I've been making records for about 11 years now, and I've seen and worked with just about every type of musician out there, in every genre, and every age range. Part of my job is to help musicians be their best selves and to help them improve every time they walk into the studio. To further my efforts in doing so, I thought I would write out the "Top 15 Pitfalls of the Recording Musician." These are things that I've seen time and time again, regardless of experience or skill level, that I think more musicians should focus and practice on. If you think you've learned it all, or don't need to practice these things, you're already behind the curve.
Let's get started.
These items are in no particular order of importance, but in fact all of them are extremely important for getting a good recording or live show. This is a long post, but I promise you, it's all extremely important info taken from years of experience.
Please take your time and read through each one, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave it in the comments or send me a message by going to the Contact page.
1. CONSISTENCY, ACCURACY, AND CONTROL
One of the most common issues I see is players that don't have the ability to play consistently, accurately, and in a controlled manner. Trust me, I know this is extremely difficult and takes years to develop, but make it a point to practice consistency, accuracy, and control. It's not about playing fast drum fills or shredding up and down the neck. What I want is control. That means control over timing, dynamics, tone, and feel. Drummers should be able to hit their snare at the exact same volume for 4 minute straight. Bassists should be able to hold down an 8th note bass line at one volume for an entire song. Guitarists and keyboard players should be able to play a chord progression perfectly and consistently, knowing when to accent and when to hold steady.
This also means the ability to play well with the metronome, as well as the ability to play well without one. Playing well with the metronome takes practice and determination; playing well without one requires listening carefully to everything around you. Both are extremely important.
2. KNOW YOUR PARTS LIKE THE BACK OF YOUR HAND
Know your parts so well that you can play them without thinking. Too many times I see people struggling to play a part that they wrote, and it's always a bit confusing - I know you can't always nail things on the first take, but it shouldn't take you 10 tries to get it right. Be prepared, practice your parts, and be able to play them straight through in one pass.
This also allows for more experimentation in the studio. If you're struggling to just play the part, you either haven't practiced it enough, or it's too complex and needs to be simplified. As a famous guitarist once said, "Write, perform, and record at 50% of your actual ability limit. How do you expect me to run around on stage and enjoy myself if I have to focus so hard on just playing the part correctly?" The idea here is practice your parts, and also, don't write stuff you can't play.
3. IT'S ALL ABOUT CONTEXT
Getting good tones on drums, guitars, bass, and so on is important, but what's far more important is getting the right sound. There's really no point in trying to achieve this massive guitar (or drum, or bass, etc.) sound if it's going to take up too much room and fail to sit in the mix. It's all about context.
If you're working with a certain engineer or at a certain studio, don't expect to just use what they have available because it's "better" than what you have. Again, it's not about what's better or worse, it's about what works for the production and for the individual. There are times when I reach for a $4000 microphone on a vocal, and other times when I reach for a $350 microphone. There are times when we want a big boutique 100 Watt Marshall into a 412 cabinet, and other times when we want a 1x10 Combo. It's not about what's biggest, or boldest, or best. It's all about how it works in the production.
One more note on this—even though we do have a lot of amazing tools to improve sounds in the studio, always approach your session as if you can’t change, fix, or improve your tones later. Work hard and try your best to get the tone on the way in. If you don’t like the way something sounds, SPEAK UP. Never assume “oh it’ll sound good once it’s mixed.” Sure, it probably will Sound a little better or more refined in the mix, but why leave that up to chance? Focus on getting the right tones on the way in, whatever it takes.
4. TAKE CARE OF YOUR STUFF
One of the biggest vibe-killers is to have gear that's not working, instruments not staying in tune or intonating properly, or drums that are rattly and squeaky. If you don't take care of your instruments, pedalboards, drums, and so on, we'll have to address it in the studio on your dollar. Sometimes I'll really want to use a client's instrument because it's got the right vibe or sound, but it's so poorly set up that we can't get it to stay in tune or work well in context.
