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The Great CD Demo
The why and how of demo recording...
By Jon Bare

Your great CD is in the stores and you’re on the radio. And all that amounts to nothing more than a good start.

What lies ahead is a mystery wrapped in an enigma surrounded by a black hole. We’ll discuss the future of your Great CD next time.

Today let’s focus on the very beginning of your quest. With a nod to George Lucas, and in an effort to get-on-the-bandwagon-with-the-whole-Star-Wars-thing, we tell the tale of our own Episode One: The Phantom Demos.

“What?” you say, “Is he daft?” 

“Hah!” I say. “You sound like a twerp!”

You may recall from an earlier article in this series what Hollywood notable producer Kim Fowley once said to me: “I don’t make demos, I make albums.” I thought that made a lot of sense. Don’t waste time recording stuff you’re not going to release commercially. So why would I advocate making demos now? 

That reminds me of a joke. There are two kinds of people: people who think there are two kinds of people, and people who don’t.

There are two kinds of demos: Class A demos are demos of songs made for the purpose of selling the songs or the artist to record companies, publishers, and the like. Class B demos are demos you make as pre-production tools to help you create and record the Great CD.

Class B demos rarely get heard outside the circle of people involved in recording the album, so they have different sonic requirements than Class A demos. 

This article is not about recording Class A demos. That topic was covered well by Dave Moulton in the 6/97 issue. I’m talking about Class B demos—basically, recording the whole Great CD you are about to record once (or maybe twice) in demo form before you begin to tackle the real thing.

Why bother?

Is this really necessary? That’s a big maybe, and it depends on your current situation. There are certainly benefits to recording a demo of your CD before starting the final production.

Listening critically and repeatedly to a demo version of your album can help you resolve any concerns you might have in the following areas:

Selection of songs. If you are at all unsure about the inclusion or exclusion of any songs on the album, listen to the whole album in demo form a few times. See if that helps clear things up. If you’re not totally sold on a song, do you really want it on your CD? Ask yourself “Is this song killer or filler?” 

Order of songs. Finding the best order to put your songs in is an art in itself. You want your best stuff up front, but proper pacing is important or your CD just goes downhill. Sometimes the only way to know for certain whether the song order on your CD works is to record a demo album and listen to it. Pay attention to how each song ends and the next one begins. If you’ve got three or four songs in the same key, try to spread them out a little. 

Song arrangements. Drummer: “Hey man, that last extra chorus that seemed like such a good idea when we were jammin’ last night, but I don’t know, now it seems kinda redundant. I mean, you’ve already sung that line a zillion times and it’s not like anybody’s gonna be singin’ along with ‘Dead zebras on strike.’”

Is one chorus enough? Is two too many? What’s a mother to do? Mother better bake up a batch of her homemade demo dough for immediate consumption. Throw down a quick demo of that song and listen to it for a few days until its mysteries reveal themselves, Grasshopper.

Length of solos. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, SOLO! I’m guilty of that too.

Sometimes the best thing about a song is the solo. But the obligatory guitar solo is trite and largely a waste of time unless your soloist has something to say that’s worth listening to. Evaluating the demo can help determine if four cycles is plenty or if instead you should give the guy eight to really pour his heart out.

Too many solos throughout the course of the CD can be fatiguing unless they’re really good, in which case I say go for it.

Song endings. To fade out or end it clean? If all your songs fade out, you might think about writing a few endings. C’mon. It’s not that hard. Repeat the intro.

Key of songs. Okay, so the singer can’t actually sing that high. But the guitarist needs to play it in that key to get that signature riff. Hmmm. Better tune that guitar down a notch.

Finding the best key for a song is sometimes a bit of a compromise. Occasionally the vocals will sound good on either the verse or the chorus but not both. Changing the pitch of the song helps one but hurts the other. If you can’t rewrite the melody in the problem area, then you have to adjust the pitch of the song to do the least amount of damage. Or get a real singer…

Three more good reasons

Teach songs to the band off-line. If your band is made up of decent players, they don’t need to rehearse all that much. All they really need is a recording of the song to listen to, maybe some charts, and they’ll show up ready to rock.

