Why Do You Play Worse When Recording?

Hitting the studio is a dream many musicians want to accomplish once in their lives. 

Having your own songs registered in a quality audio album is a healthy goal and a satisfactory experience. 

Sadly, dreams turn into nightmares when the engineer clicks the record button: All of a sudden, your performance fails. 

You cannot play the chords you used to play without problems at home. 

Your hands are sweaty, and you lack clarity on what to do, and how to do it. 

Strange, isn’t it? Why can’t you play the songs if you didn’t have problems with them in the past?  

Lots of unexpected problems emerge when recording a song. Having your attention shifted to the fact you are being recorded instead of your actual playing is one of them. Also, it can be performance anxiety, not being used to a metronome or even a bad posture.

Does this happen to you? Do not worry! 

If there’s a problem, there is a solution too. 

You’ll find every issue analyzed in more detail, and you’ll get some tips for you to perform better while recording. 

All you have to do is keep on reading. 

Performance anxiety

As the name says, performance anxiety is the fear of one own’s performance. 

This type of anxiety could occur in multiple situations, including, of course, recording sessions. 

This anxiety has many levels that go from mild tension or impatience, to even panic attacks.

Truth is, one may be more prone to higher levels of anxiety when performing in front of a crowd rather than during live recordings. 

Still, it is not strange to find yourself playing faster than you should, or to feel slightly odd in a studio. 

While it might be problematic, do not forget it’s quite normal and tends to happen to even the most professional artists. 

In most cases, performance anxiety disappears gradually over time.  

Issues when playing to a backing or click track

When recording, many musicians use either a backing track or a metronome so they can keep a steady rhythm. 

They are the perfect tool for the performance anxiety discussed before. 

After all, metronomes keep you consistent with the tempo, preventing you from slowing down or speeding up. 

However, it’s not rare to find many who can’t get used to a click track. 

Why does this happen? 

Well, it’s simply a matter of habit. 

When practicing alone, the majority of musicians do not play along with a metronome. 

Truth is, it’s not exactly compulsory for rehearsing. 

The tempo tends to be kept with the feet, for instance. 

The problem with that is we unconsciously modify the bpm of a song while playing. 

Sometimes the changes are so minor that we don’t even realize we are playing it “wrong”. 

Therefore, facing the exact timing with a metronome disorientates us a bit. 

Again, it is merely a matter of making it a habit and getting used to it.   

Posture 

Take your guitar or bass and play while sitting down on your bed

Then play the exact same notes, but while on your feet. 

As silly as it seems, such a slight alteration in posture modifies the feel of the playing. 

Maybe one way you have the fretboard closer to your body, which makes you feel more comfortable. 

Maybe the other way, it gets further from you, and it feels somewhat awkward. 

In such a situation, what’s best for you is to record the song in the most convenient position. 

Play in the pose you tend to play when rehearsing at home. 

If you can’t, then try to get used to playing in different positions. 

Next time, it won’t catch you off guard. 

Having to be your own recording engineer

Our brains love distraction. 

It’s such an easy way of avoiding fear, rejection, and failure. 

Distracting is so simple that all it takes is to switch from one task to the other.

In this case, shifting from engineer to performer will distract you from the real goal, which is to record your tracks. 

See, the very moment you hit “record” you are instantly conscious of the fact that you are actually recording. 

This thought is hard to avoid. It aimlessly roams within your head like a wild flying horse. 

Sometimes, the idea could wander throughout the entire recording! 

If you successfully complete your mission, then congratulations. 

Sadly, it won’t be the case for everybody. 

A solution to this is not to know when you are being recorded. 

This won’t be the case if you are being your own recording engineer. 

But, if you have someone else doing the task for you, then it is a good idea he or she tells you it’s simply a rehearsal. 

Maybe that way, you record it in one take.  

How to get better performances when you are being recorded

Here are some simple but helpful tips you can put into practice next time you hit the studio.

