Nervous recording vocals? 9 tips to reduce red-light fever


Photo of a microphone and pop shield in a recording studio with a red background

Nervousness and anxiety are very common when going into the recording studio, particularly when recording vocals. Usually you can sing well, but as soon as that recording button is pressed you forget everything about how to sing, the song you are supposed to be singing, the melody, even how to breathe properly.

This article contains nine tips which hopefully can help in combating the so called “red light fever” when it comes to recording vocals.

If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.

1 Practice recording

Just like singing, just like performing in front of an audience, recording is a skill. And like any other skill, you cannot expect to just be naturally good at it. If you want to get good at recording, then you have to practice it.

Fortunately, this is very easy to begin doing. There are many options available that you can use to record your singing. Your phone will have an audio recording app on it, with many more available to download from its app store. There are handheld digital audio recorders available for less than $100. If you have a computer, an audio interface and a microphone you can download the free program Audacity to use to record.

You do not need an expensive microphone. A bog-standard Shure SM58 dynamic microphone will do great (check out this article on why the SM58 is a great recording mic). If you sing live you may already have one of these. If not, you can usually pick one up for around $100.

Presumably if you are a singer, then you practice singing at home. All you have to do is incorporate recording yourself into your practice routine.

Practice getting used to the feeling of pressing record before singing. Knowing that you are being recorded changes the way you feel, and while this may seem trivial, it can have a profound effect on the way you sing. The more you practice this, the more you will get used to the feeling and be able to give your best performance, despite the added pressure of knowing you are being recorded.

Don’t just record though – make sure you listen back to the recordings. No-one sounds like they sound in their head on a recording. Many people are shocked when they first hear their recorded voice; it’s best to not do this for the first time in your first proper recording session!

Get used to the sound of your recorded voice by listening back to your practice sessions. Use these recordings as feedback on your singing, and work on improving based on what you hear. You may well hear things on the recording that you don’t hear in your head. This will help you to adjust your performances to get the best recording you possibly can.

2 Create a home recording studio

The recording studio environment can be incredibly intimidating, especially when experiencing it for the first time. The unnerving effect of this can be reduced by creating a similar environment in your own home and practicing recording in it.

Fortunately, similar equipment to that used in professional recording studios is available to us today for relatively little money. You can create a basic home recording setup without a great deal of space; all you really need is a laptop, audio interface, microphone and mic stand. A bedroom, study or spare room will be more than adequate.

For more information check out this article on recording vocals in a small room. You’ll find tips and tricks in there to help you get the very best sound out of your recording room, however small it is.

Create a “vocal booth” like you would have in a pro studio. This doesn’t have to be an actual booth – at a minimum it could just be a microphone and a mic stand set up somewhere, with a pair of headphones to wear. Practice singing in this space; you don’t even have to plug the microphone or headphones in. Just using this environment to practice singing in should go some way to getting you used to performing in a studio set-up.

The next stage on from this is using the same setup, actually record like you would do in a studio. Get a DAW installed on your computer, and connect up the microphone, audio interface and headphones. Use the DAW to record your part, using the microphone set up in your “vocal booth”.

This includes using a “pop-filter” in front of the microphone. To learn more, check out this article on when you need to use a pop filter for more information on using this essential studio tool.

Practice doing multiple takes of a vocal part, as is usually done in real recording sessions. You can also try “comping” – taking the best bits of each take and creating one “best” take. The days of having to produce one perfect take are gone; it helps to develop the attitude that a take does not have to be flawless, to reduce the pressure on yourself.

For more details on the different approaches to single and multiple takes, check out my article titled “Should you record vocals in one take“? You’ll learn the different approaches to vocal takes, the pros and cons of each, and how to decide the best way of working for you.

You can also use your DAW to add reverb, compression and maybe some EQ, just like would be added to your voice in a recording studio. This lets you get used to the sound of your voice as it is likely to end up on an actual studio recording. This can also help with the extremely common feeling of disliking the sound of your recorded voice – everyone sounds better with a bit of reverb!

3 Be prepared

Going into a recording session when you are inadequately prepared is a certain way for your nervousness, anxiety and stress levels to absolutely sky rocket!

So spend the days and weeks before your session learning your parts inside out. There’s an old musician’s saying – “Don’t practice until you get it right; practice until you can’t get it wrong”. It’s a bit over-the-top as even the best musicians still make mistakes, but the point it makes is a good one. Know your material thoroughly.

The day before your recording session, look after yourself. Do not go out on the lash the night before! Avoid alcohol and caffeine if you can. Drink plenty of water and get a good night’s sleep. Try to rest your voice, and do your best to relax.

Make sure you arrive on time for your session, preferably a little bit early. It might be worth taking some of your drink of choice into the session, so you know you’ll have it handy. Decaffeinated tea, peppermint tea, honey and lemon water are all popular drinks with singers.

4 Do not worry about being perfect

The temptation to aim for that perfect take is a difficult one to resist. But this is a recipe for frustration, anxiety and a lot of wasted time.

One of my favorite sayings is “Perfect is the enemy of good”. If you are always trying to be perfect, then it is extremely likely that you will never get there. You will always be aiming for an unachievable goal.

Make mistakes! If you ask any musician who has had a hit record to critique their own song, they will very likely be able to point out lots of things that they think is “wrong” with it. But they released it anyway, because they deemed it good enough.

Don’t think I’m telling you to be happy with shoddy work here – I am most certainly not. But aim for a good session, and if there are a few minor things that you’re not completely happy with just let them go.

I know that this mindset shift can be hard to make. Try to stay positive. Smile! Don’t take yourself too seriously and stay light-hearted. This will make for a convivial atmosphere, and a pleasant environment to work in.

