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The Truth About Demos, Part 2

Exploration By Big George
Published June 1998

A bedroom studio is a cheap and effective place to mix down live recordings, or prepare your mixes before venturing into an expensive pro studio.A bedroom studio is a cheap and effective place to mix down live recordings, or prepare your mixes before venturing into an expensive pro studio.

PART 2: Last month Big George looked at what demos actually are. This month he tells you how to prepare for recording one and avoid wasting lots of time, tape, and money. This is the last article in a two‑part series.

Yearly turnovers in the hundreds of millions of pounds, playing on live broadcasts to a worldwide audience of 10 billion adoring fans, cover star of Sound On Sound and all the other glamour magazines across the world, T‑shirts, tea towels, caps and badges with your face on, your own range of make‑up and dolls. That's all you want, isn't it? And just how do you expect to achieve this minor feat? Oh yes, by sending off a demo. Well, it better be a pretty shit‑hot demo, then.

I did my slagging‑off of totally inexperienced, self‑important artists with no idea of what they're doing in a studio last month. And obviously none of you took the slightest bit of notice, so this month we're going to look at the best way to prepare yourself for making that hot demo. Before we go any further, this isn't an article about how to save money doing demos — it's an article on how to spend wisely and not end up wasting a fortune. Make no mistake, doing things on the cheap (and that means both financially and in terms of preparation time) is a waste of time, money and tape (or hard disk space).


This (Abbey Road studios) is the sort of place you WON'T be using to record your demos — unless you're completely deranged, and/or U2. Yes, it has an enormous desk, acres of space, total soundproofing and not a cable or wire in sight — but at this stage, you shouldn't even think about it, unless your dad is the Sultan of Brunei.This (Abbey Road studios) is the sort of place you WON'T be using to record your demos — unless you're completely deranged, and/or U2. Yes, it has an enormous desk, acres of space, total soundproofing and not a cable or wire in sight — but at this stage, you shouldn't even think about it, unless your dad is the Sultan of Brunei.

Only the very rich and directionless go into the studio and make it up as they go along. It's usual for most acts to spend a considerable amount of time routining their studio timetable. Pre‑production is when the tempo and key is set for a song, when the drummer gets comfortable with the click, when it's decided which instruments will get recorded at the beginning of the session. That's not to say thinking of last‑minute changes in the studio is a bad thing, but going in clueless from the start very much is!

Only the very rich and directionless go into the studio and make it up as they go along.

Live And Kicking

Make sure your drummer can deal with a click track. Getting him/her to play along while you feed them different rhythms at a variety of tempos through a set of headphones is good practice for future studio sessions.Make sure your drummer can deal with a click track. Getting him/her to play along while you feed them different rhythms at a variety of tempos through a set of headphones is good practice for future studio sessions.

If your forté is playing live, and you want to capture that spirit of excitement, why go into the sterile confines of a studio in order to capture your magic? The problem with recording live gigs is that unless you hire a mobile studio to mic everything up, it's next to impossible. The mix off the desk is no good — it's always just the kick drum, brutally clear vocals, a bit of keyboards and nothing else.

A cheap, effective and controllable way of capturing the essence of your live sound is to get a decent multitrack recorder and set it up either at your place of loud rehearsal, or at a gig where you can soundcheck for at least a few hours. Once you've sorted out where to place the mics and come to terms with having one track for the bass and drums, record the band without vocals. Next, take the tape into a more controlled environment — someone's bedroom with a small mixer, a set of headphones, a mic, and any reverb unit will do — and add the vocals live as you mix down to DAT or similar. You now have a perfectly usable live recording, costing next to nothing. For a little atmosphere, record a home‑town gig on a ghetto‑blaster (for the general crowd din), then take your witty in‑between‑songs banter and edit that in between the songs you did earlier. I suggest you nick the applause from a live album of your choice.

