This is the second article in the “Spend Less Money” series. To read part one, click here.
If you asked a professional sound engineer or studio manager what the number one way to save money in the studio is, they will probably tell you to come prepared. When time is wasted, the dollars begin to add up quickly. So how do you prepare well? We will be addressing this issue in our next few blogs, and today we start out with something you might have overlooked as you began studio prep.
I know you’ve heard it before. Demos—from a simple recording on your smartphone, to a fully produced track—are an important step in the songwriting process. If you are hoping to pitch your song to another artist, a professional demo could help you get those placements.
But the demos we are talking about function a little differently. These are your pre-production demos. They are for you (and your band) to get to know your music better before you hit the studio. They are for tweaking the songs until you get them just right, and they give studio musicians or your band something to rehearse to. If done well, they can even function as a scratch track in the studio, saving you time and money as you begin the tracking process.
Creating Your Demo
In many situations, a simple recording on a smartphone will suffice for a demo. But to use pre-production demos to their full potential, you are going to have to go one step further.
Your demos don’t have to be so fantastic that you don’t actually need to go into the studio after they’re finished. But there are a few key elements that you will need to be able to control as you create your pre-production demos.
You will need a Digital Audio Workstation that will allow you to have control over tempo, and allow you to use a MIDI keyboard or controller. There are many different kinds of DAWs at all different price points. You just need to find one that you are comfortable using. If you already have a more advanced DAW like Protools, use that. Audacity is a free DAW, and Garageband comes pre-loaded on most Macs.
If you are able, I also recommend purchasing a simple USB interface, like this one. This will allow you to hook up a MIDI Keyboard, as well as plug in your guitar and favorite microphone. However, you don’t have to. Most Macs and PCs have built in audio recording devices, and Garageband will allow you to input MIDI using your computer’s keyboard. Although it may be easier in the long run to purchase a USB interface, you can still create a useful pre-production demo for free.
The exact tempo of the music can drastically alter the feel of a song. Even just a few beats per minute (BPM) up or down can have a huge impact. Before you record your demo, rehearse the songs with a click track. If you’ve never used a click track before, this can be a big adjustment. However, playing to a click track is vital for studio work. The better you are at staying locked into the click, the smoother your recording process will be.
As you are rehearsing, try changing the BPM of the click, and playing the song at new tempos. You may find your song works really well as a ballad instead of the mid-tempo rock song you thought it was.
When you find a tempo you think works, create a click track in your DAW and record a simple track, guitar or keyboard and probably vocals. Have other people listen to the song. Have your guitar player or drummer play along with it. If they think it’s too fast or too slow, play around with it. If you record MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) keys as your basic track, it will be easy to adjust them to a new tempo without re-recording. If you recorded acoustic guitar, you may need to re-record. That’s okay. Better to spend a little time up front on these demos than to discover halfway through tracking in an expensive studio that the song is too slow.
As you are playing through a song, you may discover that the key you wrote the song in is not the best key to record the song in. The ability and range of the primary vocalist is the biggest determining factor when choosing a key. You need to make sure your vocalist is comfortable, and can achieve the sound you want in the key the song is written in.
It’s also important to remember that different instruments work best in certain keys. If you know you want to feature brass heavily on a song, it’s best not to record that song in a key with 7 sharps. Brass players usually feel more comfortable in flatted keys, string players feel better in sharped keys. Keeping your instrumentation in mind while you’re choosing a key can help you get a great finished song.
Pre-production demos are also a great place to work out auxiliary parts for your songs. Once you determine the tempo and key, you can use your MIDI keyboard to do some experimentation. If you think that a song needs strings, try adding a string part with a virtual instrument. Doing some of your production this way will allow you to communicate better with session players, a producer, or a sound engineer.
This is also a good time to get your lead guitarist to nail down his solo. While you should allow for creativity to happen when you’re actually tracking, having a plan and knowing exactly what parts you want for each song will make your life easier when it comes time to actually record.
Save Time, Save Money
The biggest reason that pre-production demos are important is their role in saving you time and money as you prepare to lay down tracks. This is true whether you use a home studio, or a professional studio. Pre-production demos allow you to tweak your songs easily, let you play around with sounds, tempos, and meters, and let you know exactly how the songs is going to be structured. That way when it’s time to record, you have a clear picture of what you want. This can be especially helpful if you are in a band and want multiple band members to have input on the overall direction of a song, but don’t want to spend time discussing it in the studio. Regardless of where you are recording, saving time means saving money and pre-production demos allow you to be prepared.
Listen, Listen, and Listen Some More
In addition to allowing you to experiment with your songs, pre-production demos can help with the song selection process, and deciding the order of songs in your project. Although you might already have a good idea of what you want, these demos can help you iron out the rough patches. Listening to the pre-production demos—and allowing other people to hear them—can give you a good idea of what songs are actually good enough to make it on the album. After you have a good idea of what your best songs are, you can begin to listen to them in the order you think they belong in. This allows you to listen for any odd transitions between songs. Pay special attention to what keys your songs are in at this phase. Transitions between keys can greatly affect the mood of your album.
You should also listen to how tempos are grouped. If too many slow songs are together, the album may drag. If too many high energy songs are paired with each other, the audience may get bored. A good way to combat this problem is to have a non-musical friend give you their opinion. Though they might not know exactly what is going on musically, they will be able to listen objectively and point out some issues you may have missed. Listening through your pre-production demos can help you solve these potential problems before you ever get into the studio.
The great thing about pre-production demos is that they are unfinished. Their point is to be a continual work in progress. Let yourself have the freedom to experiment and tweak them. If you use your demos well, you can have better communication between band members, producers, engineers, and session players. They can also help you to achieve a better finished product for less money.
Have any questions or tips on creating demos? Any advice on saving money when you record an album? Let us know in the comments below!