Billie Eilish at Pukkelpop Festival, courtesy Lars Crommelinck Photography (Creative Commons)
Billie Eilish at Pukkelpop Festival, courtesy Lars Crommelinck Photography (Creative Commons)

Billie Eilish and the myth of the homemade Grammy-winner

When Billie Eilish won best record for When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? a lot of press focused on how a record made *in a bedroom* won a Grammy.

There’s an emerging narrative that as digital technology has improved, and as the cost of basic recording equipment has fallen, anyone can make a record at home.

But it’s not quite the whole story.

Not even for Eilish herself.

Bedrooms are bangin’ for synthesizers

Let me start by saying I really like Billie Eilish. And I really like the album. It’s a beautifully original piece of work with an obvious attention to detail. She sounds great. Her brother’s production is imaginative and perfectly executed. It was a well-deserved win.

But the first caveat to the “anyone can make a record at home” narrative – using Eilish’s record as evidence – is that the album is predominantly electronic. By and large, it’s built from soft synths, samples, found sounds and vocals. And the vocals are delivered at a whisper (one of the best things about Eilish).

It’s music that suits home recording.

At this point in time, it would have made less sense for Eilish and Finneas to hire a studio to record in. It just wouldn’t make sense for this kind of music.

I’m not trying to undermine the achievement, it’s just worth bearing in mind that home recording isn’t quite the same for musicians who use real instruments, rather than noises from a computer.

When you’re moving air in a room, the mics matter. The room matters. And you make a lot of noise. The kind of noise you can’t usually get away with in a residential space.

I’m sure there’ll be many more homemade records winning Grammies in the future. But no matter how cheap the tech gets, how advanced software becomes, I bet they’ll still be predominantly electronic.

Mixed by Rob Kinelski

The second problem with the “Billie Eilish proves you can make a world-beating record at home” premise, is that it wasn’t entirely made at home.

Finneas didn’t mix the album. Rob Kinelski did.

You can mix commercial quality recordings at home. You can. People do it all the time. Andrew Scheps recently said he was giving up his mix room so he could mix in a living room.

Now you don’t need a massive mixing console and racks upon racks of outboard, mixing in a dedicated room suddenly isn’t so fundamental. And living rooms are full of frequency damping soft furnishings. I’ve been in treated rooms with worse acoustics.

But that doesn’t mean you should.

Finneas is a talented producer but he recognised that either his mixing skills weren’t up to it, his setup wasn’t up to it, or simply that there’s value in another pair of ears. Especially in electronic music, where it can be difficult to maintain perspective when you’ve already slaved over each sound with the same tools as you use in mixing.

And Kinelski is no slouch. His credits include Common, Nas and Vince Staples. And although he works on a computer – with the same tools available to anyone at home – he still has a dedicated mix room.

Mastered by John Greenham

Neither did Finneas master it. John Greenham mastered it. For which he won a technical Grammy himself.

Greenham is a similarly dyed-in-the-wool professional with credits for, among others, Ice Cube. His rack includes top of the line pieces like the elysia alpha compressor – a snip at £8,479 – and the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor; available for a mere £7,800.

Again, it is perfectly possible to master a record to commercial standard entirely with software. Sometimes, it’s even desirable. But would something mastered at home with plug-ins alone win a technical Grammy? Probably not.

Those expensive boxes still do something. I master solely with software every now and then, but by and large, I get more out of running it through my analogue chain – even compared to very good emulations.

And in mastering, the room really counts. It is technically possible to master in less-than-favourable circumstances, but you have to really know what you’re doing.

Technology is a tool

The point is, just because the enormous leaps in digital music technology over the past few years have made it technically possible to make a record entirely at home, that doesn’t mean that it’s desirable, or that it’s the future of recording.

And Eilish’s record is not the standard-bearer for home recording it’s being made out to be.

Yes, recording at home makes sense for electronic music. But as When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? demonstrates, there is a still a need for professional skills. The tools of mixing and mastering may be easily available, but the skills still require years – decades, even – of study and practice. And there will always be value in a second, and third pair of ears.

The proof is the result. One of the things I admire about Billie Eilish’s album is how it sounds.

In a time when treble rules the playlists, when I first listened to it, I was immediately struck by how much low end it had, while still retaining a laudable clarity.

It’s an incredible technical achievement, as well as a musical one. And to me, it makes more of a case for taking records out of the bedroom – even when they were recorded in one – than it does for home recording.

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