Keep your instruments clean, set up, well tuned and intonated. Keep fairly new (if not brand new) strings and drumheads on your instrument. Keep your instruments clean. Make sure your cables work, and your pedalboard is as noise-free as possible. There are basic maintenance routines for a professional musician. Don't neglect your equipment.
5. WARM UP BEFORE YOU PLAY AND RECORD
There's nothing silly about doing stretches or warm-ups before you perform or record, in fact, almost any professional musician will tell you how important it is to do so. If you're a drummer, do some stretches to loosen up your legs, ankles, wrists, and arms. If you're a guitarist, stretch out your fingers and wrists, run some scales and practice your posture. If you're a vocalist, do arpeggios and scale runs with different syllables - the classic "gug / goog / gig / nay / la" syllable runs. Do lip rolls. If you're not familiar with any of this stuff, you really should look it up and get to work. If you're a band, run through the songs multiple times before you come over to the studio, either the day before or the week of. Take responsibility for your body, mind, and ears. Always be conscious of tension, stress, posture, and breathing.
6. VOCALISTS: ARTICULATE!
The most common note I give to singers while recording is "Can you do that again with a bit more enunciation and articulation?" I hear a lot of mumbling, tight-lipped, closed-mouthed singing. What I want is confidence, articulation, and clarity. When a singer enunciates well, it's like the best EQ on the planet - it's clearer, easier to understand, and fits in a mix better. You can almost look at it like the theater. Actors in a play tend to over-enunciate and use big body gestures to make sure that the feeling and emotion comes across to every seat in the house. In a recording, because we don't have the visual element, sometimes slightly over-enunciating is the way to go, because it helps sell the emotion and delivery of the vocal performance. Many singers focus on pitch, but not enough singers focus on enunciation, delivery, emotion, rhythm, and energy.
7. DRUMMERS: LEARN TO BALANCE YOURSELF
There are a lot of drummers out there that simply don't know how to balance themselves well for a recording or live performance. The primary culprits seem to be:
Here's a simple way to remember it: generally the best balance comes from the ground up. This means kick is hit the hardest, snare and floor tom are hit the 2nd hardest, rack and ride cymbal are hit the 3rd hardest, and the hi-hat and crash cymbals are hit the lightest. This may seem foreign to you, but trust me, the best session drummers and professional percussionists that I work with all understand this. What I'm looking for is consistency and balance when it comes to drummers.
There's also a sweet spot for every single drum in terms of tuning and how hard you hit it. Some drums need to be hit fairly hard to speak correctly, and others choke out when you hit them too hard. You also don't have to bury your kick beater in the head, in fact, I generally prefer it when drummers don't do this. If you can't play a tom fill without wimping out on the toms, simplify the fill and play it stronger. If you need more cymbals in your headphone mix to help you not play them so hard, ask for it.
Learn to control your balance, and if need be, choose different cymbals and drums that allow you to play comfortably but help you achieve the balance you need. This is one of the reasons I often record with thinner, lighter cymbals, metal snares, and 24" kick drums. It seems to balance well in the room, and seems to work for most things that I work on.
I should also clarify: I’m not saying you shouldn’t play with dynamics. What I AM saying is, you need to have masterful control of your dynamics. You need to be able to play a kick and snare the same volume for an entire song, BUT you also need to be able to have that one really aggressive accented fill, and you need to be able to play that down chorus section...all precisely and intentionally.
8. GUITARISTS: PLAY WITH CONFIDENCE AND PRECISION
There are times when you need to play parts lightly and precisely, and other times when you need to dig in and rock out. Guitars can be very expressive instruments, so let them be expressive. If you can't play your parts without feeling, write simpler parts. It's always better to have a simple, expressive, captivating parts than stiff "technical" parts that don't feel right. There's a time and a place for precision and delicacy, there's a time and place for aggression and attitude. Know when those times are. Listen to the music and feel the energy and dynamics, and understand what your role needs to be.
