In the days of Tin Pan Alley, songwriters and music publishers pitched their wares to recording artists live. Perched at a piano in a music publisher’s office, a songwriter would belt out his or her latest tunes for recording artists, record producers, and record label executives. But in today’s world, demo recordings have replaced live performances as the primary mode of pitching songs.
“Demo” is an abbreviation of the word “demonstration,” and indeed, a demo’s job is to demo-nstrate a song’s hit potential. A well-produced demo allows a potential recording artist and his or her team to envision how a song might sound if it were fully produced. Demos can make or break songs, and recording them is an expensive and time-consuming process.
DIY versus Hiring a Demo Service
Advances in technology have afforded countless musicians, songwriters, and recording artists the ability to build home studios quite inexpensively. Many people are able to create master-quality recordings at home with little more than a computer and a microphone.
Some songwriters, who do not record their demos at home, hire a studio and engage a recording engineer, musicians and vocalists when it’s time to record their demos, while others turn over the reins to a demo service–a company or individual who oversees every aspect of the recording process. The demo service prepares chord charts, hires the musicians and vocalists, oversees virtually every production and mixing decision, and delivers a finished demo. In addition to serving local clients who are able to attend the recording sessions, demo services also record for clients who are not based in music centers and would not otherwise have access to top-tier musicians and vocalists at reasonable prices. In many instances, out-of-town clients can “attend” the session via Skype or a similar technology.
While many of those who own home recording studios are capable of playing multiple instruments, few are able to create and execute musical parts on par with those that might be contributed by top-tier studio musicians. Therefore, some of the best home recordings are produced by bringing in additional musicians to deliver the radio-friendly licks and performances that can make the difference between “good” and “wow!”
Many musicians and singers of the highest caliber, including GRAMMY winners and those who record with chart-topping artists, can be hired to record tracks remotely in their own studios. They forward the digital files containing their performances, essentially making it possible for anyone to hire world-class musicians regardless of where they are located.
How to Prepare for Your Session
“One pitfall songwriters can fall into is imagining that producers are mind readers. If you have a clear idea or vision of how you’d like your demo to sound, it’s important to communicate that to the best of your ability, both through your worktape, as well as your references. I’m still a ways off from perfecting my mind reading technology!” – Jason Garner (Jason Garner Productions)
Those who own their own studios do not have to be concerned about studio costs, but in addition to the costs for musicians and singers, “time is money.” So, what steps can you take to ensure you get the recording you need–and that your time in the studio is productive? I posed this question to several recording engineers, studio owners, and music producers. They all agreed that preparation is crucial.
When asked how a writer can prepare for a session, Jason Garner (of Jason Garner Productions) stated, “In the world of recording, this question is answered by the word ‘pre-production.’ Before they get to the session, the writer and artist should have the key of the song for the vocalist they are using (if it’s not themselves as the artist), a very close idea on the tempo, as well as the ‘feel’ and genre of the song. These are best conveyed by including references to other songs. References are a song, genre, or artist that might represent the direction of the production for your song. And they are a HUGE help in conveying what somebody wants for a song demo.”
Garner suggested that being specific with your references can be a huge help toward getting the demo you are hoping for. He shared, “If you tell a producer you want ‘modern female country,’ you might be imagining Kelsea Ballerini’s ‘Dibs,’ while your producer and musicians might be thinking of Taylor Swift’s ‘Our Song.’ Both are great records, but they sound a lot different from one another.
Rather than saying, ‘I hear this to be modern dance pop,’ it may be more helpful to say, ‘I hear this as a combination of ‘Beauty and the Beat’ with some ‘Uptown Funk’ mixed in.” That would tell me they’re hearing a pretty electronic dance track with some funky guitars, and maybe horns.” Garner warned, “Don’t fall victim to the ‘flavor of the month’ syndrome. Sometimes an artist or record wins some big awards, and then everyone references that artist or record for the next few months for their demos. That’s fine if your songs actually sound like they would fit on that artist’s record, but a lot of times, it can be like putting a square peg in a round hole. Stay true to the song you wrote, and keep your references true to that vision.”
Specific references help guide your musicians, your producer, and engineer to make decisions such as which instruments to use; whether your drums should sound programmed or live; which keyboard and guitar sounds to employ, and more.
Larry Beaird (owner of Beaird Music Group and one of Nashville’s top session musicians) agreed about the importance of providing musical references. Beaird stated, “One way to convey to us what you envision for your song is to suggest hit songs that are similar to the style, tempo, groove or instrumentation that you’re looking for. This is not always necessary, but it can be very helpful.”
