5 Mistakes I've made and the lessons they've taught me

5 Mistakes I've made and the lessons they've taught me

We all make mistakes, it’s just human nature. Here are a few I’ve made and the hard earned lessons they taught me. I hated living through each one of these, but freely admit that they’ve made me better at my job, and hopefully a better person too.

5. When introduced to the artist’s wife, don’t say “Sorry I didn’t get to meet you when you dropped (the artist) off here last week.”

Wife happened to be out of town last week, that was the girlfriend I saw him kissing.

Lesson learned: Shut up.

4. I erased something and regretted it later.
From analog machine mishaps to trashing takes you think “they won’t ever need,” I’ve been in dumpsters looking for discarded data CD’s and bummed when the singer never “really gets it better than that first take.” No fun.

But the worst erasure happened while record aligning a 24 trk machine very early in my career. There were 2 machines needed for the mix session, a master and a slave. I checked the label on the Master tape box; pretty standard, alignment tones (played back to set machine levels), record pad (blank tape for setting record levels), and then the songs. No problem. On to the Slave tape. Box reads the same…. tones, pad, songs. Unfortunately, there was no record pad on the slave reel and, trusting the label, I had ERASED the percussion intro of this song (due on the radio later that week). And, there were NO safety copies of these tapes, which was unheard of at that time. Yeesh, I regretted this one immediately.

Lesson learned: Keep all takes, read all labels carefully and then double check them for accuracy. And always have at least 2 back-ups of every project (if it’s not backed up twice, it’s not backed up). I haven’t yet made that mistake again.

3. I used profanity in a very public venue.
My mission was simple; record 2 shows with a remote truck at a live venue in Colorado. I was happy… I love Colorado. The truck shows up 6 hours late and is crap. The truck’s crew is crap. With 15 minutes left before downbeat I was standing on stage screaming for an extension cord.

Now, both shows that day were sold out to employees of “Focus on the Family,” a conservative Christian network based nearby. It was their yearly family outing. So, out flies the extension cord, the frayed and plugged-in extension chord, which I snatch from the air with my right hand. F*#K!!!!! I yelled in front of 1500 adults and children as 120 volts rushed through me. All audience conversation stopped.

Lesson learned: Hire a better f*#king remote truck.

2. I took a gig I really didn’t want to do.
It just wasn’t my thing and, I’m ashamed to admit, I was so embarrassed to be on this gig that I told EVERYONE I met that “this isn’t REALLY what I do.” This went on for a while until I noticed that the clients had pretty much stopped talking to me. I realized that they had overheard me and that their feelings were hurt. I offered an apology, but I knew they didn’t really accept it. They didn’t thank me for my hard work at the end of the session, and they never called me again.

Lesson learned: With so many talented people around, everyone deserves to have hired help that is happy to be there. If you just don’t want to be seen at a gig for ANY reason (politics, personality, religion, etc), just don’t take it.

1. I assumed I knew more than someone else on a session.
Fortunately, again I learned this one when I was pretty young… but it’s also an easy one to forget. When I was about 22, I was assisting on a record by the legendary African horn band, OsiBisa, and was especially thrilled to be in the engineer’s chair for the horn overdub sessions. After much anticipation, I rolled tape on the first song. After about a minute, I stopped the tape.
“Why did you stop?” asked band leader Mac Osei.
“Um, you guys were a little out of tune and a bit out of time,” I said as politely as I could. Having gone to music school, I considered myself expert on such things.
“Okay,” he replied sounding confused, “we’ll try it again.” I roll the tape, same thing, I stop.
“WHAT??!!”, demands Mac.
“Well, you guys were still a little out of tune and way behind the beat,” I repeat as if talking to grade school students.
Mac glares at me through the studio glass. “NO! You LISTEN!!” he commands. Shaking, I roll the tape. Still the horns are grating on me…. for a little while. Then, slowly, my head starts to nod with the groove and I begin to smile. By the last chorus, I got it. They were AWESOME. I’d been expecting cool “western” style horns (TOP or EWF), but this was its own cool. I remember thinking that I could never play anything like that, and I never have been able to.

Lessons learned: 1. Listen critically but without judgment. Initially, you might not understand someone else’s art. If not, ask questions before rushing in to “fix it”. If something leaves you feeling emotionally flat, discuss it with the artist, band or team before declaring “YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG!” Lesson 2: Never assume that someone is just what their role is that day. Drummers CAN be well read, fiddle players sometimes have a PHD from MIT (Woody Paul of Riders In The Sky).

Got any mistakes of your own? Please comment or email, I’d love to hear.

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