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The Studio Demo: From Soup to Nuts

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In the world of professional and seriously aspiring songwriters, there are huge numbers of people who do not demo their own material. Most music publishers finance this frequent expense for their staff writers and in the case of people like me it is a most welcomed perk. I play the piano fairly well as long as it is classical but I am strictly a folky hacker on the guitar.

"I am a songwriter, not a musician, engineer, singer or arranger, and as much as I wish I could wear all of those hats, I know my limitations."

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Furthermore, I am in good company. It behooves one to perform at least well enough to test drive compositions at writer's clubs, but even there I am pushing the envelope! Fortunately, a songwriter singing his or her own composition in a club is rather endearing assuming the piece is good. I know a good amount about theory and harmonics and have a good sense of pitch, so I manage, and frankly, I am okay with that! When it comes to demos, however, okay is not okay!

In my twenty plus years of planning, booking, and producing my own sessions, I have learned a lot, and the purpose of this article is to shine a little light on this process for other limited individuals like myself.


Pickin' The Hits

For new writers, heading into the studio to demo is like an ever-dangling carrot.

For new writers, heading into the studio to demo is like an ever-dangling carrot seducing them to spend huge and premature amounts of money. The thought is exciting and seems oh-so-professional! Downright heady! I remember feeling absolutely certain that once my creations were professionally demoed, they would be undeniable.

Since five was the number required to fill a normal session, I turned my back on my old AMATEUR, pre-Nashville songs, and proceeded to write exactly five new ones. Needless to say, the first couple were far more worthy than the last three and all five could have been better. It is an expensive lesson to learn, but I had just moved to Nashville and was antsy about getting started.

"Take my advice and WAIT, once you decide you are ready to take on the big leagues."

Give it a good year and write your socks off in your newly professional setting. Be sure you are not prone to write everything in the same groove.

Find some co-writers. By all means, stretch the borders of the market for which you are writing, but don't "weird" your way into uncuttable land! With time, your cream will rise to the top and you can book your first session knowing that you have some really good songs tucked under your belt. Until then, settle for homemade work tapes, or at best, studio guitar or piano vocals to feed the need.

Around Music Row, there is an expression, "You can't dress up a dog." Except, they don't use the word "dog"!


The Dreaded Budget

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A studio demo is not an inexpensive undertaking. Granted there are varying degrees of studios, but ask around and be sure you are dealing with a good one. A demo does not have to be elaborate, but you do want quality.

A good work tape is far more acceptable than a lousy studio demo!

I can only speak for Nashville, where there are many good studios, but the average cost of a single full track with mix and vocals runs between $400 and $800. In cities with few studios, I would imagine the really good ones charge even more. You can, of course, demo any number of songs you like, but typically a full band session is the most cost efficient and consists of five songs tracked in about three hours.

Sounds like quite an undertaking, but when you come prepared, it goes smoothly and amazingly quick. Top session players are extraordinary and highly creative to boot. Vocals are usually added at a later time at an hourly rate plus the cost of the vocalist.

There are also many studio owners who build a track from the ground up, often all by themselves. They chart the song, build a drum track, and then add all the bass and guitar parts. Other player might be called in as needed, and finally the vocalist. This is usually a less expensive way to demo a song but the LIVE quality is often lost along with energy that goes with it.

Most staff writers have their demo expenses listed as recoupable in their contracts, at full or half rate, which means once royalties are accrued, the recoupable portion is subtracted from the payout by the publisher. Both mechanical and performance royalties are tapped in many contracts, but this point is negotiable when you are considering a contract.


The Songbirds

If the song is unisex, I recommend a male vocal.

Some organizations put out demo singer compilation CDs featuring short excerpts from various styles of songs by a number of different singers. These generally showcase top-notch professionals proven to be excellent in the studio.

Many wonderful singers lack studio experience and are not great on the mike. Others may be poor at providing their own harmonies. This is not a good time for charity. Book a great singer with a great reputation.

