How to Make the Best Demo Recordings
Musicians who aspire to function in the music business at any level need to make demo recordings. If you’re looking for booking, management or even a gig, you need to have a demo. If you’re pitching songs at other artists or publishing companies, you really need to have a demo. If you’re forming a band or teaching your group new songs, having a demo short-cuts that process. And if you’re making an album, it’s smart to demo songs before you get into an expensive studio and start cutting tracks.
There are a few universal aims for a finished demo. The vocal performance should be strong, the lyrics should be clear, the playing should be tight, the playback level should ideally be similar to that of a CD you’d play for entertainment, and it should sound good on an MP3 player, though ear buds, in a car and on a home stereo. Titles, copyright information and your contact info need to be directly written on CD copies and MP3 title tags should at least have your name. If you submit a demo to another artist or publisher, include a lyric sheet.
Those essentials stated, there are three levels in the world of demo recording:
• Basic: There is a school that believes a good song is a good song, regardless of how it’s presented. So having a bare-bones demo is often perfectly satisfactory. Just your voice and a guitar can get a good song or riff across to a band or to other artists. In the old days, some songwriters recorded their new ideas on cassettes, like Keith Richards’ did when he woke up one night and dropped the “Satisfaction” riff on tape, and then slipped back to sleep and recorded a half-hour of snoring.
Today, everything from the “voice memo” function on your smart phone to portable MP3 recorders to a laptop to a Pro-Tools rig can be used for making demos. Heck, it’s even possible to find cassette recorders and tapes if you look hard enough. If you exercise the basic option, just be sure you record in a quiet place where both your voice and your guitar chords can print cleanly enough to be entirely audible on playback. A good musician or artist will be able to “hear” the other parts of a song’s arrangement after listening a time or two if the tune is something they relate to.
All that said, if you’re planning to circulate a demo of a song or songs, it would ultimately need to be in the form of both a playable audio CD and MP3s. You might need a compressor or software to push the volume level of your performance up to an appropriate level if you’re recording with your iPhone or making a transfer from cassette. Music biz types will want to receive your songs in those formats. And if you want your band to have a chance to practice a new tune before coming to rehearsal, there’s no more efficient way to deliver a track to several musicians at once than email.
• Medium: If you’re pitching record labels, managers or other music business types who might not be as song focused as artists or publishers, it’s good to crank things up a notch with multitracking. Recording demos at this level also works best for album preproduction. It gives you a chance to define ideas and experiment with overdubs, additional instruments, mixing ideas and other possible areas of sonic expansion and exploration without running up a studio bill. This is the level Pete Townshend demo’d at for such classic albums as Quadrophenia and Who’s Next.
Talking of Townshend, check out his Scoop album for a collection of Who demos.
If you’re cutting by yourself, simple audio recording software like GarageBand will do. If you’re capable on guitar and bass, there may be a drum loop already bundled with the software that will do the job of anchoring the tracks. Investigate. Otherwise various drum samples can be downloaded inexpensively. Play and time your song before you record, so you can plan to lay down a longer drum loop than you actually need. Having extra measures of beats before you start to play and sing will help you get into the song, and at the finish a longer drum track allows for better fading and codas, and makes editing easier.
Then record your instruments track by track. You can use an audio interface and/or microphones, but for electric instruments it’s far easier to use the amp emulating software and the effects available as part of the recording package than to record external sources. You can plug guitars and basses straight into a good laptop using a quarter-inch to eighth-inch converter jack. Cutting vocals is trickier. A laptop with a built-in mike will do the job, but the results will be a bit hissy or noisy. A microphone plugged into an interface/preamp will get a good clean print, and the popular Zoom recorder series can also be plugged directly into a laptop and used as a mike when set to “microphone” mode, yielding very good results.
If you’re going to cut a band live on laptop software, there’s a whole different group of challenges that need to be overcome. A mixer/preamp interface or mixer with a separate amp, multiple microphones and software that will permit multi-tracking verses one-track-at-a-time recording are requirements. There is also the issue of isolation. Chess, Cobra and Sun Records all got superb results with one microphone and a studio full of players in the early 1950s, but you should find ways to prevent as much bleeding of sound between instruments as possible. Cover amps with blankets after they’re miked; shove amps in closets. Tiled bathrooms make great vocal booths, but if the singer is in the same space as the band you will need to pay very close attention to the vocals. If the singer is too close to the band, the players will also come through his or her microphone and muddle the vocal track, which can lead to very messy, inaudible vocal performances.
• High: Things get more complicated as the stakes rise. In contemporary country music, for example, writers taking a shot at getting a song cut by a top artist will often go into a B-level professional studio with a full band of demo session players to record their songs. This is usually not for the benefit of the song or for the intended artists as much as for the record company personnel who may also be sitting in on the meeting where the song gets evaluated. These are often marketing, sales and promotion professionals who haven’t the slightest idea about music as anything more than a commodity. They need to hear every instrument in place as it would appear on their label’s release, because otherwise they will very likely not be able to grasp the musical content, direction or value of a song. Their participation in creative meetings at record labels is one of the reasons that contemporary country music is so full of imagination, life, intelligence and originality.
Anyway, it can cost between $250 and $500 to get two songs recorded, mixed and ready at this level of demoing. If you get a track placed on the next Carrie Underwood album, it’s worth every penny and more. A lot more. If you also perform your own material, after five or six of these two song sessions you may have coincidentally made your next album.
In the pop music realm record labels will often front money for their artists to demo possible album tracks in this manner as well. At any rate, this is a level of the demo-making game that most of us will not be playing at, unless we’re one of the musicians hired for the demo sessions.
Gibson Pro-Audio has some superior studio products that will enhance any demo session.