A little while back, David Byrne had a piece in Wired about the new digital landscape for musicians. He's now published some corrections based on feedback from musicians who say that you can't possibly make a record for nothing, as he claimed.
Well, it's true that he exaggerated, but I'm not sure that his correspondents aren't doing the same.
"While it's true that the laptop recording setup made self-produced recordings worlds easier than before, the simple truth is that laptops alone don't make records. First off, there is the peripheral equipment needed...microphones, stands, cables, pre-amps, sound cards, headphones, speakers, hard-drives, instruments, etc. And while the cost of the aforementioned has cascaded in the past decade, a complete and flexible home studio setup still comes at a price. Then, of course, there is the issue of know-how--recording skills and technique--two incredibly important factors in making a decent sounding recording, and two things that don't come "with the laptop". Lastly, there is mastering, currently hovering (at the low end scale) at around $750-$1,000. Even these moderate costs can make recording out of reach for many bands.
All tolled, in addition to the laptop, a band is looking at between $5,000 - $10,000 in extra costs just to have the ability to record themselves (I am talking about having enough equipment to record a four-piece band live with enough channels to mic a drum-kit). Yes, there are alternatives, rental being one of them. But, that still doesn't account for the skills and technique part of the equation. The only analogy that comes to me is, you can buy a cheap pair of scissors at every corner store, but that doesn't mean everyone (wants to or) should be out there cutting their own hair."
There are a couple of respectful objections I think should be raised: First, rock bands are not the end-all and be-all of home recording. Not everyone needs to simultaneously record a full drum kit with the rest of a four-piece. Not everyone even has a drummer. Many genres of music--techno, industrial, dance, hip-hop, and some of the weirder indie stuff--can easily be done using minimal hardware, recording one track at a time. Even rock and blues can be done on a shoestring: the Black Keys' Thickfreakness was recorded on a Tascam 8-track from the 80s in the drummer's basement, and Rubber Factory--which I told someone the other day is my pick for the top album of the decade--was done in an abandoned building. It's only the obsession with perfect clarity and the "processed" sound that says that you need to do things with lots of tracks and expensive equipment.
Second, the question of mastering seems to me like it's less urgent in these days of shuffled MP3s, and given the emphasis on digital distribution in Byrne's article. How much mastering do you need to put something online? I'm not the most experienced engineer, but I think you can do pretty well with an analyzer, a decent EQ plugin, and a limiter (Kjaerhaus gives away their old mastering limiter for free, and I've had good results from it). Most people just aren't listening to music that closely for it to matter whether you had it professionally mastered.
But there are good points to be made about the cost of equipment. I'm lucky enough to scratch my purchasing itch regularly, but most people--particularly many people who want to be "professional musicians" can't do that. So it occurs to me that although the last thing the world needs is a new social network, there should be a place for musicians to get together and pool their resources for playing and recording. If I own a laptop, and you own an interface, and she owns some drum mikes, and that guy over there owns a decent preamp, it only makes sense for everyone to help each other out. Add some reputation systems to the mix, and see what self-organizes.