How to make a great demo recording
Article by: Mark Walmsley
This month invited Australian producer-engineer-songwriter, Mark Walmsley to share his thoughts on what it takes to make a great demo. Mark has arranged, recorded and mixed over 100 major label releases in Australia (six of which have been nominated for ARIA awards). Mark has also written songs and music for TV and has worked with the likes of Dianna Corcoran, Abi Tucker, Adrenalin Sounds, Ted Egan, Jay Laga’aia, Georgie Parker, Marc Hunter, Slim Dusty, Guy Strazzullo and Glynn Nicholas.
You can do it
These days we all have the tools to make great demos. We live in a techno democracy. If you have used a computer for homework, it can also be used to make a great recording. Many laptops even have inbuilt microphones that can be used to capture a musical idea before it’s lost. By adding a cheap microphone and an audio interface you can make incredible recordings that could potentially get you a worldwide audience.
It’s so simple… all you have to do is write a great song and record it well! What follows are some suggestions for recording a song you’ve already written.
Maximizing your skills
If you are a creative thinker (right brain) who struggles with the technical details involved in recording, try collaborating with a friend who is better at the technical side of things (left brain). It’s important to note though – be sure to talk about the about copyright ownership of the songs and recordings before you start.
If you are a techno thinker (left brain) struggling to settle on an idea worth recording, why not find a creative thinker to collaborate with? In my experience, creative types are usually full of admiration for the talents of techno types and vice versa. If you’re not sure which hemisphere dominates your own thinking, you can quickly test yourself at left versus right.
Of course, many of us are quite capable of both creative and technical tasks, but usually not at the same time. For the best result, it’s worth setting aside time for both. During the process, you may find you’ll have new ideas to incorporate into your original song.
Technical tasks (left brain) checklist:
- Set up a template in your digital audio workstation (DAW) for common recording or mixing scenarios e.g. vocal track, acoustic guitar track, aux bus for reverb on playback, click track (if you use them) etc.
- Write out your song lyrics
- Write a chord chart for each section (even if you know it backwards)
- Write down the song structure… intro / verse 1 / pre-chorus / chorus 1 etc
- Change your guitar strings
- Read your DAW manual
- Find and listen to other people’s songs you admire in the genre you’re working in and use these for inspiration and cross-referencing.
Creative thinking (right brain) checklist:
- Make a regular time for this important process
- Turn off your phone
- Close Facebook
- Spend a half-hour in a quiet place
- Allow yourself to daydream
- Imagine how you want the finished song to sound. Daydream some different scenarios e.g. what it would sound like performed in a completely different style.
A closer look
I prefer to have a vocal recorded from the outset. It helps to keep the arrangement focused on the lyric and melody. I also think that it makes songs easier to mix. If you are the nominated singer, try exaggerating your vocal expression, because a listener won’t have the benefit of watching your facial expressions to help them understand your lyrics.
Think again about tempo, regardless of how you’ve been playing it in the past. Try it slower or faster in case it feels better. A change of tempo can sometimes give a completely new meaning to a song. Do you really have to have it on a tempo grid? The natural ebbs and flows of a ‘live’ take without a click can be compelling for a listener if your playing doesn’t stray too far.
Consider points of high and low intensity e.g. strong intro/ quiet verse 1 / build into pre-chorus and massive lift in chorus 1 etc.
Don’t automatically overdub lots of sounds. Decide what’s going to be the main accompanying instrument. If your budget is tight (who’s isn’t!), use your strengths as a player – if you play good acoustic guitar but are a ‘hunt and peck’ keyboard player and you’ve written a piano ballad, maybe it’s time to call in a favour from a piano-playing friend.
Mix as you go. You might have it finished very quickly, but if you don’t like it you can always recall it later.
Listen again to songs you admire, but this time for bass levels or panning.
When is a demo finished?
Never! But let’s be practical. I suggest that when you’re too tired to continue or you think it’s finished, leave it alone for a couple of days. When you do return to it, play it in a car or on an iPod outside your usual studio room to give you a fresh perspective.
Once you’re happy with it, play it to a friend or even to someone who doesn’t know you for an honest opinion.
Want professional advice?
Mark Walmsley can offer advice to songwriters to help them improve their own recordings.
Mark is offering the first 20 people who contact him (mention this article) free email feedback on one song.
Visit Mark’s site – www.demodoctor.com.au