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42 Pitfalls to Avoid as a Beginning Producer


Table of Contents

Below are common mistakes or pitfalls I see time and time again from beginning producers, aspiring composers, and engineers in music production. Many are a function of the technology, a lack of technical or musical ear training, insufficient listening and analysis of your chosen genre, or simply human nature and the tendency to over or under-compose. Give this a read and see if anything strikes a chord.

Common Pitfalls for Beginning Producers

1. Too Many Different Ideas All At Once

A natural inclination for composers with a plethora of loops and musical resources at hand is to dump in a bunch of ideas all at once. The human brain is only capable of discerning 4, maybe 5 things at a time. After that, we tend to tune out and the result becomes incoherent and directionless. If you think something more is needed, consider doubling an existing idea instead of adding something new. Or reveal new ideas over time (horizontally instead of vertically). But also be cognizant that too many unrelated ideas can make a piece sound fragmented. Shoot for a balance of repetition, development, contrast, consistency, and variety.

2. Too much in the Low End

Boominess in a mix can spoil a good time. Always compare your mixes to a reference track–something professionally mastered in your genre. Also, make sure your room is acoustically sound or if headphone mixing, that your cans are giving you an accurate reference. Poor acoustics or headphones will often lead to mixes that don’t translate well.

3. Harshness in Mid-range

A lot of audio content resides in the Mid-range. Most instruments and vocals will overlap in this area resulting in potentially harsh sounding mixes. Take care to carve out space in the spectrum for each sound live. Dynamic EQing and creative panning can help with this.

4. Verbatim Repetition (don’t use alias loops)

The use of loops is completely valid in music production, but don’t let laziness kick in and let an alias loop ride for dozens of bars. Instead of alias loops, make duplicates so they can be edited independently. Add some variation periodically to a loop to keep things interesting and engaging. It’s the subtle changes that often make a great piece.

5. Panning the Bass (monoize)

Many engineers will monoize content below 150 or even 250 Hz. This is because bass frequencies are omnidirectional so when played through speakers, panning can have the effect of weakening the low end. Monoizing can also mitigate phasing issues.

6. Building too quickly to the Climax

A premature climax is never good–LOL. Musically speaking, if you build too quickly with texture or amplitude, you’ll have nowhere to go later in the piece. Restraint can be very effective in guiding a listener through a song and making the high point that much more satisfying.

7. Too many different sections (lack of formal coherence)

As with having too many ideas mentioned earlier, too many unrelated musical sections can negatively affect the coherence of a piece. Think of developing existing ideas, rather than introducing completely new content

8. Failing to Master

Mastering is the final step of the production process and is crucial if you want your music to sound good regardless of the playback context. Spend the money to master your work or learn how to use existing tools to DIY it. If you don’t have the funds for a pro mastering engineer, experiment with online master services or software and do it in the box. But doing nothing is not a reasonable option.

9. Neglecting the Effect of Velocity

One of the fundamental data streams in MIDI is the velocity attached to every MIDI note event. Velocity goes well beyond affecting volume. It can change the timbre of your sound by triggering different samples in a multi-velocity sampling instrument or be a modulation source for various synthesizer target parameters. To leave the velocity at a static level throughout is a waste of musical potential.

10. Not taking full advantage of Automation

Likewise, avoiding the use of automation is a poor use of technological resources. Automation can be a great way to introduce movement and variety to an otherwise static section of music. Panning and volume are the obvious choices for automation but don’t forget to consider any parameter in any plugin as potential targets to automate.

11. Not Using Reference Tracks

As mentioned earlier, use reference tracks in your session to compare your work to the music you enjoy or the genre at hand. Pro mix and mastering engineers regularly do this and will often ask clients to provide reference examples of the sound they’re after.

12. Bad Session Management (color coding, track labeling, alternate versions, etc…)

As sessions and track counts get large it is crucial to stay organized. Color coding tracks, grouping, proper labeling, and organization of playlists or track alternatives are techniques to help keep things manageable.

13. Using Too Many Plugins

Sometimes less is more. This is often true with the number of plugins inserted on a track. Not only will your session be bloated and slowed down, but the purity of the original sound will be compromised. Every plugin adds a gain stage and potential distortion or aliasing. A few well-selected plugs often provide a sonically cleaner result.

