Demo Love

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“Demo Love” – that’s an expression we use in the songwriting biz when there’s something magical about the demo recording of a song. Of course it’s always amazing to hear an artist’s version of your song, but it’s rare to have the opportunity to be a part of that. Recording demos, though, is a big part of a professional songwriter’s job.

The term “demo” is short for “demonstration” – it’s a way to show off the song to artists who might consider recording it. So it’s got to be good! With the new and affordable advances in digital audio technology, many of us songwriters are “building” our own demos: playing or programming all the instruments ourselves and layering them together with software like Protools, Logic, QBase or Ableton. And although that can be a great way to make a demo, there’s just something truly wonderful about a whole group of musicians working together in the full-band demo process.

Making a full band demo means recording the song much like you would for a record, but on a much tighter timeline. It involves booking a recording session: hiring an incredibly talented band of studio musicians and engineers, leasing a 3-hour block in a top notch Music Row recording studio, and then the songwriter takes the helm as producer of the session. It’s pretty standard to record 5 songs during that 3-hour block.

The process goes like this: I arrive at the studio with a rough guitar/vocal worktape of my song, along with a basic chart of its format using the Nashville Number System. (This just shows the time signature, the key, the tempo and the chord progression, but no specific notes or melodies.)  After I play the worktape once for the band while they follow along on the charts to familiarize themselves with the song’s structure, they all grab their instruments and we immediately hit the record button. They play through the song while I sing what’s called a “scratch” or “pilot” vocal, which is a temporary version of the vocal just meant to be a place-holder for the musicians’ ears.

Sometimes, the first take is the magic take.  Sometimes we’ll need one or two more takes to nail the song, but we almost never play it more than that. Once we’ve nailed the track and captured that magic, the engineer presses record again and plays it back while the musicians play along to add more elements to it…a second acoustic guitar part, maybe a tambourine or shaker part, some additional keyboard pads, and a guitar solo. 30 to 45 minutes from when we started listening to the worktape, the track recording process is done.

As the producer, it’s my job to tell the band what to do. Sometimes I know exactly what I want, and I might say something like, “Let’s cut that intro from 8 bars to 4, start with just acoustic strums, then layer the piano in halfway through verse one, and the drums hit 4 on the floor when the chorus hits.” Or I’ll reference other musicians and say, “let’s try a more Coldplay vibe on this, instead of the Springsteen direction.” Or if I’m at a loss for words, then just “Can you make it more ethereal and shiny somehow?” But the musicians are so good that they usually read my mind anyways, or make it even cooler than I could have envisioned it inside my own head. After all, they do this all day every day! They also often come up with the musical “hook” of the introduction or a re-occuring instrumental riff that gives the song its signature feel (if we haven’t already specified that on the worktape during the writing process).

Once the song is tracked, I’ll load the session files onto my hard drive and take them with with me to a smaller vocal studio where a demo singer will record the vocal part. We usually choose a demo singer who can emulate the style of the artist we envision recording the song. Again, I’ll sit behind the engineer and back-seat drive for this process, giving the singer suggestions for how to phrase the lines and what kind of emotion to put into the various sections of the song. We’ll record anywhere from 5-10 versions of the vocal, and then I’ll take it home to my computer where I’ll “comp” the vocal: pick through it line by line to choose the best performance of each section, Frankenstein them all together into one consolidated version, nudge the timing of the phrases slightly forward or back to fit them in the “pocket” where they feel best, and then tune each phrase note by note with a tuning software. (As much as I miss the sound of a natural and untuned vocal, the listener’s ear is so used to hearing things through a tuner that we now HAVE to do it in order to compete with the other songs on the market.)

Once the vocal is comped and tuned, I sing the background parts at home, usually doubling or tripling each part with multiple versions of my voice to make it sound big and fat. I tune those parts up, put them all together, listen to the whole thing with the vocals turned up ridiculously loud to make sure nothing rubs me the wrong way, and then I ship the whole thing to the engineer.

Then it’s the engineer’s job to “mix” it: he literally mixes the instruments and voices all together like a big tapestry, deciding what should be loud or soft in each section. (Explaining this process could fill a whole book, because it involves lining up the drum beats on a time grid, processing each hit of the snare or kick drum to sound consistent, processing the EQ and reverb on each instrument and voice to cut through just right, and a million other things.) When he’s done, he’ll listen to the final product on a few different sets of speakers to make sure that whether you’re listening on a huge stereo or an iPhone, it’s gonna blow your socks off either way.

All in all, each demo probably averages 45 minutes to track with the band, an hour to record the vocal, an hour to comp the vocal, maybe 45 minutes to sing backgrounds, and then 1 or 2 hours to mix it. That’s somewhere around 5-6 hours of solid work spent on each demo, and roughly $600-$800 covers the cost of the song.

Then, the demo goes into the hands of my publisher and they run to play it for anyone who can help get it on a record: a record label A&R person, a manager, a producer, or the artist themselves. And we hope like heck that they’ll record it and sell a ton of records…or at least sell enough records to make back the $800 we spent on the demo! (Plus the thousands of dollars we spent on demos of songs that DIDN’T end up getting recorded…but that’s another conversation.)

Anyhow, that’s the full band demo process in a nutshell!

*****

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