The Self-Recording Musician

The Psychology of Recording

I’ve been thinking about the process of recording music. Not the technical side (although I do think a lot about that), but rather the psychological aspect. I plan to write a series of blog posts that deal with several situations. Right now, I’m thinking of three scenarios:

  1. The musician recording her/himself
  2. The musician working with a recording engineer
  3. The recording engineer working with a musician or group

I have experience with all three scenarios (especially the first and last lately). Each presents a different set of dynamics, challenges and rewards.For this first post, I’d like to explore the dynamics of recording yourself. Keep in mind, this based on my experience, and yours may be quite different.

So, with no further delay…

The Self-Recording Musician

Despite its challenges, recording yourself has lots of advantages:

  • You can generally record anytime you like.
  • You can spend as much time on a track as you want, without worrying about wasting someone else’s time.
  • If you later decide you don’t like what you’ve done, you are free to go back and redo it.
    Assuming you don’t have a friend who works for free, it’s less expensive.

I started seriously trying to record myself around 1995. At that point I had a fair amount of experience working in other studios, and I certainly participated in the engineering for those sessions, but I had not been in the position of working by myself. I had also been working with computers and MIDI since 1985, but that was a far different experience than recording audio performances. When I started to self-record, I found it to be really difficult.

The most challenging thing for me was dividing my attention between the musical performance and the engineering. I realize that right-brain/left-brain dichotomies are a bit of a cliché, but it really did feel like my brain needed to be in a different mode to engineer than to perform musically. Many, many sessions ended in frustration, because I neither got a performance I was happy with, nor was the quality of sound what I hoped for. So, what can you do if you also have trouble juggling?

Set up a dedicated space

I highly recommend setting up a dedicated space for recording, even if it’s just the corner of a room. Make it simple to quickly get to work when you have an idea you want to capture. Before I had a real studio space, I would want to record some ideas that excited me, but by the time I had set up the equipment and got everything working, I was usually way past the point of inspiration. Nothing much ever came from those sessions.

Get to know your equipment

This may seem obvious, but I’ve observed lots of people who really don’t know their equipment as well as they could. The less thought you need to give to the basics of using your setup, the more energy and attention you can give to the musical performance. Keep in mind that this does not necessarily mean mastering every single feature of every single piece of software and hardware you own. It means completely mastering the features of each you need to record yourself. Some examples might include:

  • Choosing the correct input to get signal from a mic to the recording device.
  • Knowing how to set appropriate levels for the source you’re recording.
  • Understanding how to place mics.
  • Knowing how to set the monitor level for the source vs. the existing tracks you might be performing with, etc.

Make sure your signal chain is simple, well maintained, and easily accessible

An unnecessarily convoluted signal chain (the path audio has to follow to get from your performance to the recorder) is an invitation for problems and poor sound. If you find it takes 10 or 15 minutes to figure out how to get sound from a mic into your computer (or whatever you record to), then you probably should look at simplifying things. Make sure you are using the right type of cables for the job (with mics, most likely well-shielded XLR), and that all the cables are in good shape. Keep spare cables handy! Cables sometimes get flaky, so be ready to swap them out. Try to run your cables so it’s not impossible to remove a bad one and replace it. This can be hard – many of us have piles of spaghetti behind our desks (I’m guilty of this), but do your best.

Practice performing to a recorder

Performing for a recording is a completely different experience than performing live. Little mistakes and inconsistencies that are almost unnoticeable in a stage performance are ridiculously obvious in a recorded performance. This is an issue whether you are acting as your own engineer, or someone else is running the session. However, I find it even harder in self-engineered sessions, because of the multitasking aspect. The more used you are to performing for recording, the less stressful it will be to also engineer the session. Learning how to subtly alter your performance to get a good sounding recording is a skill that only comes with lots of practice. Part of this is just practicing your instruments. The more solid your musical skills, the easier recording will be (obvious, right?).

Dedicate some time to audio experimentation

When I want to record an acoustic guitar track, I have a method (mic choice, placement, stereo technique) that I can rely on to give consistent, really good results. If I’m inspired to record a track, I know I can set up in that particular way, and I know what the final sound is going to be. At the moment of inspiration, the last thing I’d want to do is experiment overly long with a new mic placement technique, or using mics I’d never used for that purpose before. However, it’s really useful to experiment, and learn to get new sounds. I find the answer to be dedicated sessions where the only goal is to experiment. I can focus 100% of my attention on the sound – performance is irrelevant. Interesting mic combinations or techniques can be filed away for future sessions.

Stay on task

With digital recording, it’s easy to be distracted from tracking by the temptation to edit as you go. Don’t worry about editing out noises you may make before you start performing, or between phrases. You can take care of all that after you’ve finished capturing your best performance. The same applies to mixing. Set up a rough mix that allows you to hear what you’re doing, then forget about it until later.

Be well rested

Fatigue is not your friend in the studio. When you’re tired, you are less able to think critically, and it’s very likely you’ll accept poor performances, and poorly engineered tracks as “good enough”. As with several of these points, this is true even if you’re only doing one job. But, I think the effect of fatigue is squared when juggling performance and engineering. I know I’m a bit of an oddball, but my most productive self-engineered sessions tend to be first thing in the morning, while I sip my coffee.


The Self-Recording Musician — 6 Comments

  1. I’m a bit relieved to read that you too found self-recording difficult. I thought it was just me, but there may be something to the Left-Right brain concept. Sometimes I wish someone else were here just to start and stop the recordings. And making videos of myself adds another layer complexity that can ruin my day. OK, I’m not so uniquely inept. Deep breath. Plan the work, work the plan.

  2. Nice post. 🙂

    I’ve been fighting through the self-recording issues lately for a few tracks, coupled with learning the new gear. It’s exciting!

    (And I’ve got something wired incorrectly in the headphone cue path. Fortunately, it’s not a show-stopper; just annoying…)

  3. A note of caution when doing your own, bring along your honesty.

    You never sound in the recording the way you sound in your head. The acoustic paths are different, and the rest of us only ever hear the former.

    Recognize when to quit for the day. While recording, I’ve told a performer that they were done for the day. Their response was that they were still good, at least they thought they were until I played back the last couple takes.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to post this Jeff. It usually takes years of experience to learn even the basics that you’ve illustrated here. Lots of trial and error and frustration before getting to good results. I know you’ve helped me fast track with all your time in the studio!

  5. I can totally relate to this! I tend to play much better when someone else is engineering me. I can get also get good performances on my own, but there’s a lot more punching or recording in sections, whereas with an engineer I can usually play the song down in one pass.