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The Song Demo<BR>Part One: Where to Go

Written by songwriting  |  17. November 2000

I just got married last month (hence the reason this article is a bit late - my wife and I were sunning ourselves with Mickey and the gang down in Disneyworld), which gives me a great topic for this month's column. True to songwriter form, I couldn't be content giving my bride an ordinary wedding gift. Nope, yours truly chose instead to write a song to celebrate what was arguably the most important day of my life thus far (aside from being born, anyway). What began as a casual effort months before the big day became an all out sprint-with-every-songwriting-muscle-you've-got as the finish (dead)line approached.
While I'm often called upon to help artists develop their demos, I found myself making all sorts of interesting observations about my own demo process, some of which I'd like to share with you. In a future installment, I may compile the raw, in-process, and final forms of the song and dedicate an article to it ("Rewriting and Revising - How to Drive Yourself Nuts"), but for now I'll spend the next few articles focusing on the actual demo process.
The act of making a demo can vary greatly from one writer to the next. Some keep the writing and recording as seperate as possible. Others like to work up a demo as they're writing, so that they can play it for others and refine it along the way. Some even prefer to pass the whole thing off to a producer and have very little involvement in the act of making their demo.
I've never passed a demo off to a producer, so I'm not going to pretend I have any expertise here. If you want to investigate that option, you can start by finding out who's producing records locally and then get in touch with them. Head down to local open mics and ask around. If you're writing for the Nashville market, get hold of some of the Nashville trades. Many include classified sections with listings of demo producers.
Unless you plan to record your demo at a live gig, the creation of your demo will likely involve a studio.
For most writers, budget is much more of a factor than we'd like. Renting studio time at a mid- or high-level facility will cost you anywhere from $45-$100 per hour. In most cases, this is overkill for a demo. However, if you're going to spend that kind of money on a demo (out of necessity or desire), make sure you're prepared before the clock starts running. One day in the studio could put you out nearly a thousand dollars including media, travel, and food(!) Expect to spend an hour setting up, no matter how small you think the session will be. If you want to record several songs in one sitting (a good idea for all you singer/songwriters), consider booking a second session a few days later to mix it all with fresh ears. It may be "only a demo", but if you give it a little extra attention, it will pay you back in spades.
Somewhat lower on the scale are the "basement/bedroom warrior" studios. There are countless numbers of us who have had a taste of recording at home and been seduced by the comfort and (lack of) cost. If you're not already in this category, don't sweat it - head out to an open mic and you'll probably find at least one or two people who have a home studio. Many will offer their services at a much lower rate than the pro studio levels mentioned above. Two bits of advice here: One, listen to something they've done before you book a session. There's a wide variance in the quality of home studio-based engineers. That's all I'm going to say about that. Two: Don't kid yourself - you'll be recording in someone's basement or bedroom. If a truck goes by during a take, you'll probably hear it. The recording room/area almost certainly hasn't been acoustically treated by a professonal, and the final mix probably won't sound like the pros.
While renting a studio is certainly an option, it's not the only option. With the advent of low cost, high quality digital recorders, a home recording revolution of sorts has occurred within the industry. Ten years ago, modular digital multitracks such as the Alesis ADAT and the Tascam DA-88 series were only on the horizon. Now they've become something of a standard among entry and mid-level project studios everywhere.
The computer industry, meanwhile, has been keeping a good pace with the near-continuous stream of faster and faster processors over the past decade. On a fast Pentium III or Apple G3/G4 and software from Cakewalk, Emagic or Cubase, songs can be recorded, re-arranged, re-mixed and revised countless times. How good can a computer really be in the studio? Check out Chistina Aguilera's monster hit, "Genie in a Bottle", which was sequenced in Logic, or Cher's pitch-morphing "Believe" vocal, which was done in Cubase VST. If you're interested in setting up a home studio, buying an ADAT or Tascam digital recorder or a high speed computer is a great way to begin. Just make sure you've spent some time in a studio somewhere with an engineer before you spend money to set yourself up at home. Know what you're getting yourself into -- not everyone in this world is cut out to be an engineer.
And let's not forget the venerable Pro Tools - a computer recording system so established and well-positioned in the industry that the usage of its name has gone from a noun to a verb. ("Don't worry about the vocals here, we'll Pro Tools it together later.") For editing and processing multitrack audio, few things can match it.
Notice I haven't mentioned anything about cassette multitracks? While they can produce acceptable results, I don't recommend them. Still, if it's what you've got and it's all you can afford, make the best of it. Be sure to clean and demagnetize the heads regularly, and be kind to your cassettes.
Whew! That's a lot of options. Next time, we'll talk about arrangement and musicians. See you then!


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