Talking of ghetto‑blasters: singers, if you want to work on your harmonies — and I really think you should — take one into rehearsal and record the band. Then take the tape into a studio, on your own and try out your harmonies, and different ways of singing the melody. All it takes is a bit of time putting your boom box in the right place, usually under a cardboard box, to get a decent backing track. For the sake of a few quid (and none of the rest of the band giving you grief) it's the best way of getting comfortable in the studio. The one thing it won't help you sort out is whether the musical key of the song is the most comfortable one for you. That's an issue which needs careful consideration earlier in the proceedings, but sadly hardly ever gets it. And here's a thought for everyone in the band: when you're in the studio, be positive and encouraging about other peoples' performances. There's nothing more likely to bring a session down, or to fisticuffs, than telling the singer they're singing like shit or the bass player they're crap.

Make It Count

The Truth About Demos, Part 2

Even if you do land a massive deal and the rest of your long and fruitful recording career is spent in Hawaii at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the recordings you're doing now should be good enough to appear as an extra track on a single, or make up part of an album of bits and pieces which will come out at the end of your contract with your record company when they bleed every last drop out of you. Last month I said there has never been a better time to put out your own small‑scale release. Digital editing facilities and short‑run CDs make this easy, and if you're not prepared to invest, you can't expect to be rewarded.

The crunch question is: exactly how much is it going to cost you? And the answer is... It's impossible to answer. A quarter of a century ago, the Beatles recorded 10 of the 14 tracks for their first album in less than 10 hours, using a couple of stereo tape recorders. By my reckoning, at today's prices (£10 an hour for a decent 4‑track studio — and that's more flexibility than the Fab Four had) it'd cost you around a tenner per track to sound as good as the early Beatles (Indie bands everywhere take note). Then again, a decade and a half ago Trevor Horn spent three months and a shade over a quarter of a million pounds recording Frankie Goes To Hollywood's classic Synclavier solo 'Two Tribes'. And nowadays? For £25 an hour you can get a facility that Trevor Horn could only have dreamt of when he spent a week listening to snare sounds at £1500 a day.

From The Horse's Mouth

Kate Bush: the performance is the thing, you knowKate Bush: the performance is the thing, you know

There are impressively equipped, very affordable studios available in just about every street right across the country. The last couple of jobs I've done (Eurovision Master Class for Channel 4 and a whole heap of stings for the so‑called 'saviour of Radio 1', Chris Moyles) have been at such a studio. Run by Rupert Cook, Lost Boys Studios in Bedford is an excellent example of a typical owner/engineer small studio. I asked Rupert how much an act will usually spend producing a good demo, and what some of them do wrong.

"We've all heard of established bands taking months and months to record an album, but the majority of bands doing demos are essentially amateur, they've only been together for six months to a year, they're under 25, and more importantly, they haven't got anyone kicking their ass and arranging things for them. So they're doing it absolutely off their own back.

"As for how long they should spend on recording and mixing a song, it generally takes between 35 and 50 hours to record three songs (£875‑£1250), or approximately 16‑20 hours (£400‑£500) to do one. That includes getting a gorgeous drum sound, backing tracks, overdubs, vocals, harmonies, mixing and mastering."

"If it's an all‑MIDI and sampling affair, the way to cut those costs in half is to get the whole track programmed up beforehand and choose a studio which runs the same sequencing software as you, although here at Lost Boys we can convert pretty much any system into anything else. Then bring whatever bits of gear you need — sampler, old Roland Juno, whatever — wire it into the studio system, and by the time you've drunk a cup of tea the track is up and running. Then you've got the advantages of being in a studio, separating the sounds, sticking things through a valve compressor and adding a few live instruments.

"But if someone comes into a studio with nothing programmed up, and they just have a couple of samples and an idea as to what they want to achieve, it's going to take a very long time. For instance, programming up something as simple as a 2‑bar bassline can be a major part of the creative process.

