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What are the the most common mistakes that new engineers tend to make when recording and mixing down their tracks?

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The producer or the engineer? –  BenV Dec 7 '10 at 22:09
    
good point, I've clarified the question –  Willbill Dec 7 '10 at 22:13
    
+1 for a good question! –  JayP Dec 22 '11 at 16:56
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16 Answers 16

In general, overdoing everything.

New people tend to add reverb, compression, and other effects just because they can. Audio production is one area where quantity cannot replace quality.

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I think this qoute by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry applies very well: "It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove." (en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Antoine_de_Saint-Exupéry). I find this to be true in programming, photography, audio production and just about all other creative processes I can think of. –  Kim Burgaard Dec 7 '10 at 23:23
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+1 I think there's a tendency to think that if you're not doing a lot of different and/or complicated stuff, you're less of a professional somehow. In reality, the opposite is true (to a point). –  Rich Bruchal Dec 7 '10 at 23:55
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@Rick Buchal exactly, but it's hard for a newbie to pick the few, but very effective things to do. So maybe doing a little bit of everything is a way of trying to hedge the bet? I've certainly been guilty of doing that in the past. I try to A/B every adjustment and effect I add now to see if I really think it makes a difference or not, but it's hard to be objective about something that ultimately is very subjective :-) –  Kim Burgaard Dec 9 '10 at 10:23
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New people are not the only ones that suffer from this. –  Robert Harvey Dec 23 '10 at 19:06
    
The key is to find your own unique style. Kitchen sink approach is not terribly unique, and often sounds rather terrible. –  Andrew Mar 28 '11 at 20:06
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A big mistake is to stop using your ears. Always keep listening to what you create!

I've seen so many people do this, they just do things because they think they are always good things. I know somebody that always used compression because he was told to do so, even when it was completely unnecessary. When I asked him why, he just said: "I just always do this." He was clearly told by somebody else that it could (could!) be useful.

If you listen once, you decide that you need for instance a compressor and you applied it with settings that you think are appropriate, don't consider the job done. Use your ears and ask yourself if you are genuinly happy with the result.

If you record speech, don't apply an EQ to increase 3KHz and 8KHz to improve the intelligibility if you don't have a real problem with it, or if you don't hear any improvements.

Never do anything to your sound if the reason for it is not coming from your ears. Always tend to trusting your ears more than anything you learned.

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Another way to put it is “Always understand exactly what you're doing and why.” See also: cargo cult. –  Anton Strogonoff Jun 1 '12 at 11:13
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Not taking enough time to set up & test things out. Chances are, you won't actually be able to fix it in the mix.

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I'd recommend this practice to anyone just starting, I usually use the phrase "Crap in, crap out." Meaning that if you record a bad signal, there's no way you can make it sound better by processing it. –  Kyle Sevenoaks Dec 8 '10 at 8:03
    
Mic choice and placement, room treatment, mic cancellation and thinking you can fix it in the mix... But everyone seems to have to learn the hard way. Also: Don't master yourself, but let someone else (who you trust) finalize it. –  Powertieke Dec 8 '10 at 8:30
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Pressing "stop" before the reverb trail has died out from the last note of the performance. Or worse, before the actual last note of the performance that he didn't know was there.

(I've done this)

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In live situations, I always leave the recording running 2 minutes of empty hall after the concert. You never know when it comes in handy. –  Pelle ten Cate Dec 8 '10 at 20:46
    
That strikes me as a pretty good idea actually. I'm going to try that next time. –  Warrior Bob Dec 8 '10 at 21:42
    
I do it before, after the sound check, or right before the doors open. Afterwards you will have the normal standbyers and the restless roadies packing up to go home. Also, you might have the DJ act coming up (pretty common in clubs and raves, festivals etc.) –  jlebre Feb 7 '11 at 8:56
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Perfection is the enemy of progress. Don't spend an eternity on your first song just to realize that you don't have the time to finish the rest.

Also, for beginners it is best to finish each song before moving onto the next. This way you don't spend days recording and have nothing to show for it.

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I always give a monitor mix in the studio, regardless of the session. When I know ahead of time that instruments will be recorded separately I'll still get the whole band to play. Usually in line mixers give you a really easy, painstacking workflow that allows you to do this without even thinking. For instance, on an inline console (SSL, NEVE, Harrison, etc) I'm always in Fader swap for the monitor path unless I'm bouncing (using groups). That way i can give the band a complete rough mix on the very first day of recording, and all the following. –  jlebre Feb 7 '11 at 8:58
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When recording:

  • Not experimenting enough (or at all) with different mics and with mic placement. (Try the kick drum mic on the back head; try different spots on a guitar cabinet, at different distances; etc)

  • Having an open channel but not recording a direct in feed of the guitar. This can really save you if it turns out the amp distortion that sounded great on its own is abrasive or doesn't work in the mix.