Practice consistent playing, tone, touch, and feel. You want to be able to play a chord progression at one volume, one consistent tone, and with good timing and feel, throughout a 4 minute song. But you also want to be able to break out and play a searing riff when the time is right. It takes a lot of time and practice. Here's a tip: practice without any drive or distortion and your mistakes will reveal themselves rather quickly.
9. PIANISTS AND SYNTH PLAYERS: UNDERSTAND YOUR INSTRUMENT
Typically the three biggest things that I need from a keys player, whether it's a session player or a keys player within a band, are:
Similar to guitar, I need keys plays to know when to dig in and when to play with a light touch. I want them to be very aware of the vibe and feel in any given section of the song. I see a lot of keys players that play very stiffly and without regard to context of the music. Keys and guitars are both very expressive and really fill up a big portion of the midrange on a mix, so they need to be very aware of the dynamics and vibe at all times. Keys players and guitarists should also be very aware of their chord voicings and where they fit in the spectrum. Often keys players will occupy a low-mid territory and guitarists will occupy a bit higher in the midrange, but it all depends on the song. If piano is the main instrument, that's a completely different ballgame than if piano is just another rhythmic instrument. Constantly work on your voicings and inversions, and be ready if a producer asks you to play more of a closed voicing, an open voicing, or to invert something upward or downward.
Finally, make sure you're constantly honing your ear's ability to dial in keys sounds. With virtual instruments, MIDI, and samplers, the possibilities are literally endless for sound design. If you come to me and say "we need a pad on this song," that tells me virtually nothing. A pad could be a million different combinations of sounds. It could be airy, it could be warm and dark, it could be retro and "analog-esque," or it could be organic and cinematic sounding. Try to have clear ideas about the sounds you're wanting. For example, if you were to tell me "I want an 80's analog synth style pad, slightly modulated and dark, with some reverb and delay," that's about 100 times closer to an actual sound than simply saying "we need a pad." Be specific, learn the terminology, and please work on dialing in your own sounds at home. Guitarists do it with pedals, amps, guitar pickups, and speakers - you should be doing the same with your own sounds!
10. BASSISTS: CONSISTENCY IS KING
I see a lot of bassists that play too hard, too soft, or very inconsistently. If you play too hard, you'll get really clicky and clacky really quickly, and the pitch of your strings will bend out of tune. If you play too soft, you won't get enough attack or presence to be heard in the mix. There's a sweet spot in there. Find it.
One of the biggest things I look for on bass is consistency. Practice playing your lines perfectly evenly at a single, healthy volume. On bass, you generally need to look at your dynamics as being narrower than on other instruments. We generally don't need lots of super quiet and super loud on bass, but rather, consistent low end that's holding down the changes.
So how do you get better at this? Here are some tips: Record yourself at home, and watch the waveforms as they go by. Practice being tight with the click (and the kick) but also practice keeping your waveforms looking even. All of the blobs should look about the same size and shape. Start with just simple quarter notes to a slow click, and practice getting that evenly. Play up and down the fretboard to practice evening out your touch on different strings. Adjust your pickups and string gauges if necessary to help get a more even sound. Once you've mastered playing evenly at one volume (and trust me, this is hard enough as it is), then practice playing perfectly evenly at a quiet dynamic. Then, practice playing strongly and getting an even dynamic at a loud volume.
At the end of the day, being able to play consistently and evenly at a single volume is really important for bassists, regardless of genre, regardless if you're playing big open whole notes or fast runs high on the neck.
11. ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTALISTS: YOUR INSTRUMENT IS NOT YOUR ENEMY
There's a good chance if you're playing acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and so on, you're paying too heavily. I see it time and time again; if you play your acoustic instrument too heavily, it will choke and not resonate well. Similar to bass, if you play too heavy-handed, you'll get a lot of click and noise and very little tone. If you play too lightly, the instrument won't speak correctly. Find the sweet spot through practice and experimentation.
