Your music is important to you but perhaps the budget is failing to cooperate or the music isn’t ready yet. Usually, songwriters record a demo to market their songs with hopes of a major recording artist picking it up and, with the right producer, make it a hit. I’ve been demoing music for years and realized that recording demos that sound good is getting easier on a nearly non-existent budget.
The key to recording good demos at home starts with good songs and good sounds. Demos don’t need to be overdone. They don’t need to be perfectly mixed. Demos just need to showcase the potential of the song. And these days, it’s almost a requirement that musicians make their own demos if they want to get anywhere in the business.
A professional studio can demo songs with a full band in about one hour per song for basics and another half hour for overdubs, leaving about a half hour to an hour to mix the song. This could cost about $1,000 or more, depending on the studio and the cost for musicians. For what it could cost to demo five songs, you could be in business with a studio setup that sounds good at your home.
The bottom line is that it all comes down to the performance, the room, and the microphones. The preamps and converters are important, but only if the first three elements of a recording are of good quality. This article will get touch on gear a bit, but it focuses on performance and process because those elements are the purpose of demoing.
1. Choose the right interface for your budget.
If you go too cheap, you’ll be left with noisy preamps or analogue to digital converters that can’t seem to capture the instruments as they sound. Sometimes this means you’ll have to buy a better interface with fewer channels.
I’m a huge fan of the Focusrite Scarlett and Clarett series. The Clarett is better of the two, but not necessarily noticeable for demoing. I have the Scarlett 18i20, which has 8 direct channels. And for demos or YouTube videos, this was the best $500 I’ve ever spent. Sure, you need a good room and good mics, but we’ll get to that.
Making the decision to buy one interface over another comes down to how many channels you can afford for the quality you can live with. If your priority is more channels, go with a four- or eight-channel interface of a little lesser quality like the Scarlett. If you’d rather have two channels with better quality and only have about $400 to spend, the Clarett 2Pre is a great choice.
2. Microphones make a huge difference.
The Shure SM57 is my favorite microphone to use for recording demos. It works for everything, even drum overheads. It’s a dynamic mic with a cardioid pattern that can handle snare drums, vocals, and loud guitar amps with ease.
My other favorite microphone is a Shure KSM109. This one is great for acoustic guitars, drums, and percussion. It’s a condenser mic and needs phantom power, yet it does not take in a lot of background noise or bleed from other instruments. This is huge for recording demos at home because HVAC systems, for example, can kick on and take away some clarity, especially during mixdown when certain frequencies are increased.
3. Preamps can make a difference.
Without good preamps, your signals – and ultimately your sounds – will not be as strong as possible. The recording won’t be ruined with weak preamps. But if you have the performance, room, and mics in good shape, the preamps will level up your recording, for sure.
My first experience with good preamps left me back in the woodshed. I bought a Focusrite Trackmaster and recorded bass on some demo tracks. The sound was awesome, but the performance was horrendous. Now that the overall clarity of all the basic tracks was better than before, I could finally hear every note that wasn’t quite locked with the drums or the passing tones that didn’t make sense with the chord progression.
4. Noise is a problem.
Some noise is unavoidable if you are not recording in an isolation room or a space not designed for recording. The noise can come from the electrical wiring in the walls, lighting, or even a freezer plugged into and outlet in the basement. These issues are fairly tame in my basement studio. But if I bought better mics and pres, I think the room would be the problem.
Other noises can come from the instruments or cables. Noisy guitar jacks and cheap cables can ruin a recording, which is why I always crank the preamp when I’m checking the mics. This isn’t a perfect way to find noise, of course. In the excitement of tracking an idea, it can mean the difference between keeping the track for the demo and having to retrack the part.
5. Start simple with the instrumentation.
I come from a jazz background, so complex rhythms and harmonies are not the issue I worry about. The songs with seven guitar tracks make me wonder if the individual parts are enough to do the song justice, so keep it simple and solid.
A kick drum and a tambourine under an acoustic guitar, bass, and vocals is all some songs need. Some songs only need keys and vocals. These decisions should come naturally and should not be too contrived.
6. Keep the drums simple.
The sparse nature of drums and percussion placed well and conservatively is as sought after as the grooves that fill every space in the rhythm section. Recording demos will need to showcase the song before they showcase any of the egos of band members.
Focus on the quality of the sound of the kick and snare, and perform awesome parts. They don’t have to be complicated, but the parts need to performed well. If it sounds good, it won’t matter how many drums or cymbals are being hit. Here’s an article with a few tips about writing drum beats.
7. A bass is not a guitar.
The bass is more the harmonic foundation of the song. It has a three-part job to provide the timing and tempo of the groove, establish style with the other rhythm instruments, and support the harmony in a way that works with the changes and melody.
Play more than root notes. The root and fifth are common chord tones that are easy to accent, but the best bass lines find a place of their own by being in command of the chord changes. The bass player needs to know every chord tone, and the great players are fluent in substitutions.
If you’re a beginner, just make sure that the bass line is in the same key as the song. If the chord is minor, don’t play a major third from the root of the chord. If the chords are not in a specific key because the songwriter made some decisions outside of Western music theory, the root, fourth, and fifth may be the safest place to hang around.
8. Explore different lead lines.
Whether it’s tenor sax, guitar, or synthesizer, consider a few different lead lines. Sometimes it’s easiest to play around with a few notes from the melody to make some variations that keep the listener engaged.
The best studio players can usually come up with something almost immediately. I think about common chord tones and melodies that I like from other songs, as well. Play around with some rhythms that compliment and stand out from the stylistic rhythms of the song, and you should have a handful of variations to use.
