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Monday, 21 December 2015

Recording Your Practice: A Guide To Better Performance

I’ve been doing a lot of blogs recently about production and recording. This one is also about recording, but it’s really about performance. If you’re a singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist or just about any other type of performer, this one is for you!

Many musicians get to a point in their practice where they just don’t know what to do. I know I’ve been there several times before. A point where, although you know you can always improve, you just don’t know where to start.

I suggest, that if you haven’t been doing it already, start recording yourself performing. This came as a big turning point for me in my practice and made me rethink how I play. With today’s technology, there’s no reason not to be tracking what you’re doing and listening back to it.

Realising Your Weaknesses

I remember the first time I got into a recording studio to record some songs as a teenager. At this point, I’d been playing in a band for ages, played guitar for almost 10 years and done countless live shows.

All was well and good, we got into the studio (some guys house) and we’d laid down the drums. When it came to me playing my guitar parts, I plugged in, had the track in my ears and played along. All was good… until I listened back to my parts.

They were awful. The tone was all out, my playing was out of time and the notes were inconsistent. I was a little heart broken, but the rest of the band didn’t seem to care that much. So I played through the tracks again and again till they were close enough

Then came the vocals. I was singing in this band and I wasn’t very good back then, but I got by. But there was something about singing in the studio that completely threw me off. I’ve seen it many times since, working behind the desk. Some singers can tear it up live but as soon as you put them in front of a mic in the studio, their throats close up and they can’t perform.

I don’t know what the reasons are behind this phenomenon, but some singers just cannot sing in a recording setting. Thankfully, like everything else, this is something that can, and should be practiced.

If you’ve ever heard your voice recorded, you know how much different you sound in your head, compared to what plays back to you. Singing is exactly the same, and this difference can throw a lot of people off. The same can happen with playing an instrument: what you’re hearing while you’re playing can sound very different to what’s being recorded… so what should you do?

Practice being recorded

It’s almost too obvious, but very few musicians actually practice recording themselves. Of all the practicing techniques that I’ve tried over my twenty odd years of performing, recording myself practicing has made the biggest difference to almost every aspect of my performance.

Here’s an exercise for you:
  1.  Take a lick or a riff that you know
  2. Figure out a tempo for that lick/riff and set it up on a metronome.
  3. Hit record and play it in as best you can.
  4. Now here’s the important part. Listen. Is it in time? Is your tone right? Is every note in pitch? Are you being consistent with your playing? If you heard this playing on a professional record, would it be acceptable? 
  5. If the answer to any of these questions is “no” then you have to address the problem, and try again.
  6. And again
  7. And again

Keep recording and changing little things in your performance until this one little lick or riff is 100% perfect. You should listen to the final product and think “there is nothing I would change about the playing of this”. 

When you start this type of practice, it might seem impossible to get to that point where you are completely happy. Try not to stress yourself out, you might be attempting something too hard from the start. Either slow the riff down a bit or try something a little more simple.

Singing Exercise

This one is for singers, but can be used in a similar way for any other instrument. This is an amazing exercise for improving your performances in a huge way. If you’ve never recorded yourself singing before, I definitely suggest you give this a try, it could change your life.

First, pick a song that you know pretty well. Make sure you choose one that is in a comfortable key for you. It could be one that you’ve sung a thousand times before, but that’s good. For the start it’s best to pick something that you know the melody and lyrics for. We want to focus on the performance more than anything else here.

Take that song and load it up into your recording software. Then you need to set up a track for your microphone to record your voice. You’ll need to balance the tracks so that you can easily hear your voice clearly over the song.

If you don’t have recording equipment or software, use your phone. Simply play the song through whatever system you have and sing over the top of it, making sure you can hear yourself clearly. Most phones these days have recording facilities. This isn’t an ideal way of doing it, but it’s better than nothing.

Hit record on whatever device you’re using and record yourself singing through the track from start to finish. This is going to be your reference for when you started, so you can mute this track and put it aside for later. It’s important to show your progress so you can see how far you’ve come.

Next, I want you to skip to about a bar before the first line comes in, hit record and sing only the first line of the song. You’re going to be tracking this one line at a time.

Now listen back to your performance of that one line. Was it in pitch? Was it in time? Did it sound strained? How was your pronunciation? Did you have enough breath? Was there enough feeling in it? Did you emphasize the right words? What is it that you could do better?

Pick the one thing that stands out to you the most as being wrong with the performance. Focus on that one thing and record the line again. Listen back and keep recording that line until you’ve fixed that first thing that you wanted to fix. 

Once you’ve got that right, fix the next thing that you think needs improvement on that line. Dissect each part of your performance until it is exactly how you would want it to be heard. Once that first line is right, move to the second line of the song and do the exact same thing.

You’ll find the first line is the hardest to get right, as you’re going to be trying to really find your voice. As you move on, things will get a little easier as you learn little tricks of how to manipulate your voice to get the sounds you want.

When you get the end of the verse, record it all the way through from start to finish. Now compare that to the version you recorded at the very start of the session and hear how much better you are than where you began.

This technique is very important because it not only teaches you how to be good on the track that you’re recording at that moment, but also how to get better, quicker on other songs. You will soon learn what to change to get different sounds, and how the mechanics of your voice works.

Many people, when practicing, focus on things that they can quantify. They want to get faster playing, bigger ranges, more repertoire, more scales. But the most loved musicians are the ones that have those qualities that can’t be quantified. It doesn’t matter if you can technically play the hardest song in the world, if you can’t play the easiest song and make it sound good.

Do you record yourself playing? Have you got any great tips on improving your performance? Any questions or comments? Hit me up in the comments section below!

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