“Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.”  Part One – What a Mic Wants, What a Mic Needs…

We have all watched, maybe in a movie or documentary, or on YouTube, a video clip of musicians in the studio being recorded by a nerdy engineer, and it sounds like pure magic.  This is so inspirational; it makes us all want to be there, recording music!

Barber Shop Studios, New Jersey, where I recorded my third album

So we buy some recording gear, bring it home, set it up, and press RECORD.  What happens next is, well, something LESS than inspirational, because it sounds awful.  Whether because of noise, distortion, a sound that is either too muffled or too shrill, or maybe a sound that becomes really loud and then ducks quieter, the bottom line is that it does nothing to inspire us to ever do it again.

This leaves the question in our mind:  why is it so difficult to capture a great-sounding recording of myself?

Let’s start with an assumption that whatever you are using right now to record yourself – a tape recorder, a mobile phone, a computer, expensive or inexpensive recording gear – is not part of the problem.  Let’s see how you can get the best recordings using the gear you already have.  Later, we’ll get into the gear and see how it plays into the challenge, and how you might be able to get a better sound out of it.

Flashback – I began recording my own songs decades ago using a four-track tape deck, an Atari ST computer hooked up to several MIDI keyboards, and a cheap dynamic microphone.  I would record a synchronization tone onto one of the four tracks of tape, at which point my Atari and my tape deck would record and playback in perfect synchronization.  All of the instruments were recorded as MIDI performances controlled by the computer, and all of my vocals would be recorded to tape.  For effects on my voice, I had the microphone wired through a chain of chorus, delay and reverb devices before plugging into the tape deck, so that all of those effects were recorded together.  I would create a stereo mix of my song by combining the sound of all instruments and voices playing back simultaneously from the MIDI keyboards and the multi-track tape.


This setup offered volumes of flexibility in arranging many instruments together and singing layers of vocals (once I figured out the intricacies of multi-track ping-ponging), but it also gave me something truly important – limitations.  Being limited to only three tape tracks (the fourth being consumed for synchronization) forced me to get creative with my recording techniques, and forced me to learn how to get the best sound out of that cheap dynamic microphone and hissy tape.

As technology improved and I bought my first “real” microphone – a Rode NT1 which stills lives in my microphone closet today – the fidelity of my voice recordings improved, but the studio-quality microphone suddenly revealed new challenges to me.  This new microphone could “hear” all sorts of noises in my environment that, quite frankly, I didn’t want to record.  By learning how this microphone responded to sounds all around it, I could find the best sounding spot in the room, the best direction for the microphone to face, and the best way for me to interact with it as a performer.  My recordings improved, but I still needed to tackle the unwanted noises in my environment.  I tried carpet, upholstered furniture, pillows and thick bedding draped over microphone stands, mattresses leaned up against walls, anything to reduce the noises leaking from other rooms and to minimize the amount of sound bouncing around inside my own room.  My recordings improved even more.

Things became more complicated each time I tried recording something other than my voice and MIDI keyboards, but I had confidence in my ability to make the best out of a poor situation, and to learn from my mistakes.  Since then, I’ve recorded stringed instruments (acoustic and electric), pianos, electronic instruments, wind instruments, drums and percussion, groups of singers, even my foot kicking a cardboard box, and I’ve done so in all sorts of acoustically strange or even hostile environments – concrete-walled hotel rooms with air conditioners and busy traffic outside, small rooms and large rooms not intended for sound recording, even outdoors.  Each time I record, I know that I’m able to consider the variables:

  • The room, and how it responds to sound
  • The everyday sounds that I may or may not want to record
  • Each instrument and voice, how they generate different sounds from different listening perspectives
  • Each microphone, how it “hears” the world around it
  • The complexity of having many instruments and voices in the same room, and many microphones hearing a blend of those instruments and voices

Let’s bring this back to the task of recording yourself playing your own instrument or singing with your own voice.  Consider your room, your instrument and your voice.  You’ll quite quickly find that WHERE you put the microphone makes a huge impact on the sound that the microphone “hears”, both because of the sound of the room and because the sound of an instrument will change depending on what part of that instrument is facing the microphone.  And consider the nature of your microphone; try positioning it a little closer, or a little farther away from the source of sound.  Try aiming it a little to the left or right.  Even try aiming it AWAY from the source of sound.  With some clear thinking and a little creativity, you can capture a range of sounds and you can be happier with the quality of your recordings.

