Recording yourself (ugh)

Edited: December 23, 2018, 6:46 PM · So my teacher suggested I record myself playing to help with intonation issues. This made sense, so I found a recording app and tried it. I am working on the second Bach partita, first movement.

:-( :-( :-( It was horrible. I basically wanted to quit right then and there. Not really because of intonation -- I knew where I was having issues and there were no surprises there. But it just sounded awful. The tone was terrible.

Is it true that I sound that bad? Because it doesn't sound like that to my ears when I am playing. Are these apps just crap? Are there better ones? Or do I really suck that much and I just can't hear it when I play?

After this little exercise, I went from practicing pretty consistently an hour a day to barely touching the thing for weeks. Before I looked forward to playing. Now I have to force myself. This just not seem like a positive development.

As a reminder, I returned to playing in May after being off for 38 years. So I have minimal ambitions and mostly just want to enjoy playing. Which I no longer am. I do want to improve, but this does not seem to me to be the way.

Replies (15)

December 23, 2018, 6:55 PM · It will sound very bad I’d you record with a cell phone, that’s for sure.
December 23, 2018, 7:22 PM · Yes, it's really hard to record a violin. That could be part of it. I have a Zoom (I forgot the number, 3 or 4?) that records the sound pretty accurately.

And also, yes, it's really hard to hear yourself recorded when you play Bach. You think you're in tune, then you hear yourself and realize you are not, in fact, in tune at all. Circle all the notes that sound off and start fixing. The notes with no sympathetic vibrations are the ones that our ears sort of skip past, but the recording doesn't lie.

Being strong enough to hear the ugly parts is the only way you'll improve, but it's definitely a punch in the gut. Maybe try fixing things one phrase at a time? Listen, mark mistakes, fix and re-record in small chunks. The gratification is more instant that way.

December 23, 2018, 7:24 PM · It'll only get better :)

Better to know than have your head in the sand.

Edited: December 23, 2018, 7:47 PM · If you can, it helps to at least play farther away from the microphone.

Some of the newer phones have "smart" audio filters that aren't really smart. It may help to experiment with those. My phone's default camcorder filter oversaturates the upper harmonics and makes my viola (whose sound is on the dark side in person) sound like a cheap student violin with steel strings. I get much better results by switching the filter to "Optimized for voice recognition" rather than the default camcorder filter. Your phone may have different filters. If you can't change the audio filter, consider downloading a camera or audio recording app that lets you select other filters.

December 23, 2018, 7:52 PM · My phone is far from fancy. I don't think it has filters. . . I just got a free recording app. I recorded Hilary Hahn as a test and she sounds pretty crappy on it too, so. . .
December 23, 2018, 7:55 PM · I record myself all the time. You learn to ignore the feeling of "oh my god, that sounds like trash" and to start thinking "what did I do wrong and how do I fix it?".

Don't expect much in the way of tone from a cellphone. It will cut out a lot of bass and give you a really dry tone, like if you were playing a solid-body electric no effects.

Edited: December 23, 2018, 8:17 PM · As a returner, I went through the same thing. Newer smart phones actually have fairly good audio capabilities for recording. I typically put the phone a fair distance away so the sound is a bit rounder. Also, play back through good quality headphones.

I think it is fairly human to initially not like the sound we are producing. It takes a while to get use to that aspect. I also believe that listening to your recordings will greatly increase your progress. I think there is a part of our subconscious that will hear, and see, aspects we don't like and after lots of practice and work will somewhat correct itself along with help from your teacher.

You probably already do this, but if not, play the piece super slowly making every note sound its best and do it numerous times eventually increasing speed. I think some of these pieces sound quite beautiful when played very slowly too.

Next chance you get, record your teacher, if it is ok, and compare the sound quality that your recording devise produces.

I can say, once you get through this initial shock and keep working, improvement will happen.

December 23, 2018, 9:32 PM · I'm working on this same problem right now. Can anyone recommend a basic recording app? I don't want or need anything like GarageBand, and my iPhone is too old now to use the current state of the art software that current GarageBand requires anyway.
Edited: December 24, 2018, 5:47 AM · Another vote for recording to push yourself to improve. Keep at it.

