While the days of the demo tape are long gone, anyone who writes songs and wants to take their music further than the bedroom needs a demo, showcasing their songwriting abilities. And the truth is, in 2022 this is easier than ever before.
In the following quick guide, we’re going to discuss what a demo is in today’s musical environment, the songs you should include, the recording process, and where to host your music.
Why You Should Record a Demo
There are many compelling reasons to record a demo, including:
- Capturing a song idea before it’s lost,
- Documenting the songs you have written, without spending the time and money necessary on a studio recording,
- As a reference for an engineer before entering the studio,
- As an example of your work when booking gigs with talent agents or venues,
- As a showcase of your work when applying for further study e.g. to get accepted into music school,
- Teaching parts to band members or potential collaborators,
- Gaining the interest of a record label,
Regardless of the intended purpose, recording a demo is essential if you want your music to be heard. For the purpose of this article, we’re focusing on acoustic singers/songwriters, but much of the information will be applicable to anyone who writes music.
How Polished Should a Demo Be?
The production quality of your demo depends on its intended audience.
For example, if capturing an idea that you hope to develop further, you really just need your phone. There are numerous ways to improve the quality of your phone recordings, but for the most part, as long as the recording quality is sufficient that it doesn’t detract from the key elements of the song a phone is your best option.
If however, you are recording a demo to promote your music, a multitrack recording and the ability to overdub tracks is essential.
For acoustic-based songwriters, this means having access to at least one decent microphone, an audio interface, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation Software), and a decent-sounding room to record in.
I’ve written in-depth guides on each of these in more detail below. Click on any of the links to learn more.
- The Best Mic for Recording Acoustic Guitar
- What to Look for in an Audio Interface
- Computer Specs For Music Production
- How To Improve the Sound of Your Room
The Evolution of the Humble Demo
The first demo I recorded was a submission to music school. The recording consisted of 5 tracks that were recorded on an old analog tape machine, like the one below.
While every effort was made, the production quality wasn’t a priority. It was more about capturing the idea in the hope that the intended audience could hear the potential of the songs.
The point is, in the past, a demo was expected to sound less produced. Musicians simply couldn’t record high-quality audio inexpensively.
Here’s an example from Chris Cornell of the song “Flutter Girl” which eventually became one of the songs on his 1999 solo debut release “Euphoria Morning”.
And here’s the version that appeared on the album:
As you can hear, while the bones of the song are there e.g. the vocal melody, Beatlesque guitar lines, and clever lyrics, the production quality and performance are nothing like the released version. The track doesn’t even include drums.
While still a great historical insight into Cornell’s writing process, in many ways, the demo, at least how it used to be is now dead.
Thanks to the affordability of professional quality home recording equipment many demos now sound closer to that of a studio release. However, that doesn’t mean you should spend an inordinate time on studio wizardry either.
If you are a songwriter it’s the material that matters. Every decision you make should emphasize the key elements of the song e.g. the vocal melody.
How Many Songs Should a Demo Include?
If you are recording a demo to promote your music, your demo should showcase your “best” work.
In the past a demo would contain no more than 5 songs. But nowadays, when hosting your music online it’s more important that you get the order of your songs right.
Your strongest songs should be at the top of your playlist. There’s no point in “saving the best for last” if song 5 is never heard. I’d also suggest only including your strongest songs, most great songwriters are selective, and write a lot more music than you or I get to hear.
What Format Should Your Demo Be?
I‘d also recommend owning your own piece of real estate online in the form of your own website. It’s easy to create a music-based website using wordpress.com and there are any number of plugins that will allow you to stream your music.
Owning your own website is also just a great way to keep copies of your music in a format that won’t degrade over time.
How Complete Should The Songs Be Before Recording a Demo?
For many, it’s definitely more efficient to separate the creative with the performance side. That means before recording your demo your songs are at a stage where you can simply record them without working on additional parts e.g. the bridge, or the song’s format as you go.
This will save you time, but the recording process also usually sparks new ideas which you can take better advantage of when recording a demo, and not paying for studio time. But this will differ for everyone.
One thing I would recommend however, is having your lyrics written, at least mostly. Coming up with lyrics during recording is difficult to do. In most cases you will end up rushing it, and the phrasing may change completely which will take time to adjust to when performing vocals.
