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Before You Start Making That Demo Tape

Demo Tape Discipline

the power behind the button

sit down, think about what you're doing, and plan ahead: you 'll save yourself a lot of grief

ITS NO EASY MATTER, becoming a rock star. Especially in this day and age, when being some sort of fashion model seems to be a major pre-requisite.

Part of the problem, of course, is that there are no rules. But if you haven't made a good demo tape, then you're certainly giving yourself an unnecessary disadvantage.

You need a demo tape for everything. I personally am a great believer in them. In fact, I have sufficient faith to believe that at some stage Kylie Minogue must have made a demo which somebody, however horribly deranged they may have been, considered to be worthwhile.

It's not just a case of having a tape to play to A&R men. At an earlier stage, you'll need one to recruit new band members (any hard-bitten muso who has responded to your small ad will cut off your tremulous enquiries with a curt "just send us a tape, will yer?"). You also need one to impress your friends (or, if it's good, upset them seriously), to play to owners of venues, to get an agent or manager, to play to music publishers.

That said, I must admit I haven't made a good one yet. Not a really good one anyway, not one that I can groove around my room to when I'm sober. Which, in fact, explains why I'm writing this and why I'm still not an especially good friend of Kim Wilde's.

My problem may just possibly be that I have absolutely no talent whatsoever. A fair number of people have diagnosed this as the essential impediment to my progress, but what I'd prefer to think is that I have never quite done myself what I am about to tell you to do. Like, for example, rehearse.

You will have your own way of doing this, but it's necessary to point out that by the time you get into the studio, you should know your material... (I was about to say "backwards", but I don't really see the point in knowing anything backwards)... well enough to give yourself a chance of recording something on the first take. This relatively rare event will give you a euphoric sense of all that expensive studio time just yawning out before you. This is easy, you will think. You will be wrong.

If, like me, you're in one of those quaint outfits with guitar, bass and drums, then you'll probably need to hire a rehearsal room. These are listed in the music press, and also in the British Music Yearbook, which is published by Rhinegold and is useful for a lot of other addresses as well. Average prices are something like three quid per hour on weekdays and a fiver on weekends. Often rehearsal space is only available in, say, four-hour blocks.

You will be charged extra for anything apart from the PA, so it's a good idea to take your own amps. A drum kit will also be extra, and the kits available in these places tend to be a bit ropey so drummers may want to take a bass drum pedal, snare and hi-hat of their own.

There's not a lot of point in rehearsing unless you record yourselves (although don't continuously play the stuff back, it'll only depress you). You could prop a Walkman with an internal mike in the corner of the room (U2 still do this, apparently) or perhaps get hold of a device called a mini mixer which, when plugged into a tape recorder, allows you to balance the sound from up to four mikes into the four inputs; these gadgets are relatively cheap at around £20.

The dynamics on primitively recorded sessions are often very much better than those on studio recordings of the same material, and it's all too easy to think "well it's basically right, let's make a demo", when ideally you should give yourself the opportunity of hearing each track separately before you go into the studio. This is why it's useful to have a four-track cassette recorder or "portastudio".

Owning a four-track is not a pre-requisite to making a good demo, but if you have the cash, it could save you money in the long run. You can pay anything from £200 to £1000. Nobody wants (or needs) to be told how to get rid of £1000, so I'll tell you that the classic cheap one to buy is the Fostex X15 (around £200) and that the latest thing in portastudios is the Tascam Porta 05, which will set you back about £330.

The maximum number of tracks you can "lay down" (does anybody still say that?) on a four-track is ten. This is done by a process of bouncing down - putting two tracks onto one - but you should remember that once a track is bounced down you can't alter it, so you have to finalize things as you go.

Using a four-track also has the advantage of teaching you some of the techniques you will need to know in the studio. Like how to sing into a mike, and what effects sound good: when, for example, chorus or reverb units (which can be plugged into the machine's "effects in" socket) should be used, and to what degree.

The four-track plays a big role in the mythology of popular music. Eric Clapton, for instance, has claimed that his music actually sounds quite good on a four-track, and Wham! (tragically) clinched their recording deal with a song and a half taped on a four-track. Tears For Fears are supposed to have done the same. But four-tracks are really only suitable for making demos of demos, because these days, with production technique cutting more ice with the record-buying public than actual quality of songs, A&R men are simply obsessed with sound quality. You can present them with a song as good as 'When A Man Loves A Woman' and they'll say, "come back when you've got a compressor on that bass sound".

