[ This is a legacy article. It was originally written and posted on October 26th, 2008. ]

Tips, Techniques and Tutorials
10 Common Mistakes Engineers and Bands Make When Recording

Avoiding these common yet overlooked errors when making your next record will make an enormous difference.

  1. Guitar Intonation

    Although there isn’t any particular order to this list, I started with this one as it’s possibly the most common mistake I see, and its importance is often underrated. There is a huge correlation between instrument tuning and how your final mix will sound. I cannot stress this enough.

    Now you may be thinking, “Duh, everyone knows that an out of tune instrument sounds like crap”, and while this may be true, it’s not what I’m referring to. Risking oversimplification, a guitar or bass with poor intonation will muddy up the entire mix, narrow the stereo field, and never sit “right” with other instrumentation. On the other hand, a well intonated guitar part over top of a well intonated bass part will sound huge, separated, defined and clear. It’s been rumored that Uber-Producer Mutt Lange would actually have guitars intonated for different chords, and then punch each and every chord or note on a part!

  2. Bad Mic Position

    Hi-Hat bleed can ruin a snare sound. Pops and breaths in a vocal are distracting and obvious. Fizzy, two-dimensional guitar sounds often can be corrected with movements as small as a 1/2 inch.

  3. Poorly Tuned Drums

    Well tuned drums will make overall drum sound good. Poorly tuned drums will ruin it. There’s no short cut, fix, or easy way around it.

    If you’re an amateur drum tuner, go buy the Drum Dial from your local music shop. Although most experienced drum techs don’t typically use one, a semi-experienced tech or drummer will certainly benefit from this combined with a new set of heads.

  4. Crappy Cymbals

    One bad cymbal can ruin the entire drum sound on a record. There’s no EQ, compressor or sound replacement technique on the planet that can make crap cymbals sound good. Beg, borrow and/or steal the best sounding cymbals you can find.

  5. Guitars that are missing mid-range

    There is only so much sonic space in a mix, so why leave a big hole where all of the power is? Guitar speakers and cabinets don’t effectively produce much below 150hz and much about 5khz, so why cut it out? Chances are your favorite guitar sounds have more mids than you realize, and you’d likely be surprised how little low end they had it you could solo them out. Also remember that the sound you’re dialing in on your monitors with the guitar solo’d might not sound great with the rest of the instrumentation.

  6. Bass missing low end, or nothing BUT low end

    You can’t add low end to a bass guitar that doesn’t have it, and you can’t add presence and definition to a bass that only has low end. You need both.

  7. Overuse of EQ

    Sorting out bad EQ sucks. The worst feeling in the world is having to mix a song that has had poorly EQ’d instrumentation baked in.

  8. Overuse of compression

    Like the overuse of EQ, the overuse of compression can’t be repaired. The art of good compression can take an entire career to figure out, so if you’ve got to compress, the 2:1 ratio is your friend.

  9. Clipping

    Depending on whom you discuss this with there may be some bending on this rule. That said, I suggest you err on the side of caution. 99 times out of 100 clipping sounds terrible.

  10. Overconfidence

    Confidence is important. It enables you to experiment and take risks. Overconfidence is bad, as it can halt the free exchange of ideas and piss off your peers. You may have heard somebody say “The more I learn, the less I know”. This applies big-time to the art of making records. An unnamed engineer friend once told me, “The more you learn about this craft, the more you’ll realize you haven’t learned shit.” He was right.