If the song is unisex, I recommend a male vocal. For whatever reason female artists seem to respond to male vocals much better than male artists respond to female vocals when it comes to choosing songs.

Once you have found a singer, provide them with a work tape of the song in advance of the session. The main things that need to be clear are the melody and the phrasing. If you can't achieve this on your own, get some help. Be sure to have the singer tell you their key preference. This key will be provided to the musicians when they begin to track.

That being said, it is possible for a singer to become too recognizable. The local music industry decision makers may become tired of their voice. A singer that is overly stylized is often a poor choice too.

"A song needs to be pitchable to a wide variety of artists, so avoid the temptation of trying to lean toward one artist in particular."

Be sure to feature a good number of different singers in your catalog so that your sound does not become stereotyped. "Oh, it's Joe Blow again. Must be a Patty Way song."


The Pickers

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Some of the most successful demo studios in Nashville have their own cast of pickers. It may not be exactly the same folks every time, but you have little say in who you get. The advantage is that they will be excellent players.

The disadvantage is that some of the "A" players have played so many sessions, that they have become less imaginative and throw the same licks into every other song.

I cannot tell you the degree to which a great, creative player can enhance your demo.

"They truly receive too little credit. A signature lick can have a huge effect on the success of a song."

If you have the chore, and luxury, of booking your own players, you will have to start with recommendations. In time you will find your own favorites. I found that the more I used certain players, the harder they worked to please me. The local musicians union will have names and contact information if needed.

A full live session usually requires drums, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and bass. A keyboard player frequently is included. Around Nashville, the initial foursome is called a rhythm section. Nice additions are violin, mandolin, harmonica, steel, and dobro.

I have used many orchestral musicians over the years, as well, when I've wanted to ruffle the traditional feathers. Overdubs with some of these instruments might be added after the full band tracking by one of the rhythm sections players. Naturally, there is additional expense accrued by adding players beyond the usual section.

"Remember you are making a demo, not a record."

Use the minimum you need to put the song across effectively. Even if your publisher is footing the expense up front, you are paying for it in the end. Until the royalties start coming, you don't want to be too expensive to keep anyway. It also makes good sense to leave the eventual record producer some adding-on room!


Demo Day

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The typical full band session in Nashville at least, lasts about three hours. 10 am and 2 pm are the most common starting times. The extra hour allows for a little pricey spillover, quick meals, cartage, etc. Cartage is not overly common for demo sessions, but it basically refers to the transportation and delivery of instruments and gear by outside companies.

Sometimes, you will have arranged for the session leader to chart the songs in advance, but more often it is done at the top of the each demo. Either a work tape of the song is played or the songwriter performs it live. At this point, the appointed person jots down a quick chart of the song using the Nashville number system.

This is simply a type of shorthand for the chords written out in numbers with the 1 being the root, the 2m being the minor of the next whole step up, etc. A full bar is assumed for each symbol unless the bar is split by a slash symbol.

This way, the chart adapts to any key at all, although certain ones are favored for their ease of play or for their fuller, rounder sound on guitar. It is simpler than it sounds and very effective. The best session players are so extraordinary that it all goes very quickly. Nashville and other music centers are full of these geniuses.

Frequently, 'passing' chords and other improvements are made by the musicians. If the writer does not have a specific intro in mind, for another example, the players will come up with a very signature one.

"A word of advice: Keep your intros and instrumentals on the short side. You are trying to sell the song, not the frills."

The pickers will then chat back and forth as to who will take the various fills. The songwriter, of course, has the final say, but these guys are good and worthy of lots of trust. Remember though, the more that you can plan in advance, the better. Time is an extremely valuable commodity in the studio.

Time is an extremely valuable commodity in the studio.

The charting process takes five minutes at most, and then any extra songwriters will assume their seat beside the engineer at the console and don headphones. In the desired key, the crew will run down the track once of twice.

One of the songwriters on the song (or the only one if that is the case) provides the scratch vocal in the vocal booth. All you really need is a decent sense of rhythm and pitch. It is actually very fun as long as your vocal is never isolated. That can be just plain cruel! Linda McCartney could have attested to that!