"I'm a great respecter of the punk ethos of "let's go in, drink 10 pints of lager and bang the bastard out" — this is music, not rocket science — but if you've only got £500 and this is your one stab at doing a demo I think you can afford to be anal about things in the rehearsal room. Breaking the arrangement down to bass and drums is well worth trying, as a good proportion of tracks start with just the bass and drums. Also work out harmonies beforehand — the number of times I've heard people in the studio say "let's try some harmonies" and then not have a clue. Another thing which bands constantly decide they want is a tambourine. It's sometimes worth seeing if anyone in the band can actually play the damn thing beforehand, as it's not just waving something around, it's a tricky operation — otherwise there wouldn't be session players charging more than £50 an hour to play one."

I suggest that once the mix is perfect you turn the vocals up a bit more and compress the whole thing by a colossal factor.

From The Bedroom To Totp

Another reason why bedroom sound magicians might want to think about going into a professional studio is that the engineer probably knows some nifty moves on the sequencer and sampler that you didn't know were possible. My own personal total mastery of MIDI sequencing has come not from the manual but from watching someone else who uses the sequencer more than I do. (Particular thanks go to Dave Lockwood, one of my slave‑driving SOS editors).

Part of the problem with acts going into the studio for the first time is they haven't been listening to what everyone else has been playing. They've spent hours rehearsing in a dingy room, where they can't hear the vocals and the kick drum. Then they come into the studio and get a gorgeous drum sound and suddenly there's a look of panic on everyone's faces, as they can hear that everything's out of sync with everything else — the bass and the drums are completely out to lunch and the singer's voice is a bit ropey. The vocals can be worked on, but getting an inexperienced rhythm section to nail their parts together under the glare of the red light is tough. If there's one bit of advice I'd give any band thinking about going into a studio it's this: stick a mic into the kick drum. Because unless you've played with proper monitoring you simply can't hear what the kick drum is doing, and it's the most vital part of a track, aside from the singing. No amount of studio gadgetry can make up for not having a tight, well‑rehearsed rhythm section, whereas the majority of singers in the charts have had the cutting edge of modern studio technology smoothing out the wrinkles in their performances.

Learning To Live With Loops

One of the best ways to cock up a session is to have a live drummer playing along to a click for the first time. If you have a drummer, or you have a drummer in mind for your session, make sure they can play with a click track. It's a skill easily attained, if it's not under the pressure of getting the backing track to the most important recording in the world (your demo). Some drummers like a straight clave click with no distinction for beat 1, some like a clap on the first beat of the bar, and others like a conga pattern that goes across the beat. Most western pop music, from Metallica to Aqua, Shed Seven to Celine Dion, has a constant beat. The ironic thing about drummers and click tracks is that the ones who can play with one don't really need to, and the ones that can't really ought to.

The two best ways for a drummer to get good at this most important skill for recording are, firstly, setting up a drum machine, programmed with a click, a conga counter‑riddum, or whatever feels right, strapping on a set of headphones and getting to it, over a wide variety of tempos; and, secondly, through the same pair of headphones, piping Radio 1 into your brain and playing along to all the songs, regardless of whether they're rubbish or not.

Playing with a click is not a mathematical test of accuracy, designed to make the drummer sound mechanical; the click is there to help the drummer keep a constant tempo for the duration of the song. The art is to play around the click, constantly. If the first chorus is 14.5 seconds long, then all the choruses are going to be the same length, although the feel can change.

Now if the plan is for the drummer to play with a click and then later on you want to add a looped beat, stop right there! The drummer may well play with pinpoint accuracy to a metronomic click, but will the loop? Most loops, whether they're samples of live performances or programmed machine triggers, have an element of swing. Trying to match up a loop to a live drum performance is like sync'ing a CD and a cassette of the same song together — it should work but it never quite gels. So if you're planning to add a loop, start with it (more pre‑production).

