August 21

The Localist: Introduction to Home Recording (Getting Stuck in the Wilderness)

There’s this phenomenon where people who hear their voice on the answering machine for the first time react with violent disgust. Or when you see your face in a picture where it’s been horizontally reversed from how you would ordinarily see it in the mirror. These are just two examples of a more general phenomenon where your brain makes automatic subconscious adjustments in how you perceive yourself. I’m not going to try and get into the science of it as I’m not a brain scientist. But the same general phenomenon plays a significant role in home recording – and in particular, a phenomenon that I call “getting stuck in the wilderness.”

The phenomenon generally manifests itself in the following way: You’re trying to get a perfect vocal take to put down on a track. You try a bunch of takes, and they all just sound awful, and as you keep trying to do more and more takes, they seem to just get worse, until it feels like you can’t get anything right. In fact, it feels like you don’t even know how to sing anymore.

The thing is, you’re used to hearing yourself speak or sing either without amplification, or performing live with amplification. During this time, your brain has developed a thousand different modules and algorithms that either anticipate how you expect yourself to sound, or compensate for things you don’t like about the sound of your voice. And when you hear yourself in a recording setting, where your voice is highlighted up close, these modules and algorithms go haywire, and nothing that you do sounds right. Singing a cappella, you’re used to your voice sounding deeper because you hear the reverberations in your own head. Singing live, your voice is already masked by room echo, as well as the sound of your live voice partly covering the sound from the monitor or speakers. In fact, maybe prior to recording, you had additionally developed a really specific idea of how you hoped the recording would sound, in which case, on top of everything else, nothing you could record could ever sound satisfactory.

What to do?:

  1. Don’t throw away your vocal takes. You have the GB to save your vocal takes.
  2. Put the music aside for at least several days and don’t listen to it.
  3. Come back and listen to the music fresh.

It seems very simple, but when you get back to your vocal takes, you will find that they weren’t nearly as bad as you thought they were. (This is why you shouldn’t throw away any vocal takes, because you will find that many of them were just fine, and you don’t want to throw away potentially hours of work). Taking time off from the tracks gives you some distance from them, and helps you to approach them without all of the mental baggage that you’re prone to bring to the recording room (though some mental baggage is likely to remain no matter what).


The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”