The Song Demo<BR>Part Three: Studio Hurdles

Written by songwriting  |  16. February 2001

In the last two articles, I've tried to cover many of the key things to consider when developing a song demo, including where to go and how to approach the arrangement. This month, let's wrap things up with some tips for surviving the actual studio experience.
Time Really is Money
Cutting a demo is not like making an album. Unless your demo gets signed, gets you signed, or gets you gigs, there's no return on the investment. Unless you feel like throwing away some money, try to be as productive as possible. Here are some basic guidelines for your first studio experience:
  • When you book studio time somewhere, the clock starts running whether you're there or not. If you book a four hour session, then show up ten minutes late, spend ten minutes tuning/warming up, and spend ten minutes talking to your spouse or significant other on the telephone, don't expect the studio to chop a half hour off your bill because tape (real or virtual) wasn't running.
  • Session cancellation policies vary, but most studios require a minimum of 24 hours notice if you need to cancel a session. Any closer than that, and you may find yourself responsible for half or all of the session bill anyway.
  • Media costs (tape, DATs, CDs, etc.) are additional expenses on top of the hourly rate.
  • Most studios prefer to be paid at the end of each session. If you develop a good rapport with a studio, they may occasionally let you slide by and pay at the end of a given project. Most, however, will not release session material until they have been paid in full.
  • While some studios will have a lounge, some facilities will not allow you to smoke at all, or at the very least, not smoke in the control room. Check before you book if this is a factor for you or any of your hired guns (producers, musicians, etc.).

    Smooth Sailing
    Okay, so what can one do to make things run smoothly during a session? You'd be surprised. Sometimes the simplest things make all the difference. You giggers out there know what I'm talking about. Bring your tuner (and some fresh batteries). Bring some extra strings or reeds. Bring extra picks. Take some extra fuses for your amps. Check your tuning or synth patches or whatever before you pack up your gear and head to the studio to avoid any last minute surprises later. Audio and MIDI cables aren't likely to be a problem at any respectable studio, but don't be afraid to bring 'em just in case, and for goodness sake, don't forget your power cables!
    If you'll be singing, warm up before or on the way to the session. If you're playing on the demo, know all your parts inside and out. Most of the really good session players can just show up with their gear, listen through the tune once, and get right to playing. However, if that's not the case, then make sure you've provided all your hired guns with whatever materials (reference tracks, chord charts, etc.) they need - and the time -- to learn the song before the session if that's how they like to work.
    Next come the less obvious things that many people don't think of until after their first session:
  • Extra lyric sheets/chord charts. Hang one in the vocal booth. Give one to the producer to mark up. Make sure you give one to the engineer. Keep one for yourself. Have another one handy for each musician to write his/her cues. . . you get the idea.
  • Have a clear idea of what you want. If you've hired a producer, make sure you're comfortable with the production plan. If you haven't hired a producer, get a clear idea of how you want the song to be built. Don't wait until you're in the studio to start discussing the need to record six tracks of backing vocals in the chorus.
  • Don't overdo it. It's tempting to book a twelve hour session, then try to get everything done at once. Sometimes this will work, but recording and mixing several songs in one day can be overwhelming. Fatigue and repetition can deaden your perception and cloud your judgement. Don't book longer sessions until you're sure that you can make the most of the time -- and even then make sure you break for a meal and can return a half hour or an hour later with fresh ears.
  • Leave it to the professionals. Everyone in the room at a demo session is there to help you make a great demo. Give everyone the room they need to do their job. While it's great and time saving to give session players a clear idea of what you want, the single greatest thing you can do with them is let them have a take or two to play what they feel. You'd be amazed at what you might get. Similarly, if you're a bit ahead of schedule and the producer has an idea that could really blow the top off the track, give him some room to experiment. If the engineer needs five more minutes to tweak the acoustic guitar sound, give it to him. He's working to make your demo better, and that's what you're paying them for!
  • Be ready for some new experiences. Some people freak when they first hear themselves on tape. Some have trouble staying loose when their performance is being captured on tape. Some feel intimidated if they're laying down a part while superior players are in the room. There are just as many psychological challenges to recording as there are logistical challenges. Don't worry! Everybody starts somewhere - just try to have fun with it.

    Well, there you have it. The end of our first trilogy. If you have any questions or comments about this or any other songwriting columns -- or if you have a topic you'd like me to cover here, you can reach me at songwriter@singleflame.com. Next month, we'll start with a whole new topic. The prior installments of this series can be viewed by click on the 'View archived articles' link below.
    Until then, get out and play some of your songs, and if you get the chance, check out Songhaven on February 24th at the Morrill Theatre (call 631-979-5942 for reservations). Two of my favorite singer/songwriters -- Bill Meehan and Jim Dexter -- will be joined by drummer/percussionist Isaac Ramaswamy and violinist Rich Stein for a benefit concert. Admission is $15, and all proceeds go to Breast Cancer research.

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