So your choice is simple: record a demo of the song and send them a cassette, or spend lots of expensive time teaching it to them at the session. 

Have a reference at the session. Sometimes it’s very comforting to have a recording of the song you are about to record to refer to just prior to recording the “real” tracks.

Hearing the song somehow inspires more confidence in the players than just imagining the song. The arrangement is well-defined. Any questions can easily be resolved by listening to the demo. There can be no confusion about how the song goes. Musicians like that.

As long as the groove of the demo is reasonably close to what you’re about to record, playing the demo in the control room before going out to record the basic tracks is usually a productive thing to do. It doesn’t mean that the version of the song you are about to record needs to be the same tempo as the demo.

On my last CD, Shredzilla, Chet McCracken played drums at a faster tempo than the demos on practically every song. And that’s a good thing. That’s one of the reasons why I like to work with him. He hears where the groove should be and puts it there. 

Need to re gister copyright. Now, I’m not one of those wacky doomsday conspiracy theory nuts but I do believe in the protection of registering your works with the Library Of Congress as early as possible. 

You can do that with a demo. If it’s going to be many months before your CDs arrive, why wait to register?

People may think that their copyright for a work begins when they mail in the form PA, or perhaps weeks later when they receive their official document.

Not so, plagiarized-sample breath! Your ownership of the copyright of your material begins when you first record it. Should anyone challenge your claim to ownership, however, the courts look favorably on the date stamp on your form PA (or someone else’s form PA) in determining who arrived on the scene first. 

Mailing a copy of the demo and/or lyrics to yourself and hiding the envelope under your bed does offer some protection, but not internationally. While it may cost $20 per song to protect your rights fully, it is $20 well spent and a tiny fraction of the total costs to come... uh, bite my tongue.

You must send in a recording of the songs to be copyrighted along with the form PA(s). What you send in does not have to be the same version of the songs that will appear on the CD. It’s not like anyone is going to listen to the tape you send in.

In fact, that cassette will never get heard unless someone sues someone else regarding ownership of your song. At that point a judge or some jury will make a determination as to “was that the song in question” and no one will care about “was the snare drum sound okay?” 

Which leads me to my next point. If you’re making a demo of your album to send in to the Library Of Congress, mix the vocals hot. The registration process doesn’t require a lyric sheet, so make sure that your words come through on tape. Don’t worry about things like instrumentation, tone, effects, or fancy eq. Concentrate on the arrangement, lyrics, and any sonic hooks that make your song original.

Skip ahead

There are also good reasons not to record demos prior to the real CD recording.

For example, it really speeds things up to just skip this whole process and get on to recording the CD. I agree, that’s good for bands that really know what they’re doing in the studio. The Rich Harper Blues Band just recorded their second album at my studio and they didn’t need no stinkin’ demos. If your band plays out regularly or rehearses often, you may not need to record any demos at all.

Another popular reason to not record demos prior to the CD is the ‘Why shoot your wad’ argument. It can happen that recording a song properly can be fun the first time—but the second time it seems more like work. You lose the spark that comes from the newness of the experience. Doing it twice is ultimately counterproductive.

A variation on that is the ‘One of a kind work of art viewpoint,’ which prefers that for artistic reasons the music must come together only once in the studio to be immortalized for all time. Whatever.

And there’s something else going on that’s more subtle and a little difficult to describe (but some musicians are sensitive beings who have real feelings and they have described it to me).

It’s like there is this cloud of doubt that lingers in their mind about a demo; it’s something of a dilemma. If the demo isn’t good enough, it will be hard to imagine what it is that we’re supposed to like about the song. That’s depressing. If we don’t like the song, who will?

On the other hand, if the demo is too good then it will be hard to improve on it in the studio later. And believe me, no one wants to go home thinking the CD won’t turn out as good as the demo.

All of this combines to make demos a little scary. But do not be afraid. Use them as songwriting tools and don’t worry so much about flaws in the individual performances.

