Demo recording treads a fine line: you want your recordings to sound as dope as possible, in hopes of catching the attention of the right A&R person; at the same time, your demos might be “disposable” if your ultimate goal is to get a deal and a budget to re-record your tunes in a high-end studio setting, possibly with the expert guidance of a producer. That said, there is always the possibility that an indie label will agree to release your demos as a finished product, sometimes with a little extra mixing and mastering, so you don’t want to skimp on the overall production quality.
Push it as far as you can! At the end of the day, your demos have to shine with potential, so that listeners don’t have to stretch their imaginations to know how wicked your sound would be once polished. Still, you shouldn’t feel obliged to break the bank to achieve that level of quality. Go for the gold and make your demos sound like tracks pulled from an album; just do your best to keep your feet on the ground and (thanks to some strategic recording and production techniques) your credit card in your wallet.
A few years ago, my good friend and coworker Matt Haick approached me about helping to record some demos for his band Merciana. They’re a New Jersey band that can best be described as melodic post-hardcore. You can check out their music at www.merciana.com, and on the iTunes Music Store. The lineup is classic: drums, bass, 2 electric guitars, and vocals. As the principal songwriter and lead singer, Matt was in a good position to take the reins and spearhead the whole demo production process. I took the train from New York down to New Brunswick to help them set up their home studio.
Rule #1: Keep your gear investment to a minimum.
It was a nice, minimal studio arrangement: Macintosh G4 running Logic Audio, a Behringer DDX3216 digital console, a MOTU 896, and a set of Audix Fusion 6 drum mics. They had their rehearsal/recording setup in the basement, where the wooden rafters, carpeted floor, and odd-angled brick walls made for decent acoustics.
Given the average quality of the mixing console and the simple monitoring situation, there was no real question of eq-ing or compressing the drums as is my habit. The mixer was useful primarily as an analog-to-digital converter, a source of phantom power, and decent preamps on each channel. We got everything plugged together and all the signals flowing to their proper channels. I also helped them with mic placement, dangling the hi-hat mic from the rafters for lack of a boom stand. And that was it: I left them to their own devices, promising to tidy up the drum recordings later on.
Once the drum tracks were on their hard drive, Merciana continued with guitars and bass. Matt did most of the guitar tracking at home with his Marshall JCM 2000 and Peavey 5150 (“for the CRUNCH”) amp heads. At the recommendation of our then boss and mentor, producer Mark Saunders, he plugged the heads straight into a Groove Tubes Speaker Emulator, circumventing the need for mics, a cabinet, and a microphone preamp altogether. For those of you not familiar with this little gadget, it is an amazing and highly affordable shortcut for the guitarist producing his/her own demo. Simply adjust the input level on the speaker emulator to get a decent level (without further distorting the signal coming from your amp head), and then run a line from your emulator straight to your mixer or digital audio interface. It’s as easy as that! Palmer also makes a speaker simulator that does the same job.
For bass, Merciana opted for a slightly more elaborate setup, miking up an Ampeg SVT with a 6 x 10 cabinet using an AKG D112 mic and a Demeter VTP-1 tube preamp. In my experience, if you have a good bass head like the SVT, you can even skip the cabinet and mic, running a line directly from the head’s preamp out to your mixer or digital audio interface for a sound that’s full, clear, and deep.
Rule #2: What you don’t have, add in using retriggering or ‘sound replacement’.
Once these raw files were in my hands, it was time to mix them into something impressive. I started with the drum sounds. Given the humble nature of the original drum session, I decided to combine the live drums with professional sounding kick and snare samples. This step alone gave perhaps the biggest boost to the overall production quality of the demos; a good kick and snare sound are tricky enough to achieve in a professional studio, let alone in a bare-bones basement setup!
I first had to generate perfectly synchronized MIDI notes for each drum hit. After selecting a destination MIDI track in Logic Audio, double-clicking on the snare-drum audio file in Logic Pro’s Arrange Window revealed its waveform. In this window’s menu the Factory, Audio to Score function allowed me to preview Logic’s MIDI-note-interpretation of the kick and snare audio, and to adjust parameters to eliminate false attacks and flams (closely spaced double-hits). I repeated this procedure to generate MIDI notes for the bass drum on a second MIDI track.
Audio to score
I then fixed the resulting MIDI data in the Matrix edit window by Selecting All and then using the Functions > Transform > Transposition function to Fix the bass-drum MIDI notes to a C1 and the snare MIDI notes to D2 (the typical bass-drum and snare notes for most drum samplers). I also maxed out the relative velocities of all the notes in the Matrix window by Selecting All and then using Logic’s Velocity Tool to increase the velocity of a single note all the way, thereby boosting all the selected notes’ velocities while preserving their relative velocity values.
