A lot has changed about the way we make and consume music over the years. Today, many of the songs you hear on the radio are produced on laptops and phones, much like the one you might be using now. But it wasn’t always that way.
For years, home recordings sounded crude or “low fidelity” and were often seen as inferior. As technology advanced, it became easier to make professional sounding music at home, bringing a wave of new music along with it—including some genres that pay homage to the lo-fi aesthetic of yesteryear.
Keep reading to learn how home recordings have evolved over the years—from the demo scene of the 1970s to modern chart-topping genres like lo-fi hip hop and bedroom pop.
Birth of the Bedroom Producer
While Bedroom Pop may be a rising genre in the 2020s, the term “bedroom producer” has been used since the 1970s to describe musicians who record themselves at home. Prior to the 1970s, one of the only ways to make a high-quality recording of your song was to score a record deal and have your label front the money for a session at a professional recording studio. At the time, recording technology was complicated and expensive, making it difficult to operate without proper training.
In the early 70s, multi-track tape machines exploded in popularity. As studios began buying new 16 and 24-track tape machines, they started selling off their old four-track machines at rather affordable prices. Tape machines like the TEAC 2340 and the Tascam Portastudio (which featured a built-in cassette deck for recording demo tapes) allowed musicians to record their own music from the comfort of their own garages, basements and spare bedrooms.
Finally, artists had an affordable way to create their own recordings. This newfound freedom inspired a flood of new genres, including punk, EDM and hip hop. However, these at-home recordings still didn’t quite live up to the sound quality of a professional studio, and were often described as “lo-fi,” meaning low fidelity or of low audio quality (a tongue-in-cheek reference to the “hi-fi” movement of the time).
Thankfully, not everyone cared. Artists like R. Stevie Moore, often called the “godfather of home recording,” preferred the DIY method of recording and intentionally utilized low-quality or even broken recording equipment as an aesthetic choice.
Tascam Portastudio 244 by CountrySkyStudio - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
The Digital Revolution
In the 1980s, digital recording technology emerged, allowing musicians to record up to 16 tracks at once in a high-quality (for the time) digital format. New tools like drum machines, synthesizers and digital effects processors made it possible to recreate the sound of almost any instrument, right from your own studio.
In 1980, Roland released the TR-808 drum machine and step sequencer, which revolutionized music forever. No longer would producers have to rely on sampling acoustic drum recordings—they could create their own beats and grooves using pre-recorded digital samples for each drum.
While it wasn’t the first drum machine ever made, the 808 was quickly adopted by new-school hip hop artists such as Run–D.M.C. and LL Cool J., and was integral to the development of early EDM genres like Detroit Techno and Chicago House. The sound of the Roland TR-808 is so fundamental to early EDM and hip hop that it’s still used in both genres to this day.
During the ‘80s, the DIY scene also continued to grow and home recordings became more popular. At the time, R. Stevie Moore worked at New Jersey-based independent radio station WFMU, which began a weekly program titled Low-Fi that played home recordings that listeners mailed in. The program became so popular that it’s often credited with being the first to use the term “lo-fi” to define a genre.
Roland TR-808 by Brandon Daniel - Derivative work, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Indie Sells Out
In the 90s, computers and digital recording began to surpass the analog recording techniques of yesteryear. Digital audio workstations gave musicians the power to record nearly limitless tracks and introduced real-time non-destructive editing—you know, the kind with an “undo” button. Virtual instruments and digital plug-ins became commonplace in professional productions.
EDM and hip hop continued to grow and evolve with new subgenres like gangsta rap and west coast hip hop, but alternative rock dominated the airwaves. Artists like Beck, Pavement and Guided By Voices were celebrated for their gritty, lo-fi sound. Alternative music became so popular that it actually stopped being alternative. The phrase “indie” was no longer used to describe independent artists—instead, it was used to describe a specific “indie rock” sound.
But trends always move in cycles. And just as alternative music made with analog instruments became popular, it would soon set the stage for a digital revolution that would change the face of music forever.
Pro Tools 1.1 circa 1992.
Enter Chillwave and Lo-Fi Hip Hop
By the 2000s, digital recording technology began to rival the quality of analog recordings. Most devices were capable of capturing high-resolution 24-bit/96 kHz audio and plug-ins began to accurately emulate analog hardware. Musicians finally had everything they needed to create professional-sounding recordings from home.
Combined with new streaming sites like Spotify, Soundcloud and YouTube, musicians also had the tools to instantly share their music with the world. Many of the barriers that had prevented musicians from success had been removed, allowing artists to create music freely, without the need to appeal to the audience of a particular radio station or TV channel.
New indie artists like Ariel Pink began using the term lo-fi to describe their music, citing R. Stevie Moore as a musical reference. Pink later began calling his music chillwave, which earned him the title of “godfather of chillwave.” Chillwave flourished throughout 2008 and 2009, with artists like Neon Indian and Washed Out at the forefront.
At the same time, hip hop pioneers Nujabes and J Dilla began experimenting with a gritty, old-school sound that paved the way for modern lo-fi hip hop. J Dilla, often called “the godfather of lo-fi hip hop,” is cited as an inspiration by musicians in several genres, and is known as one of the music industry's most influential hip-hop artists.
Lo-Fi Girl, from the Lofi Girl YouTube channel.
The Era of the Bedroom Producer
In the past, the term “bedroom producer” was kind of an insult. It insinuated that you were an amateur working out of a home studio with minimal equipment and even less formal training. It was a term that industry veterans used to belittle those who had yet to “earn their dues.” But in the 2010s, chillwave evolved into bedroom pop as a full-fledged subgenre with a robust community of DIY musicians and an official Spotify playlist with more than 700,000 subscribers.
The iconic “lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study” launched on YouTube in 2015, featuring lo-fi hip hop inspired by J Dilla and Nujabes. Commonly used as background music for relaxing or studying, the Lofi Girl channel (formerly Chilled Cow) currently has more than 8 million subscribers and 870 million views.
The lo-fi aesthetic became so popular that some of the biggest artists in the world started recruiting bedroom producers to produce chart-topping hits. Steve Lacy is a world-renowned producer, songwriter and musician who records all of his music on his iPhone. Lacy was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2016 for “Ego Death” by his band, The Internet. Lacy also wrote, produced and performed songs on J. Cole’s “4 Your Eyez Only” and his work on Kendrick Lamar's "DAMN" won him a Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2018.
Finally, the queen of bedroom pop claimed her crown at the end of the decade. Billie Eilish released her smash hit debut “Ocean Eyes” in 2016, which has since racked up more than 48 million listens on SoundCloud. In 2019, Billie Eilish and her brother and producer FINNEAS released “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” which was recorded entirely in a literal bedroom. The duo won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2020, cementing their dark, dreamy bedroom pop aesthetic at the top of the charts.
Home recordings have come a long way since the early days of four-track tape machines and demo cassettes. With your average laptop or smartphone, you can create the next big hit right from your couch... What are you waiting for?
Looking for some inspiration? Check out our blog for tips on getting the most out of your home recording.