Anyway, the next thing you must do is find a studio. For a beginner, a 16-track facility is ideal. Eight-tracks tend to be only about a couple of pounds an hour cheaper, and if you start double-tracking (using two tracks instead of one in order to get a bigger sound) you'll soon have to start bouncing down, creating the same problems mentioned above.

On the other hand, using an eight-track can be a useful discipline, in that one of the most common mistakes that people make in the studio is to record too much. A perfectly presentable demo can be made on an eight-track (the Eurythmics did, after all, record the 'Sweet Dreams' album on one), but the bottom line is that you probably need more tracks.

A 24-track studio will cost you something approaching double the rate of a 16-track, and there's the attendant disadvantage of not only recording too much, but actually losing track of your tracks. If you see what I mean. All studio sessions - take my word for it - include an element of panic, and in the race against the money meter it's all too easy to forget what's what and what's where. In short, 24-track recording requires more time, making it even more expensive than you might think.

Recording studios on the whole, though, are reasonably priced. Especially when you consider that you're getting all that high technology as well as the labour - although that may not be quite the right word in some cases - of an engineer. It never ceases to amaze me that a rehearsal room can charge £5 an hour, while up the road there's a budget 16-track recording studio asking only a couple of quid more.

Because market forces seem to operate very directly on studios, and because most of their business comes from word of mouth in what is a fairly discerning market, you're not in any great danger of being ripped off. But make sure you know what you're getting for your money. Get in the wrong place, and you can end up being charged extra for everything you want to use. ("You want to play our cowbell? That'll be £5 please.") So ask whether use of the D50 synthesizer or the gleaming Les Paul guitar lurking in one corner of the control room is actually included in the hourly rate you've been quoted. The norm is that it is included, so look elsewhere if it's not.

It is obviously difficult to give a comprehensive list of what you should look for in a recording studio when you visit it - as you always should - before booking, but one of the main essentials if you are in a band is having enough space to play in. As I'll be explaining next month, a separate booth for the drummer and soundproof partitions for the other players are useful if you plan to record everything at once without using DI (which stands for "direct input" and means recording directly into the mixing desk), but such features are generally found only in the more expensive studios. You should be aware that many 16-track studios are little more than large mixing desks packed tightly into small cupboards, and are really only suitable for DI work - recording synth-based music, remixing, sampling and so forth (see below).

As for equipment, if you want the use of a digital synth a Roland D50 is currently more sought-after than a Yamaha DX7; Neumann or AKG make good mikes; DAT mastering tape is good (it'll usually be ¼" analogue), and if you require a drum machine look out for any of the DDD series by Korg or the TR series from Roland. Most studios will have a good range of effects: digital reverb, chorus and delay and compression are pretty essential.

Not many people would have the nerve to run a studio with poor equipment, and it's really more important to make sure that the engineer is a decent human being and that he is used to recording your type of music.

Surprising though it may seem, some engineers actually get quite involved in the music they're recording, and if an engineer takes a real interest in what you're doing, he's far more likely to make a useful contribution to the process - rather than just sit there staring into space, awaiting your next (innocent) instruction.

It's impossible to tell just how sympathetic an engineer is going to be until you've worked with him, but here at least, first impressions are often correct. Think doubly hard, for example, whether it's likely that anyone who looks suspiciously hippyish knows how to program a drum machine. (You'll probably have acquired some of the skill yourself if you've been rehearsing with one of the new breed of cheap drum machines, but there's nothing worse than being confronted with a different sort of machine that works in a different way - particularly if all the engineer can do to help is proffer a warm can of Diet 7-Up.)

You also have to be careful about your engineer if you want to use a sequencer or do some sampling, because the skills required for "live" recording are sharply different from those required for the new technology of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).

Sequencing involves playing the basic musical information into a computer and then programming the computer to actually play the music. It's mainly used to play fast dance riffs with a precision which a human being would find hard to achieve. A sampler is essentially a computerized tape recorder which enables you to take a sound from any source and, via MIDI, play it from a keyboard or other instrument.

These "hi-tech" facilities are increasingly available in 16-track studios, but as you'll no doubt have gathered by now, the skill of the engineer sometimes lags behind the sophistication of his technology.

The only way you can learn about sequencing and sampling (assuming you don't have easy access to any of the equipment yourself) is by going to a studio expressly for that purpose. So if you're into this you may be forced to regard your first visit to a studio as a sort of lecture or computer class.

For a first visit, book eight hours. At 16-track level this should not cost more than about £80 and, theoretically, it's enough time to record two songs.

If you want to learn how to turn theory into practice, check out the next issue. I'll still be here, my Kim Wilde poster on the wall and my half-finished can of Diet 7-Up in the fridge.

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