Making a demo that works for you…

Planning your demo recording experience…

A killer demo recording is one of the most important tools that an artist or band can have in their arsenal. It is also one of the most difficult things to accomplish on short notice and within budget. Time, financial constraints, and a clear objective view of what specific tasks your demo needs to accomplish are critical to success.

There is actually a long history of demos in the recording industry. It goes all the way back to the beginning when Edison was tinkering with the lineup of wax recordings that would be offered on his new wax cylinder lineups. These were what were called “Test Recordings” and were approached with the utmost scientific method and served double-duty as experiments in new technology and a new medium. These days, there is still a lot of technology, science and experimentation that happens in recording studios, but if we’re going to talk about demos, then we should acknowledge that there is a place to experiment and then there’s a place to get things done. It’s important to realize that experimentation requires significant time, patience and room for failure. This all costs money, and it’s a good idea to consider right off the bat what sort of recording experience you’re looking for/can afford. This essay should help navigate the reader in the  appropriate direction based upon examination of some preliminary questions and considerations of what a demo is really all about.

1. What is a Demo?

This is a great place to start. Demo recordings should be just what their name suggests: A demonstration of the abilities of a group or artist. So when a band tells me that they want to make a demo, then my first question is: What skills do you need to demonstrate?

It’s a common misconception that a band only needs one demo. There are different tools for different jobs. Within those tools, there are sub-sets of tools. For example: A screwdriver is a tool you need to tighten or loosen a screw, but not all screwdrivers will work on all types of screws. Similarly, an effective demo must be engineered to perform a specific task for the artist based upon specific needs. For example, a demo used to get gigs at weddings would not be appropriate for shopping to record labels. Most successful bands have a variety of recordings that they have compiled over time that demonstrate different skills and they compile those recordings onto various custom playlists that fit the needs of whatever job they are applying for. This is similar to how you might customize the order and type of accomplishments on your resume for different jobs requiring different skills and experiences. A demo should be equally versatile and should always present the most relevant skills for the job you’re after. This means that the audience is an important part of the creation process. If you know whom you’re making the demo for you can sculpt the product in such a way as to deliver them the goods without forcing them to sift through miscellaneous information.

2. Preparation

It is a good idea to first identify what the specific goals are of the demo you want to record and frame all of your big decisions within the context of the question: “Would doing this help the recording to better demonstrate the skills necessary to obtain my goal.” As a producer, I ask this question all of the time. That’s because preparing for booking a studio recording is quite a different process than the process of booking and performing a live show. In the studio, you are paying an hourly or day rate and are working in real-time, but the product typically isn’t formed in real-time. Songs may be performed over and over and parts may be overdubbed later or edited out and it’s incredibly easy within the heat of a session to lose track of the clock. It’s not uncommon for it to take several hours to complete one three and a half minute song in the studio, so it’s all that much more important that you are prepared to get down to business quickly and make decisions in a fast and effective way. This includes choices involving finding material that can be consistently played well, managing productive rehearsals, hiring the best engineer or producer, booking the right studio for the right price, and even choosing the right quantity and packaging. If these decisions don’t relate to the needs you are trying to address with the creation of the demo, then you are doomed to waste time and money.

3. Choosing Songs

There are some common mistakes that bands make when they sit down to choose the music they will record. I recommend looking at the following elements:

a. What is the range that you want to show as a band? Is it appropriate to show versatility as with a wedding band that may be called upon to play jazz, disco and classic rock all in one night? Should you have quiet songs and loud ones? Variety is a nice thing to represent in these cases and the music should be chosen accordingly. Recordings can also be organized the same way; record two jazz songs, then two R&B songs, then two rock songs and end with a ballad. This allows a moment to change setups where necessary and keeps the band’s energy focused on one genre at a time.

b. What key are your songs in? Try to not make every song in the key of A. It’s nice to have variety here as well.

c.  What tempo are your songs? Again try to record songs that run the gamut of possible tempos. It keeps things interesting for the listener and shows off range.

d. How long does each song need to be? Most of the time, you have 10 seconds to catch someone’s attention and to give a taste of what you sound like. It may only be appropriate for each song to be only 20 seconds long and arrangements may need to be condensed to accommodate.