Beaird typically meets with his clients prior to the session (either in person, via Skype, or on the phone) to chart the songs and discuss the arrangements. He added, “We love to be extremely prepared for sessions. Writers and artists can help by sending mp3s and lyric sheets in advance - not just in advance of the session, but in advance of my meeting with them. If we have the songs already in our system, everything runs more smoothly. It’s not necessary to have a great work tape or have arrangements already worked out - we can do that during our charting session - but getting the songs in advance helps to make the whole process easier.
If a writer will be streaming the session, it’s great to be prepared for this also. We have detailed instructions on our website. These include making sure to have high-speed Internet and to listen through headphones or ear buds instead of computer speakers. Our goal is to make recording fun and stress-free. Being prepared helps to make this possible.”
“Don’t arrive unprepared and expect ‘magic’ to happen,” was the advice shared by Sean Spence (Producer/Engineer and Owner, Blue Grotto Sound). Spence continued, “When you, the studio, and the musicians are all on the clock, there isn’t time to mess around looking for that inexplicable inspiration to strike. So be prepared going in. Take the time to choose the right musicians, as they will play a huge role in the sound of your song. If you are doing a master recording, make sure you have a demo that you love, or if you are a band, rehearse a lot before hitting the studio.”
Make sure the song is finished and charted (don’t be sitting in the studio writing lyrics) and try to give your producer as much detail as possible about the sound you are looking for.” – Sean Spence (Blue Grotto Sound)
Recording engineer/producer, Russ Ragsdale (who has worked with artists including Michael Jackson and Leon Russell) stated, “Bring copies of lyrics sheets and chord charts for everyone. A lyric sheet will make me look smarter, as I can draw and make notes about how to make the song stronger. Out of all the available gear in a studio, my favorite is still a pencil and paper.”
It is indeed important to bring lyric sheets to your session, and your singer will appreciate it if you double-space the lyric, so he or she has room to make notes and add symbols above and below each line. It is also important to bring chord charts, or have arranged in advance to have them prepared by one of the musicians prior to the session. However, lead sheets (melody notes, lyrics, and chords notated on musical staff paper) are neither necessary nor expected.
“Do not invite extra people to the session to hang out. If someone is not participating toward the session, they are sucking up available air and energy. Put a team together of the best talent you can, and let them do what they do best. You will not save any money getting a friend to play on the session, it will take longer, and they can’t play as good as Brent Mason (12-time winner of the Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year Award).” – Russ Ragsdale
Ragsdale added, “You don’t want to be fumbling around in your brain trying to get an idea across in a session, so work it out beforehand with your producer or engineer who can then help get those ideas across. If you say you like a particular element of a well known recording, that will give the musicians a good idea what you’re after.”
Jason Garner commented, “All producers need some kind of basic worktape (a rough recording) to know the melody, as well as the chords. But it does not need to be polished at all. That’s why you’re coming to a producer! The songwriter can always invite the producer to suggest chord changes, particularly if the writer is limited in his or her musical skill. Most producers I know are more than happy to do this, sometimes for an additional fee, but you’d be amazed at the results you can get, just by making some slight changes to the chords that support your melody.
In addition, if a songwriter has a musical idea that they hear in their heads that would make a good signature lick (a hook at the intro and other sections of the song), I always suggest they sing or hum that part into the worktape, or on a separate mp3. They might include a note saying, “hear this part played on an electric guitar” or “piano”, or “sung as a big vocal chant” (think Phillip Phillips’ “Home”, Imagine Dragons, or Dan and Shay). Keep in mind, this is only if they have a part in mind. If they don’t, most good producers have an arsenal of parts that they will create for your song. That’s another reason you call them!”
Advance preparation includes being sure your songs are as strong as they can be, and are indeed worthy and ready to be recorded. For those still honing their songwriting chops this can be achieved by getting professional input prior to scheduling the recording session. You will also need to determine the key in which your song will be recorded. If you are working with a demo service that handles the production responsibilities and provides the vocalist, they will choose the key for you. If you are hiring vocalists, get them a rough recording of your song prior to the session. They should be able to suggest the key that will sound best for them. It’s a good idea to test the suggested key in advance by having the vocalist (or yourself, if you are the vocalist) sing the highest and lowest parts of the song. Try various keys. For example, if you think the song should be in the key of “A,” you might see if it sounds even better in “G#”or “A#.”
If you prepare your arrangement in advance, you won’t need to take up valuable time during the session determining it. This includes deciding which instruments will play, as well as the length of the song’s intro; if there will be musical interludes between the end of each chorus and the beginning of the section that follows it, and if so, how many bars will comprise each of these sections; whether there will be an instrumental solo–and if so, how long it will be, and which instrument will take the lead; and if the song will have an abrupt ending versus a fade.