The writers, with big help from the engineer and musicians, produce the track. If you have a strong opinion about something, exercise your power, but trust until you are seasoned. Whatever you do, don't get into a disagreement with your co-writers or start rewriting the song in the studio. This is not the time!

When it is decided that everything is sounding right, the track is recorded. Fixes are made independently as needed, and voila, you ready to move on to the next song with only about 25 minutes having elapsed on your knock-off Rolex. It is amazing to behold in the eyes of a newcomer. I remember being very blown away my first time in the studio.

The process is repeated five times with little interruption. At the end, musicians without overdubs to be played depart. Their payment is generally made later by the studio, but sometimes when the songwriter is not signed to a publisher, the payment is made direct.

Overdubs are add-ons to the track and go by quickly in just a few takes. Trust me, you will be exhausted. Hyper-focusing for so long really wears out the brain AND the ears.


The Vocal

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Vocals are generally added at a later time and I heartily recommend this route. Fresh ears are a requirement! A quick mix of the track will have been completed by the engineer before the singer arrives. I occasionally use one singer more than once on a five-song session, but when I do, I make sure the songs are very different from one another. Same writer, same musicians, same engineer, same singer, you do the math! You want a cohesive yet diverse session to turn into your publisher or potential one!

A singer who is basically learning the song in the studio will not be hired twice by me!

A vocal tends to take about an hour depending on how well the singer has done their homework. A singer who is basically learning the song in the studio will not be hired twice by me! Not when I am having to pay for extra studio time! In the interest of your budget, choose singers who provide their own harmonies. Have a sense of where you want those harmonies prior to the session. Three person vocal sections are overkill on a demo session.

It is your responsibility to listen for pitch problems, the syncing up of harmonies, enunciation and breath issues, etc. Be picky but not ridiculous. It is a demo. Keep repeating that phrase. Often, a lot of the track is pulled out and the singer will hear a "vocal" mix in their headphones.

"I have found demo singers to have the fragile egos of artists, so handle them with care."

Most of them are aspiring stars. Flatter and reassure them while making your various suggestions and corrections. A flustered singer is not a pretty thing to behold. I once used a very highly recommended singer and was very dissatisfied. It was evident early on that the sound I was looking for was not going to come out of this girl. Rather than beat her up with repeated attempts, I thanked her and acted like everything was hunky-dory. She was simply not the right artist for the song. My mistake not hers, and an expensive one!


The Mix

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At whatever time the session is mixed, only the songwriters and the engineer are usually present. A small publisher might occasionally join in. Sitting at the console, the track will be mixed one track at a time with careful attention to many complicated details that only audiophiles understand. Drums are tended to first and on it goes. About an hour is typical and the vocal is mixed last.

Attention to detail is important, but don't run up a huge bill laboring over some level issue well into the fade!

You will be very lucky if anyone ever listens that far into the song!

Typically, a vocal is very forward in the mix of a demo as opposed to a record. Again, this is for the purpose of 'selling' the song. Songs are not always pitched with lyric sheets and you want the lyric to be understandable.

At the point when you think that you have a good mix, listen to it again on a few devices other than the big speakers. Take it out to your car player. Try it on a boombox. Likely, it will never sound the way it sounds in the studio again. Some publishers and A and R staff have shamefully lousy equipment in their offices.

"I like to have a favorite mix of a hit song on hand to AB my track against. It is a trick taught to me by one of my favorite engineers."

When the tweaks are finished, you will walk out of the studio with five mixed full tracks and five without the vocal. Be sure you get the latter in case you want to try a different singer later.

All that's left to do is pay your bill. If you have the luxury of having a publishing deal, you will turn the bill into your publisher and hope he or she doesn't hit the roof! Seriously, know your budget boundaries before you begin. Most of all, cross your fingers that your publisher and/or the industry in general is favorably impressed by your new babies. It is a big expense. Make it count!

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