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Performing in the Studio
By Leon & Sheryl Olguin - 05/23/2001 - 11:16 AM EDT

© 2001, Leon & Sheryl Olguin.

Veterans of live performance and studio performance know that these are two completely different musical disciplines.

Recording, whether a demo, a single, or an entire album, can be the most exhilarating experience of your musical life, and also the most frustrating. Don’t let that statement scare you off of recording, there’s nothing like experiencing the intense creative energy that often accompanies studio work, but for a musician used to primarily performing live, it can take a little getting used to.

Most performing songwriters are also guitarists or a keyboardists, as well as singers, and are used to playing and singing at the same time. In most studio situations, these are done separately, and that may take some getting used to. There are exceptions of course, while Elton John usually records his piano and vocals separately so he can better concentrate on each, his counterpart Billy Joel finds that he sings with more fervor and passion if he plays along with himself. The majority of artists record one thing at a time.

Ideally, you will have practiced your instrumental parts and vocal parts separately before going in to the studio.

In most situations you will begin by recording basic tracks. If your song calls for a full “band sound” this would mean starting with drums, bass, keyboard and / or guitar. This can be done with live musicians, or it can be done by an arranger / programmer, using MIDI and sequencing to create the sound of a full band. If you’re a player / singer, then you may be a part of these basic tracks, either as part of the band, or dubbing your instrument parts on later. If you are new to recording, you may find that your playing is not “clean” enough for recording at first (This happens most often with guitarists. Depending on the studio’s set up, keyboard players can record their parts on a sequencer, and have them “cleaned up.”). Don’t get discouraged, if you keep at it long enough, you’re studio playing skills will soon match your live playing skills.

Cutting studio vocals can be a daunting, humbling experience for an artist just starting to record. Like most performers you’ve probably done most of your singing for a live audience, not into a funny looking studio mic. When you’re singing for the public, you obviously want to sound your best, but you know it will never be perfect. If you’ve been performing a while, you know that audiences have a short memory for little imperfections (if they even notice them at all!). A note sung slightly flat, a missed note on the guitar, these vanish into thin air the moment they appear. Your audience is left with the overall impression. They judge the performance by whether they like your song and your performance. If the audience is “with” you, you can almost do no wrong!

In the studio, you may feel a bit out of place at first. Many singers have a hard time listening to the sound of their own voice. It’s a bit like looking at a beautiful painting from a ways off, and it looks perfect until closer inspection reveals flaws not previously seen. If you put a section of the painting under a microscope and examine it even more closely, you begin to spot even more imperfections. Cracks in the paint, colors blurred, bits of dirt and dust clinging to it.

When you sing in the studio, your voice is put under a microscope, so to speak. Everything is revealed, good or bad. (Especially if the engineer decides to listen to your voice without the backing!) You’ll be able to hear every intake of breath, every smack of the lips, every bit of phlegm rattling around on your vocal cords. You’ll be able to hear every time you drift off-pitch, and every phrase that doesn’t sound quite right. You’ll quickly learn that the human voice can be an endlessly beautiful, but imperfect instrument.

So what can you do to prepare for studio singing?

Cutting vocals is hard work! When you perform live, you sing in short bursts, and only for an hour or two. In the studio, you may have to sing intensely for hours on end. You’ll probably have to record “scratch” vocals for the players, then go back and do the lead vocals on each song. In recording lead vocals, you may have to do certain parts of the song over many times, each time trying to match the intensity and energy level of the original take. You may spend some time “punching in” different lines, or even a word or two. If you’re not careful, this hard work can leave your voice feeling and sounding tired and raspy.

The best way to prepare for studio singing is to strengthen your voice by practicing and vocalizing for long periods of time each day for a few weeks before your sessions. Get your “voice” muscles accustomed to working for hours at a time. This may seem like a lot of work (and it is) but you’ll be glad you did it once you hit the studio. When you’re into recording, you don’t need to practice much outside the studio, and you can devote all your energy into recording your best vocals.

Don’t let yourself get swamped in self-doubt. It can be very disconcerting to hear yourself on tape, and notice every little flaw. When your producer or engineer says to you after a take, “That may have been a little flat,” or “That was OK, but I think you have a better one in you,” don’t let your confidence be undermined. You may initially go into the studio feeling pretty good about your abilities, but after trying for the tenth time to get a line right that you thought you knew cold, your confidence may fade fast. You may start thinking, “I’m the worst singer in the world! No one’s going to like this. What was I thinking? Am I really as bad as I think? Do I really sound like that? Are the engineer and the producer shaking their heads and thinking “what a joke” behind my back? What made me think I could do this?”

When these thoughts start coursing through your brain, it gets harder and harder to accomplish anything. How can you keep your confidence level up?

Remind yourself that you are “work in progress.” If you’ve worked hard on your craft, then you are the best you can be at that moment. You may not be as good as you want to be, but if you think about it logically, if you desire to keep growing and maturing as a musician, you may never be as good as you want to be! What you’re recording today is a “snapshot” of where you are now. You’ll be a better singer and songwriter tomorrow or next year, but even then you’ll want to improve. All you can do now is your best, and if you’ve been diligent in practicing, learning and growing, your best will be great!

Remind yourself that your recording can be great without being perfect. There was a sign in the control room of the first studio I ever worked in that stated, “Perfection is Expensive.” Not only is perfection expensive, it’s rare. Listen to a lot of recordings and you’ll begin to hear the flaws. Maybe the recording itself is immaculate, but the song may not be the greatest (slick production can be used to disguise the weakness of a song). In the days before hard disk audio editing and pitch correction software, you could really hear the flaws in recordings. Fluffed notes and off-key singing can be found in abundance when listening to the oldies station. There are hard-core Beatles fans that can tell you about every mistake that appeared in all the band’s recordings. Nowadays, the musical flaws are not so evident (although the highly polished, perfectly edited, pitch-corrected, sound of today’s pop can be said to be a flaw in and of itself, since they sound somewhat inhuman), but the idea is the same. Every artist has room to grow, and has to be able to accept where they are in the present. A modern studio may have the technology to disguise some of your flaws, but chances are you still won’t be completely happy with everything. That’s OK. If you’re happy with 95% of it, you’re doing great!

Most performing songwriters set their goals high. They want their album to be the best thing ever recorded. After it’s done, almost every artist will listen to their work and wish they had done certain things differently. That’s normal! Remember, if you’re an “artist for life” it most likely will not be your last album, and the vast majority of your audience will remain blissfully unaware of any flaws you may have detected in your work.

Performing in the studio, whether on your instrument or with your voice, is a lot like live performance in one respect, you get better at it by doing it.

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