In late summer 2018, I finally started getting into digital recording -- with tryouts on two phones -- one flip-phone, one smartphone. The smartphone delivers MP3 files and gives better audio, but the internal microphone doesn't deliver audio quality up to my standards. I will definitely be using an external microphone with an adapter -- I'm looking into the Yeti.

FWIW: Any time I practice or play, I use foam earplugs, L/R, dB factor: -33. I've done this for years. So the playback doesn't sound much different from what I hear while recording. With these plugs, my own playing sounds, to me, more like it's coming from about 10 feet away.

Although intonation was, from the beginning, one of my strong suits, I will never be satisfied. I keep finding things about it to improve or refine, and recording is indispensable for this. Playback also brings more subtle flaws to light -- e.g., 1) don't give the end of the long up-bow a shove; 2) ease up on vibrato at end of last note -- the low D.

At present, I find recording and playback the next-best thing to having a teacher.

Edited: December 23, 2018, 10:25 PM · Oh yes, playback matters too. When I record on my phone, it always sounds awful when played back on my phone, but it sounds significantly better when I play it back on a computer. Even a laptop computer's built-in speakers, while far from ideal, are a big improvement from any phone.
December 23, 2018, 11:33 PM · ”… it sounds significantly better when I play it back on a computer.”

Yes -- playing back on a computer is definitely the way to go. I should have mentioned earlier that I play back through my desktop system, which has high-quality detached stereo speakers. This way, I can definitely hear the potential in these tryout sessions. With a few refinements and an external microphone, it shouldn't be long before I can upload a few audio tracks to YouTube.

Edited: December 24, 2018, 1:51 AM · Just to mention it: I don't like my voice either when it is recorded. And I know for a fact that this is true for basically everybody. So this should also put things in perspective just a little bit.

I have never really worked with recordings as a practice device. I used to have recordings of some of the performances of my youth, but I lost some of the tapes/cassettes and now I don't have any player to play them anyway. Back then I found that I liked them better with some distance rather than right after the performance. One tends to focus on one's errors if one listens right after recording. With more distance it is more the overall impression that dominates (one listens more like an audience than like someone judging an audition).

I'd say: If it gets you down to the point of making it hard to practice at all: Forget about recording yourself, at least for now. If you have the chance have someone record you with a piece that you have well prepared or even better together with a pianist or a duo partner. I found that manipulating the recording equipment and then playing makes me play very far from my best; I know before listening that it is bad (which explains why I don't do it).

December 24, 2018, 3:53 AM · Don't take it too personally: I'm actually a pretty decent player but I consistently sound bad in recordings unless I throw in some extras like reverb.
Edited: December 24, 2018, 11:12 AM · "ugh" should be one's proper response to hearing one's first recording!

Try to listen past any short-comings the audio equipment and play-back may have – which it almost certainly will have unless you're in a professional recording setting.

December 24, 2018, 12:57 PM · Elizabeth - I went through exactly the same process and maybe your's is similar to mine. At least for me it was more than just a bad recording (see below) but maybe this can be helpful.

After over 40 years off the violin I picked it up and fell in love. Then I played everything in sight and was very pleased that I seemed to have forgotten so little. I played pretty well - bowing was good and intonation was great. However, I couldn't get anyone to really listen. Then in order to get into a summer program I recorded myself using a reasonable camera. It was such a shock - it was DREADFUL! At first I blamed the camera but oddly I had the same result with my cell phone and also with a quite good hand-held recorder with condenser microphones. I was forced to face the fact that actually I played awfully.

After some thought I realized why. I realized that there were actually two violins playing - there is the one with the sound coming out of the instrument but then there is a second one, and that was the one in my head. The latter played wonderfully - but totally ignored the one coming out of the violin. May sound odd but I simply was not listening to my own output. I proved this rather nicely by positioning a microphone at some distance away and listening to to the recorded playing with headphones. I was as much as a tone out of tune!

It took several years to get myself to actually listen to the sound I was playing and now, after 10 years I am actually getting compliments on my tonality.

As said, this may not be the case for you but perhaps you have some similarities.

By the way, one problem with recording with most devices is that they are designed to optimize the volume of the recording, not to capture dynamics. Thus, when you play quietly they amplify and when you play loud they tone it down. You have to get a recorder (the Zoom series are pretty good with good microphones and video) that allows you to turn this feature off if you want to hear your expression.

Good luck - by all means email if you want to talk more.

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