Recording a Demo: 4 Tips for Songwriters

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Last week we took a look at 5 areas to be working on if you want to improve your songwriting skills. But what if you’re already confident in your abilities? Now you’re at the point where you want to get your material out there, in the hands of people with the financial backing and power to make something happen. Well, in that case it’s time to start recording a demo. Recording a demo is easy, making it something people will listen to, and take note of, well that’s something else entirely. Luckily for you songwriters out there, the process involved in making a demo can be a little simpler than for recording artists. So let’s get to it with 4 tips for songwriters recording demos.

Make a rough recording first.

Everyone’s songwriting and recording process is different, but the single essential component of making sure your song is finished and ready to be demo’ed is making a simple, rough recording. And when I say “simple” and “rough,” I mean exactly that. Record your song with only a single instrument, usually a piano or guitar, and vocals. And it doesn’t matter what kind of device you record with, even a smartphone will do fine. You’ll want to do this so you can get a different perspective on your music: that of the audience. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve run through your song as a musician, if you don’t sit back and simply listen to it with a lyric sheet in front of you, you’re going to miss out on a critical part of the writing and editing process. Sitting back and listening as an audience member gives you the opportunity to hear little flaws and missteps you might miss just singing it to yourself. Making a rough recording can give you the opportunity to make the final little adjustments and polish up your writing before going to record the demo. I highly recommend that you make this rough recording every time you think your song is finally finished. Keep listening until there are no more adjustments to be made.

As a nice little bonus, if you use a demo vocalist for your recording, your rough smartphone recording can give them an idea of how you intended the song to sound.

Don’t worry too much about the production.

For song pitches, your recording doesn’t need to be as “produced” as it should for recording artists. Many Artist & Repertoire (A&R) divisions of record labels prefer that you allow them to develop some emotional connection to the song by letting them imagine an accompanying tambourine, or backup singers. A&R people are far more concerned with the quality of the songwriting and the potential of the words than about the quality of the recording. You’ll want to keep the arrangements simple so that the vocals can be heard clearly, and deciphering the lyrics is effortless.

As for whether you should be recording in a professional or home studio, well, that’s really your call. However, with the incredible strides in home studio technology, there is little doubt you can get everything you need from a home studio. The equipment is so advanced today that, as long as you have some engineering skills, you can literally record a high quality album from home. On the other hand, if you don’t have any engineering skills, all the best home equipment in the world wont ensure a decent recording.

If you’re unsure, hiring a producer is always an option, and their professional ear can help give your demo the edge it may need. That being said, there are a lot of people out there calling themselves producers, without any real experience or know-how to back it up. If you feel like hiring a pro is right for you, do your research first.

Work with the right singer.

If you both wrote the song, and can sing, then you’re already way ahead. If you’re not so lucky to be blessed with both talents, that’s okay too, but you’ve got a few decisions to make before you start recording. First, does the song call for a male or female voice? Depending on the content of the lyrics, or the themes being expressed, this might be an important choice. Once you’ve decided on the gender of your performer, it’s equally important to choose someone who can relate to the type of song you’ve written. Most singers find themselves most comfortable in a specific few genres, it’s rare to find a “jack-of-all-trades,” so you’ll want to find someone that feels comfortable with not only the content, but the style.

Once you have your artist, be sure to sing the song for them a few times, and play that rough recording you made as well. This will help them understand the essence of what you’re going for, and should aid them in their performance. Let them absorb it for a while. Once they’re ready to record, let them do a few takes before making any comments. This let’s them get warmed up and comfortable with the song and music. Making comments or corrections too early can frustrate some singers, and throw them off well before they have gotten the chance to relax and feel the song fully.

Lastly, try to not be too controlling with your singer. This may be the most difficult part of the process, because it’s your baby, and you want it done the way you had envisioned it. But if you relax and allow your performer to do what they do best, you may be surprised by a few gems that you would never have imagined. A collaborative effort tends to produce a higher quality product.

Getting the right mix.

The final, and arguably the most critical part of making a good recording is getting a good mix. The biggest problem with this oh-so-critical aspect is that there are no rules of thumb, no best practices, no hard and fast measures. Audio mixing is more of an art than a science, and as such is an exceptionally personal experience. All I can really say is that all the elements have their place, and it’s best to just allow your ear and your emotions to guide you. Just remember that some elements are meant to be featured over others, so don’t try to keep everything at the same level. If you find yourself getting stuck, try listening to mixes of some of your favourite albums. Listening to artists of the same genre that you’re writing in can be especially helpful.