“That’s what I sound like?”
When a person hears their own voice on a tape recorder for the first time, the sound of their voice might frighten or disgust them. At the very least, it confuses them – what they hear inside their head is completely different than the sound proceeding from their mouth.
Although the timbre of the human voice does indeed differ from what we hear to what others hear, it is more complex than that when it comes to performance. Instead of one variable (timbre or tone), we have a few more variables – pitch, dynamics, and inflection. Hearing our voices recording in a singing performance can be particularly distressing for these reasons.
As distressing as it can be, a person can use this reference to understand what they actually sound like. They can then take this reference and improve on it. Recording is a particularly important step to do this without relying on the opinions of others.
Speaking of which, when I was young, my Uncle in Long Island had a recording studio. When I had put on the Alice in Chains song “No Excuses” on, and sung along to it, my Uncle walked in and said “Don’t quit your day job.” To a thirteen year old kid, this wasn’t the most encouraging thing to hear. I am certainly not a natural when it comes to singing. However, that feedback wasn’t very helpful. What WAS helpful was to actually hear myself on my first recording – I recorded myself on my boombox playing guitar and singing a couple of years later to hear how truly horrible I sounded. THAT worked. I could hear what inflections weren’t working for me, how uneven my volume was, and how off my pitch was. I steadily improved over the years, through the help of recording.
It’s progressive, too.
My perception of pitch was the most dramatic change. I have been working on my pitch for over a decade now – and I have to say I have seen steady improvement. The most recent performance seems adequate, but older performances are unacceptable. After a while, more flaws are revealed in the recent performances, and are fixed in the new performances. I am glad for this too, for if I had heard ALL of the flaws in my first recordings, I would have never moved forward with music.
Just for Vocals?
It isn’t just applicable to vocal performance. Vocals are a bit more obvious, but my guitar playing has also been improved by recording. When you are in the moment, and possibly in the midst of a couple of drinks, everything can sound great. Listening later on can help you find some issues in your playing. Especially if you have a direct sound in the recording. In other words, the natural reverb of a room can make things sound bigger and better too. Notes can smear into one another in a pleasing way in the moment. It is good practice to record your performances and then listen back later for what you actually did. To obsess over every detail is pointless, but recording enables us to truly reflect on our performances – we get a full view of all of it after that point. Before that you had your own feelings about the performance, your bandmates, the establishment’s view of your performance, and the crowd. These are all important factors but they are all colored in one way or another. Recording gives you a less-forgiving view of things.
If you don’t have access to an entire band, recording interesting chord progressions in different styles can help you learn how to improvise.
Once you have some basic tools for improvisation and know where to use them, you just have to record some self-backing tracks (for instance a I-IV-V blues chord progression or a ii-V-I jazz progression) and play over them. This helps you understand how these things interact without worrying about embarrassing yourself in front of others. It leads to a lot of experimentation and helps you concentrate on this very valuable aspect of music.
I recorded my own backing tracks right when I started understanding the pentatonic scale. I remember the first time I played a major 6th in a song that really needed a minor 6th. The sound was REALLY off and I wasn’t sure why. I had understood modes wrongly, however, and it turns out I was playing in Dorian when Aeolian would have made more sense. This took a long time to figure out! But it was worth it, and provided a framework for my improvisations in the future.
Learning the rules of music can be boring and seemingly pointless, until we apply them and hear the results. Then we understand with our ears how something can sound great or terrible. And then we could also understand contexts in which rules can be broken! Extremely important, and recording had a massive role in this for me.
Recording is an excellent assistant for composition as well. While it is good to be able to compose and play afterwards, the opposite direction helps too. If one can record a chord progression, or bass part, and then overlay a melody or other line atop of it, they can get some immediate gratification. They can hear those results right away. If they then want to apply it to the fundamentals of music, they can transcribe what they heard, and then understand their intuitively made composition in the context of music theory. Why did those two notes sound eerie together? Why did they clash? Why are harmonies like this sounding so good? We can understand WHY we do WHAT we do intuitively by recording, and then transcribing.
I will add to this article and edit as I can. This was just an impromptu writing session. Needless to say, however, I encourage all of my students to record everything they can, and critically evaluate themselves. Just remember not to get too discouraged, and don’t give up. It’s a refining process, a trial by fire. It isn’t pretty at first, but if you give it enough time you will see improvement.