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I have a very simple home setup with a 4-channel USB interface, into which I plug my electro-acoustic guitar and a decent mic (SM58). Purely for fun/learning/curiosity what I sound like, I will often try recording myself playing and singing a song I know well.

I'll practice without the mic, and I'll even practice with the mic but with Audacity not recording. And yet unfailingly, the moment I press 'record' on Audactity, it all goes horribly wrong. My voice totally screws up (like one of the blooper interviews on X-Factor) and I will forget a 4-chord sequence that I can play perfectly.

I guess this is a perfect example of performance anxiety, would you agree? I don't actually feel anxious because nobody is listening and I can delete the recording.

What can I do? Practice doesn't seem to be helping. Just pressing record and trying to forget "I'll edit out the good take" doesn't seem to help either, the simple fact I'm being recorded ruins my performance.

If I record using my phone, the problems doesn't really happen but the quality isn't good enough and anyway it's hardly a solution :)

  • I can relate. Sometimes I make videos of myself performing a song (guitar and vocal) for YouTube. And I have the same experience when the red record light on the camcorder is on. It's less nerve racking to play for an audience live than to play for the camcorder. I find that if I am learning to cover a new song and I want to be sure I have it what I call "ready for prime time" or "stage ready", I will record myself performing the song. By the time I get a take that I can live with - I have mastered the song. And I know if I can perform it for the camera, performing it live will be easy. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 2 '15 at 20:28
  • Very similar to this question: music.stackexchange.com/questions/29318/… – tarun Feb 2 '15 at 21:29
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    Leave your equipment set up. Leave the record button on even when warming up. Always warm up playing loads of songs you like. Some days are not meant to be so don't expect a good session every time. Don't delete stuff unless it really is naff. Wait a day or two before listening back with a critical mind. – Dave Engineer Feb 3 '15 at 9:55
  • Yeah maybe I'll just hit record before I even get tuned, and try to ignore it... although the microphone in my face is a bit scary too :) – Mr. Boy Feb 3 '15 at 13:21
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    Either play the first version to a loud click-track & consider it a guide, or put guit & vox down separately, guide or not, & go back through dropping in to fix the bits you didn't like. A 'record' doesn't have to be a single live performance; there's a certain aspect of 'playing the studio as another instrument' that can be done to make the parts a coherent whole. – Tetsujin Feb 4 '15 at 8:36
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Well, ok, I see what you're saying. Keep that record button down all the time then. If that makes you suck all the time, then so be it. Suck and slowly improve.

If your music is only being listened to by you, how do you really know it's any good to begin with? You can't judge yourself while practicing. That's a skewed view. You have to judge yourself on a recording or, you know, it really doesn't count.

How good you "can possibly if you're lucky" play is usually way different than how good you "do actually reliably, repeatedly play on an average take".

Keep the record button down. Practice with the record button down.

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    If your music is only being listened to by you, how do you really know it's any good to begin with? Are you saying I don't really sound that good while singing in the shower? – WernerCD Feb 2 '15 at 20:20
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    I agree with @Stephen; if you suck when you hit record, that means that you're too comfortable where you are, and hitting record is taking you out of your comfort zone. So as Stephen suggested, you should keep record on all the time so you can practice and improve. You can't overcome a fear by avoiding it. – RǢF Feb 2 '15 at 20:59
  • While I can't play back something I don't record, I can notice when I totally miss the note I'm aiming for and play the wrong chord for the 14th time in a row (it reminds me of the recording scene of "If you love Christmas" from Love Actually) – Mr. Boy Feb 3 '15 at 8:21
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    You can't judge yourself while practicing. That's a skewed view. that's a nice point of view you have there, I'll keep that in mind when recording vocals for the next time! – muffin Feb 3 '15 at 10:55
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    Playing the wrong chord for the 14th time is "learning your mistakes". Simple enough to play from a cheat-sheet when recording. You don't have to fully learn it until you go play it live. Same goes for instruments & vocals. Usually, when I'm recording, I'm still working out the parts as I go, so nothing is cast in stone. Sometimes I put all the choruses down, then all the intros, then find something for the verses etc - the full piece is never played as such until long after the record is out, & partly, I guess, I learn the piece then by having listened to the record so many times. – Tetsujin Feb 4 '15 at 8:33
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Notwithstanding the other answers, which as of this date, are all sound advice [no pun intended], so I shan't repeat anything already mentioned.

First of all… Red-light fever is a real, but purely psychological, effect.
The only way to get over it is to get over it.
Some things that may help… or not...