I also want to bring up the fact that different guitar picks absolutely influence the tone, as well as how you attack your instrument. Some find it better to play with a thin pick and play heavier, while others (like myself) prefer the sound of using a thicker pick but playing lighter. There are absolutely situations where both sound good, but make sure you're balancing out your pick thickness with your strumming or picking strength. There's a point where those two things meet in the middle and create a nice match. Experiment with different pick materials and thicknesses, as well as different string gauges and types. Also make sure you're maintaining your instrument, keeping new or relatively new strings on the instrument, that it's intonated well and the action is set appropriately. One more tip: most acoustic instruments seem to be happiest at 40-50% relative humidity, so make sure you're not drying out (or over-humidifying) your beloved acoustic guitar.
12. STRINGS, HORNS, WINDS: FOCUS ON INTONATION, TONE, AND DYNAMICS
Absolutely my three biggest priorities when recording violin, cello, upright bass, fiddle, contrabass, viola, or any other stringed orchestral instrument are intonation, tone, and dynamics. I rarely need these instruments to be flying all over the neck playing fancy lines, quite the contrary. Most session work for string players is rather simple. The key is, it needs to be great. I need string players that are very aware of their context in the production, and very aware of how they fit into the mix. If they're a soloist, they need to play with confidence and articulation, and if they're in an ensemble setting, they need to focus heavily on intonation and dynamic control. I'm looking for beautiful, resonant, full tones with no screeching or harshness. So much of that comes from the player's hands.
Really, the same goes for horns and woodwinds. I'm looking for dynamic control, knowing when to make your stabs aggressive and bright, and knowing then to make them short and rounded. I'm looking for strong, consistent breath and good tone coming from the instrument. I'm looking for great intonation and control.
As you can see, I keep coming back to these things throughout this list - not once do I say "you need to be able to play crazy fast and complicated things." That really isn't what it's about. If you can, great, but that's not my priority. My priority is making sure that what you can play, however complex or simple, is done with control, great tone, dynamic awareness, and excellent intonation.
13. DON'T JUST PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT, MAKE MUSIC
At the end of the day, you're not just playing an instrument, you're making music. To do this, you need to be very aware of what everyone else is doing. Too many times I see drummers and guitar players that step over the vocalist's lines, bassists that aren't listening to the kick and snare pattern, and keys players that aren't listening to the guitar or bass and finding their frequency hole in the arrangement. This goes back a bit to #3 - it's all about context. This is just part of good arranging in general: it's about how the parts worth together.
If you've ever listened to the Beatles, or any Motown Record, or any Beach Boys album, you know that these songs are incredibly well arranged. The parts being played aren't always that difficult, but it's the combination of parts that really makes the record special. These things were not done on a whim - they are carefully crafted arrangements by extremely talented songwriters, arrangers, and musicians. Make sure you're always listening to the song as a whole and knowing your place in the arrangement. You should practice being proficient enough on your instrument so that you can quickly rearrange, re-voice, or change up a part in order to fit into the arrangement better. Your producer will help you; listen to their advice.
14. BE FLEXIBLE, BE CREATIVE, BE HUMBLE
So much of being a good musician is about being flexible and creative. It shouldn't be a shock that I wish more artists were creative, after all, they are creators and I expect them to make creative things. Again, I'm rarely interested in "how fast you can play" or "how technical can you make a part." I want things to speak to people. I want music to capture audiences. I want it to be memorable. I want it to be timeless.
At the end of the day, you need to be able to be flexible and not feel so tied down to a part that your ego gets in the way. I've been in some studio situations where a drummer will say "well, that's the beat that I always play, and I don't want to change it." Awkward. This is not the attitude you want going into the studio. If you've hired a producer, you need to trust them. If a producer say "I need you to simplify this part," they probably have a good reason. Perhaps it's conflicting with the bass or vocal. Perhaps it's too much too soon, not allowing for a good dynamic shift in the song. Perhaps it's just busy and drawing too much attention to itself, when the focus should really be on the vocalist.
