Recording Your Own Songwriter Demos
By Bronson Herrmuth - 09/17/2008 - 02:20 PM EDT
©2008 By Bronson Herrmuth
You're a songwriter and you record and produce your own demos. Odds are you also sing and play on your demos and probably even engineer them too. You've done your homework and read and absorbed everything you could about songwriting and recording and maybe even taken some classes. You've spent a ton of your hard earned money in hopes of furthering your songwriting career. The obvious ultimate goal in this scenario being that you will achieve financial success with your songs once the right person hears them. You've probably got a myspace page and/or your own web site and you post audio files of your songs there and might even have them available for sale or download. People have emailed you or posted lots of compliments on your songwriting skills from all over the world and given you and your music their personal endorsements, added you as their "friend". It's an awesome technological world we all live in now and you are taking full advantage of it right from your own living room or even your own studio. Meanwhile the packages or emails you send are being returned or not being responded to or when they are, your songs are being rejected or passed on by publishers and other professionals in the industry. You don't understand it and are becoming frustrated with your lack of success in finding a publisher or anyone else in the industry to assist you with getting your songs in front of the right people. If this is you, I suggest you read on.
1. Work Tapes vs Demos:
This is crucial to this subject so take a minute and think about it. Are you really recording song demos or are you recording work tapes? A work tape is exactly that. It is a recording made to establish a raw blueprint to be referred to as a starting point when working in the preproduction stage of recording a song demo. The fact that you have the talent and ability to record a good work tape is awesome. If your intention is to call your work tape your finished demo to be pitched and played to anyone that will listen to it you are making a huge mistake. If you are right that your songs really are great songs, do you honestly believe the recordings you produce by yourself do your songs justice? Are they really good demos or are they great work tapes? Understand this, if your recordings don't knock the pro listener out of their chair right away then it's over and they will pass. Odds are they won't listen to more then 30 or 40 seconds before doing so and will never hear more than your intro and first verse. The goal of a good song demo is for the listener to want to turn your music up, not off.
Producing song demos is an art in itself. I've spent the last 25 years producing song demos for publishers of my own songs and for songwriters around the world in many different musical styles. Thousands of hours spent learning to record demos and masters. To this day every time I walk into the studio to produce a session I learn something new about the craft of music production. One major aspect of production that I had to learn early on is the ability to detach myself from any personal involvement in the song I am producing and view it with a critical eye letting the song come to life and evolve in its own distinct fashion. This is extremely difficult if you are the songwriter since you are so close to it and it means so much to you on a personal level. If you are able to do that when producing your own demos then that's awesome, congrats. If deep down you know thats really difficult for you then you need to hire a pro producer to take your songs to the next level, for sure. Put simply, choosing to produce your own song demos if you're not really good at it can finish your songwriting career before it ever gets started, it's that important to the total process.
Here in Nashville and in any other music city there are hundreds of pro engineers that have spent the majority of their lives learning to do it right. They've went to school, spent countless hours working as interns and second engineers to get hands on training in many different studios. They've worked hard to keep up with the never ending changes and evolutions of recording techniques and equipment and dedicated their lives to being the best engineer they can be. They know what they are doing and they do it well. If this is you, then yes do all your engineering yourself. If you consider yourself an engineer just because you bought the equipment, read the manual so you know how to hook it up and turn it on, does that really make you a great engineer? Being able to record a simple work tape and mastering the art of full scale engineering are like night and day. Personally I want the best pro engineer I have access to sitting by my side running the board whenever I record and the difference it makes is huge.
There is a major difference between playing live and playing in the studio. Pro session players do this for a living and bring many years of experience to every recording session that they are a part of. They can move freely between many different genres of music and never miss a lick. Their instruments are the finest money can buy and their gear is top of the line. No matter how many times I go into the studio with session players here in Nashville I am constantly reminded of this as I hear them bring every song we record to life right in front of my eyes. This is how they make their living and they are really really good at it. If this is you then sure, go ahead and play on your song demos. If it's not there is no way you are going to be able to compete with them in the studio and you are fooling yourself if you think otherwise. I've been playing guitar for 40 years and I still hire the best guitar players I can find to play on my demos. Obviously I could save money by playing the guitar parts myself but I know the end result won't come close to what I'll get by using these great players. You have to keep your eyes on the main goal and that's to have success with your songs. You shoot yourself in the foot if you know you really aren't that strong of a player but choose to play the parts yourself anyway. Practicing playing in the studio is a good thing and of course you should every chance you get but putting your success as a songwriter on the line based on your musicianship can be a big big mistake.
Anyone who works at a publishing house or a record label hears an incredible amount of music daily. If the singer on your demo does not have a good voice they will shut off your music and go to another submission, you can bet on it. They will never hear your song. Do not sing it yourself unless you really are a pro and your voice is the perfect voice to really sell your song. This is not a place to try to save a few bucks on your recording project, the voice can make or break your demo no matter how good your songwriting or recording skills might be. Many of us who are professional singers don't even sing on our own demos. Matching the right voice for the song can be the key to success. Recording a track of you singing your song is fine to have for yourself but make sure the version you send to the industry has the greatest vocalist you can find singing on it. A pro demo singer knows how to present a song in a way that entices other singers to want to sing it too which is the whole point of your demo in the first place. They sing demos for a living so unless you do too I highly recommend you hire an experienced demo singer to sing your songwriter demos.
One thing is for sure. When you submit a killer demo of a great song to a publisher your odds of being offered a publishing contract and having success go up by a thousand percent. All that publisher has to do is finalize the agreement with you, clear the song and copyright, and then hit the street running to play it to the biggest recording artists they can get to. Isn't that the whole point anyway, to hear your songs on the radio being sung by a major artist? Again I ask you to reflect on your recordings with a critical ear. Are the recordings you produce of your songs really that strong? Do they sound so good that listeners mistake them for finished masters? Well that's what you want to happen, because that's the level you will need to realistically have a chance. That's the kind of demo your competition is playing for them and make no mistake about it, professional songwriting is one of the most competitive professions in the world. Do you really want your chances of success as a songwriter to be determined by your ability to play or sing or engineer or produce? If you do then go for it and good luck. I hope you have tremendous success and I wish you all the best. If you're like the majority of successful songwriters that I know and realize your odds for songwriting success are greatly enhanced by having great demos of your songs, then I recommend hiring professionals to produce your demos for you. Record your work tapes and then let a pro like myself take your songs and your music to another level and give your songs a fighting chance to be heard and recorded by others.
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