14. Not Correcting Phase Issues and Mono Compatibility

Always check your mixes for phasing problems using some sort of correlation meter. Low-end muddiness or weak bass is often linked to phase problems. Consider monoizing below a certain frequency as mentioned earlier.

15. Using Too Many Reverbs and Delays as Track Inserts

Reverbs and delays are CPU-intensive processes that can slow down a session and add latency or in the worst case, cause drop-outs and digital noise. Use a AUX track for these sorts of effects when possible. That way more than one instrument can use the same plugin, which not only saves CPU but can create a more coherent sound overall.

16. Wrong notes

If you can’t hear mistakes in harmonic content that is a problem. You can’t correct what you don’t know is wrong. Ear training and knowledge of music theory will help with this. And listening in general is crucial. Learn the basic tools of your trade as soon as possible. Even if you are not a player you can write in key using things like scale quantizers and transposition plugins. See my recent article, Great Ways to Make Music Without Knowing Music Theory for more ideas regarding this.

17. Poor or Banal chord progressions

In traditional harmony effective chord progressions rely on three sorts of sounds. Those of stability, those that are moving away from stability, and unstable sounds that need to be resolved. Many types of chords and chord substitutions can possess these attributes in a particular key, but an extensive discussion of harmony is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that traditional harmony in its essence is about the ebb and flow of stable sounds and the resolution of unstable sounds. Interesting chord progressions will address these ideas in one form or another.

18. Poor Voice Leading

Once you decide on a progression you’ll find there are many ways to move from chord to chord. Voices can move in parallel, oblique, or contrary motion. Chords can be voiced in root position or some inversion with the 3rd, 5th, or 7th of the chord on the bass. Again to get more in-depth here is not possible. But I encourage you to go beyond MIDI chord loops and experiment with moving chord notes to different octaves. Try to reduce large leaps in voices and sustain common tones to hear the difference.

19. Too many active parts

If all the parts are rhythmically active it can sound like a mishmash. Try having just one or two active melodic parts at a time. Other instruments can be more sustained, providing a solid harmonic context.

20. Improper Levels (LUFS and True Peaks) and Clipping

Hopefully, everyone reading this knows that peaking over 0dBFS is never a good thing. Likewise, True Peaking, which involves intersample peaks should also be avoided. Search out standard LUFS levels for your genre of choice and use a good metering plugin to monitor your levels. Limiting and compression can be used to increase LUFS, but do your research and employ this sort of processing in musical ways. Otherwise, you risk wave flattening, distortion, and digital clipping.

21. Not using enough Spatialization

While monoizing the low end is a good idea, do not negate the use of panning and spatialization in the higher frequencies. Also, creative use and automation of time-based effects like reverb and delay can add depth and three-dimensional movement to a mix.

22. Not Correcting Poor Performances

Sometimes a recording is almost perfect to the point that a second take will never get as close. But almost means there are still tweaks that can be made. So go the extra mile and put the time in to make it happen. Trust me, if you leave that little imperfection in there it will bother you for years to come.

23. Not Enough or Too Much Rhythmic Quantization

Computers can be perfect and performances can be perfectly quantized. But that can sound inhuman and unnatural. So leave room for imperfection in this case. The groove should take precedence over accuracy. Most quantizers have an intensity slider for just this reason.

24. Too Afraid of Simplicity or Silence

Silence can be super effective and dramatic when used creatively. Check out my recent article, The Remarkable Power of Silence in Music, for a discussion and examples.

25. Poor Transitions

Music is typically sectional. But moving from section to section requires some forethought. Setting up a change to a new section can dramatically increase the emotional impact of the contrasting material. Take the time to use musical devices that anticipate the next section.

26. Ineffective Ending

Many times I’ve listened to a well-written piece of music that is engaging throughout, only to be disappointed by a weak or arbitrary ending. Some might argue that the beginning and ending of a song are the most important moments, so consider them as such.

27. Poor sound file editing

If you make your own samples or edit existing samples be sure to eliminate clicks at the beginning or end of the sample with short fades. Nothing screams novice like an exposed click caused by an unnecessary jump in amplitude.

