How To Create A Demo Of Your Song

2013-10-02 22.40.43At this time of year, with the autumn air just beginning to get crisp and the leaves well underway in changing colors, I am usually pretty easy to locate in our house.  You see, Christmas is around the corner, and I am busy making demo recordings of songs for our Christmas productions at my church.  For better or worse, we quite often try to do an entirely original production for the holidays.  That means my wife, Sue, will usually write the entire script for our musical, and I’ll write all the songs.

It sounds like a lot of work.  As a matter of fact, it is.  But one of the great joys in my life is to write music;  to have it performed by my friends at church is not only a plus, it’s a blast!
The demos I create are mostly for our own team members, and so I don’t necessarily have to get everything recorded flawlessly, like you would if you are trying to get an agent to shop your songs.  But it is important to do a decent job with it – an accurate recording will save a ton of time in rehearsal.

My process

If I am creating from scratch, I might begin any number of places.  I might start with listening to a dozen different songs that inspire me along the right lines, songs that seem to have sections in them that I wish I’d written, that have a cool feel and groove, or a dramatic effect that I might want to emulate.  I might start with lyrics first (I use a program called MasterWriter to write lyrics, it’s a great program that allows me to find rhymes or other word associations I need very quickly).  When I have a good idea where the song is going, then add chords on my guitar as I sing, re-sing and sing again the various lines I’ve written.  Once the lyrics have a melody and chords I like, I’ll commit it to a lead sheet.

A lead sheet contains the melody, chords and lyrics for a song.  My charts might also include a staff for the rhythm section and more staves for background vocals.  I use Finale, a music notation program second to none when it comes to putting music down on paper.  It is an industry standard for a reason!

My next step is to start recording.  There are probably several good processes to use for accomplishing this, but the one that seems to work for me is as follows.  I use Avid’s ProTools for recording, again an industry standard program.

1) Using a drum module, I’ll listen through drum grooves until I find the one that fits my needs fairly well.  EZ Drummer and Superior Drummer (both by Toontrack) are the modules I use.  Right now, I only need to get the basic track down, making a difference between grooves for the verses and for the choruses, or any other segments of the song.  I’ll return to this and add fills later.

2) Adjust the tempo, singing along with the drum track until the feel seems right.

3) Add MIDI rhythm section instruments if I can, like piano, bass or more percussion.  These are all easily manipulated as I go.  I can change the key, the tempo, the volume, even the exact instrument with a couple of clicks.  I haven’t done anything yet that will take much time to correct or to alter.  MIDI is a beautiful thing!  If you’re not familiar with MIDI, it simply stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and it has been widely accepted for the past 25 years at least.  The MIDI plug into your keyboard or computer has 5 pins, and is a unique size.  MIDI can control instruments and patches, drum machines, guitar effects… even lighting in concert if you want it to!  For an in-depth description of what MIDI is and how it works, click here.

4) Now I’ll add any analog instruments, which for me means my acoustic guitar, electric guitar and electric bass.  These are much harder to correct digitally, but they are easy to record and re-record.  With digital recording, punching in and out (meaning you start and stop recording as the track continues to play) without any extra noise like in the old days of recording on tape.  Depending on the recording system you use, you may even be able to change the tempo or pitch after you’ve recorded the track, using a pitch-shift or time-shift function.

5) Now would be a good time to go back to the drum track and add in all the fills you ignored when you created the track.  Drum fills are a technique that leads the listener into each new section of the song by creating a rise in tension or dispelling tension.  For instance, leading into a chorus, a drum fill will most often add energy that makes you feel like you’re ramping up to something.  Or at the end of the chorus leading into an instrumental or a verse, the drums will often seem to lose energy, playing more sparsely to dispel the tension of the moment.  The trick is to lead the ear, kind of telegraphing where you’re about to be in the song.

5) Next, I’ll record the lead vocal.  Now that I’ve got the feel of the song, I can sing it with s measure of realism.  If you are unsure of your ability to sing on pitch, you may want to use a pitch correction plug-in like Autotune (groups like Black-Eyed Peas have built their career on using Autotune, at least recently).  Some people think using Autotune is cheating.  Do I use it?  Hmmm…

6)  Background vocals are next.  Adding color and texture to the harmonic backdrop of the rhythm section, they might create a vocal block, or a counter-melody, or even improvised obligatos (small pieces of melodies that compliment the main tune).  I’ll sing tenor, maybe baritone or bass.  But if I need to add soprano or alto parts – well, my wife and daughters know the inside of my studio very well!

7) The last part of the recording process has to do with the ambiance of the song, sometimes called “sweetening”.  I might add strings, organ, or audio effects (there are thousands) so that the song has just the right flavor.  Each instrument I add, if they are MIDI, has to be played with the original instrument’s technique in mind.  For instance, playing long tones with a banjo sound won’t work, and playing staccato on an organ probably defeats most of its purpose.  Not that you can’t, but if you’re looking for that studio-mixed sound, try to keep it real.

8) Master your recording.  For me, it is as simple as adjusting the master fader on my recording software with a couple of plug-ins.  A plug-in called Maxim comes with ProTools and can be used quite effectively to achieve the hottest, fullest sound for your mix without clipping.  I personally don’t want to work too hard on mastering my demos, so I use a different plug-in called EZ Mix (another one by Toontrack) that seems to get all the nuances of mastering right.  You will also need to make sure you use a Dither function if you are recording to CD tracks.

9) Now the recording needs to be bounced to disk, meaning that all the recorded tracks are played together and rerecorded into a stereo file, like a .wav file or an .aiff file.  Then your recording can be played on any typical player on your computer, like Windows Media Player, RealPlayer or iTunes.  If you want to make it portable so that you can upload it via email or play it on your phone, you’ll need to convert it to an .mp3 file.  For that, I use NCH Software’s Switch Sound Converter.

So that is my demo-making process.  It might take a couple of hours, or it might take several months, just depends on how complex I want to make it.  Or how inspired I am!

What is your process?  Did I overlook anything that you include?  I wish you all the best in your demo-making efforts!

Please leave your comment below or email me at [email protected].  I’d love to hear how you go about it!

© 2013 Steve Case