Demo recordings are bedrock in our industry. Lifeblood. Central. At the core. Etc. Everybody who wishes to make commercial recordings has to make demo recordings. They are Part Of The Business.
So naturally, recording demos turned out to be a primary part of my studio business, back when I had a real studio. As you can imagine, I came to have some strong opinions about what makes a good demo.
Since then, I’ve been on the other end of the stick. I’ve had to listen to a lot of demos that people have given to me for one reason or another, and I’ve come to have further opinions about what constitutes a good demo.
But before I share those opinions with you, we ought to get in mind exactly what a demo is. A demo is a recording that demonstrates an artist’s or composer’s talents, created specifically for the purpose of convincing a potential employer (record company, club owner, publisher, whatever) that they should hire said artist or composer. It should do this selling job quickly, succinctly, and economically.
Naturally, the ingredients of a good demo depend on who that particular demo is designed to reach. Different styles and different types of potential employers require specific handling, and these are features you are going to have to suss out for yourself. For the purposes of this article, let’s talk about a singer/songwriter demo designed to interest producers in developing the artist.
The musical format for such a demo is, obviously, a group of songs. Equally obviously, you use the best songs and the best performances you can possibly generate. Not too many songs. Four, five, six maximum. Four may be best. The best song, the one with the most impact, goes first. Then, greatest song to song variety.
Which medium (DAT, CD-R, cassette) you choose for the demo depends, of course, upon the recipient. DATs are convenient, but not everybody has one. CD-Rs are a really nice way to go and these days pretty inexpensive. Cassettes are everywhere, but the quality is a little, er, variable. And the cassette deck costs just about as much as the other media, so it’s a poor third choice, in my opinion.
The impact of the lyrics and the clarity of the lyrics in performance are, to my mind, absolutely central. I don’t know of any other more useful way to put this, but the lyrics have to be, well, strong! The words have to work for you—they have to speak to the listener. If they don’t, then the burden of selling to the producer is loaded onto just the music and production qualities of the demo, and it is usually too much of a burden to be carried by just those two elements alone.
Musical quality is, of course, equally essential. This includes craft things like great intonation, rhythm, and tonal qualities. But it should transcend those as well—musical quality must also include performance intensity, emotion, focus and commitment.
In short, the music must be compelling. It should be as intense, if not necessarily as polished, as what’s going to come out on a recording for commercial release.
Actually, I often enjoy the demo performances more than the releases that come from them, just as I often prefer the basic tracks to the mix. Some years back, a CD called #1 With A Bullet (Cypress Records YD 0112/DX 003276) came out, featuring the demo versions of ten singles that had gone high on the charts. It was fascinating to compare the demos with the finished hits that came from them.
Often the demo was more compelling, musically, than the version that hit the charts. And that, troops, is the kind of performance you should be trying to get on the demo.
It used to be that audio quality wasn’t so important on a demo. For the above singer/songwriter, the advice used to be, “Hey, just get the stuff on cassette. You ’n your guitar. Don’t worry about sonic quality. As long as they can hear the words, the chord changes, and your vocal quality, you’ll be fine.”
For better or for worse, those days are probably gone forever (they used to cut records in motel rooms, too, using the bathroom for a control booth—which should give you an idea of how far we’ve really come!). Basic audio quality has gotten good enough that you can’t really afford to have anything less.
So what does good basic audio quality mean? Good microphones (especially!), a reasonably quiet studio, followed by good mixing, editing, and post-production. You don’t have to be obsessive here, but this is definitely not the place for a PortaStudio or your garage. You use that to get ready to cut the demo!
A mix checklist
Here, then, is a list of things to make sure you’ve got on your demo.
1. The words are clear and strong, at both reference level and -20 dB.
2. The vocals are compelling, tonally natural, and well controlled (ah, the art of vocal compression…).
3. The rhythm tracks are strong, solid, and tight.
4. The bottom end of the mix works at both reference level and -20 dB.
5. The arrangements work really well.
6. The editing and sequencing is tight, with no slack, no waste of time.
7. Levels are, er, hot! Use compres- sion and limiting to bring things right up there, but with no crass overloads or gross distortion. It’s a fine line.
8. Test listeners should feel the demo is too short, that they want to hear more. They should want a copy.
9. It should sound great on a bunch of different speakers.
10. There should be no obvious flaws or problems. More than that, the recording should sound like it was an oh-typically-easy-to-make demo, that you can do this all the time. It should sound, well, intentional! Not just a happy accident in the studio.
