A Case for Recording Your Songs Live (or Close To It)

recording your songs live
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recording your songs live
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Photo credit: Ben Collins

Theo Katzman is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, solo artist, and member of the funk band Vulfpeck. And he recorded the songs on his album Be The Wheel live, all one takes, with a band, all straight to tape. It’s a bold move, but he has a clear reason for doing it this way.

It’s Not Digital Vs. Analog Recording

In an interview with Ari Herstand (and also in his appearance on the Third Story podcast), Katzman talks about his new approach to recording: doing it live. One takes, right to tape, minimal editing.

He makes it clear that he’s not trying to say analog recording is better than digital recording. It’s deeper than that. It’s about performance.

“I don’t feel religious about the sonics of tape,” he told Herstand. “…What’s much more important is the performance, getting a performance, whether you do it live or not.”

He says if you do record digitally, which most indie artists are, then record a performance of your voice and instrument instead of recording 50 takes and then picking out the best options from each take to comp the final take.

“You don’t even have to put it out,” he said. But do a full take just to see what you get.

“It’s about committing to a performance,” he said.

The Temptation To Edit Into Oblivion

Why might a one-take performance be better than editing together the best parts of many different performances?

Because nowadays, it’s easy to edit your track into oblivion, into humanless perfection.

“Recording digitally with the ability to overdub every part…it can sound incredible…and I’ve made many albums that way,” he said. “But I realized that if the task is documenting the fiercest Theo Katzman, the most vulnerable Theo Katzman, most raw – if that’s the task…there’s only one way we can do that.”

And that’s through an honest, real, sometimes imperfect performance. 

Imperfections Are Human

Showing imperfections is human. It’s authentic.

“When you let [imperfections] be heard,” Katzman said, “The audience has this experience of realizing that you are playing at your edge, and then you’re going beyond it. And that is the most thrilling thing for them.”

Why do imperfections work so well sometimes in recordings?

Because the 2-3 notes that are slightly out of tune remind the artist and the listener that the rest of the notes are totally in tune.

The Reward of Recording Authentically

Katzman says, yeah you could make your recordings perfectly in time, in tune, and super polished. But he also says, what if you record an authentic performance and it resonates with people?

He said making a living in music is ideally a second-hand result of focusing on authentic performance during the recording process.

He wants every musician to engage “in processes that really force us to accept ourselves and hopefully learn to love ourselves.”

“Imagine doing that and then making a living,” he said. “Wow, you’d be kind of like, the happiest person that ever lived. That’s not bad.”

And Herstand pointed out that Katzman’s fans are loyal fans. 

Katzman sells out venues that seat 1,000-3,000 people. He’s built his career deep, not necessarily wide. He doesn’t have crazy high streaming numbers (but make no mistake, they’re still impressive). But he’s doing music as a career because he lets his humanness shine through in his songwriting and recording.

And that resonates with people, people who stick around and support him as an artist.

Tips for Recording Your Performance as a Solo Artist

So how do you capture an authentic performance in a recording? Here are some tips to try if you’re a solo artist recording from home (as most of us are)…

Ask a friend for help

Get a music or engineer friend involved in your recording process. It takes some pressure off of you so you can focus on the performance. This friend has to know the basics of how to use a digital audio workstation (DAW).

Find your BPM

Before you hit record, you have to settle on the BPM of the song. Unless you want to have an extra raw performance and don’t record to a click. But if you’ll be adding other instruments, it’s best to record to a click.

Create a generic drum beat

Create the simplest beat you can. This is just to supplement the click track and help you stick with the beat better.

Play and sing the song

Have your friend hit record. Then play and sing your song the whole way through, even if you mess up. Just keep going. Don’t focus on singing every single note perfectly, just focus on getting into the emotion of the song. Play it like you did when you first wrote it.

Add the other instruments

Once you’ve done a few front-to-back takes of your voice and instrument, now you can add other instruments if you want. But record those instruments with the same mentality. Do just a few one-take performances.

Go easy on the editing

Once everything is recorded, don’t go crazy with Melodyne if you don’t have to. Try to keep the performances of all the instruments intact. Don’t edit away the authenticity you captured.

Because really, you’re trying to get a recording of a human performing a very personal song.

“This is what I’m trying to warn about: it’s gotten too easy to avoid performing,” Katzman said. “…Performing something is the doorway to authenticity.”