First, you have to rehearse just before starting. 

A short, quick warming up may be all you need to start more relaxed, and to have the song figured out.

Another tip is to wear headphones

Sometimes, disturbance comes from external circumstances. It could be your partner’s comments or even a visual distraction. 

Headphones put you in a state of flow and focus because you are not allowing outside stimuli to affect you.  

Last but not least, you must rest properly

Most of the time it is not what we do, but what we don’t do. 

If we don’t rest, then we don’t perform accurately. 

Try to sleep the right amount of time and eat healthy the night before. Otherwise, lack of energy can influence your playing.  

Remember you can always punch in

There is a recording technique called punching in, which consists of recording over an already recorded track. 

In other words, it is used to record part by part, section by section. 

Once you record the difficult parts (or the parts that you cannot get right), then you punch out, so you don’t have to record the rest of the song. 

This method is useful for a variety of reasons: 

First of all, it allows for an easier performance

If all you have to do is play just one part of the song, then it is not a problem failing a couple of times. It’s not as if you would have to replay the entire song from scratch. 

Second, it prevents you from burning out

Energy is a precious resource, and one cannot play for hours straight and expect to feel fresh and vitalized. 

The more you work, the more prone you are to feel exhausted, especially if such work involved lots of frustration on futile takes. 

Punch in helps to maintain the focus on a single task, over a shorter period of time. 

Lastly, this technique is perfect for arrangements and sound issues

If you didn’t like the sound of a specific part you recorded, then you can re-record it again without starting from zero. 

This applies to any unwanted noise that leaked during the take, or any note that, on your terms, could have been better. 

Mix, match, and edit many takes

Mistakes are bound to happen while recording a song. 

That’s why many musicians, producers, and recording engineers know that having dozens of takes is a resourceful strategy. 

It’s almost impossible to sound the same every time you play. You might pluck the strings harder on one take, and softer on another.  

You can improvise a solo that sounded more original than the one you improvised on the previous take, so you stick with that one. 

There are plenty of factors that contribute to the betterment or worsening of your performance. 

Thus, playing the same parts over and over again and then choosing the finest (and discarding the rest) is a wise decision. 

In the end, the final outcome could be a mixture of takes 2, 5, 10, and 11! 

Practice makes perfect

The magical formula that solves almost any performance issue: practice. 

Of course, if you are already a musician, then you do know the importance of practicing. 

Learning to play an instrument requires practice. 

Improving your hearing abilities requires practice. 

Playing your own songs accurately requires practice too! 

In part, this happens because of a procedural memory called muscle memory. 

Muscle memory consists of integrating a motor task through constant repetition. 

In simpler words, this means that a persistent practice of a song leads to a mechanical performance of it. 

Your fingers’ position changes unconsciously from one fret to the other. The songs transition smoothly from one part to the next one. 

This is great if you find it hard to execute complicated parts because they will come out naturally in the long run. 

But you don’t need to be perfect

There’s a quote by Voltaire that says “The perfect is the enemy of the good”. 

It’s so easy to get obsessed over our projects. 

We want every tiny detail to shine brightly. 

We wish for every note to sound balanced. 

What this does, however, is getting us consumed by a “What if…”, never finishing our pieces of art. Never sharing with the world. 

What we tend to forget, though, is that an “imperfect” song actually sounds more natural. 

Roxanne by The Police has an atonal piano chord at the beginning that was the result of Sting sitting down on the instrument. It is followed by a laugh. 

Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) by Green Day has Billie Joe Armstrong failing at the first notes and cursing as a result. 

Both tracks became radio hits, despite their imperfections. 

Another truth is, that not all studio tracks are completely polished. 

Some of them are the best take of a live performance, for example. 

They sound raw and a bit unclear, but that’s the way the producer and the band wanted them to sound. 

Hope this last part has helped you with your recordings. 

Forget perfection, focus on one task at a time. Focus on doing. 

Great results are bound to be accomplished.