December 31, 2010

Getting comfortable with recording

It's often said that you get used to recording by recording more. While that's kind of true, it's not very helpful to look at it that way. If you feel miserable every time you record, recording 100 times isn't likely to make you happy.

It can be helpful is to frequently use recording as a tool. Don't worry about takes being "keepers" because none of them have to be. Try recording just a phrase at a time, listen back and work on the details.  

You'll eventually start to get used to it and be able to perform better when that red light is on. As you get comfortable working this way, try longer sections of pieces. Gradually work your way up to recording whole pieces.

Mistakes: Chicken or egg?

Fear of mistakes is usually what stresses people out about recording, and ends up being the cause of those mistakes. Strengthening your memory and practice techniques will help you cope with this, but you need to work on your attitude about the process, too.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes and remind yourself of why you play in the first place. Hopefully you're doing it because it's fun and you love it. It's great to feel proud of your accomplishment, but if you play because you have something to prove, you're setting yourself up for a world of struggle. 
You need to break the vicious cycle of "I'm worried I'll make a mistake. Oops, I made a mistake. Now I'm even more worried about it..." Mistakes will help you learn.

Make a distinction between transient errors like missed notes and errors of judgment like unclear phrasing and missing dynamics. Technical goofs happen and can be prevented, but often times they happen because of vague musical idea. You should definitely learn to clean up your technique bue also be really clear about what you want to do and present in your playing.

Of course, it sometimes just comes down to plain old insufficient preparation. Well, at least you've learned what you need to work on in order to be able to record it well. Instead of getting stressed about it, make note of what you need to work on, take a break, and then dive back into practicing.

Other approaches

Sometimes the recording process itself can be a big source of distraction. Some suggestions for dealing with that:

  • Devote some time to working out your recording setup without trying to get a good performance. Once you find a sound you like, just leave your equipment set up, or figure out how to set it up easily. I worked out my "best quality" setup so I can be ready to record in about 5 minutes. For my day to day recording, I just set my edirol on the table in front of the guitar and forget about getting ideal placement.
  • Don't bother stopping and starting your recorder in between takes, especially if it's digital. You can trim out the stuff you don't want later. Just get it going and start playing. If you want to do another take, just allow yourself some time to relax and start another. I find that stopping and starting the recorder in between takes turns into an opportunity to act out frustration and it can quickly become a downward spiral. Just let it roll. 
  • Don't try to do a ton of takes of one piece in a row. If it's not happening after a few takes, take a break or record something else for a while. You can always come back to the first.

PS: Speaking of recording, I've been looking forward to Marc Teicholz's "Valseanna" since GSI first announced it. I'd held off on buying it because I hoped that they might make it available for download, and lo and behold, it's now available on iTunes! This is a really sweet album, 18 waltzes played on 18 vintage guitars, although I'm not quite sure how Pepe Romero, Jr's 2004 guitar counts as vintage. I heard Teicholz play a few times when I lived in the SF Bay Area and really enjoyed it every time. He's such an unpretentiously expressive player. Check it out!


  1. Great article! You hit it on all the crucial points, especially the point about fear of mistakes becoming the source of the mistakes.

  2. Thanks! Obviously it's not an original thought, but it bears repeating. People have been saying it to me for years, but it's really hard to let go of that!

    A lot of times when I write this stuff, it's as much for myself as it is for others. It's kind of my way of processing all the information that's made it through my skull, picking a direction and committing to it. :)

  3. Nice post William. You hit on alot of good strategies there. When i was recording my cd i found that being really prepared mattered alot. I had to fly down to the studio, had studio time booked, so it was a limited window to get things done. I wanted to make the most out of my time and money, and thus practiced alot.

    With todays digital recording I find myself worrying less about mistakes, since its so easy to edit things together. Like you said, just leave the recorder running and split the takes up later. Or if you have recording software what I like to do is record takes in cycles. You set the duration of the reocrding, hit go, and then when it reaches the end it automatically cycles around and you can do a second take, a third etc. I like that because it frees you up from having to hit the keyboard after each take, which i find can ruin the musical flow.

    I think the best thing is if you can rope a friend into operating the computer/technical end of things. To me its much less stressful when all you have to do is sit there and play.