9. Stick with what you do well.
This is probably the most important tip on this list because if you’re trying to do something that’s not you, the product may reflect it. Even though you are recording demos, it should be your best work to date. The production quality may be a step down from being ready for streaming platforms, but recording demos are important for marketing your music or trying out pre-production ideas before the big studio session.
My strength is to focus on how all of the parts sound together. I can usually hear them in my head, but that doesn’t mean it will track the same way. When I track the parts, I usually listen with headphones to make sure the parts are written and performed well enough for finished product recording session.
Perhaps you don’t take as much of an arranger role as I do. Maybe your strength is putting the right people in the room to make the demo. Recording demos is also about using your time effectively. Time is often money, so maybe your strength is knowing when to move on to the next part or how to get the most out of the people in the room. These are all good qualities of a music producer.
10. Don’t worry about what someone else might think.
This tip is about knowing your capabilities and trusting yourself. Avoid letting feedback, solicited or not, detract you from what you do well. It’s easy at first to please someone. Things go south when you try to please too many people and end up with a situation that got away from you.
People will want to work with you because of what you do best. Not everybody is going to appreciate what you do, especially when recording demos. To the novice stakeholder, this recording process may look rushed. It’s my favorite recording to for people because people often take more chances – there is less a stake.
Like any art, worrying about what someone else might think will likely stifle your creativity. It’s better for your art to lose a fan than compromise too much of what makes you an artist.
11. Good performances captured well are 90 percent of the product.
Number 11 is a bit much for performance. It’s easily the number one issue if you want to record a demo, and capturing it requires attention to the room, mics, interface, and your musical abilities.
Capturing the performance well is simple and yet not so easy. Even if you get lucky addressing the room issues with ease, a good place to start is mic placement as it relates to the drum and the room.
Here are a handful of examples.
- Aim a 57 at the center of the snare drum batter if you want more control and less ring
- Track instruments with a direct line whenever possible. You can still mic an amp in the room, and the line gives you options later.
- Place the mic on a guitar amp off center. Play with moving the direction of the mic away and toward the driver (speaker cone).
12. Go easy on effects, especially reverb.
Effects are fun at first. Once you settle down on the novelty of effects, it’s important to use them strategically. For example, reverb on vocals extends some of the vowel sounds, making the voice sound bigger. It also helps the vocals stand out in the mix.
Another reason to use reverb is to differentiate instruments like percussion from similar frequencies in the guitar or keys. To put it more mathematically, the reverb affects the sound on the Z axis, while the volume is the Y axis and the EQ is the X axis. This is not a perfect concept, it’s just how I hear it and think about finding space for each instrument.
The next most common effect that I deal with is overdrive on guitars. I prefer effects that don’t completely change the sound of the guitar, unless that’s the goal. I like to hear a bit of the tone from the clean end so listeners know that it sounds like a guitar, not a keyboard or any number of weird electronic instruments sold these days.
13. Hire someone to play a part beyond your ability.
The performance is always first in the chain of factors that lead to good sounds. While recording a demo, it’s commonplace to hire musicians to play the parts well if it’s not in your wheelhouse. This is also why it’s good to play free gigs and do things for people because it builds a network of professionals who you call when you need a bass line tracked or lead lines on keys.
14. Produce alternate versions.
One of my best friends is a graphic designer. He taught me that graphic designers often present the product the client wanted, a variation, and a version that the graphic designer wanted. This opens the conversation about what the client’s ideas look like, what room they have to adjust, and what someone else’s ideas look like for their product. Half the time or more, the conversation centers on the graphic designers idea.
The same can be done when recording a demo, and the variation can be in subtle places. I’m currently recording a demo / first album for a singer songwriter who has a lot of ideas about the parts of the songs. I made notes of his wishes, which I will track as such, and I made notes of they I hear the song. I’m willing to bet that he will like both and that we will have plenty to discuss about the final product.
If it’s your music that you are demoing, this process still holds up. Track and mix some variations on your idea to make sure it’s the best for the song. We can be wrong about our own music, especially if your first ideas are the perhaps the most exciting but no the best you can do. It happens to me, so I treat myself like a client.
15. Use a click track.
A click track makes it easier to chop parts and fix errors during the mixing process. Most digital audio workstations (DAW) have tools that allow seamless clipping and stitching, or whatever it’s called. Although this is not an ideal way to produce a song, it’s sometimes the only thing you can do to finalize your tracks.
On the other hand, it’s sometimes fun to record songs with this chunking process in mind or to facilitate a recording of a song that does not have a definite arrangement.
16. Mix with both monitors and headphones.
Good monitors can get expensive. They are crucial for quality final products, but recording a demo can be done with lesser monitors if that’s all you have. I like the Yamaha HS series monitors because they give you what you give them. They don’t add bass or treble to enhance the listening experience.
As for headphones, the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro is a standard for many music producers. The transparency and depth of sound make it easier to hear the slightest differences in the original sounds being tracked.
Again, expensive monitors and headphones are not crucial for recording a demo. But what if the music gets better, almost to the point that the demo could be the final product. You will get better at making demos if you love doing it, so be ready for the next piece of gear that could take you there.
17. Listen to your mixed song on different types of devices.
Most people listen to music with their phone or other means of streaming. Make sure that your tracks sound good on the phone with and without the headphones. Also, plug your phone into the auxiliary of a car sound system and a mid-quality home system.
If your tracks are clear in the best and worst listening situations, you likely have something worth sharing.