Finally, you may have read that sometimes demos end up sounding more exciting than their CD counterparts. Why is that? Is it because they are done fast, rough and real—and embody live, energetic performances? Is it because studio tracks can end up sounding polished, flawless, not real—impressive but artificial?

This is purely a guess, but I imagine some people deliberately avoid recording demos in order to retain whatever magic might have existed on the demo—for use and application on the “real” recording. Does that make sense?

Koala tea

“Master, how good does a Class B demo need to be?”

“Not very good, Billy.”

Class B demos don’t need great drum sounds or killer vocals. They don’t need world-class bass tracks or incredible solos. Save all that for the album. What they do need is a few things that will help you evaluate the location and effectiveness of the songs on your album. These include:

Key. It really helps if the demo is in the same key as it will be on the CD. Vocals are greatly affected by the key of the song and at times dictate it. Different keys have different sonic signatures—moods, or vibes. For example blues played in B has a darker tone to it than the exact same pattern played in G. A song’s key should fit the singer and be consistent with the vibe of the song. 

Arrangement. The general arrangement of the song—verse, chorus, etc.—should be very close to the way it will appear on the CD. No one cares if you repeat the last chorus twice instead of once, but the overall structure of the song should be finalized on the demo or you are not really achieving its purpose. You need to listen to “real” arrangements to make sure that you don’t get tired of them.

Lyrics. Like the arrangement, you want the lyrics to be as close as possible to the final version, especially for copyright purposes. There’s a little room to fudge here, but make sure the really important stuff gets heard.

Melody. Now is as good a time as any to make sure everybody is clear about the melody line accompanying those lyrics. Should it go up in the chorus or stay in the same register? It could have an impact on what the other players do, so why not bite the bullet and get it right up front?

Intro. How a song starts makes a huge difference to whether anybody is going to want to listen to it. I’m a guitarist, so nine times out of ten I’ll do something on guitar. The rule of thumb here is to keep the intro as short as possible and still make your point. No one likes long intros except the lead guitarist.

It’s sort of like when you call someone and you get their overly long answering machine message. I know you’re not home and I know you’ll call me back if I just leave a message, so just give me the damn beep.

Outro. How a song ends can have a marked effect on how the listener perceives and remembers you. If a song has a great ending and leaves you going “Wow!” you will forget about that funny spot in the second verse where the mic slipped. 

Segues. How the outro of one song works with the intro of another is one thing you will have to pay attention to as you construct your song list. Sometimes tempos can be a factor to consider. You might want to separate two songs that have similar grooves.

Occasionally there will be a song that just doesn’t sound right coming in after the end of another song. Now is your chance to catch it. 

Philosophy of Recording 101

After many years and much meditation on the subject of recording, I’ve come to believe that there are two levels of quality that make sense to try to achieve when recording music:

1. Minimal quality—cheap, quick, fast, easy, and just good enough to get the job done. No fancy special effects or elaborate miking techniques, just good old eq and a reverb or two. The benefit is that you get to move fast. You can easily mix ten songs in one day if they’re just 4-track demos.

2.  Maximum quality—the best-sounding recording you can achieve with your gear (or you are able to finance with your checkbook). The benefits are obvious.

Less obvious to me are the questionable benefits of recording anything at a quality level anywhere in between the two extremes. You end up with something flawed and you wasted a lot of time doing it.

I explained this philosophy to my neighbor across the street (everyone’s in show biz), who was recently honing and perfecting some 8-track demos for an album project he intended to record. He agonized over every note in the guitar solo. I told him, “Dude, it’s a demo. Save it for the real thing.” But no, he had to have it as good as he could get it. 

Too bad his recorder was an 8-track cassette. And his drum machine didn’t sound very human. Those cymbals are always a dead giveaway. And that mic he used on the vocals was strident and edgy. And he was losing timecode due to dropouts on Track 8. So he was, as they say, polishing a turd. 

All for what? You couldn’t play his demo album on the radio. It wasn’t good enough to press into CDs. It was just barely good enough to shop around town with a letter of apology. It was certainly good enough to show the band how the songs go—way good enough for that.

