In last week’s newsletter, I asked what YOU would like me to write about.
A songwriter/producer in LA observed that in the studio, most singers tend to have more technical accuracy but less feel, and wanted to know how to retain the emotion of a song in the studio.
Good question. I just went through this challenge while recording The Phoenix, The Flame, the full-length funk/rock CD with STAR (spontaneous thin air radio), in particular with the powerful ballad “One.”
In a live setting, “One” never fails to carry me away. It always gets inside me, and it seems to get inside the audience, too. But in the studio, I kept worrying about the technique of it rather than the emotion. Even after a number of different takes on different days, it just sounded… effortful. It sounded like someone trying to express emotion – like a bad soap opera star clumsily over-acting surprise or anger – rather than someone actually being emotional.
So here’s what we did.
I listened to all the takes we had recorded so far. They were okay. Sufficient. So I sewed together the best parts of the fifth and sixth takes, and was… not unhappy with them. I told myself that the song was done. Pressure off, recording done, time to mix.
But now, it was time to just sing the song for fun. For the beauty of it. Because I love singing the song. For the experience, the moment. Nothing more.
So asked the engineer to indulge me for a bit. I told him that although the song was done, I wanted to sing it again just because I loved singing it. He could record if he wanted to, but these were going to be throwaway takes. No intention of keeping or using them. I wasn’t trying to “achieve” or “produce” anything with them, so technical correctness didn’t matter. Pitchiness didn’t matter. Bad tone didn’t matter. The intention was simply to experience singing the song – from inside the lyrics, from the heart of the song, not from the outside like a critic.
Yes, it’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick. You have to tell yourself there really is nothing riding on these takes. That you really aren’t planning on doing anything with them. If you think ahead and think, “maybe THIS will be the GOOD take that we keep!” – you’ve ruined it. Here’s where that critical ability to manage your own thoughts comes in handy! (Side note: You will learn this skill with the Zen of the Stage DVDs.)
I went in the iso booth and took a few minutes to myself. I thought about the song. Not about how I was going to sing the song, but about how I felt when I wrote it – how angry and hurt I was at the time, in the situation I was going through. I thought about how the venue and audience feel every time I sing this song. I thought about the tightness in my chest I get when I really think about the lyrics.
When you sing throwaway takes, all that matters is the experience of singing them. The moment. The precious few short minutes in the studio that you have the chance to live through the song again. Technique be damned! Technique doesn’t matter for the experience! In fact, technique gets in the way! Throw out the technique!
We recorded three takes. Each one of them shook me deeply. They were far from technically perfect. I took more risks than before, I sang less correctly than before. But the result was far more powerful than any of the other takes.
The final result on the album is a combination of takes 1 and 2, plus a tiny bit of take 3. I can’t wait to share it with you.
I know this was a bit of a long one today, so here’s a summary:
- Get a “good enough” take.
- Tell yourself it’s done, and believe it. (This is the hard part. Maybe even have your engineer start mixing, if that helps.)
- Go back in the studio and sing a few throwaway takes just for the experience. Believe that they are throwaway takes. Focus on the experience of the song. The way you felt when you wrote it, or the way you feel today when you get back inside the lyrics. What matters is the moment, not the result.
- Know that you may or may not get a better overall take. But if you let yourself really believe the takes are throwaway, I guarantee you that you will at least get a more emotional, expressive take.
This article was about bringing out bringing out your emotion in the studio. There is also a previous article on “How Not to Go Mental in the Recording Studio” which talks about how not to get nervous and break under pressure.
Thank you to Mike Narksusook of The Narks for the question, and to Greek composer and musician (and good friend) Panos Kolias for the actual solution.
(c) 2010 Adrienne Osborn