices by using their cassette decks and boomboxes to make beats. With approximately 7.8 million boomboxes selling around the world in 1980, a new generation of visionaries were given the tools needed to remix and sample. Using the record and pause buttons on their cassette players, early bedroom beatmakers created what later became known as pause tapes. They would record a small part of a given song onto a tape, press the pause button, rewind the desired sample back to the beginning, unpause the tape, and repeat the process until they had an extended loop or beat.

Q-Tip from the group A Tribe Called Quest took pause-tape loop production to unprecedented levels at age 16 by making demos of the majority of the beats from Tribe's debut album People's Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm. Using a cassette deck and his father's records, Tip stitched together bits and pieces of vinyl that would later form a timeless classic.

When the album hit shelves in 1990, The Source praised the "sophisticated production invoking a jazz flavor" of People's Instinctive Travels while giving it a perfect 5-mic review. Meanwhile, hip-hop activist Harry Allen wrote, "What A Tribe Called Quest did to hip-hop was help widen its sonic vocabulary," in the album's 25th anniversary liner notes for Legacy Recordings. In the end, Q-Tip managed to alter our expectations for rap music production with a bunch of samples he looped on a tape deck.

A Tribe Called Quest - "Luck of Lucien"

The history of DIY, bedroom-production ingenuity in rap music goes well beyond the limits of pause tapes and exceeds the scope of this article, but Nate Dogg and Warren G's hit 1994 single "Regulate" is another case study worth mentioning.

In a 2016 episode of NPR's Microphone Check podcast, rapper and producer Warren G revealed that he sampled a snippet of the movie Young Guns from a VCR with his Akai MPC60 for the song's opening. As if that weren't enough, he explained in a 2011 episode of Skee TV that he and Nate Dogg recorded their vocals inside of a closet in his apartment. When DJ Skee asks if they had to re-record their vocals later, Warren G confirms that the raps and singing we hear today from his single—which went platinum and hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100—are the same ones recorded in a closet many years ago.

The Dawn of DAWS

As the '90s wore on, another important technological shift happened that helped open even more doors to future bedroom musicians. Computers rapidly dropped in price while simultaneously improving in performance and quality. Meanwhile, programs like FL Studio and Reason become another viable option for artists in all genres to create and record music in makeshift home studios. These programs provided access to young, aspiring creators who might have a home PC but couldn't afford proper instruments or studio gear.

British singer/songwriter and New Zealand native Daniel Bedingfield is an early example of this new generation of artists, achieving extraordinary results with his 2001 dance smash "Gotta Get Through This," while utilizing the most stripped-down of setups. "This track, along with some others, were recorded in my bedroom with my PC and a microphone, using the music software Reason," he revealed in a post on his Facebook page.

Bedingfield's hit song wound up reaching the top of the UK Singles Chart in both 2001 and 2002, while also scoring a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording. Reflecting on the unexpected success of his modest home recording, he seemed optimistic about what his story could mean for the future of recorded music. "Other than poverty, there's no excuse," he told Billboard in a 2002 interview. "The big studios are shutting down, and the little home studios are taking over."

Georgia native Ernest Greene, better known to the music world as Washed Out, also found significant success. While unemployed, facing the recession's crushing aftermath and a pending wedding, he moved back into his parents' house in 2009 to save money and look for work. In the wee hours of the night, the wayward 26-year-old would play synths in his bedroom and make beats on his laptop, often reviewing his work through headphones while his parents slept.

After uploading a few tracks to MySpace and changing his name to Washed Out, the music blogs No Pain In Pop and Gorilla vs. Bear discovered his work, eventually leading to features on sites like Pitchfork. By September of 2009 he released his debut EP Life of Leisure—which features his biggest song "Feel It All Around"—on the Mexican Summer label. Though none of the songs on Life of Leisure made the Billboard charts, "Feel It All Around" is a powerful hit in its own right, scoring over 61 million plays on Spotify and becoming the theme song for IFC's Portlandia.