The Recording Process
The key to recording a good songwriting demo is to remember, that it’s the song that matters, and in most cases, this means less is more.
It’s not all or nothing though.
Poor sound quality or a dull performance will distract people’s ears from the quality of the songwriting. This means if you are a songwriter the vocal melody and guitar should be most prominent, with additional instruments e.g. bass, drums, or the arrangement of the song playing a supporting role.
I’ve written a lot of information on home recording, so rather than rehash much of this information here, I’ve included links below that go into more detail:
For the remainder of this article, we’ll focus on some of the trickier aspects of recording a demo.
Drums can be tricky, especially if you are not a drummer.
If you are including drums, for the purposes of a demo, especially if you are a singer-songwriter I’d recommend using software.
I use and highly recommend Ez Drummer from Toontrack, but Superior Drummer, Steven Slate Drums, and a host of other VSTs (virtual studio technology) all work much the same and will get the job done.
When it comes to free drum software there are plenty of options out there, but the best I’ve used is MT Power Drummer.
Most of these are fairly intuitive e.g. drag and drop and also offer features that allow you to humanize the otherwise mechanical nature of drum loops.
Keep in mind though, that it can be easy to get carried away with using software such as EZ Drummer or programming drums. And, while it can be tempting to use sophisticated loops and fills, use them tastefully and ensure the key elements of the song remain the priority. Impressive fills are great, but impressive fills that do nothing to carry the song forward are a waste of time.
I love bass, but I’m not a bass player. I don’t want the bass to stand out, but I also want it used in such a way that you would notice if it was missing.
If you own a bass guitar great. If not, you can use your guitar. The guitar is one octave lower than the bass though, so keep this in mind. And, if able, pitchshift the guitar making it sound more like a real bass guitar.
Otherwise, much like I recommend with drum loops above, if you are not a bass player keep things simple while adding to the song.
I usually outline the chords being played on the guitar and focus heavily on dynamics e.g. I sometimes don’t introduce the bass until the first chorus, or only use it selectively throughout the song to emphasize key parts.
The last but most critical part of recording any song is the vocal melody. If you are not an experienced vocalist the first thing I’d recommend is to sing within yourself, and secondly find a space you can record in without feeling too self-conscious.
Nothing sounds worse than a singer straining for notes they simply cannot hit, or a singer who sounds like they prefer not to be heard.
The vocal melody is the most memorable part of the song in most cases, and you need to sound committed without chasing notes that are outside of your range.
Below are a few additional tips to record better vocals for your demo:
- Choose the “deadest” sounding room available (you can always add reverb later) and position yourself away from reflective surfaces,
- Use a Condensor mic if you have one available,
- Use a Pop Filter (they are cheap, just get one)
- Control your levels e.g. avoid your vocals peaking above -6dB
- Warm up by running through the song a couple of times increasing intensity as you go
- Have the lyrics on hand, even if you know them
- Work on Mic technique e.g. proximity to the mic and preventing unwanted noises e.g. breath sounds
- Record multiple takes
Otherwise consider doubling your vocal tracks in key parts of the song, use delay and reverb (without overdoing it), and look for creative ways to use harmony.
While that’s a lot to consider, if you haven’t previously recorded vocals, or this is your first rodeo, start with the basics ~ focus on singing in key and ensure your timing is spot on. Speaking of which……
Timing is Everything, and so is Tuning
Great demos get the basics right. The one thing that always stands out and instantly makes a demo sound unprofessional is a disregard for accurate tuning, and poor timing (and excessive use of plugins).
A simple song played in time will always sound better than a complex song played sloppily. Despite the urge to prove yourself, don’t sacrifice timing for technique it always results in an unprofessional result.
And go the extra mile and keep an eye on your tuning between each take. Remember every choice you make during the recording process should be about the song.
While the format and production quality of a “demo” has changed a lot over the years, they are still an important asset up the songwriter’s sleeve. Music is supposed to be heard after all.
So if making your first demo, get familiar with the recording process and focus on getting the basics right. Only showcase your best songs and be sure to upload your music somewhere accessible e.g. soundcloud.com, bandcamp.com, or youtube.com.
And, from there keep writing and recording! it’s the only way to get better.