Let’s begin at the beginning. You’ve written a song and, hopefully, you’re thrilled with it. So thrilled, in fact, that you want to record it right away and use every instrument in both the Western and Eastern musical traditions on the demo. I don’t blame you one bit. There’s nothing more fun than dressing up your songs to go to town. But it might make sense to stop and ask yourself what your goals are for your demo.
Why Demo Your Song
If the answer is that you’re a recording artist in your own right and you’re putting together a collection of demos that represent you and your sound, then, by all means, create a full-blown demo. But if the answer is that you’re hoping to represent your song in a way that highlights what is unique in your melody and lyric and you’re hoping to pitch it to publishers or recording artists in order to get a cut, you might want to put on the brakes before doing a full-blown demo.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room — the money. Doing quality recordings of your songs is never inexpensive. As a matter of fact, doing a full-band production of a song can be downright expensive. As a result, you should have very good reasons for doing a full production of your song. An example would be that you know a music supervisor who has come to you, specifically, looking for a song for a film or TV show and they’re looking for a full-band production. Another good reason would be that you’re working with a young artist and you want to do a version of the song that highlights not only the song but also the singer as an artist. However, if you’re hoping to have a long, successful career as a songwriter, you need to manage your demo budget carefully. In terms of pitching possibilities and placement opportunities for your songs, I firmly believe that it is better to have a catalog of ten great sounding, professionally recorded guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demos than it is to have half that many full-band recordings.
What Is a ‘Stripped-Down’ Demo?
A stripped-down demo is generally a recording of a single instrument (either acoustic guitar or piano) and a vocal, including vocal harmony. This is in contrast with what I’ll refer to as a full-band demo, which generally involves a rhythm section (drums and bass) as well as various “color” instruments like electric guitar, keyboards, and any one of a variety of other instruments. The trick to a well-recorded stripped-down demo is that it implies something bigger without necessarily having to use a lot of instruments to do it. For example, a piano/vocal recording where the singer adds harmony vocals on top of the lead vocal gives the impression of the chorus getting bigger and more dramatic without having to use a big drum fill or electric guitar power chords to do it. Stripped-down demos are particularly effective on ballads but can also work well on uptempo songs. Sometimes, it’s as simple as including a shaker, tambourine or even foot-stomps and hand-claps on a recording to give it a sense of drive and motion. Adding a slight percussive element like this still fits in the stripped-down category because it’s being done in exchange for what a full drum kit would do. Give this snippet of a stripped-down demo a listen to see what I mean:
Stripped Down Does Not Mean Low Quality
Let me be perfectly clear: Just because your demo is only one instrument and a vocal, this is not a reason to do it yourself unless you’re an experienced studio musician or demo vocalist. When a demo is boiled down to a single instrument and vocal, it is doubly important that the recording and performances be of the highest quality because every element of the recording will be exposed. Most importantly, trained studio musicians and vocalists bring emotion, precision and energy to a recording that will make it stand out in a way that is essential for creating a positive first impression. I suspect I don’t have to remind you how intense the competition is out there. You’ve only got one chance to make a first impression with your music so make absolutely sure that your demos (whether stripped down or full band) are done by experts. In other words, save your money by using fewer instruments and scaling back your production, not by using inexperienced players, singers and engineers.
Listen to the examples below to hear the difference between a guitar/vocal rough recording done on home recording equipment and the same song professionally recorded with a session piano player and professional vocalist.
When Less Is More
Beyond being easier on your budget, there are several additional reasons to consider stripping down your demos. First of all, a simple guitar/vocal recording of a song shows that the song is strong in its most basic form. If you find yourself thinking that your song will only work if it’s got a full-band production behind it, then you might want to re-investigate the song itself. Another advantage of scaled-down production is that it leaves room for the artist or producer on a project to explore production options instead of pegging the song to a particular style of production. Along those same lines, a piano/vocal demo sung by a vocalist with a clean, contemporary sound would open up pitch opportunities across several genres. In other words, it might be possible to pitch the same piano/vocal demo to a pop artist as well as a country artist. If, however, you’ve created a full band recording of the same ballad, the session musicians would most likely have to commit to a particular style thus limiting your pitch opportunities.
Hopefully, your career as a songwriter will be a long and prosperous one. Having great songs is the first and, without a doubt, the most important place to put your time and effort. But, if you want to make a living as a songwriter, then creating quality demos and getting those recordings into the hands of those who can do something with them comes a close second. By stripping down your demos, you’ll be able to stretch your demo budget and highlight what’s unique in your songs without compromising on the non-negotiables like a quality recording studio, professional musicians and experienced demo singers.
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter and producer with over 20 years of industry experience. Cliff’s articles have been published in EQ, Recording and ProSound News magazines and his eBook “The Songwriter’s Guide To Recording Professional Demos” is available as a free download from his site http://www.cliffgoldmacher.com/ebook.