Compare any sleek 21st Century recording to a song recorded in the 1950's or earlier and you will notice a distinct difference in the production quality when you pay attention. However, that song from the 50's that you've been singing along to since you first heard it on your grandpa's radio was, and still is, a classic hit for a reason; it was a great song in the first place, performed by great players, using likely some of the better instruments available at the time. In my humble opinion, the last ingredient is a little bit off magic of interaction between the players, recording engineer, producer and environment.
I've learned over the years that a less-than-interesting song, played on poor quality, poorly tuned instruments, performed by timid players will yield, at best, a mediocre final recording. An average song performed by players that don't execute well in the most expensive recording studio in the world, will still sound like average song. I am the first to advocate, however, that bands cut their teeth and write and record lots of songs, as it is the best way to learn and improve. All of this said, here are a few tips to hopefully help the learning curve.
1. Step back from your songs and detach yourself from them. Don't be afraid to re-write parts to make them better, and open yourself up to improving your songs by soliciting feedback from others who may have more experience and success at songwriting than you do. So many songs I hear recorded in the studio are the first draft, imagine how successful any book on the NY Times best seller list would sell if the first draft was released.
2. Go into the studio with the best instruments possible. You may really like your drum kit because it's sparkly blue and is fitted with your favorite heads that have been on the kit for 5 years, however, the microphone won't record sparkly blue, but it will replicate the dull sound of your 5 year old heads. Ask a friend who has better gear if you can borrow a piece for a session if you don't have the best gear, or record at a studio that has top gear on hand for you to use. Remember, change strings, change heads and tune, tune, tune!
3. Practice your songs. Once you have great songs ready to go, practice them until they are as tight as possible. This will not only facilitate a better/confident sounding final recording, but it will cut down on time and save you money in the studio. My one caveat here is that sometimes a few minor changes in the studio due to a mistake can often lend themselves to the creative process.
I was fortunate enough to visit and tour Jack White's "Third Man Records" recently where all music is recorded in one-take, in front of a live audience and cut directly to vinyl record...no Pro-Tools (DAW) edits or re-takes. Just pure magic of the moment. Jack's album, "Lazaretto" debuted at number on the Billboard 200, proof that preparation, great players and great instruments pay off. This great album was recorded and released to fans in a little over 3 hours, more support that hoping hours in the studio will make your songs a hit may not always be the case.