Recording a Demo
Once the song is written to the satisfaction of the artist or producer, recording a demo is usually the next step in the music production process. It can be as simple as a single instrument with voice, or it can be a mock production that attempts to demonstrate what the full production will sound like once recorded. In either case, it must represent the fundamental message of the song no matter what way it is presented. It will serve as a reference to all other people who will working on the project.
Quite often, the demo recording is part of the songwriting process. When inspiration strikes, it must be captured so not forgotten. In many cases, these ideas are put together in a piecemeal fashion in an effort to create the song, but do not have the same coherency as a cleanly recorded demo. Once the ideas are worked out, it is very important to rerecord these ideas as a single performance. A piecemeal recording may not uncover issues that arise in the transitions from one section to the next. Recording a demo will help you to solve those problems before entering the recording studio for real.
In addition to smoothing out transitions, recording a demo is critical to the development of the song and its music production elements. A demo will allow you to audition ideas without the need to necessarily perfect them. When recording a demo, a harmony part added in the chorus section does not need to be perfectly in tune or in time. It just needs to convey the intention so that a critical determination of the part can be made. Does the harmony convey the proper emotion? Does it achieve a desired effect like raising the energy of chorus section? Should it be used throughout the song or just for select words or phrases?
Answering these types of questions will help you to find the best approach for the final music production. When recording a demo, you can make mistakes, play around with ideas and add depth and meaning to the song. There are many ways to go about this critical process. The best way for you depends on what skills you have, how well you collaborate with others, and what kind of guidance and perspective you may need to achieve the best results...
The great part about recording a demo using this method is that it allows you to get the input of other musicians who likely think the same way you do. Specially if you are in a band together. Because they likely study their own instrument more that you do, they can help to create parts that are not generic or typical. Good musicians will be sensitive to the ebb and flow of the song, they will add ideas and will adjust their performances accordingly to the ideas of others.
Of course, not every musician has those sensitivities. In the wrong hands, a song can become completely butchered if the musicians are not sensitive to the message of the song. It is critical that the message, intention, feeling and motivation of the song is made very clear to everyone involved. You may already have an idea of the direction you want to take when recording a demo of your song. It is very important that this message is conveyed when presented to the band.
Whenever you work with different personalities in creative situations there is always the potential for conflict. It is important to work with people who are like minded or have a complimentary personality to yours. Creative partnerships are not always easy to come by. Musicians that are very good at what they do are likely in demand and may be hard to pin down. Depending on your personality, collaborating with others, when recording a demo, will generally take on one of 3 basic directions. A simple evaluation of yourself will determine what the best way to proceed when creating your demos.
The Three Basic Artist Types:
- Strong Personalities: An artist with a strong personality is best suited to pay musicians to work for them when recording a demo. If you know exactly what you want, paying people gives you the levity to demand a course of action or direction as you see fit. Conflict often arises when a strong personality tries to impose their way of thinking on a musician who is not getting paid. What is in it for them? If they have no creative input then there is no reason for them to be there in the first place.
- Collaborators: Collaborators work well with other people and are open to feedback and input from other musicians. Unlike the Strong personality type that dictates all the terms, the other musicians involved are allowed to give feedback and creative input when recording a demo. Since there is an exchange, the musician is more likely to work with you for little are no money because they feel they are part of the creative process. Of course, if you reap rewards from the fruit of your work together it is wise to share those earnings to keep the productive relationship working.
- Pure Artists: The pure artist is one that seemingly lives in their own little world but somehow has great insights into the way the "real" world works. They offer a fresh perspective of life through the creation of their art. Words like organization, planning, direction and focus on mundane matters are not part of their world. This type of artist is best suited to work with a producer or manager that can help them to bring their art into tangible form. A guiding hand that allows their creative energies to be channeled into something productive like recording a demo.
Once you have determined where you stand as an artist you will be able to answer the following questions:
- Who should you work with?
- Under what terms or conditions should you work with them?
- How will your collaboration with other people benefit them as well as you?
- It is important to be true to yourself in the process.
- Do not try to cheat others by just getting free time from them recording a demo. There must always be a fair exchange, whether it is monetary, exchange of favor or by including them in the creative process.
2. Recording a Demo Yourself
One of the great things about technology is the ability to have almost any instrument instantly available to you in some form to aid in the creative process. Whether the sounds are pre-recorded music and MIDI loops or raw sample libraries that require your to perform the part entirely yourself, the possibilities are endless. Whatever music style you write in, there is a library of sounds and technology available to help fulfill your vision when recording a demo.
The greatest benefit to this way of working is that it is always on your terms. You can write or work on your music whenever the creative juices are flowing. Whether you are an impulsive writer or very disciplined one, this method often achieves the best results for those that have a clear vision of what they want and the ability to perform or program it.
