Effective Demos

by SaskMusic

August 5, 2009 in Recording & Production

An effective demo depends on its ultimate purpose. Obviously, your approach will be different if you're recording a song for your band to learn, or sending a demo to a record label in hopes of overnight stardom.


If you're just laying down tunes for your band, you will want (at minimum) the chord structure laid out clearly; and the "feel" of the song. Anything else you lay down is extra. Unless you have a clear idea of what you want for a particular instrument's part, leaving it open will allow your players to be creative.

Another alternative is recording rehearsals and shows. A decent rehearsal recording can be valuable in finding out what's working with your arrangements and identifying loose spots. A bare bones version can be done by running the vocals on one track and everything else on another. Experiment with mic placements over a few sessions. Live recordings are also a great way of critiquing your performance. If you tend to improvise more during shows, you'll be able to hear what works (and what doesn't). Rehearsal and live tapes are also great for breaking in new members - the arrangements will be correct, and the new guy/gal will know which lines are covered by someone else's voice or instrument.


Songwriter/publisher demos
, meant to sell the song and not the artist, can be very basic. Your goal is to present the melody line, lyrics, and mood of the song. Whether that requires only a piano and vocal, or a cellist and harmony vocalist, is up to you. Most publishing companies will listen to very simple demos as long as the vocals are clearly discernible. Don't send in a tape with pitch variations, lots of hiss, or rough cut ins and outs. At the very least, find someone with a 4-track instead of using your home stereo. While you don't need a full blown production, sound quality is important. You wouldn't listen to a tape full of squeals and buzz!

Artist demos, meant to sell the artist as well as their songs, can easily become money pits. Whether you record at home or go to a professional studio, select your material ahead of time and make sure you are well rehearsed (this should be a given, but it's not). There are a few main reasons for artist demos. One, your band is looking for a label deal and you want to give them a sample of your work in the hopes that they will sign you before you spend your own hard earned money producing an album. Two, you're applying to FACTOR and need at least two good songs. Three, it's a good learning experience, if your band has never done studio work before. You should ALWAYS demo in a professional studio before you record your debut CD. Four, the demo can be sent to the media to obtain interviews; clubs to obtain bookings; festivals and competitions; and your grandparents. Whatever your reason, take care in laying down solid rhythm tracks and getting a good clean sound. Budget yourself some leeway so that if the groove just isn't happening on Monday, you can give it another try on Tuesday. The other option is to try a live multi-track recording, and if the levels are good, taking it somewhere to be professionally mixed.

Your goal when creating demos for A&R people, funding applications, etc. is to present your BEST material in the most cost-effective way possible. You only need to record 2-3 songs, as that's all they'll listen to anyway.

When choosing your best material, it's important to stay focussed. If there's more than one songwriter in the band, it might be sweet to include a song from each writer - but not necessarily practical. You want your strongest material, period. If you can't decide amongst yourselves, get an outside (objective) opinion.

Keep your musical direction focussed. (If you put a punk song after a tongue-in-cheek country one, you will be more likely to confuse than impress.)

Lyrics are important. If you're undecided between two pieces, choose the one with the most creative, intelligent and/or gripping lyrics.

Most importantly, spend time on the lead vocals. Be honest about your skill level, and if you're doing a songwriter demo, consider hiring a vocalist. Nothing will kill your demo faster and more effectively than a weak &/or off-key vocal. Once you're confident with your singer, turn up the vocals, and make sure your screaming guitar feedback isn't eliminating them in the mix.

Note: if you're using a boom box to record, try and find one with a built in limiter. And check the tape speed. If yours is even a 1/2 step out, your demo will sound odd when played on someone else's unit!

FACTOR demo awards: The "Professional Demo" (for artists) and "Professional Publishers and Songwriters" (for songwriters only) each will supply up to $1000, or 50% of your budget, with up to 25 hours of studio time. If you're well prepared you might get 4 songs in. Demos created through these awards are not for commercial play (i.e. radio or on future albums).

Why apply for a FACTOR demo award? The grants are non-repayable. You can record a professional quality demo for "1/2 price". Plus, you gain valuable studio experience, and the opportunity to work on your songs and their arrangements. If you're planning to do an indie album, getting your feet wet with a studio demo is a great idea - and a good demo is a "must" when you apply for your FACTOR Independent Artist Recording Loan.

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published October 1998.

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