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Do I Really Sound Like That?

Hello Troubadourians! How many of you have ever recorded yourself playing or singing (or both)? If you haven’t, you should. It is an eye-opening experience. The first time you hear your voice on a recording, it sounds like a completely different person. Who is that? That can’t be me…can it? Likewise, when you hear a recording of your playing for the first time, most people can’t believe how bad they sound. Every flaw, every misplaced finger, every out-of-time note or chord is seemingly amplified and exposed. Oh, man, am I really that bad? Well, yeah, you are. As they say, “Tapes don’t lie.” For most of us, if we’re lucky, this horror show happens early on in our learning to play and we do get better. But for others, when we finally hear a recording of ourselves, it reveals all of the things in our playing that we ignore or just don’t hear. For some people, it is so traumatic that they swear never to get anywhere near a recording device again. But for others—and hopefully this includes you—it is a wake-up call to clean up your playing and get better. I experienced both of the above scenarios when I was just starting out. I recorded my voice and guitar on a cheap cassette recorder just to see how it worked. When I played it back, I was completely embarrassed at how bad my playing was and how weird my voice sounded. After the initial shock wore off, I found that I could use how different my voice sounded to my advantage. I would write mini plays along the lines of Cheech and Chong and alter my voice to play all the characters. That was the fun part. To fix my playing, I had to completely alter my practice and study method and habit with a lot of help from my guitar teacher, Marty Stuart, whom I’ve mentioned before. He was an old-school jazz player who probably forgot more about the guitar than a lot of people ever know. When I started taking lessons from him, he asked if I had any recordings of my playing. I almost said no, but I brought my awful cassette tape and played it for him. There was only one song on the tape—a crude version of “Dueling Banjos” where I attempted to play both parts—and I was sure he was going to throw me out of his studio… When it finished, he asked, “You played both parts?” I said, “Yes.” “That’s not easy to do. Your timing was very good waiting between parts before playing the other one.

Most people run everything together.” I was so happy that he didn’t say how bad I sounded and that he didn’t embarrass me. I figured he was just being nice. But that wasn’t the case at all…

What was true was that the recording, crude as it was, showed parts of my playing that I had no idea what to listen for. Marty was listening for things at an entirely different level than I was. All I heard was that it didn’t sound like I expected… like the way I heard it in my head when I was recording it. Marty was listening for structure and technique, timing and tempo. The relative quality—or lack thereof—wasn’t even part of his thinking. What was important was how well I was making music according to “the rules” as they were generally understood. In that aspect I was spot-on. And, since he wasn’t in my head, he had no idea what my expectations were. He just listened to the music and evaluated it on its own merit. That was a huge lesson for me, one I didn’t fully comprehend at the time, but I knew instinctively that I needed to listen differently if I was ever going to “get good” as a player.

From that point on I practiced, listening differently to my playing. Sure, I had an idea of what I wanted to sound like when I played, but now I was listening to what I was doing, not what I was thinking I was doing. That sounds simple but there is a huge difference between those two things. Now, when I go into the studio to record, I can listen to the track and what I’m doing objectively and that helps me play the part that works. I hear the structure, and technique, timing and tempo for both the existing track and what I’m adding to the overall song. This, of course, translates to live playing with a band or just other musicians. You must be able to hear what they’re playing so that you can play what fits. It really is much harder than it seems. This is especially true when you are attempting to play and record your own original music. Learning and playing a cover song requires that you learn you part and assumes that everyone else does the same. But how many times have you heard a cover band play a song that didn’t resemble the original in any way? I’ll bet everyone thought they were playing their part correctly and yet the song didn’t work. Imagine how difficult it must be to play original music where there is no guide other than yours or someone’s idea of what it should sound like. If the musicians haven’t learned to listen to what is actually being played rather than listening to what they think is being played, there is no hope for cohesiveness or high-quality music. That may seem harsh but if you as a performer or as a band ever expect to “get good” then you must be willing to be you own worst critic and learn to listen for and hear what is really being played.

But I started this column with how different we think we sound when we hear our recorded voice for the first time. I believe that when you hear yourself often enough, you begin to hear differently. There are parts of our voices that are naturally filtered out in our heads. If we hear our actual voices often enough, we can learn to un-filter what we hear, and the sound of our voice becomes more normalized in both recorded and normal situations. At least that’s how its gone for me. Hand in hand with listening to what my playing actually sounds like, I learned to hear what my voice actually sounds like. It’s a shame that I sound like Wilford Brimley “lite”…

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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