In some cases, if the level of understanding and musicianship in working with different instruments is deep enough, a final product that is worthy of commercial release can be created. If the songwriter has a limited relationship with instruments other than their own, they will often create something that is generic or outside of the design and realistic capabilities of the acoustic instrument. This may achieve interesting results, but could also render an acoustic version impossible to recreate.
The biggest hurdle to overcome, when recording a demo, is being completely honest with yourself about what works and what doesn't. More simply stated, perspective. The biggest issue in creating a music production is that when we listen to something over and over again, it becomes ingrained in our consciousness and can easily be misconstrued as catchy or easy to remember. It's too easy to convince yourself that your ideas are good, because you don't have the perspective of a person who is reacting on a first listen.
Preconceived ideas about what your song "is", or "isn't", can sometimes destroy a song, and limit its potential. Historically, very few successful artists produce all of their own studio work without the help or guidance of a producer. The ones that do, often collaborate with other songwriters or people whose opinion they respect. In a nutshell, most artists need somebody to call then on their own BS.
Feedback and Opinions:
Artists that are overly sensitive to honest feedback have the most to lose in situations like this. Keep an open mind! The important thing to remember here is that the specific feedback given by others is not always right. It's more important to understand that the "negative" feedback may be drawing attention to the fact that something about your music production is not right. Somehow, the message of your song is not obvious and undeniable at first listen.
It's very important not to solicit opinions from everybody. When you play your music for others, watching them is more important then asking them what they think. Notice if their body moves to the beat or if their attention wanes and they start talking about something else. Most importantly, notice where in the song that you lose them, if at all. If you notice that people always turn to comment to you at the same point in the song, you have may a clue to where the problem is.
Remember, the body is always more honest than what someone says. Notice if they move, bounce, tap their feet, bob their head when listening to the track. Do they sing the melody when walking out of the room, or when they come back into the room? These are clear honest signals that come from an unconscious reaction to your music. This is how almost all consumers make their decisions when buying music. From he gut!
3. Getting Production Help
Sometimes, we can lose perspective on our own work because we are too deep into the details and have no vision of the overall song. This is a very common problem today for artists that spend too much time with production elements before the basics of the song are written and in place. When you find yourself in these situations, it usually means that it is time to get help and a fresh perspective
If you are not clear about how to produce your song, team up with someone you trust to help give you a fresh perspective. A fellow musician, songwriter or producer with a fresh set of ears may hear immediately what the issue is and add inspiration for a new direction when recording a demo. Keep an open mind and work with them if you can. If their ideas don't pan out, at least you'll know what doesn't work
A fresh perspective may also help you find problem areas in your song that were not apparent to you as you were writing it. This is typically the part of the music production process where a producer takes over to give a coherent direction for the project as a whole. The reason why a good producer is so valuable is that they can respond to a production from a professional perspective that includes both the overall vision of the project as well as the most minute details.
Unless you have a friend that is brutally honest with you, and we mean BRUTAL, it is usually best to work with someone that is not familiar with you. The problem when recording a demo with friends is that they are very aware of who you are and what your personality is. When listening to your song, they will 'get it' because they have a history with you. They know you. They have a perspective of you that almost nobody else in the world does.
When working with a good producer that does not know you personally, they will confront you very directly on what does not work. It can be very uncomfortable as ideas you may cherish are bowled over because they realize that no one else will understand them. This is a great opportunity to grow as a songwriter and an artist. This is quite often the biggest failing of artists and songwriters. Sticking to your guns and pretending that your work is perfect and everyone will get it almost always leads to an early demise.
This does not mean that you sell your soul and give up all you believe in and just do what the producer says. Your personality as an artist is what is most important to selling your work. The bottom line is to make that message clear to the producer so that they will guide you in that direction. Don't let a producer create an image for you that does not feel true to who you are or how you want to be seen. Not every producer is a good fit. It may be that the producer you found just doesn't get your music. Find one that does.
The demo is an idea generating machine. It allows us to formulate what works and what doesn't before committing to the process of creating the final music production. Occasionally, some or all of the demo ends up being used as the final product. On Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill", the demo vocals were used in the final production because they conveyed incredible emotion and power that was too difficult to reproduce in the professional production. Anything is possible...
The next step in the music production process is rehearsals. Some artists think that rehearsals only apply to band recordings because this is the most obvious situation. In my opinion, however, any music that needs live performances like vocals or acoustic instruments is better served by working out the studio recording approach as well as the finer details that need attention before the final recording. This is particularly true for hired performers that may have never heard the song before or do no what will be expected of them.