  • Bass guitar. Good luck. Experiment a lot on this to find out what works, direct-in is always a good idea no matter how you try to mic it.

  • Really novice mistake that I made for years: using a little XLR to 1/4" adapter to run mics into a four-track tape machine, with no preamps. It worked, but everything sounded bad, buzzy, with weird high-pitched artifacts, etc etc.

When mixing:

  • Too much EQ addition: try subtractive EQ-ing first.

  • Too much volume: leave headroom so you have room to work with at the end of the mix for effects and mastering.

  • Not being aware of the limitations of your mixing environment. It's really hard to mix only in headphones and get a great mix, but it's also hard to properly align studio monitors and to acoustically treat a room. At least be aware of the limitations of your setup - "My headphones do X to the sound, but my monitor setup does Y to the sound." In a typical basement setup, your monitors and the room probably give you tons more bass than is actually in the mix - just be aware and check on different speakers, rooms, and headphones!

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"It's really hard to mix only in headphones and get a great mix, but it's also hard to properly align studio monitors and to acoustically treat a room." so VERY, VERY true!!!! –  jlebre Feb 7 '11 at 8:59
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5 ways a newbie can be more professional:

1) Don't mess with the levels while the recording is in process as this changes the signal to noise ratio enough to make the track sound wonky.

Set your levels before you punch the record button, I generally run as many takes as needed to set the peak load.

2) Don't expect everything is in tune.

Make double sure that every instrument is tuned appropriately for the piece. I say 'appropriately' as some instruments may require a slight nuance differing from standard pitch. For example piano tunings have a wide range of deviation, compare a 'honky-tonk' piano to a concert grand.

3) Don't try to cram everyone into one track (assuming you have a multi-track system).

Be careful when you are recording multiple tracks simultaneously, assign as many channels as you need to give each voice it's own track. This will make mixing a lot easier.

4) Don't assume it will all 'fall together'.

You have to have a plan. Make a list of tracks, how they will be recorded, what effects might be employed during recording or later. In short, spell everything out before you start. Consider this your script.

5) Don't think you can remember all the details.

Make good documentation from session to mixing to master. Document what voice is on each track: guitar, violin, chorus, soprano, tenor, etc. Document anything special like "Hey that sax solo on track 2 needs to be redone because the sax needs a new reed".

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Not listening to the master candidate through a variety of speakers (headphones, car stereo, iPod earbuds, etc). Simply using the studio monitors isn't enough.

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I respectfully disagree (probably due to terminology here): during the mixing stage, one should only listen to his studio monitors (and incidentally a pair of good headphones to get a better idea of reverberation, acoustics and noise, but really not to get an impression of the mix); doing otherwise is something I consider a mistake myself. The task of making it sound well on other speaker systems should not be taken care of during mixing, but during mastering. (i.e. after the mixing is done.) And during mastering, the mix should not be changed to solve these issues. –  Pelle ten Cate Mar 27 '11 at 9:27
    
@Pelle Totally agree! Great insight. Thanks for the feedback. I've clarified the terminology (from "mix" -> "master candidate"). –  Andrew Mar 28 '11 at 20:03
    
@PelletenCate why would you not do otherwise? What if you listen to it in your car and the bass is terribly overpowering and you had no idea because you only listened to the song on the studio monitors? I almost made this mistake with one of my songs a week or two ago. Luckily I always listen to my tunes to see what I can improve upon on my way to work and noticed how terribly overpowering the bass was during a certain part. If you actually read his answer, you would see he says the master candidate, not during the fact, but after. –  Travis Dtfsu Crum Sep 14 '12 at 19:43
    
@TravisDtfsuCrum Did you read Andrew's comment and have a look at the history of this answer? You'll see that Andrew changed "mix" to 'master candidate' after I wrote my comment. Don't get me wrong, I totally agree that you should listen to your song at all available systems, but not during the mixing stage. (Which was the stretch of what the initial answer was.) My point was just that you should not do this while mixing, because in general (and there are always exceptions) the mixing desk is wrong place to fix sound/balance issues caught on your car speakers. –  Pelle ten Cate Sep 20 '12 at 10:32
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@PelletenCate ahh I did not check the edits but that makes sense. I always listen to my "master candidates" after doing all mixing in my car, some ear buds, my old WESC headphones, my dads old big ass headphones from the 80s, and my Sennheiser HD 380 Pros. I also use the Sennheisers while mixing just for perspective, but I can tell a difference when listening to them through my audio interface and just into an aux jack. –  Travis Dtfsu Crum Sep 20 '12 at 13:05
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  • Not to experiment

  • Thinking of the job as if there are mistakes to be made, whereas actually its an art form, and its only a matter of taste whether you like this or that (the extraordinary range of audiences and styles of recordings is the proof for this).

