Our regular readers' demo page is packed with invaluable tips on how to record the perfect demo.
If you'd like our resident specialist JOHN HARRIS to review you demo tape, just send it in on cassette or DAT along with recording details and a photograph. To start the feature this month, we look at what makes a good demo recording.
Readers' Demo sections in magazines are by no means new, but we're taking it rather more seriously than most. After all, if you read this magazine, the chances are that you're serious about the way you compose and record your music and you'll want to do the best possible job. More and more hit records are being made by musicians recording at home or in private studio facilities and I expect this trend to continue, with our readers making a significant contribution towards the future of commercial music in this country.
Ideally, you should submit your demo tape to us in much the same way as you'd submit it to a record company. Include up to three songs, preferably showing different aspects of your talents, and use a good-quality cassette. Because cassette decks are notoriously incompatible, there is an argument in favour of using a good tape and recording without noise reduction, as the tape is then more likely to sound correct when replayed on another machine. I'd rather put up with a little background hiss than a dull or tonally incorrect sound, and if you keep the recording level sensibly high, the hiss level is usually acceptably low. Whichever option you choose, make sure that the tape is labelled accordingly and also put your name and phone number on the tape in case it gets separated from the packaging.
Recording Musician is keen to review tapes made on home equipment or in your own privately-owned studio. Because equipment varies so much from studio to studio, please include details of your setup — tape machines and mixer, monitoring system, main outboard gear and mics, sequencing system, main instruments and so on. Also let us know of any interesting recording techniques you've used. Whether you've built an acoustically-treated studio or work in the corner of your bedroom, tell us all about it. It's also important to include a photograph so we can show the world what you look like; a shot of you in your studio would be ideal. We can handle colour transparencies, colour prints or black and white prints, but please send duplicates rather than originals because, as with the tapes, we can't always guarantee to get them back to you. In any event, don't forget to include your full name, address and phone number.
Incidentally, should you also send your tapes to record companies, include a typewritten letter covering the important aspects of yourself or your band so that the company knows you are serious. They'll need convincing that you are committed and have the right ideas and image to succeed. They'll also want to know your gig schedule and details of any management and/or publishing deals you might have. Don't be disappointed if you get a lot of rejection slips — just keep on trying, because persistence will win through in the end if you have something genuine to offer.
As an incentive to send in your best demos, 3M are kindly providing prizes for the best tape submitted each month. The lucky winner has a choice of: 20 Scotch XSII-S high-bias C60 cassettes, 10 3M DAT 90 digital cassettes, five reels of 3M 996 quarter-inch tape, three reels of 3M 996 half-inch tape or two reels of 3M 996 one-inch tape. Designed to accept very high recording levels without distortion, 3M 996 tape is packed on precision NAB reels and comes in tough, attractive library cases.
Recording Musician, as the name implies, is concerned both with music and with recording. However, as music is such a subjective art-form, the demos will be reviewed mainly on how well the work has been recorded and mixed, given the limitations of the equipment being used. But if you would like us to comment on the music, then we can do that too, as our reviewer is eminently qualified, having a long track-record as a session player, songwriter, engineer and producer.
I've always found it frustrating to read about demos without being able to hear them, but we plan to put that right too. We're currently formulating a means to produce a regular cassette featuring the more notable readers' demos and this will be available to all readers at a nominal cost to cover duplication and handling. And that's not all — we've already been approached by professional producers and independent record companies who are also on the lookout for new talent, and while we can't guarantee anyone a record contract, if any songs or artistes show promise, we'll pass their tapes on to the right people so they'll at least get heard.
From talking to a lot of songwriters, I know that a number of you are worried that your musical ideas will get stolen if you start sending out tapes. To be honest, this is very unlikely, but there are simple precautions that you can take to protect yourselves. The simplest method of proving you were in possession of a certain song at a certain time is to make a cassette copy of the song, as well as a written copy of the lyrics and music, then mail it to yourself by registered post. When you receive the package, leave it sealed and store it in a safe place so that it can be opened in court should a conflict arise.
A slightly better method, in my opinion, is to seal the tape and music in a package and have this deposited in your bank. The bank can arrange to have the package sealed, dated and signed for you, and the charge for storing such packages is small.
So, what is the ideal demo? That's not such an easy question to answer, as record company A&R men will all give you different answers, but one valid criticism expressed by the record companies is that home recording musicians tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort in trying to produce a near-master-quality recording while neglecting the vital musical aspect of the composition. Press them further and they'll often tell you that a good song will shine through no matter how basic the recording or instrumentation. However, send in a basic tape as described and the chances are it will either get ignored or they'll tell you to go away and make a decent demo! From the type of act currently getting into the charts, it is patently obvious that the recording techniques and arrangement are far more important than musical content in far too many cases.
To be successful in today's competitive marketplace, you really have to get everything as right as you can, and for me, a good record must have a proper balance of songwriting, performance, arrangement and recording quality. If these vital areas are significantly out of balance, then the end result suffers. There's no point in recording a good song if the performance is inadequate or if the arrangement is entirely inappropriate — music is about emotion and if that doesn't come over, then you're wasting your time. You also have to remember that music is only part of the commercial success package. Commercial music is about culture, style and image and all the elements have to work together to appeal. You don't have to look pretty to succeed as a pop musician, but you do have to stand out from the crowd in some way or other, and you must have an empathy with your potential market. I was going to say that a team of chartered accountants performing a rap single wouldn't cut much ice, but on further consideration, it could be a real winner — life is unpredictable, which also makes it interesting.
A good demo should include all the vital musical ingredients but you can afford to leave out some of the fine detail that you might otherwise put in if you were making a finished record. Apart from saving studio time, it also leaves a degree of scope for the producer who eventually works on the recording; if you over-arrange a song, it makes it harder to visualise alternative approaches. I feel it's more important to concentrate on building a solid and appropriate rhythm track, a convincing vocal part plus any essential melodic parts, then sketch these in using the most appropriate sounds at your disposal. In other words, use a sampler for the string quartet and sax solo, even if you'd like to use the real thing on the final record — unless the real thing is conveniently to hand, of course.
Pay special attention to the order and lengths of verse and choruses as well as intros and bridge sections — particularly important if your demos are based on songs you play live. A common failing amongst demos is that the introductions and bridges are simply too long or uninteresting, and while they may work live when there's bags of atmosphere and something to look at, they'll have the A&R men reaching for their off switches. A song has to grab the attention within the first ten seconds or so or it's all over — very important when you consider that many A&R men set their cassette decks to Intro Scan mode so they only hear the first few seconds of each track on a tape. They'll only play the whole thing through if the first few bars take their interest.
It's easy to be critical of someone else's work, and a musical style that appeals to one person may leave another cold, which is why we intend to take the constructive approach. In other words, regardless of the type or style of music you send in, we're going to criticise it positively. And that means offering suggestions for improvement rather than just saying we don't like something. In doing so, we'll take account of the equipment you're using, and if you feel you ought to be shopping around for something to help you get better results, we're quite likely to make suggestions to that effect too. It doesn't matter whether the music is intended to be commercial or whether it's something you're doing purely because you want to — ultimately the best reason — but if you would like our subjective comments on the commercial suitability of your songs, just make a note to that effect in your letter. Even so, subjective opinions vary from person to person, so don't take our comments as gospel.
Feature by John Harris
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