The Vital Importance of The Modern Demo – Why You Should Take Your Demos Seriously
Paul McCartney learned production from the great George Martin. Australian rock legend Lobby Lloyd (The Coloured Balls) was taught production by Paul McCartney. My father David Virgin, producer of the early SPK records (cited influence of The Prodigy & Nine Inch Nails) and Sekret Sekret (5 number 1’s on the indie charts), was taught by Lobby Lloyd. And from 16 my dad David has taught me all he could about the art and alchemy of engineering, editing, recording, mixing and mastering. This is one of a series of articles I’ll be releasing on the subject of recording and production. I hope my experience can help those reading to make better recordings and understand a little more about the vast subject that is music and sound recording.
Now onto the subject at hand.
What is a Demo?
In the past the “Demo” was an amateur or semi-professional recording made to represent a band or artist when attempting to secure gig bookings, management deals or record deals. Time in a professional studio with top engineers and producers was an expense so steep that in the vast majority of cases it required the backing of a label to raise the funds to put together a single, EP or Album.
And so the Demo became the means by which acts would get a representation of their sound at a reasonable cost by hiring a small chunk of studio time, recording as efficiently as possible and perhaps forgoing expensive mastering, or doing the engineering and/or mixing themselves.
These days, thanks to the proliferation of affordable professional studio software and hardware, demoing has become extremely cheap or even free in some cases if you’re prepared to use applications like Audacity and the wealth of free loops, samples and VST instruments and effects available. And what it used to cost to record a demo in the 1980’s and 90’s, can now get you a whole professionally produced album at one of the boutique or home studios doing business in every major city if you shop around and pay attention to a studio’s track record.
So What is the Modern Demo?
So what do I mean when I say the “Modern” Demo? Essentially the function of the Demo has changed. In my opinion, and from my experience in production and recording, a solid, well thought out demo produced at home can have a huge impact on how successfully you create the sound you’re looking for when you enter the studio to record a full, professional single, EP or Album.
I would encourage every songwriter and musician to invest in some simple recording software, or go the free route, though it helps to be quite tech savvy if you do go free. Learning to layer tracks and harmonies, apply effects and simple mixing in your own time will help massively when entering the studio. You’ll have a much better understanding of what can and can’t be done and you’ll be able to better explain to your engineer or producer what you want and how you think you might achieve it. All of this equates to time and money saved, a more efficient use of your creative energy in studio and a more satisfactory end result.
Let’s look at two examples
Person A has a copy of Sonar, Logic, Garageband, Ableton, Pro Tools, Audacity or other Digital Audio Workstation. And although they don’t wish to put the many hours, days, weeks and years into studying all aspects of sound engineering and music production, they’ve picked up enough via the likes of YouTube tutorials to figure out basic recording, editing and mixing. Person A listens to their favorite influential artists and asks “what are they doing here?”, and to the best of their ability attempt to reproduce those elements in their rough demos. They also bring their project as close as they can to what they’re looking for in a finished production. And finally Person A sends commercial reference tracks to their producer of the kind of sound they are looking for in the end. When Person A enters the studio to record their album their producer is happy. There’s a clear vision to work from and develop. Work is efficient, enjoyable and the results, more often than not, very good.
Now Person B records a live take of their song on a phone or portable recorder, and that’s all they bring to the studio. The producer is in trial-and-error-guess-work mode, trying to figure out what genre, style, feel and ambiance is required. You can play Thunderstruck by ACDC on acoustic guitar just like you could play the A Team by Ed Sheeran, however, in terms of the final production they couldn’t be further apart. Furthermore as Person B has had no home experience with recording software, or real understanding of the limitations of the studio, they may expect miracles and become frustrated. Time and money is wasted, results are mixed, communication is unclear.
These are extreme examples of course. Most people fall somewhere in between, and there’s no doubt that a phone demo to get across rough tempo, arrangement and key can work well as long as a detailed pre-production takes place and commercial releases are given to build references from. With that said, there is no doubt those artists closer to Person A will, overall, get the better results when entering the studio.
Resistance is Futile – The Technology is Here to Stay
I believe that with access to recording software becoming easier and cheaper all the time Person A will soon become the norm, however, if you are someone now looking to record in the near future and haven’t looked into demoing using recording software, I can’t urge you to do so strongly enough. Most musicians and songwriters (like all people) do not have the character peculiarity that entices someone to dedicate a good chunk of their life to studying and practicing music production. They don’t want to deal with sample rates, bit depths, eq, compression, latency and audio interface drivers any more than the bare minimum, they just want the job done so they can perform and write to their potential. But I would encourage anyone in music to spend a few free evenings getting to grips with some simple recording software. Just about any laptop or PC these days can handle a few tracks of audio with effects. As well as producing solid demos before entering the studio, a little knowledge of recording software can be an excellent songwriting tool as well.
In closing; as someone who has worked on a lot of recording projects over the past 12 years through Beardfire, Great Wall of Sound and sessions in Windmill Lane, I have noticed a strong trend with regard to those coming to pre-production with great demos. Their projects sound better, closer to their vision, time is spent getting great takes instead of trying random instruments and ideas, the energy flows better and the mood is lighter.
Consider this when preparing to record, and if you don’t have the time or inclination to learn audio recording yourself, you’re bound to have a friend or family member with a basic grasp that can help you put together a cheap or free demo.
I wish you the very best with your songwriting, performing and recording!
About The Author
Rohan Healy, a dual citizen of Ireland and Australia, is owner and CEO of Beardfire Music, a record label and recording studio based in Dublin. Rohan has written, recorded and produced 10 solo albums, appeared on The Voice UK and Busker Abu with The Dublin City Rounders, shared the stage with the likes of Cat Power, Lloyd Cole and Jim Lauderdale, booked and performed over 1,000 shows in Australia, the UK, Ireland and Europe and has dozens of production, songwriting and performance credits on other artists’ works. He also hosts the Irish Music Business Show and Rhythm & Roots Show on 103.2 Dublin City FM.
Rohan works closely with father David Virgin (Healy) (of SPK, Sekret Sekret) and brother Al “Quiff” Healy (of Quiffs N Coffins) on The Dublin City Rounders, The Annual Dublin City Rounders Alt-Country Song contest and the running of Beardfire Music.
Rohan offers personal music business consultation on booking, management, live performance coaching and music exam prep, publishing and royalties, and is a music producer at Beardfire Studio.
Rohan’s Website: https://rohankhealy.com/coaching-consultation/
Beardfire Studio Website: https://beardfire.wordpress.com/studio/