How to Record Yourself on Your Phone

Though your usual studio may be closed and you might be socially distancing from your crew, you can still use your phone to record performances, and the internet to share them with the world. Here are some basic tips to make the most of your at-home studio. 

Get a Tripod or a Stand

Unless you have a volunteer camera person in your household, you’ll want a stable tripod or stand, so you don’t have to worry about your phone slipping or wobbling during your performance. And even if you do have a camera person, you’ll get a much steadier shot with some kind of stand. 

Even Better, Get a Ring Light with a Stand

Elizabeth Messick is an executive assistant at “Days of Our Lives” and a magician and musician who performs as “The Siren of Magic.” Before the pandemic, she was a regular performer at private events, The Magic Castle and Black Rabbit Rose. With those things off the table due to COVID-19, she’s turned to performing on video. 

Messick says her best at-home studio purchase was a simple ring light with a built-in phone stand. Now she can light herself perfectly even if the lighting in the room is less than ideal while also scoring a stable shot. These tend to be surprisingly affordable, too. Some come as low as $20, while fancier options scale up to $100. 

Elizabeth Messick poses with a red orb. | Kalie Johnson
Elizabeth Messick, "The Siren of Magic," poses with a red orb. | Kalie Johnson

Think About Pre-Recorded vs. Live

Sometimes, you may want to do a live show for your followers. It can be a simple way to connect with dance, song, a magic trick, spoken word or any other kind of performance. It can also allow for live feedback via comments. You can use Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitch to live stream to anyone around the world, or you can use a platform like Zoom for a more limited experience. 

However, if you mess up or your cat decides to make a cameo, you can’t go back and fix it. That’s to be expected during any live performance, especially when you’re at home during a pandemic, and you shouldn’t fret about it. 

But if you want to ensure a polished, definitive performance, or if you want to incorporate multiple instruments, outfits, special effects, or scenes, you may wish to do a pre-recorded version in addition or instead. 

For some variety, offer both! 

Shoot from Further Away

Messick noticed that on Instagram TV, the frame zooms in a bit. To make sure she has enough headroom, she needs to position her camera further away. She notes it’s always easier, in editing, to zoom in than it is to fix a shot that’s too close and cuts off the top of your head. 

Think About Your Platform

Most of the time, you’re going to want to shoot both photos and video horizontally. But sometimes, such as if you’re using Instagram Stories, which have an aspect ratio of 9:16, you’ll need to think vertically. 

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What About Your Backdrop?

Jonathan Tolliver is a writer and musician who performs as Tolliver. He’s been actively blessing us with online performances and video content throughout the pandemic. For him, “Monochromatic walls are everything. You want to stand out from the background.”
He also suggests adding plants, balloons or other props to dress the set. 

Tolliver also recommends checking out studios like Standard Vision Studios in Atwater Village for backdrops. Tolliver performed a live Zoom concert at the studio during COVID-19.

“They made me feel like Usher!” he says. 

Messick invested in a projector that allows her to project shadows and other images over herself. For a theater-style vibe, you could hang a simple curtain or tapestry to create a faux-proscenium. 

Recording Sound on Your Phone is Easier Than You’d Think

Koi Division pose at a sushi restaurant. | Juliet Bennett Rylah
Koi Division pose at a sushi restaurant. | Juliet Bennett Rylah

Dave IDK is a musician who performs as Bernard Salmon in the fish-themed Joy Division parody band Koi Division. Prior to the pandemic, he co-managed a now-closed cafe and spa, hosted karaoke at a now-closed bar and planned shows that never happened with his band. So, with all this COVID-related downtime, he’s been making music videos with his phone. 

If you don’t plan to involve a sound engineer, IDK says recording sound on your phone isn’t actually that tricky. He suggests you figure out where your phone’s microphone is, then find the best-sounding spot in the room by clapping. Angle your phone according to what you learn, and put it on “do not disturb” to avoid intrusive alert sounds or vibrations. You can block out other noises by hanging blankets over windows and shoving towels under your door. Basically, work with what you’ve got handy and experiment. 

“Just do a take and figure out how the next take can be better,” he suggests. 

If You Do Want a Mic

Tolliver uses a Shure microphone he received as a gift with the Shure MVI interface. It essentially lets him plug the mic into his computer or phone and then gives him control over reverb, volume and all the recording basics. He suggests starting with this model microphone and looking online for other options that fit within your budget. Blue Yeti is a popular brand among podcasters. Personally, I have managed to make this mic under $60 work for music — with a little help from GarageBand. 

Give Yourself an Audience 

One thing that may be very odd for you if you’re used to performing for a live audience is the sudden, deafening silence of social distance performing. Messick prefers to set up a fake audience of Barbie dolls behind her camera. Not only does this help her establish where to look, “but it’s also to feel like I’m not completely alone.”

“[On video], it’s like you’re just talking into a void or something because there’s the lag, and you can’t always hear people respond, or people are on mute,” she said. “With magic and comedy and music, with everything, you read the audience. The audience has its own personality. And when you don’t have that, it’s just you, and then you’re your biggest critic.” 

Think About Your Outfit

“If I’m performing magic and I have [a prop] that’s white, I have to make sure not to wear a white or light-colored dress,” Messick said. “I have to make sure that I’m wearing contrasting colors so you can really see whatever prop I have on the video.” 

The same can also be true if you plan to shoot in front of a black curtain and wear a black outfit. Also, avoid distracting, busy patterns that might draw focus away from what it is you’re doing. 

Tolliver suggests dressing up for your mindset. “It’ll make you feel good when you’re singing in a hot-ass living room. Emotionally good. Physically, you’ll sweat,” he says. 

You Don’t Need Fancy Software to Edit

You don’t need a copy of FinalCut Pro to make a video. IDK has been able to make Microsoft Movie Maker XP work. 

“It doesn’t do even 10% of what the rest of the editing software in the world does, but I think it works just fine for campy stuff,” he says. “For PCs, I would say OpenShot — the open-source editor — isn’t too complicated and [it’s] fairly low memory and free.”

There are even some apps you can use. IDK recommends just loading your audio and cutting and pasting scenes to the beat. “Let the music tell you what to do with all the shots you took. Start with the beginning,” he says.

Be Prepared, but Have Fun

“Cliche alert, but have fun,” Tolliver said. “I’ve played some truly wack at-home shows, but the main thing that made ’em weird is being stiff. A great way to avoid being stiff is to prepare in advance for the show. Get your tech together.

IDK echoes that advice for shooting music videos: “My tip is to try having fun: Go in with a loose plan, load your car up with any props or tools that might come in handy, and always know where the nearest open dollar store is.” 

He adds, “It’s never going to be as good as you think if you just think about it. Don’t be afraid to learn by doing. Also, support those who do.”

Top Image: A person records themself on their phone. | iStock via Getty Images

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