Hard Truths: You’re Going to Make Mistakes

Hard Truths: You’re Going to Make Mistakes

Managing a big session or a busy mix is tough.

You have to keep a lot of different factors in mind to make it a success.

Even just tracking a single vocal can result in a confusing mess of incomplete takes if you don’t pay close attention.

Trying to stay creative while balancing these practical issues is a recipe for error.

Here’s my hard truth for today: you’re bound to make mistakes, no matter how hard you try.

But that’s not meant to be discouraging. If you have the right approach you can judge which mistakes matter, when to overlook them and when to double down and fix them.

Here’s why you shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes while producing music and how you can avoid the worst of them.

No going back

Music happens in the moment. Whether you’re having a good day on your instrument or you just happened to stumble on a perfect analog synth patch, sound happens in real time.

It isn’t always possible to recapture the exact tone and feel if you realize later that something went wrong.

The same goes for mixes. If you lose your work because of a hard drive failure or a saving issue, you probably won’t be able to recreate the same mix exactly.

That’s one of the main reasons that mistakes can be so costly.

There’s probably no worse feeling than seeing a nearly perfect take ruined by a small technical error.

With all that on the line, getting it right at the source is always your best option.

But when that isn’t available, you’ll have to deal with the mistakes in the best way possible.

Play it again

In the heat of the moment, It may seem like you only have one opportunity to make every single sound perfect.

But all you really need to know is when to cut your losses and start over.

It’s almost comforting to know that even if something goes truly wrong you can just try again.

It’s almost comforting to know that even if something goes truly wrong you can just try again.

But many inexperienced producers burn time and energy trying to fix it anyway.

It’s natural. Once you’re invested in something you want to see it work out, no matter how much extra work it takes.

Too often, you could save plenty of time by just redoing it and avoiding the problem entirely.

In many cases, making a mistake means you’ll have to start from scratch.

It could be as a minor as tracking the bass line again, or as serious as starting the song over.

But that shouldn’t make you feel too discouraged. You might be surprised how often you’ll do a better job on the second pass.

The next best thing

Luckily, modern producers have plenty of solutions for the most common problems that come up during the process.

I’m talking about lifesavers like audio editing, vocal pitch correction, virtual instruments and MIDI.

Problems that would have brought entire productions to a standstill in the past are easy for modern producers to deal with.

But that doesn’t mean you can get lazy and leave everything to fix at the end.

You’ll still get the best results if you do your best to get what you need in the first place.

Even so, every producer should be familiar with the tools and techniques that can save the day when it seems like all is lost.

Here are the top tools and techniques you should learn to help you fix mistakes

  • Good audio editing—many tough mistakes are easier to resolve through basic audio editing than you might think. Develop your editing skills to increase your peace of mind.
  • Vocal pitch correction—recording vocals can be gruelling, especially when the singer is struggling. Instead of endless repetitive takes try light, musical pitch correction in only the toughest spots.
  • Virtual instruments—instrument VSTs and samples have come an extremely long way. If you really mess something up o see if you can use get it right with a plugin instead of doing it again.

Recording and mixing technology improves every year. Some of this tech can come to your rescue, but there are still mistakes out there that nothing can fix.

Those are the ones to recognize and watch out for.

When to worry

When you’re trying to think on your feet, you’ll have to make some snap decisions.

The toughest kind are about how to use your time effectively.

All sessions have time constraints, even if they’re only from how long your collaborators can stay focused. That means keeping up momentum is important for results and workflow.

The easiest way to stall a fun and productive session is to get stuck on fixing a small mistake.

So how do you know what approach to take? Here’s my best advice for deciding:

  • If you can fix something in less than 15 minutes—you should
  • If you can fix it just as well later on—you can wait
  • If getting it wrong means the results will be much worse, you should fix it no matter what
  • If there’s no possible solution available, don’t even try

Developing the instincts to answer these questions takes time, but it’s part of good intuition as a producer.

When to let it go

Getting something wrong might be agonizing when you realize it, but in many cases, simple mistakes won’t sink your mix.

In fact, learning to live with your mistakes is a sign of creative maturity.

Watch out for mistakes that could turn into creative opportunities.

So far I’ve talked about fixing mistakes, or trying to avoid them in the first place. But there’s actually a third option—put them in anyway.

It’s easy to get fixated on your perfect vision for a track. If you’re laser focused on making the details perfect, you miss out on the charm of what you didn’t intend to happen.

Watch out for mistakes that could turn into creative opportunities.

Mistakes happen

You can’t worry too much about mistakes if you want to have fun making music.

And that’s OK.

Between being prepared, knowing what you can fix and knowing when to start over, small mistakes shouldn’t stop you from finishing your track.

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.

@Michael Hahn

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