MIDI before and after
This technique faithfully mirrored the relative strength of the various hits, and allowed me to take advantage of modern drum samplers’ multi-layered dynamics. We triggered snare sounds from Native Instruments’ plug-in drum sampler, Battery. The kick we used came from the internal sounds of an old-school Roland JV-1080 rackmount sound module. When layered with the original live recordings, these sounds really brought the drums to a level that hours of mixing and tweaking the recorded tracks could never have done.
Rule #3: If you’re not a trained engineer, use basic mixing techniques and time-saving strategies.
Merciana’s lineup made for some marvelous shortcuts in the mixing phase. We wanted to give them a consistent, driving, edgy tone that carried through from track to track. Once we had set up the mix for the first song with eq, compression and basic effects, we applied the same “mix template” to the rest of the songs, saving ourselves hours of work, and giving the demo a signature sound from start to finish.
There were always the same number of drum, guitar, and bass tracks in each tune, and since these had been recorded with the same mic placement and/or equipment (and often on the same day), it was easy to copy and paste the audio from the other songs into the sequence we used for the first mix. So instead of starting from scratch with each successive tune, we started with the settings for plug-in eq, compression, level and effects already in place, from an already good mix. Take heed: this strategy serves as a time-saving device only, and should not be used at the expense of attention to each individual track’s needs! Lead guitar and vocals in particular need different level settings from moment to moment, to keep them just in front of the other instruments.
There are no hard and fast rules governing the mixing process. If you’re not a trained engineer, and you don’t have a friend to whom you can appeal for some help with mixing, there are several techniques you can use to enhance your overall sound. The most chronic problem with homespun demos is muddiness. The vocals, guitars, and cymbals all have a lot of high-frequency content that gets ‘lost’ in the recording process. Try adding a bit of high end to each of these elements in the mix. A simple +2 or 3 dB shelf from around 4 kHz to 10 kHz will do wonders to brighten up these sounds. Again, this technique will yield different results for different recordings; experiment by varying the frequency of the shelf and find a setting that sounds good for each of your tracks.
Try adding some light compression after the eq for each sound as well. Solo each track and tweak its eq and compression settings to make it sound right on its own before adjusting it to sound perfect in the mix. In general, avoid eq-ing or compressing the re-triggered drum sounds, as most sampled drum sounds are already heavily processed, and it’s very easy to make them sound harsh or artificial, no matter how good your intentions.
If you’re working on a rock project like Merciana, add some reverb to the snare to make it bigger and to blend it into the mix at the same time. Watch out for ‘plosive’ ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds on the vocal tracks. These can be easily and affordably eliminated in the recording process by placing a pop-stopper in front of the mic. If you have problems with plosive sounds, try a highpass filter on the vocal channels set around 100–200 Hz.
Rule #4: Use affordable mastering tools to give your mixes that extra oomph.
Once the mixes were in decent shape, Matt and I started monitoring through a TC Finalizer. The Finalizer served as a quick and easy all-in-one digital mastering tool, providing stereo eq, 3-band compression, and limiting. It’s a great device, featuring a number of customizable presets and some cool sound enhancers like the Digital Radiance Generator.
It’s amazing what a little mastering will do; just when you think your mixes are as good as they’re going to get, this extra step brings them to life even more. It also makes mixes louder and punchier overall, increasing the chance that they’ll sound good on a home system or headphones.
Another popular mastering tool is the T-RackS software by IK Multimedia. It’s certainly much more affordable than the TC Finalizer, and somewhat easier to use for the amateur engineer. Though I’ve never been a big user of T-RackS, I have plenty of friends who swear by it. Some of them even use the same preset over and over for a quick-and-dirty mastering of all their mixes; I wouldn’t advise this approach, but it’s a testament to the ease-of-use of this software that the mastering on my friends’ mixes sounds pretty good overall.
Rule #5: Mix and sequence your demo to grab an A&R person’s attention—don’t get too arty... yet.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember how A&R personnel are likely to listen to your demo: in an office, one after the other, often in quick succession, over extended periods of time. Make sure your mixes sound good on headphones, and don’t count on A&R’s willingness to skip through your tracks looking for interesting morsels. Instead, put your best foot forward and try to hook their interest from the start. If you don’t grab their attention up front, you could lose your chance to blow them away.
An album should, in my opinion, always be a carefully crafted listening experience from start to finish, with its builds, climaxes, mellow and hype moments. A demo, however, is bait—hook ’em and reel ’em in!
mtfloyd is half of the remix team Transdub Massiv.