Since 2000, when 16-year-old Fan Chuan from Tianjin came to Beijing to pursue a musical career, he has been living in a rented two-room single storey house, tucked away in a downtown hutong.
The house looks no different to the others, except for its iron door, which is one foot thick.
Over the years, Fan has joined a few rock bands as singer and songwriter. Driven by a strong urge to record albums of his own songs, Fan, advised by one recording engineer friend, has subsequently padded his living room and added a set of drums, a guitar, a vibraphone, battered amplifiers and reverb units that are stacked against a wall. He also bought a second-hand basic 32-track Pro Tools LE system and interfaced it with a computer, which he put in his bedroom.
By the end of last year, Fan had virtually converted his house into a recording studio where he continues his musical pursuits as a singer and songwriter, and at the same time, making a living by running the recording business.
Fan is part of a quiet revolution in music making: the move from professional studios to home recording. Making an album used to mean booking a fixed amount of very expensive time in a well-equipped but unfamiliar room; now, it can be a matter of rolling out of bed and pressing a button.
Whether it's Fan's Brit-rock, his friend's underground hip-hop or the melodious songs created by netizens and released on the Internet, more and more music is emerging not from acoustically perfect state-of-the-art studios, but from set-ups tucked into bedrooms and basements.
Home recording studios have sprung up like mushrooms over the years the estimated number of home studios in Beijing is over 100 greatly thanks to the rapid development in digital recording.
Now a virtual recording console, effects and instrumental sounds are all tucked into software like Pro Tools, the nearly ubiquitous program that was introduced by Digidesign in 1991. It simulates a multi-track studio capable of recording, overdubbing, mixing, editing, even tuning up missed notes or placing a sound on the beat.
In the 21st century, homemade recordings can be indistinguishable from studio products.
Fan has spent around 200,000 yuan (US$25,000) on his home recording studios. "That's a lot of money for me," Fan admitted. "But in the long run, I can save a lot since I now have a studio for both rehearsal and recording. Moreover, I thought I could retrieve the investment by leasing the studio to other bands or doing final mixes for them."
To mix an album for a band in a studio like Fan's means around one month's recording and mixing, which costs around 30,000 yuan (US$3,600). For Fan, this is serious business, from which he could make a small fortune as long as he gets a booking every month.
But he doesn't.
"Nowadays people seem to be more eager to seek fame rather than real professional success," Fan lamented.
Few bands can afford to record their albums, so Fan has turned to what he calls "random business," that is, to record songs for individuals.
To his surprise, his random business thrives.
"It seems that people are ready to pay to record one or two songs of their own, either as gifts or for self appreciation," he said.
He gets one or two customers a day through reservation from the Internet.
Most of his customers are white-collar workers, college students and professional up-rising singers. The majority of them are would-be musicians, with or without talent, who are eager to participate in various TV singing contests in hope of an overnight success.
In March when Beijing Television hosted a singing contest, Fan recorded songs in his studio for at least 30 participants in the program.
"It is surprising to find out so many people are eager to be famous," said Fan in a way that makes him looks older than he actually is. "But lucky for me, they helped save my business."
Random business can be very stressful and too time-consuming to be profitable, according to Fan, who can make 150 yuan (US$19) to record and mix one song, but it can take one week to complete.
Fan remembered he once spent 48 hours adjusting each tune on a recording by a person who could hardly sing a note.
"The best thing about today's digital recording technology is that with all the final mix techniques it provides, it has made it possible for anyone who has a voice to 'sing' like a real singer," Fan said with a mocking smile. "But for us recording engineers, it can sometimes be a torture. It's a very lonely process and you need great patience to finish it. But the flip side is that I have this great luxury of a permanent small studio space that I can always call my own."
When it's easy to record at any time, musicians don't hold back.
"I work a lot on my own songs," said Fan. "I figure I've got more than 100 unreleased songs. A lot of them are not very good. If you're trying out a new idea in front of your friends or your band mates, if it's terrible they're going to throw stuff at you. I have a lot of terrible ideas. But working at home, you can be as embarrassing as you want, and you'll be the only person who will ever hear it. And sometimes the really dumb ideas that you have can be the best pieces of music."
(China Daily July 17, 2006)