If you are not comfortable making these–and similar–determinations, find an ally, such as one of the musicians playing on the session, or the engineer, and let him or her know that you will be requesting their creative input.
Prior to the recording session be sure you have clearly specified (in writing) which rights you have to use the recording. For example, obtain written permission from your musicians, vocalists, and producer if you hope to place the recording in television shows or films, or to release it commercially. Prior to the session specify the amount each musician and vocalist will be paid, whether they will be entitled to future payments, and whether musical contributions will be deemed and credited as collaborations or as work-for-hire.
How to Avoid Common Demo Pitfalls
When I first began producing demos in Los Angeles I was beyond intimidated by the process. I worked with programmers who hunched over their computers and keyboards, turning knobs and manipulating switches as if they were piloting a spaceship. When I recorded country songs in Nashville, five or six musicians recorded live, all at one time, and the basic tracks for a song would be completely finished in 20 - 30 minutes–before I had time to process my thoughts.
In Nashville, session players used the Nashville number system, which ascribes numbers to each chord in a scale. It also uses symbols such as diamonds, pluses, and minuses. The musicians would ask questions such as, “How ‘bout if we diamond it after the split bar with the one minor going to the two over five sus?” it felt as if the musicians were speaking a foreign language I did not understand. I learned to ask, “Can you play me what that would sound like?”
“If you don’t know something, ask! Everyone is there to work with you to make the best possible recording. They’re on your side. Make sure you get a reasonable amount of playbacks while the musicians are still there, and don’t let some fiddle player try and run the show. It’s your session, and they’ve been hired to play not produce.” – Russ Ragsdale
Sean Spence added, “During the session, don’t be shy to speak your mind or ask questions, but also don’t micromanage everything. If you bring energy to the session, the musicians will feed off that and be inspired by it. And make sure you stay focused during the session; put your phone away and don’t talk unnecessarily or loudly in the control room while your engineer is trying to do his job. Yes, recording is fun, but it is also work and requires focus. If you are late or waste the musicians’, engineer’s or producer’s time, they will be less likely to go the extra mile for you.”
Larry Beaird addressed the pitfall of songwriters concentrating more on singing a scratch (or guide) vocal during the tracking session with the band than on listening to what the band is playing.
“Since the scratch vocal is just a guide, it’s more important to focus on what the band is doing. During a session, we make musical decisions very quickly, and at the end of the first run-through of a song, I’ll be asking the client how they’re liking our approach. By focusing on the band, the writer can answer that question much better. Even if the feedback is as simple as “I love it!” that helps us to know we’re on the right track.” – Larry Beaird (Beaird Music Group)
Sean Spence advised, “If you are a vocalist and the session is to record your vocals, warm up your vocals in the car on the way to the studio and take care of your voice beforehand. Another big pitfall is ‘demo-itis.’ This happens when you have listened to your rough recording so many times that you struggle to hear the song in any other form and perhaps you keep trying to recreate the initial recording.”
Jason Garner stated, “During the session, you should have an opportunity to make tweaks to the arrangement and tempo. If you’re working in a live-band recording situation, a lot of times you will be under a pretty tight time schedule, so you will want to make sure your arrangement and tempo are really close, if not exactly right. But in those situations, a lot of magical things can happen quickly, so pay attention, and you might find something that you can exploit to make your song take on a whole new sound that you couldn’t have imagined!
If you’re working with a programmer, you should have an opportunity to either experiment with sounds (if you’re present during the production/programming of the track), or at least have some say in how the track is going while it’s being produced.”
“Know when to take a suggestion, and know when to stick to your guns. A favorite quote in the studio world is ‘you can tell your clients where the potholes are, but you can’t stop them from driving into them.’ That means musicians and producers should always point out trouble spots in a song or arrangement, but if you (the client) believe that you’re correct, then you need to insist that they do those parts as described.” – Jason Garner
Garner advised, “Another problem is picking a tempo that doesn’t allow all the words to be sung effectively. Sometimes you don’t catch that until you start recording vocals (which a lot of times is AFTER the track is completed). If at all possible, well before the session, play around with tempos using any of the cheap or free programs available for your computer or phone, such as GarageBand, to settle on a tempo that captures the “feel” that you like, but also allows you to sing all those words you sweated over when you were writing the song!
