The “Concert Hall of One:” why do I sound different on a recording?

The “Concert Hall of One:” why do I sound different on a recording?

Were you ever shocked when you heard a recording of yourself? Was your reaction, “I don’t sound like that”? I can bet that it was not the recording equipment. “The Concert Hall of One” was my teacher David Blair McClosky’s term for the way we hear ourselves when speaking or singing. The rest of the world hears us differently. Why is this so?

The sound of your voice reaches your inner ear in two ways. Sound conducted by air enters the auditory canal of the ear and impacts the eardrum, which transmits the sound down the middle ear and finally into the inner ear. Sound conducted by bone travels through the medium of bone and body tissue directly to the cochlea in the inner ear. You hear your own voice by both types of transmission of the sound (from the air and through the bone). The rest of the world hears only the sound coming through the air. No other musician has this challenge, because they hear their instrument just as the audience does, through the air.

To get a better sense of this difference, block your ears and sing normally. You will hear primarily bone-conducted sound. Generally this bone-conducted sound is perceived as deeper and rounder. However, when you unstop your ears and sing, you hear the sound that has traveled through the air as well as bone-conducted sound. When you hear your own voice via a recording, however, the bone conduction signal is no longer important. That is what the rest of the world hears.

If you are trying to sing for the public, for money or not, you cannot sing for the “Concert Hall of One;” you must sing the sounds that sound best to the rest of the world. As singers, we need to learn how the voice that sounds best to the world sounds and feels to us, and how to reproduce that sound, through sensation, adjusting how we hear ourselves, or both. This is one of the main reasons that even high-level professional singers often continue to work with teachers or coaches whose ears they trust.

The Solution: Record yourself! Fortunately, in this age of technology, most of us have very easy access to recording through our phones. As a voice teacher I recommend that students record their lessons. I also recommend that singers record practice sessions occasionally. The smart phone is good enough to record. However, the speakers on phones aren’t very good. You should play back your recording on a dock or with speakers, to get a more accurate sense of your vocal quality. I personally do not feel that headphones give a true enough sound, I like speakers so I can hear my recording in a room.

While a student and as a young professional I hated to hear recordings of myself, usually they had been made in performance. I was always dissatisfied with the recording and noticed many things I could have fixed. At some point I started to record myself several weeks before the performance, then listen critically to the recording, making notes in my music, and correcting what I didn’t like over the next few weeks. It was a steep learning curve, very humbling, and yet, I must admit, very productive. Soon I didn’t mind listening to the recordings of my own performances!

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