How to make a demo

HOW TO RECORD A DEMO

If you are following as these chapters progress, you will have reached the point in your journey where you need to record some kind of demo

Demo - Demonstration - a song or group of songs recorded for limited circulation or reference use rather than for general public release. 

That's the music industry definition of a demo, and it’s 100% correct for established artists. You wouldn’t hear Beyoncé’s demo, would you? But for new artists a demo can be useful in a variety of ways. 

You can use your demo for reference, sure, but you’re probably already making reference recordings for yourself and those don’t need to be demo quality. When you’re just starting out, the main purpose of a demo is to get you gigs. You can also put it online so that people can hear your music and come to the gigs you’ve booked.

If it’s an exceptionally good demo, and you are an exceptional musician, you can use a demo to attract interest from blogs, magazines, management companies and even record labels. A demo won't likely get you signed to a label, but it might get someone from the label along to your gig. 

Since you can use it for all those things, it better be the best you can make it. So, you need to record. Recording can be fun, but it can also be difficult to create something good if you don’t know what you’re doing. 

Here are a few ways you can make a recording.

Home Studio.

Building a home studio is easier now than it ever has been: computers and recording equipment are relatively cheap and accessible for most people. More and more musicians are using home studios to create everything from demos to full-scale professional releases. Remember though, that he quality of home studio recordings is determined by the quality and experience of the person recording them, and the gear available. Let’s start with the basics. To start a basic home studio you need:

  • A microphone. If you are a singer you need a vocal mic like a Shure SM58. An instrumentalist needs an instrument mic like a Shure SM57.
  • A recording interface. This takes the analogue signal you create with your instrument and turns it into a digital signal that inputs to your computer via USB. Start small.
  • A computer. It doesn’t have to be brand new, but it should be compatible with, and meet the system requirements of, your interface.
  • Recording software. Otherwise known as a DAW (digital audio workstation), you need software to capture the audio from the interface. Try free software like Audacity to start with.
  • Headphones. Get the best you can, but they should at least be on-ear or over-ear headphones with a decent frequency response. No in-ear buds!

Hint - Don’t be afraid to buy second hand! You can get some of this stuff really cheaply.

We’re going to talk sample rates, bit rates and frequency another time, but for now this very simple setup will enable you to record a demo as an electronic musician, a soloist or a small ensemble. If you want to record a band you need a recording setup with a larger capacity.  

At School.

Does your school, college or university have a recording studio? Use it! You might even be able to get time for free if you are a student. If you don’t know how to use the equipment, ask the studio technician, or the person in charge of the studio. They might help you themselves, or be able to recommend someone who can.

Remember to always check if there is an expectation of payment. Whenever someone is spending time helping you with your music, you might have to compensate them for that time. 

At a gig.

Using your home studio computer and interface (or If you have a portable recorder), you can make a demo from one of your live gigs. Ask the sound engineer in advance if it would be possible, and how they recommend you do it. This method means you only get one take, and you might not be able to change the mix afterwards, but it can be a great way to record your band cheaply and easily. 

Friends/Students.

I was one of these guys. As an audio engineering student I needed artists and bands to record all the time. The first two years of my degree I was recording everyone for free, in order to fulfil my assignments and gain experience. Ask around, ask your friends. Someone might have a connection who is a sound engineering student, or know someone with a home studio.

Recording Studio.

Definitely the best place to record. You will have to pay for a professional studio, but for the money you get an acoustically treated environment, good microphones and recording equipment, and most importantly, a recording professional. These people charge for their time, but have valuable experience. They can’t make you sound like something you’re not, but they can give you a clear, balanced, focused recording that you can use as a demo.  

Search online for studios and call them on the phone to ask about recording a demo. Many studios have discount rates or demo rates for unsigned bands that can be worth looking into. If you think about spending $500 on a home studio setup, learning to use it, learning about recording and mixing, actually recording, mixing and printing your demo, you’ve done a lot of work to get there and the results can vary (although you get to keep the gear). Alternatively you might find a studio with a $150 to $200 day-rate including an engineer. If you’re only doing one to three songs and are well rehearsed, you could record on Saturday, mix on Sunday, and have your demo online on Monday, all for $300 to $400. If you’re in a band that might only mean $100 each!

I go over what to look for in a studio, and how to prepare yourself for professional recording in another chapter: it’s very important to be ready when you’re paying by the hour and the clock is ticking.