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Don’t Demo to Death!

By doing a full-on demo, you may inadvertently expend precious creative energy that you may never get back once it’s time to do the real take.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on October 18, 2004 by

Remember the adage, “A good song speaks for itself”? That same philosophy can be applied to the making of your demo. You’ve got a new tune, and maybe you can even hear the band parts in your head. And over there in the corner sits your digital multitracker, waiting for you to flesh out this new nugget.

Especially if you’re one of those versatile multi-instrumentalists who can work up an entire rhythm section with all the trimmings before lunch, one acoustic guitar and one boombox just isn’t going to do the trick.

Consider this: By doing a full-on demo, you may inadvertently expend precious creative energy that you may never get back once it’s time to do the real take.

As any experienced home-recording artist knows, those initial tracks often reveal some of the very best moments of inspiration. Like that great guitar line you suddenly stumble upon while tracking a casual lead. An accidental miscue that turns into a chord you never would have thought of otherwise. A brilliant vocal effect achieved by just jamming an SM-57 into a distortion pedal.

All these unplanned tracks may very well result in one amazing portrait of your new tune. But unless you can salvage enough of your slaved-over demo for the master, you’re then faced with the arduous task of re-creating all those pearls of inspiration. Only this time, you’ll have to hope that your lead guitar player can cop the exact feel you pulled out of your hat on your demo, or wonder why your engineer can’t get that same cool vocal sound through a different stomp box. And so on.

Years ago, I painstakingly assembled my new songs on an old Fostex X-15 four-track cassette recorder, making use of all possible overdubbing and reduction-mixing capability. The drum machine was programmed to the exact beat I’d heard in my head; the bass parts meticulously worked out, along with several acoustic and electric guitars tracked totally off-the-cuff (and yielding the occasional accidental sound or cool mistake). Partly because of the tightly packed cassette medium, the final mix would invariably have a dense, ethereal quality that gave the recording a noticeable (if amateurish) edge.

Though these tapes always had the “feel” I liked, they could never be considered for “release.” The problem was compounded by the fact that, no matter how I tried, I could never again capture that raw, “first-take energy” once I’d begun to attempt the “proper” take with the band later on.

My conclusion: Don’t demo to death. (This is not such a radical idea - some would prefer that you not demo at all.) But, you say, I’ve got this brand new Yamaha AW-16G recorder that lets me cut 144 virtual tracks with signal processing and tons of disc space!

That’s nice, but did the Beatles need 144 tracks to record “Revolution”? Actually, they made do with about eight, and that was the final take. You’re just doing a demo.

So we’re not about to start trashing our digital workstations and go running off to Walden Pond. But perhaps every other time you’ve got a new tune, go ahead and fire up the DAW, but limit the job to four basic tracks of acoustic guitar (or keyboard, or bass) with guide vocal. When your band comes over, roll your rough sketch, then let your bass player figure out an original part, ditto for the drummer, and so on. If it’s not what you’d heard in your head, so what - it might be even better.

For someone like John Hiatt, arriving virtually demo-less helped breathe fire into his late-‘80s classic Bring the Family album. Rather than waste time reviewing tapes, Hiatt merely pulled out his acoustic and performed embryonic versions of “Memphis in the Meantime,” “Thing Called Love” and all the others, then let sidemen Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner go to work.

“I’d made some demos on my own in Tennessee,” recalls Hiatt, “but we didn’t play them at all. I’d just sing the song once, and we’d be off. We got ‘Memphis in the Meantime’ on the third take, and the rest followed in short order. It was just one of those things. As I later found out, it turned out to be the best way to work.”

Rather than blueprinting an entire song in advance, by tapping into the creative energy of your own band, you could actually wind up with the same kind of song detours and cool musical accidents. “The more you offer your basic ideas to other musicians when you go in to record,” adds Hiatt, “the more opportunities you have for something great to happen. And that stuff doesn’t always grow on trees.”

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