28. Lack of CC programming for Virtual Instruments

Acoustic sampling instruments have gotten incredibly good over the years. It is now possible to create very realistic orchestral sounds with a MIDI keyboard. However, doing so requires molding the sound with the use of continuous controller performance or automation. Modifying expression, vibrato, and dynamics in musical ways is essential for achieving realism. And all virtual instruments can be enhanced with the use of CC to alter parameters over time. So take the time to make these sounds sing

29. Not Finishing

While it is always great to start a new piece it is even better to finish one. Don’t allow perfectionism or distraction to stand in your way. You could work forever on one piece of music. It has been said that “mixes are never finished, only abandoned”. Sometimes abandonment can be a good thing–allowing you to move on.

30. Squashing – Overcompression

It seems that loudness wars of days past are less of an issue. But things are still being squashed to death in many cases. Dynamics are a huge part of some musical contexts (like orchestral work). So be aware of your chosen genre, and the main delivery mechanism for guidance regarding LUFS levels.

31. Not Choosing the Right Key

Vocalists should feel comfortable in terms of range for them to give their best performance. Notes that are too low or too high will not be successfully performed. This can often be resolved by simply changing the key of the session. If you hear the vocalist straining to hit notes, adjust the key to a more comfortable range.

32. Not Choosing the Right Tempo

The genre will dictate typical tempi in many cases, but sometimes there is more freedom to decide. Tempo can affect emotional impact in dramatic ways so experiment with tempo variations until you find the sweet spot. Music shouldn’t feel rushed or sound like it is dragging. Often the lyrics will help you find the perfect tempo.

33. Too much Adjusting in Solo Mode mode

When tweaking a sound be sure to do so when the session is playing as opposed to solo mode. Soloing is useful, but how a sound will be heard is ultimately a function of musical context.

34. Use of Saturation

Saturation and harmonic distortion can add life to otherwise buried sounds. This works particularly well with bass sounds that benefit from harmonic distortion. Other sounds as well can be warmed up providing a more analog sonority. Tape emulation plugins are great for adding warmth and cohesion.

35. Poor Microphone Positioning

There’s no more hated phrase by mix engineers than “we can fix it in the mix”. Proper microphone positioning can alleviate many issues that would need to be addressed in the mixing process. So take your time and experiment. Try to make the pure recording as good as possible. Things will still need mixing, but you’ll be much better off to start with and time will be saved in the long run.

36. Not Tuning Kick or other percussive elements

Although percussive sounds like kick drums are considered unpitched, they can still be relatively tuned. Proper tuning will tighten up the low end in very effective ways. Throw a tuner on the kick and try to dial in a good tone that matches the tonic of the key.

37. Not using Dynamic EQ

As mentioned in another section, dynamic EQ is a great way to isolate and rectify problem areas in the spectrum where one or more instruments are competing for the same range. Use these adaptive tools to avoid masking issues as needed.

38. Not using Side Chain Compression

Side chain compression has been used for years, particularly with bass and kick tracks. The process ducks amplitude in the bass track momentarily to allow kicks to pierce the texture in powerful ways.

39. Not cutting low-end where needed

Many engineers use highpass filters in tracks that have most of their energy in higher frequencies to avoid low-end buildup. While energy in the low end on one particular track may be inaudible, adding those low-level sounds across dozens of tracks can translate into muddy results.

40. Removing unused plugins from the session

If you’ve decided not to use a certain plugin in a session, rather than leaving it in bypassed mode, delete it. I’m convinced that even bypassed plugs will use CPU and they will definitely increase session load times.

41. Poor mix due to improper Acoustics

Acoustics are crucial to creating a translatable mix. If you don’t have the budget for high-end acoustic treatment, read my recent article, Free and DIY Resources for Acoustics and Studio Design, for affordable solutions that can be quite effective.

42. Playing it Safe

Finally, after doing everything right, explore the use of the unexpected. The aesthetics of error can be delightful. Have a look at a piece I wrote for the Pro Audio Files a while ago called, 49 Glitch-Inducing Plugins & the Search for Error for ideas.


If some of these pitfalls sound familiar, then let this article be the impetus for improving your work. We’ve all been guilty of some if not all of these problems sometime in our careers, so you’re not alone. The only poor decision is to not address the problems at hand.