Adam Rafferty – Guitar and Spirit

All about music, guitar, spirituality, personal development and being happy

7 Tips for Making a Great Fingertsyle Guitar Recording (and…it’s not about the equipment!)

9 Comments

I just had the pleasure of spending some time in my home studio recording a few solo tunes.

During the past few days I have experienced the range of emotions from elation to frustration, mainly with my own guitar playing.

I’d like to share some insights with you. The following applies to do-it-yourself home recordings as well as sessions where you go to a pro studio.

(Please comment post any info you think may be useful below.)

There are a million options for software, microphones, interfaces, pre amps, guitars.

While It’s fun to jabber about gear, but the truth is that  only YOU, the musician, can make your guitar and gear sound good. You are  the front of the “signal chain”, the source of the music.

So…Here are 7 Tips That Will Help You With a Fingerstyle Guitar Recording….(I hope!)

1. Go In to a Session With an Open Attitude

It’s VERY good to go in to the studio….

  • not knowing how it’s going to turn out
  • realizing you may find some weak spots you didn’t know you had
  • going in with an attitude of discovery and exploration
  • willingness to say “I may have to record it again another day”
  • willingness to get less done than you thought you could

You will set yourself up for frustration if you think

  • it’s going to come out perfect
  • it has to be perfect
  • you have to finish it today

Know that in the studio, you will have some “awakenings”, simply because you are hearing yourself back, maybe for the first time.  It’s always a shock!

Hearing yourself on playback is a totally different experience than “playing.” Playing is fun.  Listening back can be downright painful.

2. Practice The Music Beforehand

What’s going to make your music sound great is your expression and the spirit in the playing. Your touch, tone, time technique, groove and good taste are what the focus should be.

If you are still trying to play the music and barely “cutting” it, you need to have practiced more ahead of time.

You want to be operating as much “right brain” musical intuition in the studio as much as possible, rather than “left brain” analytical, running damage control.

The distractions of fatigue, concentration and the new environment ail wear on you, so you at least have to have the “notes under your fingers”  as best as you can.  Being prepared is your best weapon!

If you are paying a studio, that’s even more of a reason to be prepared. It can be a source of stress when the clock ticks…you fall back into the trap of “it has to get done today” and then the music suffers.

3. Play through full takes

It’s easy to end up in an endless loop of false takes.   You start playing, make a mistake, and then stop.  Then you do that again and again.

As you make more mistakes, you spiral downward until you practically make a meditation out of it. 🙂

That means

  • you need a break to rest
  • you need to just bust through and play a full take, accepting your mistakes

Try to discipline yourself and play through the mistakes, so that you get full “takes.”  Solo guitar botches can be fixed easily in your editing software.

A full take of a song has a breath of life, whereas too many fragments pasted together in the edit room sound like a Frankenstein and never have the feel of a full take.

And…often what we feel was a bad take can sound pretty good a few days later!

4.  If you make a mistake that you know will need a fix

  • Stop playing but keep your groove, maybe by patting your foot.
  • Go back a few measures before the mistake and play through the spot again, with enough lead time.
  • Maintain your groove, touch and tone as you play forward.
  • Later on you’ll find a good edit point, so play confidently.

I know I’ll never get the same sound if I get out of the flow. The groove, touch and tone will sound different. Especially if I get out of my chair after a take, I may not sit at the same distance from the mics.

That’s why I hang on to the presence in my touch and tone, and re-play, mid tune.  As far as edits it’s easy enough to find a “splice”  point and cut out the small extra “overlap.”

5. Practice With The Groove in Mind That You Will Use For The Recording

Long before you get in the studio try to know exactly the groove you have in mind for a song.

Be able to sing the drum part to your tune as a count off when you record. Here’s why…

When people listen to your recording they hear:

  • your tone
  • your groove
  • your expression

When you listen back see if:

  • you are tapping your foot
  • you are smiling when you hear the playback
  • the melody is clear
  • the bass is clear

No one cares about speed (except guitarists!)

