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I'm in that nasty position of becoming nervous when I hit the record button. I can be in my own little studio, no pressure whatsoever, playing perfectly, but as soon as I hit that record button, my playing goes to pieces and it can take 20 takes to do something I did perfectly a dozen times in a row moments earlier.

I'm not a nervous person in day-to-day life, and I love performing on stage, I don't get nervous there at all. Is this likely to be a self-induced pressure type of situation? What tips are there for overcoming nerves when tracking audio? (I'm mainly talking about guitar here, but also piano, etc).

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4 Answers 4

Since you are recording alone, the pressure you are feeling is self-induced. Typically when it comes to recording, musicians feel pressure for a variety of reasons:

  1. The take has to be perfect because of the cost of the studio.
  2. The take has to be perfect because of their reputation / job.
  3. The take has to be perfect because time is limited.
  4. The take has to be perfect because it is a representation of them, and they want the best representation of them out there for the public. (who doesn't?)

Though this list is not exhaustive, it can provide some insight into why people will record a track over and over again until it's just right.

For me personally, I know that I will re-record something a hundred times if I need to in order to get the take that I want. Eric Johnson, a notable guitarist, is famous for spending hours and hours and hours just getting his tone right before he does any recording, and even then it takes forever.

So, how do we get around this?

I think I have a few suggestions that could help:

  • Know your material - cold. Be able to pick up your guitar and play what you want to play with no warmup at all. It should be easy and reflexive. If you are actively thinking about your playing while you record, that hesitancy will come out on the recording.
  • Get more experience recording in a variety of situations - different recording studios or friends with setups. Or maybe just taking your own equipment to different locations. Providing different contexts will give your brain a more comprehensive understanding of the recording process, and therefore should reduce the pressure of the process.
  • Record a throw-away track. Recording throw-away tracks are a great way to flex your muscles without pressure. You know you're not going to use the track anyway, so whatever happens, happens. If it turns out for the better, then great! The nice thing about having your own little setup is that you aren't dependent on studio time, so that eliminates that pressure. When I record, I like to record 3 or 4 throw-away tracks before I do the "real thing". Sometimes I end up liking one of the earlier tracks better - even though it might have a couple flaws.

This list is not comprehensive by any means, but hopefully it allows you to approach your sessions with a different perspective.

Hope that helps!

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A slight variant on the previous answer's suggestion of a throwaway track: When you're having trouble with a take, pause, take a deep breath and try to record the worst take of anything that anyone has ever recorded. Deliberately play wrong notes, drop out of key, miss the beat, whatever. See if you can make yourself and anyone else in the studio laugh. It's a silly thing to do and completely wastes the take, but it also breaks up the tension, gets you to relax a little bit mentally and puts a smile on your face. The reasons most of us became musicians in the first place is because to some degree we enjoy it, sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that.

You never know you might come up with a whole new unique and original playing style or make it onto the studio's Christmas mix tape. Either is good!

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You're making yourself nervous because you're making a take a big deal.

Part of the big deal of doing a take is that cueing up the recording, starting it, getting ready to play, etc. all adds "ritual" that makes this performance more "special" than your normal practice runs.

So, work at removing as much ritual as possible from the process. Find the keyboard shortcuts for your recording software; if you can control recording with a footswitch, try that. Anything so that starting a take ain't no thing.

Make it so that abandoning a take and starting again is easy too. Find a way so that if you screw up, restarting from a sensible point is a tiny effort.

I quite like the feature in GarageBand in which you record over a loop. You can loop many times, and you end up with a pull-down representing a take for each time around the loop. I always screw up the first time around the loop. I'll just let it keep going until I get a good take -- then I'll discard the bad takes.

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+1 I loop when I'm recording too. I assume I'll mess up on the first try and keep doing it until I get it right. I used to have the same issue as the asker but after practicing recording a lot it sort of just went away. But looping definitely helped and still does. –  Tony Mar 19 '13 at 16:30

Record everything you do, even when you practice. As soon as your working on your music in a daw and you plug your guitar, open a track and record it. Eventually you will forget it and play normally.

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