How Bon Iver made a Platinum-selling record with two guitars and a single SM57 microphone

Here at MusicRadar, we love nothing more than hearing about musicians and producers making the most of the gear they've got available to them to create incredible music, proving the age-old wisdom that it's not what you have, it's what you do with it. 

One of the most striking examples of this philosophy can be found in the music of Grammy-winning artist Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon), specifically, his 2008 album For Emma, Forever Ago. In the video above, YouTuber AudioHaze takes a deep dive into the making of the album, revealing that Vernon's Platinum-selling debut record was recorded with a set-up that's a whole lot more rudimentary than you might expect. 

Justin Vernon famously retreated to an isolated cabin in the woods to record For Emma, Forever Ago, a stark and stirring collection of acoustic indie-folk songs that set the Wisconsinite on the path to worldwide acclaim, Grammy Awards, and collaborations with Kanye West and Taylor Swift. 

Holed up in the wilderness, all Vernon brought with him was two guitars - a 1930s National Duolian resonator and a 1960s Silvertone Archtop acoustic - a Mac equipped with Pro Tools LE, an Mbox audio interface and a single Shure SM57 microphone.

Far from limiting the album’s scope or quality, these apparent constraints helped to shape its unique sound, and compelled Vernon to experiment with the tools that were at his disposal, using mic placement, vocal layering and improvised percussion to produce the record’s intimate and rough-hewn aesthetic.

The Silvertone, a budget guitar formerly sold in the Sears catalogue that Vernon came across on eBay, ended up becoming central the album's sonic character. "I played it and was just like... that's amazing," Vernon says. "From there, almost every song on the record was made with it." To capture the aged instrument's creaky, brittle tones, he describes placing a microphone as close to the soundhole as possible. 

This was among a number of improvised recording techniques that Vernon used to make the most of his limited set-up and bring a singular vibe to the songs of For Emma, Forever Ago. AudioHaze describes how Vernon would stack layer upon layer of his falsetto vocals to compensate for the sonic limitations of his chosen microphone, the Shure SM57. Not a new technique, by any means, but one that Vernon made his own.

For Emma, Forever Ago was truly a DIY project, and one of the first of its kind to find platinum-selling, international success, paving the way for generations of musicians working across all genres to realise that it’s possible to single-handedly write, record, and produce a hugely successful album in one room, using a modest and inexpensive set-up, without any expensive gear.

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

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