  1. Take off the headphones.
    If you're monitoring the repro with added reverb/sweetness etc only when recording, remove that difference.

  2. Learn to live with it.
    If you only think you sound bad when recording, you have the wrong 'head' on. You feel have to get it right every single time - but no-one ever does. There's always a better take. Ask Sinatra, Hendrix, McCartney etc etc etc. I guarantee they thought there was a better one available, until the producer told them they had it already.
    [Example: Cilla Black recording "Alfie", way back in the 60's… after something like 20 takes, George Martin nudges Burt Bacharach & hints that they may actually have had it in the can at about take 5. [can't find a citation, but wikipedia hints at it.]

  3. Have the fear hammered out of you!
    There's nothing like being on someone else's time when the red light is on.
    My first ever professional lead vox session was as a clueless newbie who was fine singing on a pub stage with my unknown band or in my own home studio - the transition to 5 guys I'd never met before, but whose names/reputations/images/previous recordings I knew already, watching me through the double-glazing in a real studio costing who-knows-what bucks an hour, was the scariest thing I ever did. I took 12 hours to get the lead vox down, after which I could barely see, let alone speak.
    It taught me the basics of everything I now know.
    If that scenario feels like a true impossibility, get a friend to record you & be heartlessly [if professionally] critical while you do it.

  • Is red light fever a common term, or something you made up? – Mr. Boy Feb 3 '15 at 13:22
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    I first heard it back in the 80s - the term came from the studio engineers & producers of the time. idk how far back it goes before that. It may be a UK-only term, idk that either, sorry. – Tetsujin Feb 4 '15 at 8:29
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I have/had (no clue if it still happens) The same issue, it's all about your subconcious need to do it perfectly. When you don't care and just do it you just do it, as soon as there's a hint that you'r monitored ... boom. My advice is just keep recording yourself and it'll wear out with time. I have the impression that that's what did it for me.

I guess it goes like this: When recording becomes a routine, it's no longer something to worry about...

On the other hand, do you realise that you "suck" while you record or do you have to listen to the recording and then judge it? E.g I had timing issues, but I was hearving everything all right while I played, it was because of latency. Or sometimes I actually sucked and didn't notice until I heard again the recording.

Practice Practice Practice, Practice EVERYTHING and then practice EVERYTHING SOME MORE!

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I know you said that you do most of this, but I will say it anyway. The key is making it routine and even boring. Do it (record yourself) every day until you forget what the problem is you are trying to solve. Make it part of your practice. Record things you do not plan to record or listen to again ever. Don't listen to them for a couple weeks, at first. The experience of listening to your recordings affects and participates in this problem too. You will not hear your self in the right light until you forget the experience of the recording session. Save that for later when you find your self getting more comfortable.

No sense in not pressing the recording button, or pressing the pause button. You do not experience the problem then. Nothing is solved from the placebo because you know it is truly a placebo.

I assume that you are recording to hard drive with lots of space. Try starting the recording, tell yourself your are either going to take several live practice takes, or that you are simply going to practice with the recorder on. You can change your mind if something turns out... but plan to delete it for the first week or two. Practice recording everything you play. Practice and play the piece until you forget you are recording. and repeat that practice every day for a few weeks. Practice doing this, as part of your practice for a week. Eventually your fear will succumb to boredom if nothing else, letting your talent into the recording with relatively little self consienceness. Plan to dump the recordings. Throw them out. You can change your mind when you get something good.

If you are willing to have an accomplice, and experiment you can try is this:

Have a partner decide to record or not record a performance at random in a way so that you do not know from moment to the next if you are being recorded or not. This ignorance of the recording process could help your initial work/practice to overcome your habit/difficulty/fear.

An Important Note: Most people do not like the sound of their own voice, and sometimes that extends to playing a non vocal instrument too. I have felt that way about both, but over time learned to hear by instrumental playing with a kinder critical eye/ear than I do with my voice. Do not be discouraged by this. It will take time to learn to hear the sound of your own voice without feeling and focusing on the fact that it does not sound like you, does not sound right too you (the way it was in your head when you hear your voice live). It will also take time to stop hearing the slightest nuances of your performance that weren't quite exactly what you wanted as mistakes. Call them happy accidents. Things that happen that were new and different than planned, but perhaps valid. Practice being a kinder judge to your own work, as you are likely to be too critical and not a worthy judge. After decades, I still am too fussy about my own work and totally clueless as to how good it is. I understand Hendrix hated his own voice and was always asking/ telling the engineers to turn it down and turn up the guitar (citation needed (I read too much Wikipedia)). This is why you should not listen to the recordings until after you start to get more comfortable with the process.

