Zack and Miri Make a Demo (Part 2)
How to make a demo
There are as many ways to make a demo as there are to write a song, and they vary from low effort to extremely involved. How you do it is up to you. Choose a method that makes sense for your project and remember that any demo at all, no matter the quality, is infinitely better than nothing.
The “Full Fledged” Demo: This is the most involved, most time consuming, and potentially most expensive method of making a demo. It is also the method used by most top-tier artists. This method involves essentially doing the entire production from start to finish as a demo before going into the studio and doing it again for the final recording. If you have ever heard the “demo version” of a song as a bonus track and though it sounded almost as good as a “real” version, this is why. This requires pretty extensive recording knowledge and equipment to do DIY, but it also is the most effective at accomplishing the goals of a demo. If everything is figured out to a high level of detail in the demo it leaves room in the studio to focus on nuance, such as getting the perfect emotion on a take. Hell, if the demo tracks are high quality enough then some elements may even make it into the final version of the song.
The “Phone In The Room” Demo: This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the “Full Fledged” version as far as the amount of effort involved, but it is still a great thing to have. All that you need to do for this is to open up your smartphone’s voice recorder app at practice or a live show, press record, and play the song. Can’t be easier than that. It also doesn’t require the same level of attention to be payed to the individual parts, so it is up to everyone individually to make sure they are prepped for the studio. However, what this can do is give a good impression of the “live” sound of a band if that is something you are aiming for in the studio.
The “MIDI” Demo: If recording live instruments for a demo isn’t an option, then the next best thing is to use MIDI or software instruments. Whether done in a DAW or transcription software, such as Guitar Pro, this kind of demo is especially useful for experimenting with song structure and arrangement. The only thing to watch out for with MIDI demos is creating playable parts for real life musicians. It is easy to lose sight of the physical limitations of an instrument when you can write anything by just clicking in some notes. Remember, most drummers only have 4 limbs, guitars can only play one note per string, and vocalists have a limited range.
The “Semi-Pro” Demo (Recommend): This is the demo method I would recommend the most projects. What it is exactly will vary for every project. The concept is to make something somewhere in between a Full Fledged and a MIDI demo in order to maximize its effectiveness and minimize the time, effort, and money needed to create it. Here are some ideas for places you can cut corners on a recording, while still maintaining its effectiveness as a demo:
- Replace difficult to record instruments such and drums with programmed MIDI versions
- Use plug-and-play amp sims to cut out the time it take it takes to mic amps and dial in tones
- Use a handheld, live microphone for vocals
- Don't do too many takes, it is OK if they aren’t the “perfect” performances as long as the part is right
- Don’t worry too much about sound quality or mixing. As long as the parts are audible, it should serve its purpose
What’s Really Important?
A demo is a stepping stone that serves a purpose in the process of making a recording. No matter how in depth of a demo you decide to make, here are some basic guidelines for what is truly important at this stage in the process.
- The song structure and arrangement
- The specific parts for each instrument
- Being prepared to play well in the studio
- Creativity and experimentation
Don’t Focus On:
- The specific sounds and tones of each instrument
- Getting the “perfect” take
- The mix or sound quality
A demo gets everyone involved on the same page and helps to get a band prepared for the studio, but it is not the end-all-be-all. Of course there is still room for creativity in the studio and the decisions made during the demo process are not written in stone. The demo serves as a jumping off point for the final production in order to make the best song possible.