Whenever possible, I always recommend that writers be present for the vocal session, if not in person, then at least via “Skype” or some other online streaming service. A lot of times we producers are listening back to the worktape we were sent during the vocal session to match the melody as closely as possible. When the songwriter can be present, it allows us to ask questions as we’re going along, instead of only relying on the worktape. Better yet, it also allows the songwriter to make changes “on the spot” if there’s something that just isn’t working how they’d hoped, or if they find another word “sings/sounds” better when the vocalist sings it.”
After Your Music and Vocals Have Been Recorded
With the technology to tune and shift instrumental and vocal tracks being readily and inexpensively available, listeners have grown accustomed to recordings that are perfectly in tune and performances that are precisely where they should fall on the beat. While Americana/roots, blues, and folk artists might forego these tools, choosing a more organic approach, recordings of most pop, country, urban/hip-hop, and other mainstream genre songs are routinely tuned, comped, and shifted.
Tuning can be accomplished with an Auto-Tune program that automatically corrects the pitch of each note. More sophisticated programs such as Melodyne allow each note to be manipulated in a variety of ways, giving an engineer the ability to lengthen or shorten the duration of the note, and to precisely control its pitch, allowing for sliding up or down to a note, as well as being able to shift the placement, altering the phrasing.
Comping (an abbreviation of “compiling”) is a technique by which a musical or vocal performance is assembled by choosing the best options from multiple takes. This technique is most often employed to create the best possible vocal track or instrumental solo. To comp a lead vocal, you might record three or four versions of your vocal. After punching in as many times as necessary to achieve the best possible performance on each of these takes, one line at a time, a master version is created by assembling the preferred version of each line. In some instances, a single word–or even a portion of a word–might be taken from one track, while the rest of the line might come from various other tracks. It is a good idea to listen to the resulting compilation in “solo” mode, without the distraction of other instruments or background vocals, to ensure that the compiled performance sounds natural and not as if it were pieced together.
Shifting a vocal or instrumental track (sometimes referred to as “pocketing”) can be accomplished with most recording programs. This allows an individual track–or a portion of a track–to be moved to where you would like it to fall in relation to the beat. This allows an engineer to correct a recording that sounds either rushed or behind the beat. By tuning, comping, and shifting individual tracks, you (or a skilled engineer) can improve your recorded performances and make them sound as good as possible.
To get the best demo possible, prior to your session record a rough version of your song for the musicians and singer to hear, and be sure you have the best tempo. Arrange for charts to be created, bring multiple copies of double-spaced lyric sheets, determine the singer’s key, prepare an arrangement, and hire the best musicians and vocalists. Decide how you would like your song to sound and find appropriate references. Be sure to clarify whether musicians and vocalists are to be credited as collaborators, or if their contribution is deemed a work-for-hire. Also confirm (in writing) which rights you have (i.e., the right to place the song in TV/film and/or release it commercially) and whether the musicians and singers will be entitled to any future payments.
During your session, don’t be afraid to ask questions and give your players input and feedback to help them deliver the recording you want. Remember, you are the employer and your musicians and vocalists are there to give you the recording you envision. Bring energy and a professional attitude to the studio, and utilize technology to achieve the perfect demo- nstration of your songs, and remember that learning how to produce great demos is a process. The more you do it, the easier it will become for you to get recordings that showcase your songs exactly as you imagined they could sound–or even better.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. One of only a few writers to ever have singles on the pop, country, and R&B charts, all at the same time—his songs have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Gipsy Kings, Jesse McCartney, and country stars including Collin Raye (6 cuts), the Oak Ridge Boys, Steve Azar, and John Berry (“Change My Mind,” a top 5 single that earned a BMI “Million-Aire” Award for garnering more than one million airplays). Jason’s song “Can’t Take Back the Bullet” is on Hey Violet’s recent EP that debuted in the top-10 in twenty-two countries and reached #1 throughout Scandinavia and Asia. He’s had three top-10 singles in the past two years and a “Gold” record in Europe by Dutch star, BYentl, including a #1 on the Dutch R&B iTunes chart.
Jason’s songs have been included in films and TV shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Assassination Games,” “Black or White,” Disney’s “Kim Possible” “Dangerous Minds,” “Kickin’ It Old Skool,” “The Guiding Light,” “The Miss America Pageant,” and many more. Jason is in his twentieth year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops. A regular contributor to BMI’s Music World magazine, he presented a master class at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney), served as a consultant on the state of the music business for CNN International, and teaches songwriting throughout the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, Bermuda, and Jamaica.
After twelve years as a staff-writer for Zomba Music, Blume now runs Moondream Music Group. For additional information about Jason’s online SongSchool critiques and webinars, latest books, instructional audio recordings, and workshops, visit www.jasonblume.com.