Live Vibe in the Studio for Solo Performers

A lot has been written about getting a live vibe when your band is in the studio: Don’t isolate so much, let a little leakage get through, and the like. But what if you’re working solo in the studio, and don’t have others to provide that all-important feedback and interaction? There’s no reason why solo recordings have to sound studied or overly-deliberate, as long as you get your attitude in the right place. We’ll analyze what makes live performance special, then translate that into the world of solo work in the studio.
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A lot has been written about getting a live vibe when your band is in the studio: Don’t isolate so much, let a little leakage get through, and the like. But what if you’re working solo in the studio, and don’t have others to provide that all-important feedback and interaction?

There’s no reason why solo recordings have to sound studied or overly-deliberate, as long as you get your attitude in the right place. We’ll analyze what makes live performance special, then translate that into the world of solo work in the studio.

PART I: THE PHYSICAL ASPECTS

MOVEMENT AND PHYSICALITY
When you play live, you can move around, dance to the beat, and generally let the music take you where it wants. And let’s face it — recording in a control room, especially a cramped one, works against that feeling of freedom. Solo artists often think they don’t need a conventional studio space, but I disagree; something happens when you cross over that line, or go though that doorway, that separates the control room from an open studio space.

But, you say, how can I control my gear when I’m far away and there’s no engineer? Simple: Use something like the Frontier Design Tranzport wireless controller (Figure 1), the M-Audio MidAir wireless MIDI keyboard, or a control surface (even just a regular MIDI keyboard; see Figure 2) with a long extension cable. In fact, a remote may even help you get into more of a performance mode, because you’ll have fewer distractions.

I also recommend using a hand-held mic for anything other than narration; I’ve never felt comfortable singing into a mic on a stand. You can move, breathe, and give emotion to a song because your body can dictate those emotions. Sure, you may get a little extraneous noise, but hopefully it can be edited out — or better yet, just plain masked by all the other tracks in a tune.

Physicality is also something that’s very important for playing guitar. As much as I use amp simulation software, for many types of music a guitarist forms a relationship with the amp . . . not just the sound quality, but the physical relationship between the guitar and the amp, especially with respect to generating feedback and sympathetic vibrations. That ain’t gonna happen in a control room, unless it’s a pretty good size. Don’t have room for a stack of Marshalls? Don’t, uh, fret. There are plenty of small amps around, à la Fender Champ. Put it on a chair, crank it up, and wail.

SETTING UP FOR THE GIG
When you play live, the gear is all set up and ready to go in a pre-configured way. I really like just being able to walk onstage, plug in, and go. That’s a part of the live experience, too: You’re never tweaking in front of a crowd (or at least, I hope not!). You come to the gig fresh and ready to play.

So do the same thing in the studio and have a consistent setup that’s ready to go. When I have a lot of recording coming up, I’ll spend an evening setting everything up, then not record a note until I come back the next day. It makes a big difference when you’re recording to just step in and start playing; you’ll be a lot more spontaneous. (Even back in the analog tape days, I’d always align and bias the recorder not at the beginning of a session, but at the end of the previous session so it would be ready to go.)

LIGHTING
On stage, you have cool lighting: The spots, strobes, steppers, and colors draw you into that performance mind set. So why not take advantage of the same Pavlovian response when you’re in the studio? Colored lights, light ropes, and even a small lighting rig can definitely help put you in that on-stage mood. Another possible advantage is that in a somewhat darker environment, your ears have priority over your eyes.

AUDIENCE FEEDBACK
That’s a tough one, because you’re by yourself. How can you possibly feel like there are people in the room giving you that all-important feedback? The answer is you can’t, but there are some ways you might be able to come a little closer.

I have three techniques. One is that because I’ve played on stage so much, I can imagine that feeling very well; in a sense, it’s like method acting. I know what it’s like to try to project to an audience, and I’ve played in some venues where the lights are bright enough that I can’t really see the audience with any detail . . . but I know they’re there.

Another involves critiques. One of the best things about playing for an audience is you can see when something isn’t working, which may inspire you to try something different to see if you can get back on course. In all the years I’ve played music, two collaborators stand out as being my best “music buddies” and when I create something, I try to step back, be a little objective, and try to listen through their ears and think what they would say in response to what I’m doing.