While we're on drummers, a simple tip when going into a studio is that new heads sound better than old ones. Learn to tune your drums — it will take less than half the time to extract a far superior sound in the studio from a cheap old kit with new heads that have been tuned than it will from a top‑of‑the‑range solid‑gold kit with knackered skins which have never been tuned. And if you don't know how to tune a kit, go to the local drum kit shop and get the name of a good drum teacher, who will be delighted to give a lesson in how to tune a kit.

Mix And Master

Once you've finished recording all the singing, playing, and everything you want to put on the track, do a rough mix and go straight home. It's an impossibility, but don't listen to the tape for at least 24 hours. It's important to get some space between the recording process and the mix — at least a couple of days. Recording is a sweaty, heads‑down, adrenalin‑loaded affair, whereas mixing needs a clear head and as few distractions as possible. There's nothing worse than trying to finalise the most important thing in your life (at that moment) after a 12‑hour slog, with the bass player who finished hours ago and has spent his/her time wisely getting completely pissed and the drummer lugging the drums through the control room to the car, in a bad mood because he/she is sober and giving his/her brother in riddum a lift home. Mixing is best done with as few people in the room with the engineer as is diplomatic. If anyone — or, more likely, everyone — has a comment, get them to write it down. You've heard the saying 'Too many cooks spoil the broth'. In the recording world that translates to 'Too many musicians want to turn their bit up louder than everybody else'. The only thing which needs to be louder than you think is the vocals. Turn them up until they're much too loud, then turn them up a bit more and they'll be almost at the right level. Probably the most important thing to have with you when you mix is at least three massive hit tracks, on CD, of the type of music you make. Then, as you build up your mix, compare the sound you're getting with the CDs.

Apart from wishing you good luck, I suggest that once the mix is perfect, you turn the vocals up a bit more and compress the whole thing by a colossal factor.

Song Demos

Some people reckon the more fairy dust (layered strings and too much reverb, mainly) you shove on a demo, the better chance you have. I don't agree, particularly if you're trying to sell a song to Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Cliff Richards... I think that's it for British singers who don't insist on writing their own songs, whether they can or not.

So if you want the likes of Tom Jones, Whitney Houston, Tony Bennett, Tina Turner, or any international artist, to cover one of your songs, don't try and impress them with the amount of echo you can drown the sax intro in. They'll have had enough of the song before the singing comes in.

If you're looking at selling the song rather than the act that's performing it, make it as basic as you can. Now that doesn't mean boring — far from it. Producers/Singers/Artists want to hear a pared‑down, well sung and played version of a song. A simple two‑bar looped rhythm (or even a hi‑hat just keeping time) and a two‑handed keyboard part on a well ‑defined pad sound is all you need, although if there's a particular bass groove or counter melody line which completes the song you put it in — but don't crowd it with a load of self‑indulgent semi‑pro twiddling. Give them a version with and without the vocal track, and include a copy of the lyrics. Unless the musical structure is mega‑complex there's no need to include a chord chart — stars usually have very competent musical directors who can handle four chords. What d'you mean, there's more than four chords? Not in most of the hit songs of the past 40 years there's not.

Words Of Wisdom

One of the most profound things I have ever heard came from Kate Bush. This was way back in the early 1980s when she was spending days at a time recording lead vocal tracks. I thought this was a cover for her not being able to sing her songs properly, but in hindsight it was Zen and the Art of Immortality.

What she told me was this: "When you're doing a lead vocal for a record it's got to be the ultimate performance of that song". And she's right, too — at the time she was into her second day of getting the lead vocals on the hit 'Babooshka' onto tape, in the same Abbey Road studio the Beatles lived in (number two). She wanted to "tap into all the ghosts that live in the walls" and whether she did or not doesn't really matter: what does matter is that she gave a true performance of the song, like she always does, which will last until the end of time. Let's face it, no matter how many times the Rolling Stones have played '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' in their massive career, the only performance which counts is the one which Mick sang at around 4 o'clock in the afternoon at RCA studios in Los Angeles, Wednesday May 12th 1965.