10 Times Studio Mistakes Created Music Magic

Bill Withers (1973). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Getty Images.

Recording isn't always smooth sailing. Even if the studio is full of seasoned professionals, accidents are going to happen during a session.

Most mistakes in the studio are caught and corrected, but in some cases the effect of those mistakes was so perfect that they were left in the song. Some were even later recreated in countless other recordings and defined decades of popular music.

In this article, we'll highlight some well-known and more obscure studio mistakes that not only made it onto the record, but elevated the recordings and influenced other artists.

What we won't include in this article are examples where it's unsure if something was actually a mistake, such as the meter change in Blondie's "Heart of Glass," Grimes' out-of-sync bass in "Oblivion," or the artistic choice to let vocals clip by Neutral Milk Hotel.

We also won't include certain noises caught in the back of tracks, such as talking before the track (e.g., "Sweet Home Alabama"), bad splicing (e.g., "Paper Planes" by MIA), or coughing (e.g., "Wish You Were Here).

Prince's Incorrect Background Vocals

Prince - "Forever In My Life"

It may not have been a hit single, but Prince's "Forever In My Life" is a favorite among his fans and widely considered to be one of his most personal songs. And it contains a pretty major error for an artist who often gets labeled as a perfectionist.

Prince was notorious for recording every part for many of his songs in his home studio with just a recording engineer by his side. When he was recording "Forever In My Life," he was joined in the studio by engineer Susan Rogers. In a rush, she accidentally synced the background vocals so they came before the main vocal lines they were supposed to mirror.

The result is a background vocal performance that drives the song forward. And though Rogers offered to fix the issue for Prince, he loved it and decided to release it.

Radiohead's Hard Hit

Radiohead - "Creep"

"Creep" might be the most well-known Radiohead song and their breakout hit, but certain members of the band didn't want the song on the record at all. Namely guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who didn't like how quiet the song was. During a take, in a quiet moment of the song moving from the verse to the chorus, he "hit the guitar hard—really hard" to try to spoil the recording.

In the end, Greenwood's attempt to ruin the take and the song added an intense energy to the song and stands out as one of the best moments on "Creep."

Phil Collins' Gated Drum Reverb

Phil Collins - "In the Air Tonight"

Gated Reverb might be the sound of the '80s, but how did it come about? Completely by accident.

During the recording of Peter Gabriel's third solo album in 1979, a room mic picked up the sound of Phil Collins' drum during the recording of "Intruder." Engineer Hugh Padgham had placed a heavily compressed talk-back mic in the room, and that in combination with the console's noise gate gave birth to what we now know as gated reverb.

Since the genesis (see what we did there?) of this mistake, gated reverb has been used by artists from Prince to Kate Bush to Lorde.

Marty Robbins' Fuzz Bass

Marty Robbins - "Don't Worry"

When you think about fuzz, you probably don't think about country music. But you should.

While recording the six-string bass solo for Marty Robbins' "Don't Worry" in 1960, popular session guitarist Grady Martin found himself recording through a faulty channel in the mixing desk—one of the tube preamps was failing and resulted in a heavily distorted bass tone. Understandably, Martin was upset to find his take ruined.

But producer Don Law didn't see the take as ruined. He liked the novel effect and left the take in the final version of the song, and history was made. The song was a crossover hit at the time—Robbins' seventh number one hit on the country chart and peaking at number three on the pop chart.

Session engineer Glen Snoddy didn't fix the faulty channel and instead made it available to other musicians, who loved the sound. There was such a demand for it, in fact, that Snoddy reverse-engineered the faulty channel into the Fuzz-Tone—a circuit that could replicate the distorted sound—which was eventually given to Gibson who manufactured the FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone under their Maestro subsidiary.

The Cars' Wrong Hits on a Big Hit

The Cars - "Just What I Needed"

It's not uncommon for bands to adjust their instrumentation around the lyrics. Think the six triplets during the line "robbing people with a six gun" in "I Fought The Law" mimicking the unloading of a six-shooter.

But The Cars weren't thinking about using the drums to illustrate the lyrics when drummer David Robinson accidentally started hitting his snare on the one and three rather than the two and four that he had been emphasizing right before the line "I kinda lose my mind" in the second verse.

The result completely disrupts the meter for a few lines before landing back in sync, and the mistake fit so perfectly with the line "I kinda lose my mind" that the band decided to keep it. The adopted mistake also repeats right before that next chorus.

The Kingsmen' Boom Mic and Braces

The Kingsmen - "Louie, Louie"

"Louie, Louie" as performed by The Kingsmen rose to infamy upon release. Not just because it's catchy, but because the lyrics are almost completely unintelligible, which led to a 31-month investigation into the lyrics, which many thought must have been profane.