While ego is important in regards to playing with confidence and creativity, it's absolutely a fine line. Ego can stop creativity dead in its tracks. For example, if I say "I'd really like to try a weird guitar tone for this lead part," and the guitarist says "Well I kinda have my tone already, and I like how it sounds," is that not super awkward? I can tell you as a producer, it really is. What's the harm in trying it? It may sound amazing. Sure, it might not work at all, but it may be unique and special and become everyone's favorite part on the record.
There are many times when I feel like I'm the only person trying to be creative in the room, and that's difficult. As a producer, I know a big part of my job is keeping everyone in a creative headspace, but I feel like a lot of artists just aren't that creative, which is ironic and frustrating. As one of my audio heroes once said, "a recording isn't just capturing an event, it is the event." What this means is, don't think of your album like "we go in, he hits record, and we play our stuff." That's the equivalent of making a documentary. What you should be striving for is a feature film. You want something special and epic and creative. You want a masterpiece, not a 9 o'clock news story.
Be creative. Be flexible. Experiment. Allow the session to go with the flow. If you're on such a tight budget where you have zero time to experiment and go outside the lines, don't expect a creative feature film experience. Expect a documentary.
15. KNOW THYSELF
Absolutely the biggest issue I see is people that don't understand the following:
1. What they sound like
2. What they want to sound like
3. What their overall vision for the record is
These things are so incredibly important, I can hardly even put it into words. The overall vision, vibe, and direction of your recording is arguably the most important thing when it comes to accomplishing your artistic goals. Remember, it's not about what's "best," it's about what's "right." Your music needs to ooze vibe and vision, and if you don't have clear ideas about what you like, what you don't like, what you want, what you don't want, and how you want your music to be perceived by the listener, you're in big trouble. You can't expect a producer to take you from point A to point B every single time. Sure, part of their job is to help you capture and present your vision, but if you don't have a vision, what are they supposed to do?
So much of the final recording comes from the artist's writing, their vibe, and their performance. It certainly doesn't come from microphones or bass amps. The vibe starts with you. Here's a simple example: if you want your record to sound like Katy Perry or Bruno Mars, what does that look like?
Constantly be thinking about vibe. It needs to come from your parts, it needs to come from your lyrics, your writing, your overall groove and feel. It's not the engineer's responsibility to create your vibe out of thin air. If your band sounds like Radiohead and you're trying to make your music sound like Katy Perry, you're in trouble. That's not something a producer can easily do. It's like trying to combine chocolate chips, flour, sugar, eggs, and expecting it to come out like macaroni and cheese. You've got to be honest about what you're creating.
It's also important to understand that vibe IS NOT created in post. You can't record a big, beautiful, full sounding drumkit and expect it to sound like a White Stripes record once it's mixed. The vibe comes from the very beginning of the chain. It starts with the parts that you write, goes through the instruments and amps that you choose to use, the microphones and equipment you choose to capture those sounds, and ultimately, how all of those things work together in context. Mixing isn't about creating vibe so much as it is about enhancing the vibe that's already there.
It kills me how little artists think about this kind of thing. It's actually mind-boggling. When you're writing, practicing, demoing, rehearsing, you need to be thinking of the big picture and the end result. Try to hear it in your mind. Imagine what steps you need to take to bring it closer to that vision. When you listen to a great recording by Led Zepplin, or the Beach Boys...the vibe you're hearing isn't always studio magic. Much of what you're experiencing is the band itself. You're hearing their vision realized.
If it helps to make demos at home (and trust me, it really helps) I highly advise you getting a small recording setup where you can make demos and test out your ideas. Sometimes there's no good way to experiment with vibe until you're actually laying down parts and experimenting with balances, effects, tones, and so on. Really try to think about the overall vision for your art.
If you work on these things, constantly practice bettering yourself, you recordings and live performances will improve drastically. This may seem like a lot to digest, and it is, but I assure you it's never too late to continue developing and improving your skills as a well-rounded musician and artist. I promise, you will get better results if you practice these things daily.
As always, feel free to comment, like, and share. If you have any questions, please leave a comment or contact me.
Kendal Osborne is the Host of the Recording Lounge Podcast and the Owner / Head Engineer at The Closet Studios