No one is perfect. We all make mistakes big or small, some of us on a daily basis. And while learning from your mistakes is an invaluable way of growing and improving, I find that when possible it’s always better to learn from the mistakes of others. This is a list of the 11 most common mistakes made by artists that I’ve recorded with. To be fair I have personally made every one of these mistakes (and many, many others) in my ten plus years of engineering and none of them are life threatening, dangerous or world ending but hindsight being what it is, avoiding these mistakes will make your time in the studio cheaper, faster, more creative, fun and ultimately get you better results. So here they are in no particular order.
- Not being prepared – This is probably the most important mistake to avoid and includes stuff like rehearsing the songs beforehand and knowing the arrangements so that everyone involved is on the same page. It also includes everything else on this list so remember the boy scout motto before you come in to record: “Be Prepared”
- Writing in the studio – Never write songs in the studio unless you don’t mind wasting a bunch of time and money that could be spent on more productive things. It eats up a lot of time typically and slows down the creative process for everyone involved. It is far cheaper and more fun to have the songs and parts written before coming in believe me.
- Recording without a click track – Recording without a metronome makes everything harder in the long run. Editing becomes a nightmare and overdubbing becomes nearly impossible to get right in some cases. Using a click makes everything sound smoother, tighter and more together. It is definitely worth making your drummer (and everyone else for that matter) practice with a metronome.
- Using subpar musicians – When it comes to tracking, my philosophy has always been to use the best available musicians you can. The more talented the musician the better the results tend to be. Please don’t feel that you need to play the part if someone in the room can play it better. It can be tough to set your ego aside but the results are usually well worth it.
- Expecting things to be fixed in the mix – While there are certainly many clever tricks modern engineers have at their fingertips, nothing beats getting it right during tracking. Make sure the sounds you’re getting and the performances being tracked are what you want up front. It is much harder to make a bad recording sound good than to make a good recording sound great. It’s well worth the extra time and effort to get it right up front than to have to backtrack and attempt to fix things later.
- Putting in minimal effort – It’s sad that I have to include this one but I have worked with plenty of people who think that just by showing up they are putting in all the effort necessary to get a great final product when in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. No matter what you’ve heard, no one ever made it big by being lazy and not trying very hard. This includes everything from writing to practicing to performing. It is just unpleasant to work with someone who expects you to make lazy or bad performances sound good and believe me, those poor performances are very, very obvious. If you’re not willing to put any effort or hard work into your craft why should anyone else?
- Using poorly maintained gear – This includes everything from making sure you have fresh guitar/bass strings and drum heads to making sure said strings and heads are tuned properly. Having your instrument set up properly can help with intonation and tone. Make sure the tubes in your amp are in working condition and that you have minimal hum/hiss coming from any of your gear. If you’re a singer you may want to avoid certain behaviors or activities (you know the ones) the night before a session to ensure your voice is at peak condition. Unless you’re going for that lo-fi, ugly, grimy sound, use the best gear you can because it will make a difference. Remember you want everything to sound as good as it can before you start tracking.
- Not understanding the gear you have – You don’t necessarily have to be an expert electrician to get an amp to make a sound but understanding what the different knobs will do to the sound can certainly make dialing in that perfect tone much easier. If you’re using a synth, knowing what the different sounds and options do can make for a much smoother and faster creative pace in the studio. Bottom line, spend time before coming into the studio to figure out how the gear you have can be best utilized so that you don’t need to spend five hours dialing in that perfect sound.
- Having unreasonable expectations – There is a common assumption by most people that music engineers are wizards that can somehow mysteriously make anything sound amazing using “studio magic”. This is for the most part just untrue. If you want a great sounding recording, then you better give a great performance on great sounding instruments. Expecting otherwise will set you up for frustration and failure.
- Poor communication – Nothing leads to stress and conflict quicker than poor communication. Countless books and articles have been written on communication and I highly recommend learning as much as you can on the subject, but for our purposes let’s just leave it at this: Communication is not what you say or even what you mean to say, it’s what the other person hears. Try to be as clear as possible and don’t be afraid to ask questions for clarification.
- Being late – Musicians are not generally known for their punctuality but most studios charge you for the scheduled time whether you show up on time or not at all. Showing up on time allows you to get all your money’s worth of studio time and also lets the people you’re working with know that you consider yourself a professional and that you respect their time and your own. Trust me, when you treat others with respect they are far more likely to treat you with respect and do a better job as well.
So that’s the 11 most common mistakes people tend to make in the studio. If you are able to avoid making them you will find that your sessions will be cheaper, more creative, more fun, more productive and yield much better results. So good luck on your next session!!
Cary Crichlow, Senior Producer and Engineer
RCR Recording Studios