So, why can't we understand a word singer Jack Ely was singing? Was he drunk or high?

Nothing so nefarious was the cause, as it turns out. Jack Ely was only 19 years old when he recorded "Louie, Louie," which was captured in a single take by Portland, Oregon DJ Ken Chase. The unique vocal performance is due to a combination of two things: His mouth was cut up from his braces, and he was singing into an unnaturally high boom mic—craning his neck and singing directly into the air. There's a reason you're not taught that technique during vocal lessons.

The strained neck and no small amount of mouth pain turned the lyrics into a garbled mess. And while one might imagine such a mistake would hurt record sales, the mystery of the lyrics was a PR boom for the band—even if it did mean they were investigated by the FBI.

But that's not the only mistake from the "Louie, Louie" recording session. Just after the lead guitar break, Ely overshot his mark and came in too early, which drummer Lynn Easton quickly covered for with a drum fill. This error became so popular that it was duplicated by other groups that have since covered the Richard Berry-penned classic.

The Breeders' Wrong Slide

The Breeders - "Cannonball"

The Breeders had a crossover hit with their 1993 song "Cannonball." The intro to "Cannonball" is iconic in its own right, starting with distorted harmonies from the Deal twins, a clicking snare rim and cymbal stand and, finally, bassist Josephine Wiggs' sliding bass riff.

But wait, why is she sliding to the A in the intro, but the Bb everywhere else?

During rehearsals for the song, Wiggs struggled initially to slide to the Bb, instead landing on the A time after time. So, Wiggs would stop, and then try to find the right note. Ultimately, the band decided to leave the slide up to the A in the intro, which adds suspense to the powerful track.

Metallica's Slip off the Neck

Metallica - "Master of Puppets"

The title track from Master of Puppets was an enormous hit for Metallica when it was released in 1986, and it features one of Kirk Hammett's most iconic solos. It also features a mistake that was so perfect that Hammett has been trying to recreate it for decades, to varying degrees of success.

During his final solo, Hammett's finger slips off the neck, pulling the top string off with it. It created a high-pitched squeal. While it might not have been what he intended, the result was beloved by fans and the band alike. It was even ranked #51 in Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.

The B-52s' Forgotten Stop

The B-52s - "Love Shack"

"Tin roof, rusted!" It's a mysterious line that's led to plenty of conjecture about its meaning, but it wasn't originally supposed to be part of the B-52s biggest hit, "Love Shack."

While recording "Love Shack," The B-52s took a live jam approach, especially at the end of the track. The band was freestyling and all dropped out at the same time, but singer Cindy Wilson hadn't realized when she came in with the ad libbed tin roof line.

As you can hear from the laughter immediately following the sheepish, "rusted," the band loved the moment and they kept it in. It ended up in the radio edit, becoming one of the most quoted lines from the song.

Bill Withers' (and More) Forgotten Lyrics

Bill Withers - "Ain't No Sunshine"

Forgotten and incorrect lyrics make their way onto released songs with some regularity, but there are a few cases where some of the most famous singers in popular music took the opportunity to create something more memorable than the original lyrics.

Bill Withers famously forgot the lyrics to 1971's "Ain't No Sunshine" during his recording session. Instead of stopping the tape, he tried to buy himself some time. How'd he do that? By repeating the lyric, "I know, I know, I know…" until he found his place again. Part of what makes this work is his delivery; he sounds like he's accepting an increasingly difficult fact.

Eleven years earlier, Ella Fitzgerald said to a crowd of her fans, "We hope we remember all the words," as the band started playing "Mack the Knife" from her Ella in Berlin live record. As you probably guessed, she did not remember all the words. But for what she didn't remember, she ad-libbed some charming lines and later took home two Grammy awards during the 3rd Annual Grammy Awards for her troubles.

Among this excellent company is also Fontella Bass, who forgot some of her own lyrics in 1965 while in the studio recording "Rescue Me." And like Withers, she too kept the session going. "Back then, you didn't stop while the tape was running," Bass said later. "I remembered from the church what to do if you forget the words. I sang, 'Ummm, ummm, ummm,' and it worked out just fine."

When you're recording music, it's understandable to want your performance and each take to be flawless. But a lot of studio magic is found in experimentation, mistakes, and being open-minded about what actually suits a song.

And, sometimes, a mistake or an accident can even influence others to replicate that sound, like the examples with Phil Collins, Marty Robbins, and Kirk Hammett. Other times, they make a song more fun and memorable, like The B-52s and Radiohead.

Start your recording experiments today, and don't sweat the mistakes.

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