Mirror Sound | Varyer

Mirror Sound

A conversation with Spencer Tweedy and Lawrence Azerrad on the people and processes behind self-recorded music

Spencer Tweedy and Lawrence Azerrad are demystifying the idea that studio magic is unattainable within the confines of one’s own home. Drawing on conversations with contemporary artists who share the practice, their book Mirror Sound is about self-recording. It is as much an art book as it is a compendium of stories, and could be a well-placed fixture on any bookshelf. Lawrence’s design sensibilities echo the warmth intimated by anecdotal conversations conducted by Tweedy to create a storytelling environment in which these themes of creative demystification emerge. Alongside the two, photographer Daniel Topete captures these unique creative spaces amplified in Mirror Sound. We sat down with Spencer and Lawrence to discuss the sheer coincidence of publishing a book at such a time, and what else inspired them to create this book. Right now, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that access to recording in a studio is likely limited, but recording at home has never been easier for even a novice to experiment with. The book’s timing couldn’t feel more prescient.

Mirror Sound was conceptualized long before the stay-at-home orders of a global pandemic were issued, in January of 2019, and those who weren’t recording from home then, probably are now. The impetus came from the idea that artists who record from home end up touching every aspect of a recording, making their sonic signatures, inclinations, and personality unmistakeable on every aspect of the track— a unique form of empowerment in the digital age. Gone are the days of pressure from producers, or a lack of access to studio-grade equipment. This may mean that artists are overwhelmed in a different way, by the sheer infinity of sounds and ways to record them at their disposal. It also means that sourcing inspiration from the ideas and creativity of others and learning from their experience has never been more important.

“For the artist, making music in these spaces is a lot less intimidating than some ‘traditional’ spaces, but also for the reader, because it means approachable, warm and simple processes,” Spencer notes, “the book spends time on the idea of accessibility and dispelling assumptions that some people— particularly young people— might have about what it takes to make a record in terms of tangible resources, and then also in terms of who you are or what kind of person you need to be.” There's an overarching theme of wanting to show the reality of how little you need to realize some of your musical ideas, or what one might call dreams.

Thus, Mirror Sound's theme emerges. The authors seek to define a new reality for musicians where their ideas and dreams are completely achievable, the barriers to entry completely taken down. In our conversation, Spencer references Malcolm Gladwell essays, which he calls ‘mind-blowingly great,’ but at the same time notes a fatigue in the Gladewellian A/B cadence of the introducing-and-subsequent-disproving-of popular ideas.

The idea of emergence is something that is felt within Mirror Sound, and described by Spencer and Lawrence in the process of putting the book together. It speaks to the idea that within any creative process, narratives are often self-revealing. The work takes on new life while it's being created, and often unplanned paths emerge when working towards a finish that is, by design, not meant to be predicted. With this broadened viewpoint, the book achieves a sense of familiarity, even to readers who do not specifically work within music, and especially to those who can be easily dismayed from creative endeavors.

The big emerging theme that we might not have anticipated is the interoperability of mediums, because so much of the stuff that we heard applies to creativity in a zillion different disciplines. Everybody has all these different starting places for composing songs, and some of them were kind of surprising to me.

Spencer Tweedy

Permission and agency, and more specifically a disavowal of asking for it, also resonate throughout Mirror Sound. The reader is encouraged to grapple with the idea that you don’t need a boss, or in the recording sense, a famous studio or producer to make bangers. It is a fear that we are all familiar with: “I'm scared of that,” or “it seems overly technical, I'll never be able to understand that,” are traded in for encouragement to try.

“When I was a teenager and starting to record for the first time, I would sometimes feel like, ‘OK, I know I can do this on my own and I know I can use this cheap audio interface and basic microphone and make a version of this song I want to make, but I'm not going to be following all the best practices, it’s not going to sound like the awesome studio recordings that I admire so much, and I'm not going to be like Paul McCartney.’ There were times where that really discouraged me. I understood that recording was accessible and it's possible, but if I can't do it to the degree of excellence that I want, do I still want to do it? The thing that I hope comes across in the book is that you might already have come to terms with the fact that you can record a song on your phone, and that's creative and that's awesome. But maybe it's actually more possible to realize the degree of excellence you want than it seems at first. You might assume that it requires years of engineering experience or all of this really, really hard to get equipment. But once you start diving into this stuff, and you're developing your muscle for using all of these things and being acquainted with the medium, you might realize that you actually can make something that feels truly good enough, with no compromise.”

- Spencer Tweedy

“In some cases,” Lawrence adds, “in the book and the project, you're able to operate in a space that even has less compromise in that sometimes producers box you into a line of thinking or a way of working that that isn't your fullest expression. Unlike that Malcolm Gladwell convention, there's no one way that’s right or wrong.”

Mirror Sound isn’t saying to break down the studio system, or that professional recording is dead. Rather, it advises that you step into that space of exploration and trust and perhaps you might realize that you have what you need to achieve the most desired outcome on your own. The idea of breaking down barriers is a positive, omnipresent refrain. Commonplace access to voice memos have replaced the need to perform the act of composition in one place, at one time, and encourage the idea that a sound is as important as a song. You can be inspired anywhere. Mirror Sound is a proclamation, elucidating how artists we love, big and small, create the apparent monolith that is “studio magic.” It democratizes the idea of creativity as a naturalized, everyday thing of independence and interdependence alike.

If people want to start to home record, where do we start, beyond the guidance and courage imparted by reading Mirror Sound? Spencer has been kind enough to give us the at-home recording starter pack: a list of recommendations for gear and other experience-led truths of at-home sound production. Designed to be ever-growing, this will be a resource that will continue to offer a unique perspective on the ever-evolving world of home creation.

Spencer confides that while self-recording is his favorite approach, he feels a slight wistfulness about lost together-time as a result of the pandemic, where the idea of improvisation and the natural elements that emerge when there is no defined plan in place thrive. There is a permanent need to share with people, undoubtedly, and to build creations with others instead of on one’s own. The book is less a covid battle plan than a rumination on a sense of space in relation to personal creative practice— a theme the book reflected far before the pandemic opened our eyes to it.

Lawrence reminds us that the self-recording space fosters a mental and emotional ecosystem of safety and spirit. His choice to include Daniel Topete's tender photography helps to capture this feeling within their atmosphere and light, with people appearing free in their emotion and unique space. He goes on to tell us “these recording spaces become a type of creative ‘home,’ that Mirror Sound honors through these images.” With all due respect to Gladwell, Spencer wanted the book to constructively show diversity in the music community, and how each unique artist can accomplish their goals in their most fulfilling way.

"There's this vibrance of different people,” says Spencer “different ways of working and peoples’ different identities and goals"

Constructively sharing the stories of artists who self-record and thus redouble their own agency in the creative process many times over, Mirror Sound ties together the DIY creators’ loose threads to weave together something that identifies and amplifies those processes into something you can feel and engage with.