The experience you want on hearing yourself playback is that you are not listening to the “guitar” but that you are listening to “the music.”

“Pocket” is the ultimate ruler, even for ballads, classical and thumb picking.

When the Groove is Internally Unclear, Here’s What Can Happen…

Yesterday I recorded an original “boom-chick” thumb picking tune.  I was shocked on playback at the groove rushing, and a wobbly feeling in the time.

I was not smiling or happy at all, and bugged at myself.  It sucked!  Why?

Aha!  Here was the problem – I had not made up my mind what the drum beat was.

Was I strong on 1 & 3 or 2 & 4? Was it swing, was it straight?  I was vague with the underlying feel and the music had no backbone, even though the technique was fine.

(The beauty of a home studio is that I did not pay hundreds of dollars to learn  this lesson!)

After the session I practiced slowly with even more emphasis on rhythm only. Today in the studio the groove was way better. I listened back and the groove was thumping!

Victory!

6.  Take Breaks While You Record So You Don’t Fatigue

If you are alone in the studio, make yourself take breaks.  Sometimes I catch myself just doing “one more take”  and the quality of my mental, physical and emotional powers starts to decline.

Working with someone else is good in this regard, they can tell you to take a break!

A 15 minute break refreshes the mind and relaxes the body.  You’ll actually get better music out of yourself the whole day long if you pace yourself.

Drink enough water too, rather than endless coffee!

7.  Set up an Inexpensive Home Studio

Even if you plan to record a CD in a professional studio, I recommend doing a demo version of each song at home. You’ll hear the weak spots in your own playing for free (almost)  instead of being charged per hour.

By going through the roller coaster of experiences recording yourself, you will  be better off in a studio situation.  It’s all about becoming familiar with the environment.

(I will update you soon regarding my simple studio gear…I’d rather have this post be about the music prep work needed before you even use your gear!)

In Conclusion

Theres a lot of work we can do ahead of time to make a fingerstyle recording session go well. Remember to be…

  • prepared by practicing enough
  • open to new ideas and whatever may happen
  • kind to yourself rather than punish yourself mentally

And know that YOU are the front of the signal chain, regardless of your gear!

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Author: Adam Rafferty

Adam Rafferty. Fingerstyle Guitarist. Recording and Concert Artist. Meditator. Philosopher. Lover of Groove.

9 thoughts on “7 Tips for Making a Great Fingertsyle Guitar Recording (and…it’s not about the equipment!)

  1. That’s all really great advice, Adam. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
    Here’s a suggestion I have for people recording themselves in a home studio…
    The biggest difficulty that you face is coming to terms with being the recording engineer, the performer, and the producer.
    Try separating these roles by doing the following:
    First, put on your recording engineer hat, and spend time setting up mics, preamps, and doing some test recordings to get the levels right. (Give yourself plenty of head room)
    Take your time, and experiment. You’re not trying to get any takes at this stage, just getting to the point where you like the sound, and don’t have to think about the equipment, or recording levels.
    When you are happy and comfortable with this, then move on to being the performer… Perhaps the next day.
    You want to be fresh, and not have any concerns about the equipment or the levels – that should have all been taken care of in the previous step.
    You, as the performer: play and have fun! Don’t review each take, just play multiple complete takes and experiment with tempos, try varying the feel slightly, and have fun doing it… This is why you have a home studio, isn’t it?
    Give yourself a good break before this next step: now you’re going to put on your producer hat, and review all the recordings that you have made. What you are listening for is: have you captured a feeling, or an emotion? You have to be honest with yourself. (Hint: sometimes a non-musical person is a better judge of this!)
    It’s often easier to decide this once you’ve had a couple of days break between the recording and the reviewing.
    As Adam pointed out; small glitches, mistakes, buzzy notes etc are easy to correct in any DAW, but if the feeling isn’t right, no amount of editing, or a plug-in, is going to help!