Digital effects in play back can help but be leery, it is common for people to want to engineer (mixing, recording, adding effects etc.) their own voice poorly even if they are good at engineering the rest of the time. There is a tendency for most to want to hide their voice in effects. However it can help your recording to listen to the monitor (on head phones) your live recording as it happens if you put some effects on the playback, so consider experimenting with that. There is more than one pitfall there. One such problem is that you can be distracted by your own recording sound and effects, much like a bad cell call where your words echo back to you as you speak.

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Personally, the record button always made me play better. As I was never trained or took lessons, it would keep me from trying to do fancy stuff and just do it right, the easy way.

You don't feel it when you use your phone because you would (hopefully) never make someone else suffer through that horrible sound quality, nor will it ever be a 'release', but anything recorded in Audactity can be turned into a masterpiece with the right know how.

So if you're thinking, if you could manage to do it right, just this once and get the track laid down... stop right there.

Trying to lay down a track focused on a single song isn't easy and to me it's very annoying to play the same song over and over. If we were trying to make a demo, we'd keep running through the thee or four songs we chose. Recordings of our regular practices would run over an hour long and you'd start to forget about it after the about the third song. Turing the monitor off helped; put some tape over that red light. Having an accompaniment makes everything easier. You'll (should) be more concerned with the other humans in the room than the CPU that's recording you.

At a quick estimate, I've recorded over 1500, hour-long sets. Out of all of that there's about three sets that contain a single song that I would even think about making someone else listen to. None of them are on any of our demo takes either; apparently we had the same problem.

To paraphrase Ronald Speirs:

It's going to be crap. You are going to make mistakes. Now get back to work.


You are experiencing anxiety.

Performance Anxiety is what happens when you focus on yourself and your anxiety, rather than your presentation or performance. It stems from a tendency to resist and fight your anxiety, rather than to accept and work with it. It's the result of thinking of the performance situation as a threat, rather than a challenge. -anxietycoach.com


"Farthest from your mind is the thought of falling back, in fact, it isn't there at all. And so you dig your hole carefully and deep, and wait." -- Scrapbook of the 506th PIR

Craft-> Confidence-> Courage-> Competent musician

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Do you have the music/lyrics in front of you in a convenient format? If you are trying to perform it all from memory, I think that needlessly gives additional difficulty to what you are trying to do.

As a non-musical, real-life analogy, many years ago when I first needed to leave voicemails I would run into similar performance anxiety. I dealt with it my writing down what I wanted to say in the voicemail first, and then the process became much easier. With time and practice, recording voicemails became much less intimidating, though if it is important, I still sometimes write a couple of notes before recording the voicemail.


Another thing you could try - Invest in a cheap dictaphone (or voice memo phone app) and use it to dictate what you are doing whenever you do a no-pressure activity (e.g. washing dishes, folding laundry). Spare no details in your dictation. You might want to start off not listening to the results, but as you get more comfortable you can listen to some or all of the recording to get more used to the sound of your voice recorded.

Everyone likes to sing in the shower. Perhaps set your recording device going and record your entire shower session :).

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Every time I press 'record' I forget how to play and sing!

Well, the solution is obvious: don't press "Record". Get enough media that you can record the whole day long routinely.

Don't stop in a bad recording. Don't stop after a good recording. It doesn't matter. If there is a bad recording, there will be a better one. But there is no point in stopping your practice routine if the results are inconsistent yet. If there is a good recording, there will be a better one.

You are inconveniencing noone but yourself. Make sure that your recording equipment is in a state where you are not wasting any of your own time. If you feel you had a really good recording, don't interrupt. Just write down the wall clock time and continue.

At the end of the day, you can listen in to those particular recordings and see what is worth improving. Work on that. If you wrote nothing down, at least check a few spots to see whether gain and lighting are fine: it's a nuisance if you get a perfect performance and messed up the recording.

Things are different when somebody else is recording: then you want to work focused and with a somewhat finite time span until completion. But as long as you are the one dealing with the recording equipment, just make sure that you have what it takes to keep recording routinely without a hassle.

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If all fails, maybe you could get a friend to sneak up on you, press the record button, and record you while you think your practicing. I'm not sure if you can see them press it, but it could help if you don't press the record button.

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