It was unnecessarily good for the Library Of Congress, where it will sit and not be heard.

Two extreme demo formats

When I recorded Shredzilla, I recorded 24-track demos of each song prior to recording the CD. I figured what the heck, I was going to buy the tape anyway—I would record the demos, mix to DAT, and erase the tape for use at the real session.

That approach worked great. I had wonderful-sounding demos to listen to in my car. I made copies for a few trusted friends to get their opinion. I had lots of tracks to play with, even though the album was straightforward enough: drums, bass, vocals, and a guitar or two. 

The tracks I printed sounded pretty good at the time, but I can’t listen to them now. The CD came out so much better than the demos that the demos are useless. I would erase them, but they have a certain sentimental value. 

For my next CD Orcastra I took a radically different approach. I figured that if I’m going to end up with something that I will ultimately find unlistenable, the process should be as simple as possible. Even though Orcastra will have massive instrumentation including a horn section and lots of percussion, I took a very minimalist approach and dusted off my old Teac 3340S quarter-inch 4-track. 

Hey, if the 4-track version sounds good, the 24-track version will be killer. But if the 4-track version sucks, maybe there’s something wrong with the song.

I also wanted to make a tape to give to the players in my band so they could learn the songs prior to the actual recording session. If your band already knows the songs, you can combine a few of the following steps, but I was working alone. Here was my plan:

1) Record drums on all songs - Track 1.

2) Record scratch guitar on all songs - Track 3.

3) Record scratch vocals on all songs - Track 4.

4) Record bass on all songs - Track 2.

5) Record real guitar on all songs - Track 3.

6) Record real vocals and lead guitar on all songs - Track 4.

That’s right, step one was to record drum tracks on eleven songs with no other accompaniment except the music in my head and the cheat sheet I was reading. I’m not a great drummer, but I can keep time and find a groove. That’s good enough for a Class B demo.

Mono drums: a good test for an engineer. Balancing kick, snare, toms, and cymbals and mixing them down to one track is always a little tricky. But for a Class B demo it doesn’t really matter what you do. I chose a Shure Beta 52 inside the kick drum, an SM57 on the snare, and two of my trusty Fender P-2 condensers overhead.

Since I was recording drums on eleven songs, the setup was very simple. I put my band’s PA speakers in front of the drums at ear level, pointing at my head. This would be the mix position. In a semi-circle beside me and behind me I set up a 16-channel PA mixer, power amps and the 4-track tape deck. From here I ruled the universe!

Once the drum tracks were finished, I recorded scratch guitar on all the songs to make sure the drums were really working. One of the songs was too fast and another one sped up, so I re-tracked the drums and scratch guitars. Then I recorded scratch vocals on all songs from my position behind the drums.

At this point I took the 4-track into the control room to finish recording the bass on Track 2 and rhythm guitar on Track 3. Track 4 was reserved for ‘vocals and lead’ and was exactly that. I put an SM57 on an amp, ran it into the board, and sat behind the console playing guitar and singing into a U87 that was de-essed and compressed. The two signals were bussed to group 1 and sent to Track 4 on the tape deck. 

During the mixdown I wanted to have different eq on the vocal than on the lead guitar, so I split the signal to two tracks of my console, crossfading from one to the other as the parts on the track changed. Sometimes the two faders in combination sounded best on a part. A few songs required that the lead and vocal have different effects or different amounts of the same effect, and this was accomplished by sending the effects via post-fader auxes.

A week or two went by before I listened to the completed mixes a second time. One song was bad, so it got yanked. I decided to rewrite the lyrics of another song and make several other changes—one or two things in almost every song. So I re-recorded Track 4 on most of the tunes and remixed them all in a new order.

The whole process was cheap, fast, and painless. Okay, so these demos are nothing to brag about. They are, however, certainly good enough for the intended purpose. The new versions are better than the first, and I may still do one more pass…but judge me not by my demos—wait for the final CD.

Jon Bare is author of “Recording The Electric Guitar,” one of Playback’s Platinum series of books and CD-ROMs.


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