The final trick I’ll mention at the risk of public embarrassment, but what the hey, I’m among friends. One time on a series of trips where I was going to be gone from home for quite a while, my daughter (3 years old at the time) insisted I take her lucky stuffed animal so nothing bad would happen to me. (Yeah, she’s really sweet!) Anyway, I put it on my hotel room nightstand, unpacked, got out my computer, opened up Live, and started practicing an arrangement. For some reason, it just wasn’t flowing, but there was this stuffed tiger staring at me . . . so I started playing to the tiger. I found that having something — anything — that could serve as focus was actually very helpful.

Since then, I’ve rehearsed music and seminars to people on magazine covers, print ads, and even that ghastly picture of Conrad Hilton on the “Be My Guest” book they put in the room at Hilton Hotels. Think I’m certifiable? Just try it, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not so much the physical object that matters, it’s having something concrete on which you can focus your attention other than four walls and empty space. Hmmm, maybe I should get some of those cardboard party cutouts for my studio. . . .

PART II: THE MENTALITY OF LIVE PERFORMANCE

LIVE VS. STUDIO MENTALITY
The mentality of playing live is very different compared to the mentality in the studio. Live is real time; studio is overdubs and offline. Live, you’re an entertainer; in the studio, you have to consider production as well. And if you make a mistake while playing live, it goes into the ether and is immediately forgotten with the next hot move you make. In the studio, any clam is there forever (well, until you edit it out, of course).

Live is risky; the studio is safe. If you want to get the live edge into your sound, you have to do everything you can to remove the safety net — because really, you can always click on “delete” anyway.

But there’s one particular circumstance where the reverse can be true, with live being safe and the studio being risky. When you play live, those tunes have been rehearsed. You pretty much know how a song is going to unfold, even if it’s largely improvisational in nature. As a result, part of the magic of capturing a live sound in the studio is you can take something you’ve learned by heart, and stretch out knowing that you can always cut and paste your way out of any problems.

If you work songs out in the studio, though, there’s a certain level of risk because the song might change over time, thus rendering your initial tracks obsolete. For that reason, I take a slightly different view of the studio: It’s not just a place to record, but a place to do pre-production . . . let me explain.

Many times, I’ll write in the studio and hone a song. I’ll overdub lyrics, cut and paste, work out parts, and the like. Often, though, the end result is a bit of a Frankenstein of a song: The individual components seem to work okay, but put them all together, and things don’t quite mesh. At that point, I consider what I’ve done as pre-production and re-record the song from scratch — I literally don’t save even one measure from one track. In a way, this is almost like taking a song on the road and playing it for a while; when you re-cut, the song has a much more coherent “vibe” because you’ve learned it.

DON’T HIT THE DEFAULT BUTTON
Another aspect of the live performance mentality is spontaneity. Look at hot jazz players, or the Grateful Dead for that matter, and you’ll see they’re not afraid to go out on tangents. How many times have you been playing live and changed a solo around, altered a melody line, or otherwise took off in a different direction?

The studio tends to conspire against that, especially today — where everything has presets and normalized connections. One reason why records were arguably more “creative” in the ’60s was because sessions often started from scratch, because there was a revolving door of acts doing blocks of time . . . you didn’t want the same setup as the previous group. As a result, each session was a blank slate.

It’s more important than ever to try to keep that sense of discovery and spontaneity in the studio. Do you have a favorite vocal mic and preamp combination? Try the one you use with your hi-hat instead. Are you totally enamored of a particular synth patch? Forget it exists . . . maybe even play the part on guitar instead. Sounds can lead you in different directions, just as surely as audience reactions can.

PART III:

GOT LIVE, IF YOU WANT IT
If I was told I could never play live again or never play in the studio again, I’d (very reluctantly) stick with playing live. There’s nothing like the feeling when you get on stage not knowing what’s going to happen, then get off later having created some real musical magic. Granted, it isn’t always that way; there are also the times when your string breaks, the guy who had too much ecstasy collapses in front of the stage, you’re just not “on,” or the power amp blows out. But that’s what makes it interesting! It’s fun to live on the edge because when it works, it works so well. If you play things too safe, you may never blow it completely — but you also may never hit those intensely satisfying heights.

Take that live mentality into the studio as much as you can: You won’t regret it.