  • Not to get drunk after an impressive nights perfomance with a band, losing all the files in the morning, recovering them, and coming up with a creative solutions to fix everything.

  • Not to go ahead and give all those silly effects a try, then get enough of all of them and know that quality lies in the story.

  • Being too much insecure about yourself

  • Spending time reading these posts, while meanwhile you could be enjoying a smokey, jazzy environment filled with rich sounds, that you feel you want to record!

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Being too inscecure about yourself is a very important thing, but I respectfully disagree with most of the rest of these items. Recording is - in my opinion - although very art-related and a very creative process - definitely a craft rather than an art, where a matter of quality is definitely present and should be taken into account. Remember we are talking professional audio. Of course you should both spend time here as well as in your musical environment, these are both places of good inspiration. –  Pelle ten Cate Dec 16 '10 at 8:19
    
On second thought, Pelle, you are right! But i thought there is no lack of the perfectionism-driven folks over here anyway, so i wanted to make a point not to forget about the artistic side of the craft. –  Sam Dec 16 '10 at 10:23
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Failing to save your work frequently, or worse, failing to backup your work frequently (or at all).

Don't just rely on your recording software's Undo capabilities - always enable Auto-Save if it has that feature. Additionally, setup your digital workstation to automatically save a copy of your work every 15 or 30 minutes, and also save off a snapshot of the entire project including all audio files at the end of every day. Use an online backup service or flash drive. You never know when your recording software is going to hang or crash, or when the HD is going to die.

Losing a few hours worth of work is extremely frustrating, but losing an entire album is devastating.

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When I'm recording, the autobackup is on 5 minutes, so as not to weigh on the hard drive. When Im editing, its every 2 minutes. And i do a save copy in at every milestone (finished comping - save; finished editing - save; downmixed - saved; Created a satellite session - save etc) –  jlebre Feb 7 '11 at 9:01
    
I've lost a few hours of work in Logic a few days ago… So I concur—if you're working with software, save often. It could be hard to bring yourself to continue working on the track for some time—I liked very much how it sounded before the crash, and am afraid I won't be able to do it better or even keep on the same level. That's probably irrational or indicates insufficient skill, though, but anyway. –  Anton Strogonoff Jun 1 '12 at 11:22
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@AntonStrogonoff Yeah, that's one of the worst feelings. When something similar happened to me, I immediately wrote down as much as I could remember on paper. Then took a week off before attempting to redo it. –  Andrew Jun 1 '12 at 16:33
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Being too stressed when things are getting slightly complicated or something doesn't work. Musicians are generally nice people (really, this is something many people forget as soon as they get behind a mixing desk!), and they allow you to claim all the time you need. As soon as you feel any time pressure during your recording session, your focus on the quality of the music and the way it sounds is decreasing. My advice in such a situation: ask your musicians to leave the studio for half an hour or so, so you can sort things out. Remember that recording and producing should be fun to do, as long as you love the music. :)

Secondly: don't be too hard on yourself. Mistakes happen all the time, and the best thing you can do is learn from them, by making them.

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Sometimes it helps to walk away from the studio for a while, and listen to something else. That'll keep your ears fresh. Or you can ask someone who hasn't been involved with the project to listen to the mix.

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Sticking to what you know versus experimenting in new methods in music

Often times I find myself working in the same chords and instruments because I am comfortable with them. Don't be afraid to try new things. You may be surprised at what other stuff is out there!

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Not doing enough preproduction.

Preproduction is what you do before you sit down in a session. This includes talking with the band, making sure they know what they plan to do. Get lyrics sheets, chord charts, tempo and key of the song, etc. The more you know about the song, the better you can figure out exactly which mics and techniques you want to use. Maybe you can borrow something that you wouldn't be able to if you found out what they were playing when you got to the session.

For professional engineers, preproduction also includes finding out how the band plans to pay you for the session. For some reason, there are people out there who seem to think that you will be happy to record them for free. If you don't plan on working for free, make sure they understand that, because it's alot easier to tell someone no before you start recording than it is after you're done mixing and they want the masters.

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I think too that it is important to separate recording and mixing issues.

About recording, I have one rule I think about all the time : to avoid to postpone decision making. It was not a problem some decades ago by design, when everything is done with hardware, but it is nowadays because you can edit anything with modern DAWs, and so you can procrastinate about making good mic placements, good takes, making the band play right etc. For me, good practices in recording are about doing something right once, without even thinking about fixing it later, if possible of course. It's twice more important for someone who uses his computer to record his own music.

About mixing, I think Mike Senior from Sound on Sound has given very good advice in this article :

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep11/articles/mix-mistakes.htm

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Not Leaving Headroom

Unless you are pushing to analog tape, you don't need to pin the meters just below the redline. Processing through plug ins will add amplitude, so you need to leave room. The best practice of pushing levels is antiquated in this world of virtual instruments and very quiet mixers.

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