3. Budgeting

It’s usually the case that there will be some elements of production that will be flexible and other’s that wont. A good place to start is with the budget. It’s always surprised me how many people believe that the way to get a better demo is to spend more money. My only rationale for this is that it’s a side effect of people’s belief that all demos should be of sufficient quality to be played on the radio. The fact is, there are things that are worth investing in and then there are things that won’t get you any more bang for the buck. Some of the things worth spending money on that DO make a difference in a demo recording are:

  1. The space you record in – Is it comfortable to make music here? Will the space inspire the right performance from your band? Big, expensive spaces inspire some bands while others might be intimidated. Luckily, there are a lot of options out there and it’s definitely a buyer’s market.
  2. How much studio time you will need – This is the Holy Grail question of every production. The answer lies in how prepared your group is for the recording and the method you go about it. Live recording is a great way to get the job done fast, but it will require a perfect performance from each member. Multi-tracking (where each instrument is recorded on its own separate track) means that parts can be recorded one at a time and allows maximum control over performance, but it takes longer to achieve a complete take of a song. This is where a producer can come in handy…
  3. Should you hire a producer? – Producers are a great idea. They can keep an eye on things that you as a performer cant. They are able to interact with the band as an outside member and can also make suggestions to the engineer that free you up as the musician to concentrate on making music and less distracted with the business aspects of the session.
  4. Quality. Speed & Price – There’s an old adage about production: “There’s three elements you want; Speed, Quality and Price – but you can only have two.” It’s easy to get a fast recording cheap, but it may be impossible to expect high quality. It’s also possible to get a quality recording at a great price, but it may be impossible to expect to get it fast. This can also apply to the recording process. I mention this because it ends up being less of an issue if you spend time figuring out the scope of the recording you need upfront. For example; a demo for a live gig would require a recording that represents how well the band plays live so there’s no need to spend hours in the studio doing overdubs or perfecting a guitar solo. Therefore, a live recording can be fast, cheap, and as long as the band was well rehearsed and the room and microphones were adequate, there’s no need to sacrifice quality. A studio demo to shop to labels on the other hand, might require more investment to demonstrate a different skill-set.

4. What is Mixing?

It’s a complicated process that usually happens behind closed doors and requires the skill of a seasoned engineer with a specialized set of ears and know-how. The basic philosophy of a mix is that when you record instruments on their own separate tracks, they need to be blended together again in such a way that represents the way the group intended to sound as a whole. This might mean using tools to carve away any unwanted frequencies in certain instruments or controlling the overall volume of an instrument throughout the song so that it doesn’t get in the way of other instruments or key song elements. Effects can also be added at this phase like reverb or delays. In demo recording, this is not usually a process that takes tons of time, however, it’s still very important to the overall cohesiveness of the song and can make all the difference in a recording. A conservative suggestion would be to budget for at least two hours/song for mixing.

5. What is Mastering?

Perhaps more misunderstood than the mixing process; the purpose of mastering is to ensure that the relative balance of instruments the mix engineer has crafted translates well across a wide variety of playback systems and situations. This means that the way it sounds in the studio is the same way it will sound in the car, on home stereo speakers, a boom-box etc. While I always recommend mastering to clients when possible, it is not necessarily crucial for a demo for a wedding gig and might be more appropriate for a demo that will be sent to labels instead.

6. Packaging

A first impression is really, really important. These days, so many recordings are easily made and uploaded to the web, but the successful ones catch people’s eyes. Taking the time to find a talented professional photographer and graphic designer is one of the best ways to ensure that your music gets played when you send it out or post it on the web. These people usually don’t work for free, but I’ve found that for between $200-$450 you can hire some pretty awesome talent with the equipment, experience and know-how to ensure that you end up looking professional and well represented.

Additionally, it’s important to think about duplication ahead of time. A short run of about 50-100 copies is an appropriate amount for most demos. The cost will vary depending on what sorts of materials you choose (Jewell case vs cardboard sleeve) but it’s well worth the investment, as it will bump the prestige of your endeavor tremendously.

About the author:  Gabe Herman is a recording engineer, producer, sound designer and audio educator. He is the owner and chief engineer of AudioGabriel Inc. based in Somerville, MA where he has worked with a myriad of internationally acclaimed artists and recorded hundreds of demos. Gabe is also full time faculty and the Assistant Director of Music Production and Technology at the Hartt School in West Hartford, CT. When not writing articles about recording, he can be found on the golf course and in his wood-shop.