What to leave out
Here’s where it gets interesting, to my way of thinking. A good demo is a little like haiku poetry: powerful but really compact. There should be no fluff, no extraneous packaging, no puffery.
Think of it this way. The person you want to listen to the tape and hire you is not only very busy, but also gets a lot of tapes from a lot of other people who wish he or she would hire them instead of you. Meanwhile, what he/she would really like to be doing is lying on the beach in Aruba, not listening to tapes.
But he or she has to listen to tapes, boring as it is, because that’s part of how he or she makes enough money to go to lie on the beach in Aruba. So no matter how brilliant and talented you are, he or she probably won’t be entertained or amused.
So this person’s time and attention are more important and grudgingly given than you can really know. What you want is, you want him/her to put up your tape, press the play button, instantly hear some great sounds, go “Ahhhhhh,” and then say to him or herself, “That’s enough, I’ve found the one. Great! I don’t have to listen to tapes anymore!! Thank God! What’s next on my schedule? Lunch, I hope.”
I belabor this because you don’t want to waste this person’s time. So do everything you can to make sure your demo gives instant impact and doesn’t waste time!
This especially applies to the music arrangements, which should be simple and to the point. Edit! Leave out the long atmospheric intros that are used to set up the groove. Leave out the extended lead solos. Leave out the jams. Leave out the extra version of the chorus. Leave out the 4-minute fade that you think is truly inspired.
Edit down to maybe a four-bar intro, first verse, chorus w/hook, 8-bar lead, chorus w/hook, quick fade. Enough to give the feel, show the impact. Intensity! Three minutes max, two’s a whole lot better. Then, into the next abbreviated tune. And so on. Five 2-minute songs. Ten minutes. Now that’s a good demo.
What you can’t afford to leave out
Obviously, you shouldn’t let editing madness take over to the point where you’re down to a Greatest Words or Greatest Power Chords compilation (“Love” …chunk…“Baayabeee” …crunch…fade). The musical substance has to be there, enough so that your listener is convinced you’ve got the depth needed for what he or she wants.
There are some very mundane things, however, that you can’t afford to leave out, things that I’ve often noticed missing on demos. Some of the most important stuff is truly mundane: box/tape labeling. You wouldn’t believe how many tapes I’ve received with an unlabeled case and a name like “Bob” scribbled in pencil on the tape shell.
With a tape, there are four different labels I suggest you put on: a label on the tape, a label on the spine of the case (opposite to spine label on the J-card), an annotated J-card looking out (so you can read it when the case is closed), and a label on the spine of the J-card.
These labels mean that (a) the tape can always be identified, (b) the box can always be identified, (c) the tape can be easily spotted and identified among a batch of tapes, and (d) there is sufficient info (on the J-card) to tell your listener all she needs to know. Remember, you want to make it easy for the listener! For the CD-R, a label on the CD and a label ‘n info on the sleeve.
PS: Always include copyright and phonorecord notices.
There’s lots of other paperwork to include with a demo, but the preparation of that all-important promotional package is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that that material should be prepared with the same loving care and attention to detail that the demo recording itself is, and that it should reflect the same concern for the listener’s time and comfort that the demo itself does.
Where the demo hits the prospect
The thing to keep in mind is that the demo is a very focused sales production and presentation—you need to learn to visualize as completely as possible how your demo is going to appear and sound to your listener.
Imagine where the listener is going to be, what she is going to be doing. Try it yourself. Pull out a stack of tapes at random and see what it feels like to go through ten of ‘em, one after another. If you are using DAT or cassette, see how helpful it is to have the tape pre-cued to the first song, with a notation on the tape “Play this side—tape is pre-cued.”
Imagine what the listener is going to need to follow up—your name and a phone number for sure, right there on the J-card. The specifics should be worked out by visualizing how your presentation is going to go down, even under the worst circumstances.
And now turn this back toward the recording itself, visualizing exactly what impact the music is going to have. Is it immediate, clear, strong, intense. Does it sound good? Does it sound clean? Are the noise floors quiet? Does it have a broad spectrum? Are the levels right up there? Does it jump out of the speakers at you?
If it doesn’t, you may have some more work to do. Keep plugging away at it until you’ve really got it happening. The demo is not a place to cut corners! As Bob Ludwig has pointed out, “Perfect is almost good enough.”
Dave Moulton is still struggling to make a perfect, no, make that a less bad, recording. You can complain about his lousy signal-to-noise ratio at firstname.lastname@example.org.