    Hope this helps…

  2. Michael

    I thought of this exact advice you gave me on the road.

    I am not as mature as you 🙂 I’m like a kid who wants to open his gifts on Christmas….so I usually go looking for a take I like, just for kicks after the day is done. No major decisions made here though.

    I will review all the takes, just to be a good student.

    Yes, running in the background was this basic idea you gave – the 3 types of days.

    1) tech day
    2) play day
    3) review day

    On another note, I am digging the Maton for recording, using 3 mics (an xy pair and another on the body) and adding beef with the DI. Trying to have all mics same distance to avoid phase issues.

    The DI helps clean up the sound – any bg noise in the mics (dogs, cars, raindrops) is lessened as I blend the DI in, even just a tad.

    I am surprised and happy to say the stuff is sounding pretty good!

    Hey, can we turn your last comment into a full post on my blog? Is that ok by you?

    Adam

    • sure, adam, go right ahead!
      re your mic technique- exact same as I use, except my mono mic, I place at the 15th fret. The DI line is especially juicy with the new ap5 pro system, too!

  3. Thank you Adam, great post – again, again 🙂

    I’d like to add my few cents with short description of my own studio and live routine.

    Awareness about your mental and physical state before every playing session can minimize your faults and let your natural vibe carry you all the way through the recording. 10-15 sec before starting playing your take do the following.

    Shift your inner focus from the guitar and fingers towards the top of your belly just below the navel. Imagine yourself centered there, sense the weight of your shoulders, let them fall all the way down till they hang. Find point of balance for your head moving it slightly back and forth. It will help release the tension in the belly region. It will let you breathing flow natural and easy. Sense the floor fully with both feet.

    This will do miracles both for your studio job and your life appearance. But start practicing this daily long before the job. So these routines will be natural for you – and not analytic. There’s no place for thinking in this routine – only sensing your body.

    Hope this helps 😉

    Respectfully
    Misha Sakharoff

  4. Great ideas Misha- anything that helps focus on breathing is good.

  5. Misha, thanks. Michael, a mono mic is all one needs? Maybe I need to simplify!

  6. This is great advice.

    Luckily for me the few experiences I have doing solo recordings have been at a friend’s home studio for free. The problem I had the most was (and maybe you can relate to this) no matter how much I had practiced the tune I was going to record, as soon as the “light” went on and we were recording, I would almost inevitably make some sort of mistake; it almost never failed.

    Eventually it would get better (once I became more relaxed and used to where the mic was placed, etc.) but, it was almost like I would set myself up for it by thinking that something was going to go wrong and, of course, it would. Now I know enough about positive thinking to understand that by thinking that something was going to go wrong, ultimately I am setting myself up for it. How can I get past this?

    You know what you are playing (have it memorized) but, still you might psych yourself out and it takes a lot longer than it should. Maybe I am thinking too much along the lines of “this HAS to get done today because I am sick of playing it!” Once the light is off and there is no pressure of recording however, I have NO PROBLEM playing it!

    I often record a lot of things on my Iphone now to get a basic idea of what something will sound like. Since I like to improvise and compose my own tunes (jazz or otherwise), some of my best ideas will be without it being recorded. Once I try to create that vibe and record what I just improvised it can be a challenge. I wonder if that is because the generally spontaneity that created the first initial idea is lost?

    The best gigs for me (solo especially) are when I am creating the setlist in my head as I go along. I know enough tunes that I can get through a 3 hour restaurant gig without having to read a chart. When I am in the zone this often happens and I can seem to flow from one tune to the next without having to think about it.

  7. Hi Michael, Adam – Bernd here 😀 !
    you dudes put in words I was looking for! Thanks a lot and continue talking about essentials in blogs like this! I love to follow your instructions knowing both of you far away on one hand but kinda besides me in my mind. I am very happy to have friends like you are. CU soon (Adam: exact 100 days to go from today 😀 !) Cheers Bernd

  8. Sorry – cheers to Misha and Chris too 😉

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