The Soundcloud Generation Comes of Age

Shortly before music journalists discovered Washed Out via MySpace, SoundCloud launched in October of 2008. The advent of SoundCloud and its rapid rise in popularity in the following years provided another new, important technological shift for the home studio musician. It gave aspiring artists and established acts alike a new level of user-friendliness and -ease when it came to uploading music. Whether someone wanted to share a rough-cut demo, an unreleased remix, or a standard song from an album, the platform made it incredibly easy for DIYers to share their work. By 2012, The Next Web reported that users were uploading 10 hours of new music every minute, and, by 2013, SoundCloud boasted 40 million registered users.

Though SoundCloud has certainly had a bumpier road in recent years, it remains an invaluable resource for those making music in their own living spaces and seeking discovery. It certainly proved a perfect venue for sibling collaborators Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell. Eilish's road to superstardom started in 2015 when O'Connell, then 17, wrote the song "Ocean Eyes" for Eilish, then 13, to help with her dance class assignment. Though Eilish loved the song and enjoyed singing and recording it, she didn't anticipate much of a reaction when they posted it to SoundCloud.

"We put it on SoundCloud with a free download link next to it so my dance teacher could access it," she told Teen Vogue in a 2017 article. "We had no intentions for it, really. But basically overnight a ton of people started hearing it and sharing it." To date, "Ocean Eyes" has 24.8 million plays on SoundCloud.

While the results for Eilish and O'Connell have been staggering in four years since (Eilish now averages over 45 million monthly listeners on Spotify), their method for making music remains fairly simple.

The two artists record together in the same cozy family home they grew up in. Everything in their simple home studio is accessible at a moment's notice, and that's just how they like it.

"To me it's all about immediacy. The way I want any home studio to function is I want it all to be as fast as I can think of an idea I want to articulate it," O'Connell said in a 2019 interview for the video series SPACES.

According to O'Connell, he and Eilish added interesting percussive elements to her Vince Staples–assisted single "&burn" by standing in a bathroom, striking matches, and recording them. Meanwhile, Eilish recorded the majority of the vocals for her When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? while sitting on her brother's bed with a mic in her hand. Low-budget and low-key, for sure, but it's hard to argue with the results: Eilish's debut hit No. 1 on Billboard upon release and later returned to the top of the charts in May.

And despite any technical limitations their home-recording space may have, it gives Eilish and O'Connell a secret advantage that a professional studio cannot. "It's our house and it's where we live—it's where we've experienced everything," O'Connell told SPACES. "That allows us to make [music] that is wholeheartedly exposed as far as who we really are as people, as siblings and as children of our parents."

After examining Billie Eilish's meteoric rise, it's fair to wonder if home recording has reached a new apex in the four decades since Boston recorded a 17X platinum album in a basement. In some ways, it hasn't changed that much. Talented visionaries and trendsetters of all ages are making do with available resources and making beautiful music in their living spaces, just as a certain sector of the recording industry always has. But the distribution channels have changed drastically—with the advent of SoundCloud and the ever-growing popularity of various streaming platforms and YouTube—giving artists potentially immediate access to an audience of an almost unfathomable size.

Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas are certainly not the first people to build massive followings on SoundCloud and leverage that following for further success. But the recent success of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is a valuable case study with important takeaways. People want rich, full, and sometimes album-length listening experiences, despite what everyone tells us about shrinking attention spans.

For some artists, their best chance for striking just the right chord happens when they're making music where they're most comfortable—at home.

[Of course, in one article, we couldn't touch on every great record made in a bedroom or simple home studios. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.]


About the author: Gino Sorcinelli is the writer, creator, and editor of Micro-Chop, a Medium publication and Substack newsletter that dissects beatmaking, DJing, music production, rapping, and sampling. He is also responsible for The Micro-Chop Daily X, a 10-beat playlist posted daily on the Micro-Chop Twitter feed. His articles have appeared on Ableton, HipHopDX, Okayplayer, Passion of the Weiss, and Red Bull Music Academy.

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