With recording technology so limitless these days, and the fact that so much music today is made at home, what place does recording a demo take? The relative necessity of “demo” is now quite debatable. Also, the sound quality associated with so-called “lo-fi” (demo quality) has been aesthetically acceptable for more than 10 years. Examples: Greg Milner explains in his book “Perfecting Sound Forever” that Bruce Springsteen’s expensive album “Nebraska” was mixed on a homemade stereo radio-cassette player Panasonic boombox fished out of a New Jersey river. The choice to release such a recording to the world music market was bold in 1982, but it will shock no one in 2017. Still, recording a demo is an enduring concept for reasons ranging from economic to social. For some artists, the demo can serve as a sample product designed to reach someone who can provide greater resources. For others – especially metal and hardcore bands – a demo is the first pass to the scene. Either way, most artists prefer not to take on the burden of both performing and recording their performances in a professional recording studio. So they use the home studio demo recording to hear and judge which of all the ideas are worth recording in the professional studio and releasing as a single or album. After all, most recording studios have invested tens of thousands of dollars (at least!) in microphones and preamps, and (hopefully) thousands of hours in training and experimenting with how to use them. So unless you’re an auteur or a geek (what’s the difference?), here are five suggestions on how best to go about recording your demo.
1. Know your audience.
What is the purpose of recording a demo? Send it to the producer you’ll be working with on an upcoming session to get them more familiar with your music? Or sending demos to record labels or a blog in hopes of getting attention? When it comes to sending demos to record labels, this approach always seems a bit unrealistic, but every now and then you’ll hear success stories – like Deafheaven with Deathwish Inc., based on a strong demo. (Note: We have some ideas on how to provoke journalists with your music.) Either way, all of these factors should be taken into account when recording your demo. Try to capture and emphasize the unique elements in the songs (if any). Pay the same attention to the arrangement of the songs on the album. Clearly presenting your music to your intended audience is one of the most important things!
2. Don’t overdo it!
You can go overboard by putting a mic on each individual drum, or you can get super good sound from the snare drum with just the overhead mics. Think about it: are you trying to impress listeners with your home recording skills, or are you trying to impress them with your songs? If this is indeed a demo, it is inherently a demonstration of potential and ideas, not accuracy and knowledge. Of course, there should also be sound so that the idea is understood well enough. Naturally, depending on the genre you play in, the process of recording a demo will be different: some bands might record it by playing live, while others will record it on a computer. In a perfect world you’d have unlimited studio time, but in reality that’s not the case. If you won’t have time and opportunity for details in the studio, don’t pay so much attention to them in your demo either. Make it sound as good as possible and move on… Don’t be one of those unknown geniuses who can’t finish revising their demo for years J Do you know any? There are already so many good samples and sound libraries out there that recording some really good drums is a breeze. Also, you can take your files into the studio and if the details you “messed up” in the demo are so imaginative, they can easily be used and incorporated into the recording.
3. “Consider your mistake as an ulterior motive.”
This phrase is written on one of Brian Eno’s famous Alternative Strategies cards. Whenever the famous composer/producer (U2, Talking Heads, David Bowie) found himself in a dead end situation in the studio, in order to find inspiration and a solution to the problem, he pulled a card from those of his own invention. (You can read more about “Alternative Strategies” in the article – 10 Things You Need to Know When Entering a Professional Recording Studio.) This is also good advice for anyone demoing their songs. For bands that record their demo live (without multitracking), it may differ in some detail each time it is played. Ask yourself when recording the different takes, what makes one more unique than the others? Did anyone make a mistake that might have improved the song? By recording the demo, you will have the opportunity to hear your song for the first time as a listener, not as a performer. When you listen, don’t look for what’s “wrong” – listen for what’s interesting. What you fail to notice while you are “in the song” and actively playing.
4. Beware of the danger of trying to re-record the demo in the same way in the studio.
Compliance with the above rule should be flexible. When you ditch the demo and replace it with your version professionally recorded in a recording studio, you need to be convinced that it’s the best possible version.
Demo “sticking” is a commonly diagnosed disease that artists suffer from when they can’t reproduce a certain performance or tone from the demo. When you record in a studio, you work with a producer whose job it is to analyze and recreate the mechanics of the sound. That’s their job. To use their resources to get the best sound. Your demo may have something that you as an artist may prefer, but it’s in your best interest to trust the producer, take advantage of the studio, and not get hung up on specific details from the demo. Unless you think you can clean it up enough for those details to go on the album, or bring the proper files to the studio from which to add them to the record.
5. Why demo?
In general, when recording a demo, keep in mind that it is done to hear a few basic things – the song structure and stylistic orientation, the sound of the instruments and the vocal lines. Very often when you listen to the demo, ideas come to you that move the song dynamically, structurally, and give it a much more finished look. Backing vocals, solos and percussion. Things you can’t think about while playing it live. And right in the demo is the place to add them to check how they fit in the song. Of course, this can also be done after the recording in the studio, but with this addition there may be other additions mainly to the budget. Don’t take the demo as the final version of the song and assume that it will be much better when it’s recorded in a recording studio. Stay tuned for more ideas to try and most importantly, keep having fun! Learn as much as you can about everything you will perform in the studio. Don’t worry too much about the fact that you are recording the “album of the century”! Be yourself and everything will be perfect! Or at least close to it 🙂
Oh yeah! The most important thing… when you record a demo before going into the studio, you’ll have the opportunity to learn the song the way you learn other bands’ songs by listening to them. And then when you record your song in a recording studio, you will focus on the emotionality of the performance. Which is actually the most important thing in any performance!
See also: 7 things you wish you knew before recording your first album
See also: 4 important things to know before booking a recording studio without a producer
See also: Less is more: 3 reasons why a simpler arrangement sounds bigger
See also: How to choose a recording studio that’s right for you
See also: 10 things you need to know when booking a professional recording studio