Next instalment:  Part Two – What’s Gear Got to Do, Got to Do With It?

(with respect to Shelly Peiken and Guy Roche, who wrote “What a Girl Wants” for Christina Aguilera)

Performance, Recording

Should I hire a musician to play my instrument?

Whether or not you play cards, perhaps the best advice you can hear as an artist is “play to your strong suit”.

For some artists, their strength is their musical ability, not their songwriting.  For others, it will be the opposite – some artists have greatly developed their songwriting voice, and/or their singing voice, but have only developed their instrumental ability sufficiently to serve their songwriting, or to accompany themselves at an open mic.

This is NOT a weakness!  Many savvy artists choose to specialize, dedicating themselves to excellence in a particular area – often with the benefit of developing a unique style or sound.  That becomes a tremendous strength.

So maybe you wrote your song with a guitar in your hand, and can accompany yourself at an open mic on that guitar.  That doesn’t mean you’re the best choice to play guitar on your recording, or the best choice to accompany yourself at an important live performance.  This concept even extends beyond musical accompaniment.  For some purposes, you may even want someone other than you to be the singer, the FOCUS of the performance, if it better serves the purpose of communicating your song with your desired audience.  This could be in an effort to pitch your song demo to a recording artist, to perform at a showcase event, or even your creative choice of how to prepare your song for public release (MANY songwriters have released records on which another artist is the lead singer).

Consider all your options.  If you can hire a specialist to play an instrument on the record, or on-stage, better than you can do it yourself, it is worth considering, for the sake of the quality of the record.  Do all you can do to make your art remarkable, and always play to your strong suit!


Can I Record My Own Tracks?

Nowadays, technology allows us considerable flexibility in making records.  Not only are the tools of recording becoming more affordable and available, but the ability to easily share files makes it easier than ever before to record with other musicians and engineers, anywhere in the world.

This includes the ability for you to record your own performance, likely saving on the cost of recording facilities, all without sacrificing much in the way of quality.  Your mixing engineer can then incorporate these tracks into the mix.

Technically speaking, you can competently record your own performance with very little equipment.  Depending on your instrument, you’ll need:

  • one or more microphones, or direct injection boxes for instruments with built-in transducers
  • a device which links the microphone or direct box to a recording device
  • the recording device – a tablet, computer, even a mobile phone
  • basic or advanced recording software (often free or inexpensive)
  • speakers or headphones to play back your recordings

There are many possible configurations, depending on your budget and your comfort level with the technology, but suffice to say that recording is more accessible to musicians than ever before.

Don’t let a salesperson tell you that you need to spend a lot of money on any one of these pieces.  The most important factor is HOW you use the technology.  Where you place the microphone, what you do to control unwanted sounds in your recording room, and the natural quality of your instrument, have far more impact on your finished sound than the cost of your recording equipment.

Having said all this, would I prefer to work with professionally-recorded tracks?  Of course I would, but this is about YOUR music and budget, not mine.  Capturing a great sound comes with a variety of challenges.  While I encourage you to consider recording some of your own tracks, it is entirely possible that these challenges will merely help you decide that going into a purpose-built studio, with an experienced recordist, is the better choice for you.

If you feel confident recording your own performances, discuss this with your recording or mix engineer, who can give you valuable advice on how to get the best result.  If it doesn’t work out to your satisfaction, you can reconsider and try again.  If nothing else, you will gain useful experience and understanding of the process.