Remember that contrary to what you might believe, the recording engineer is not expecting perfection. They will be used to people being nervous and making mistakes. Even the very best make mistakes, because they are still human. And always have in your mind that multiple takes can be stitched together, taking the very best bits from each.

Takes can always be touched up with a little editing or adding effects once they have been recorded. Autotune is a very common tool used to do this, although it should always be used with caution as it can destroy all the emotion in a performance. I recommend reading these articles on autotune for ideas on how best to use it well in different musical scenarios…

5 Create an atmosphere

It’s easy to get into the performance mindset when up on stage in front of an enthusiastic audience. You can feed off that energy and pump yourself up to sing your heart out when you’ve got that immediate and in-your-face feedback.

It’s not so easy in the sometimes sterile environment of a recording studio. So it can be worth trying different ways to create an atmosphere artificially.

This may be by using lighting – dimming the lights, maybe using candles or lava lamps. This can work very well if your song is relaxed or melancholy. Breathing exercises can work well. If the song is more upbeat, try listening to some of you favorite energetic music before you record. Maybe even try things like shadow boxing, or positive self-talk such as shouting “come on!” to yourself.

Other things to try….

  • Visualizations – think of and visualize scenes appropriate to the song you are recording
  • Look at photos – e.g. if your song is a love song, a photo of a loved one from a special occasion can help put you in the right mood
  • Watch videos – anything you find inspiring; drone footage of beautiful scenery, motivational speeches, a favorite sports team’s victory, etc.

The important thing is to find what works for you, whether that’s to relax you or to get you pumped up.

Don’t be afraid to move when you are actually singing – we don’t just express emotions with our faces and voices. Dance if you want to! I love to use my hands a lot while singing. Use your body to get into the mood of the song. Getting your body moving with the song will help your voice get into it as well.

If you are reading the above thinking that’s just so embarrassing and you could never do any of that, don’t be concerned. The recording engineer will have seen it all before. They will probably be able to tell you a few stories about weird things singers have done to psyche themselves up in the studio, that you would never even have dreamed of.

6 Get comfortable in the environment

Closely related to the previous tip, is to make sure you are comfortable in the studio environment. It matters how you feel! You will give a better performance if you are comfortable, and don’t have any nagging issues in the back of your mind. This includes both physical and mental considerations.

For example, if your headphones are uncomfortable, ask for a different pair or for them to be adjusted. Maybe you would like more or less of a particular instrument in the mix; this will be very easy for the engineer to do. Perhaps you need a drink – don’t be afraid to ask. Not getting along with the microphone? Ask if there’s a different one you can use.

You also need to be in a comfortable position to sing your best. My article on sitting and standing positions for vocal recording compares the pros and cons of both, and helps you decide on the best option for you. Try out the suggestions in the article before going into the studio to record.

Remember, it is in the interest of the recording engineer for you to be comfortable. Just be polite, and not diva-ish or demanding. You are likely to find the studio staff to be accommodating, and if you are friendly and polite you are likely to be treated the same way in return.

7 Have only people you want there

Sometimes it can be tempting to have everyone and his dog in the recording studio. Friends, family, band members, band members’ boyfriends and girlfriends, some guy who just wandered in off the street because he heard the noise…

Maybe you like that, and having that sort of pseudo-audience brings the best out of you. I would hate it! I like to have just the people who need to be there in the studio, and no-one else. I would find it very intimidating to have to try and perform vocal takes with either the critical eyes of those people watching, or their background chatter putting me off.

Don’t be afraid to ask people to leave who are not conducive to you putting in a good performance. If you’re shy like me, you can ask the recording engineer or a member of the studio staff to ask people to leave. Again, this is something they will be used to.

If it helps to have someone you trust in the studio though, then bring them along. This may be a trusted friend, fellow musician or the writer of the song you are singing. They may act as a coach, or just as moral support and encouragement.

Related to tip one, if you do have a trusted friend it can be useful to practice recording your singing with them present. This lets you get used to singing in front of a small number of people in a similar environment. It can help to lessen the shock of having to perform in front of one or two people close-up and intensely studying what you are doing.

8 Record a “scratch” vocal

It can be a useful tactic to record a rough or “scratch” vocal for your very first take. This is where you don’t worry about your performance, getting it just right or any finer details. You just record your singing in one take. You can then use that take as a “guide” vocal i.e. something for you to sing to when you go on to record your “proper” takes.

This is more of an attitude thing than anything else. Because you know this is just a rough go that isn’t going to end up on the actual finished song, it immediately releases the pressure. That intimidating first take is no longer so intimidating. You can think of it as a practice go, with an actual useful outcome in that it gives you a guide track to sing to on subsequent takes.

9 Enjoy it!

Finally, remember to enjoy the process.

Try to appreciate the privileged position you are in. You get to sing in a recording studio, maybe a song you have written yourself. You may be fulfilling a dream you’ve always had by doing this, or emulating your heroes.

I know this is easier said than done, but take a few deep breaths and try to be mindful of what you are doing. Relatively few people get to do what you are doing, and it’s worth taking the time to appreciate it and the environment you are in.

Because let’s face it; whether it’s a professional studio or just your own home setup, recording your singing in a recording studio is just cool.

Here is some of my favorite home studio gear

Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.

Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.

Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.

Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.

General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.

To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!

How to learn a DAW quickly
How to learn a DAW quickly

Paul Douglas

Paul is the owner of Home Music Creator. He plays the piano and the guitar, and sings in a just-about-adequate manner. He has been writing and recording music in his home studio for over 20 years.

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