Five Studio Disasters and How to Avoid Them

At first, you see eye to eye with the producer, and it is beautiful.

Disaster #1:

The Honeymoon is Over
At first, you see eye to eye with the producer, and it is beautiful. Then, the honeymoon fades. Perhaps the producer needs something that is not in your ability range (cutting harmonies on the spot, getting that gospel growl, being available at a moment’s notice), or, on your end, you have a vision for your music (genre and instrumentation, for example) that the producer cannot realize. (Been there, done that!) The result: a less-than-desirable product, possible hard feelings or conflict, misused resources, and having to start over.
Solution: Do your homework when choosing a producer. Get references and trust your gut. Have a conversation (or many) before you decide whether you should proceed together. Once you decide to go ahead, get a contract and specify what will happen and when it will happen. Don’t end up with a Chinese Democracy on your hands (re-doing and re-doing, then, years later, finally getting the project out).

Disaster #2:

There Are Conflicting Ideas About the Project’s Scope
You start the project, and then everyone (musicians, singers, engineer, etc.) starts to bitch about how it’s taking more time, more money, etc. than they thought (or are being compensated for). Or, you agree to do a project for a certain price, and production runs way over what you expected or wanted. Ouch! The result: frustration, tension, strained relationships, less-than-stellar performances, and ultimately, an unfinished project.
Solution: Break the project down into pieces for yourself, your band, your musicians, the producer, and engineer. Have clear expectations and a realistic estimate of the time it will take (plus two hours or so). Charge and compensate accordingly. Accomplish only what you can achieve successfully within your timeframe and budget, and don’t compromise on quality.

Disaster #3:

You Can’t Cut It, Performance-Wise
Thinking that you know the parts and knowing the parts are very different. When you sing in the studio, every detail is under a microscope—pitch, attitude, timing, resonance, lyrics, etc.—so how you perform is just as important as what you perform. When I studied with Raz Kennedy (of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra), his mantra was that every note has an attitude. It’s a high bar, but hey, why do something mediocre? A poor performance can result in paying for extra studio time, re-cutting over and over, and group frustration.
Solution: Practice! Get a coach, break down the parts, pay attention to detail, and don’t record until you’re ready.

Disaster #4:

The Song Isn’t Finished
Bottom line: The song is everything. You can finish that bridge in the studio—no problem! You didn’t memorize the lyrics, or you just wrote them—not a problem. Yes, it is a problem! Unless you’re a studio rat who enjoys the challenge of finishing a song on the fly and you can hustle under pressure, don’t go into the studio with half a song.
Solution: Get the song completed, then get it down.

And finally, the showstopper . . .

Disaster #5:

People Behaving Badly
Frustrated, tired, stressed people get ugly fast. Unprofessional people get more unprofessional as the project goes on. Late people screw up sessions by holding up the process. Professional people get fed up with unprepared and uncooperative people. Heavy partiers have a good time at everyone’s expense while their recording becomes either a rare fluke of genius or a total waste of time. People who hire producers, engineers, or vocal coaches to work with an artist, without setting clear boundaries of who does what and who has the final say, set people up for conflict and power plays. The result: disaster #5 on steroids. Once the yelling, rising tension, and kicking people out of the studio start, you know you’re in a “people behaving badly” moment.
Solution: Keep a level head, plan the session carefully, avoid working with impossible people (even if they have a Grammy—true story!), get clarity about everyone’s roles, and set ground rules before you record!