The Importance of Making Demos

When I thought about demos, I used to imagine a shittier version of the final song: badly recorded, unedited, and with a sub-par performance.  I used to label tracks “demo” when they weren’t up to snuff.  It was never planned; f I was embarrassed to share something I made, I used “demo” as a qualifier, thereby excusing all mistakes.

Nowadays I have a better grasp of what a demo is.  It’s a rough take of the  finished song, not intended as a final product, but a necessary step in the creative process.  All the essential elements are there, and the arrangement is done (to the best of your ability).  When you listen to the demo, you’ll hear how all the parts work (or don’t work).  You’ll discover what sections feel too long or too short, if the drums are meshing with your guitar, if there’s enough contrast from verse to chorus, if the bass guitar is boring, or any number of issues.  

There are some things you simply won’t know until you hear them in context.  These are changes you want to identify before final tracking.  When making a demo, you’re not concerned with guitar tones, what the best mic is, getting great takes to edit, or editing at all.  Your goal is to get the idea down, have it sound good enough, and learn from it.  How will the final song sound?  Once you have a better vision of what the song is about, going into the studio is fun because you know exactly what you’re going to do.  It takes a load off your mind, and then you can spend more time experimenting with tone, knowing you won’t need to come back and re-record.  

Even if the song is just guitar and vocals, I still recommend making a demo.  You’ll be surprised at what you hear when it’s playing back.  It’s counter intuitive, but while you’re playing you don’t notice everything, and the demo can reveal what to fix.

I’ve recorded songs with and without demoing first, and I highly recommend it.  There’s always the occasion where my original demo was spot on and I don’t need to change anything, but that’s usually not the case.  Most of my demos have been pretty bare bones, but I’ve found that the better the demo, the more you learn from it.  That being said, don’t be a perfectionist.  Make the demo, make it pretty good, and move on.  Keep finishing.

Releasing Original Music: My History

My first EP was released in 2015.  I recorded it in my parents’ basement with affordable equipment and my own limited tracking skills.  It’s not great, but I have a fondness for it.  It’s a timestamp of my skill level at the time, both in writing and producing.  The album art is a shot of me playing at the Contented Cow, a bar in Northfield I frequented.  It’s a perfect cover because back then I was playing at the Cow about twice a month and the regulars were constantly subjected to my originals.

My second singer-songwriter release was in 2016.  I wanted to expand on the sounds of the original so I added MIDI piano and strings.  I also layered in electric guitar and harmonica.  I was happy with the outcome and decided the artwork should be more professional.  I got in touch with an artist I know and gave him a picture to work off.

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Performing at the Contented Cow with Cody (2015).

I was very pleased with the outcome.  High & Dry was sold on homemade CDs, but for Fade Away I got them professionally printed.  I used CopyCats, a CD and DVD duplication company in Minneapolis.  I opted for the cheaper, paper sleeves rather than jewel cases.

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Original paper sleeve for Fade Away (2016).

The sales have not been great.  It took over a year for me to break even on the cost of printing and artwork, but I think it was worth it.  The important part for me is that I created a piece of art I’m proud of and have a tangible way of sharing with others.

I’m currently working on a new EP and will be releasing it in two parts.  Part one will be available digitally on January 18th, and part two later in March.  It’s being recorded in my home studio, and I’m utilizing musical skills and production techniques I learned in school.  Here is the first single:

If you’re looking to record and release your own music, I highly encourage you to do so.  It’s incredibly gratifying, and it doesn’t matter if your first recordings aren’t great.  You’ll get better as you practice, just like with your instrument.  And it’s okay if the first song you publish song doesn’t get a lot of traction.  Take it from someone who’s released albums on Facebook with only two likes, the joy is in the making.

 

Semester Wrap Up – Final EP

Well, this semester is coming to a close.  Although I was only in three classes this year, I’ve grown a lot.  I have an arsenal of new writing techniques, a better knowledge of production, and a higher standard for my own material.  The greatest change in my writing is the increased use of layers, both for instruments and vocals.  I always knew about the importance of instrument layers, but I never applied them as much as I could.  Layering instruments can really fill a track out and bring it to life.  Vocal layering is another great tool I hadn’t been utilizing.  Because of my own struggles performing and recording, I shied away from it.  I’ve found that simply adding a unison vocal or singing up an octave can do wonders and is well worth the effort.

My industry class was a one hour a week lecture.  It focused on current trends in the industry, music news, and other things we should be excited about.  The big take away from class was to pay attention: follow successful people on Twitter, read the news, and keep yourself informed.  Solid advice, and if the class itself wasn’t all that informative on it it’s own, it sure was a nice pick-me-up.  Professor LeGere’s enthusiasm is contagious, and hearing his lectures made you share his optimism.

Here is my final EP submission for Songwriting 1.  Originally, three songs were required, but that was later changed to two.  According to the teacher, this was because some people had submitted “dumpster fires” as their first songs.  I wish I had re-recorded the vocals for “Lights,” but I had a cold and ran out of time.

“Let Go” was recorded at the school’s studio, but “Lights” was recorded at home.  The guitar and bass in “Lights” were recorded directly into my interface and processed using Guitar Rig.  The solo for “Let Go” was recorded using a Stratocaster into a tube amp.

An Introduction

   I’ve recently found myself in the unique position of being back in school at 27. I’m not pursuing anything reasonable like most adults who go back, but instead I’ll be going after my Bachelor’s in Music Industry. In this blog I’ll be documenting the experience and showcasing whatever projects or songs result.

  But first, let me give you some backstory.  

  In 2011 I was a composition major at McNally Smith College of Music. My parents and I had taken out a loan for the first semester, but due to the high cost they decided I couldn’t go back.  I wasn’t able to take out a loan that large by myself, so I had to dropout.  I knew I could afford to go to MSU Mankato, or Winona or somewhere, but I was enamored with McNally Smith.  At the time it was the only school I knew of where you could study and write in contemporary genres. They had rock and metal ensembles; you could even get a hip-hop diploma.  I loved the integration of production, and that composition majors like myself could work in the studios once we passed a competency exam. Teachers played gigs all around the Twin Cities, and amazing local acts would perform right in our cafe.  It all seemed so relevant. Unfortunately, all that charm came with a price tag, and even once I was able to get a loan, I couldn’t justify it. McNally Smith was just too expensive.

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My first day of school (2011).

 Over the years, I did music on the side:  performing live, writing songs, and learning production along the way.  I released singer-songwriter EPs, electronic side projects, remixes, and experimented with videos.  All the while I flirted with the idea of going back to school. One of my issues was not be able to choose between audio production and composition; I wanted a degree that taught both.

 In December 2017 McNally Smith announce they’d be closing their doors due to lack of funds.  I was shocked. (I won’t go into how they handled it or what it did to students, but I mention it here because it was a turning point for me).  What this did was eliminate an option I had been subconsciously clinging to. McNally Smith was out. I could either give up on music school or go somewhere affordable.  The choice was easy.

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Performing at the Contented Cow, Northfield, MN (2015).

 That month I began scanning the music programs page of MSU Mankato, and I came across something new: a major in Music Industry with a focus on Songwriting and Production.  This would be a combination I hadn’t seen before and exactly what I wanted. I learned that you can write in any genre you want, that Mankato was building studios for students over the Summer, and that the school didn’t care what DAW you used (most schools make you use Pro Tools, but I’m an Ableton man so this was good news).  In January I took Music Theory II and I liked it a lot.  This semester I’ll be taking a couple more classes.  Stay tuned for updates and song demos!  

(I should’ve started writing this during my first semester, but as I’ve learned with all creative pursuits, it’s better to start late than never start at all).