Singer Billie Eilish was on the Grammy's red carpet pulling Ellen Degeneres underwear out of a flowery bag when she got the news. A woman nearby, apparently having just gotten word, held up a phone to Eilish's face and said, "You just won Best Pop Vocal."
The singer went on to sweep up four of the biggest awards that night, making her the first female artist to do so. Her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was crowned Best Album of the Year, while the song "Bad Guy" won Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
Eilish, at 18, had achieved something more prolific performers armed with top notch studios, dedicated teams of sound engineers and high end equipment had not. The capper? She had done so by working with her older brother Finneas O'Connell, out of a small bedroom studio in their parents' home.
O'Connell, also known by his stage name FINNEAS, said he preferred recording in that space because it offered more natural light than recording studios. He told NME that "they tend to be lifeless and without any natural light, so I wanted to record wherever we lived." Cost was also a factor. "We just don't want to be bound to a studio to who we'd have to pay untold sums to."
The production setup was relatively simple, too. According to a Pro Sound Network interview with O'Connell, all there was in this bedroom was a pair of $200 Yamaha HS5 nearfield monitors with an H8S subwoofer ($450), a Universal Audio Apollo 8 interface and Apple's Logic Pro X. Oh, and a bed, of course, against one of the walls, on which Eilish sat to record with an Audio Technica AT2020 mic (at least, in the early days). As an amateur mixer myself, it was exciting to know that the duo use the exact same mic I own to record my vocals.
The tight, closed setting lent the album an intimate vibe that made it feel like Eilish's at-times breathy, feathery vocals were being whispered right into your ears. The stems (that is, individual layers of instruments and music) were then sent to mix engineer Rob Kinelski to compile.
All that is the work that resulted in When We Fall Asleep... winning the coveted Album of the Year title at this year's Grammys, as well as the award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. O'Connell himself earned the Producer of the Year nod and altogether the album's impact is monumental. Now, more than ever, anyone could be an EGOT. Thanks to the democratization of music and video recording equipment, not to mention the high-powered software needed to create intricate pop productions, the barriers to entry into the world of awards ceremonies and red carpet shows have all but crumbled. Not that long ago, Pro Tools was the audio editing software du jour, and required specialized hardware. These days, every Mac or iPhone ships with GarageBand, and you can get Logic Pro for about $200.
"This is for all the kids who make music in their bedrooms," O'Connell said while accepting the Song of the Year award, reminding the world not only of the pair's brand of relatability but also of how big dreams of winning a Grammy could be within reach.
It's not just in the world of music-making that the proliferation of high-quality, relatively affordable equipment and software has made it easier to produce award-winning material. The Ringer's "NBA Desktop" won a Sports Emmy in May for Outstanding Digital Innovation. That show is shot entirely on a single-camera, single-frame setup, cutting in captures from host Jason Concepcion's computer desktop. It's a simple production process with basic equipment. While I hesitate to liken an established outlet like The Ringer to some random person in a bedroom, the achievement goes to show that you don't need an elaborate set, massive budgets or frenzied entourages to produce award-winning content.
In recent years, it's become much easier to reach a large audience. YouTube, SoundCloud and even Amazon's Kindle self-publishing platform have pulled some of that power out of the clutches of old-school production houses and broadcast networks, placing it in the hands of anyone with an email address. The rise of Instagram and Twitter culture gave any individual with a decent camera and a good joke the ability to market themselves and control their own message, eliminating the need for pesky agents and publicists.
Now, as cameras, microphones, mixers and editing software get better and more affordable, pretty much anyone can create top-notch material. Audio engineer Matt Jordan, Pro Audio category manager for music gear marketplace Reverb, told Engadget that "the barrier of entry to becoming a great engineer or producer is lower than ever." Second-hand gear through outlets like Reverb also help put pro-level equipment within reach by offering them for fractions of retail prices.
That's not to say that we've reached a point where anyone who wants to make a high-quality podcast or YouTube show can afford to do so. You'd still need access to a relatively powerful computer and some gear, which would cost at least a few hundred dollars. But in just the last five years, the creative landscape has changed significantly. It won't be long before the next Billie Eilish stuns the world with a unique work of art produced in a noisy dorm room or musty garage.