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.

Finish Your Songs

A few years back, I had a ton of musical ideas floating around my head.  I wanted to write it all: hip-hop, EDM, singer-songwriter, lo-fi, dubstep.  I wanted to release albums in every genre I loved, multiple albums.  I wanted to be as prolific as Andrew Huang and Steve Aoki.  Songs for days.

This, of course, takes a lot of work, and I used to be pretty ADHD when it came to writing.  I’d finish a singer-songwriter track one day and be working on a house song the next.  I’d think, “I’m so versatile!”  Before that next song was finished, I’d be messing around on another beat, and after that a third one.  Eventually, none of these got finished and I’d start something else.

It’s pretty easy to get side-tracked if you don’t have a focus.  I’ve found it helps to have a goal.  For instance, over the Summer I made “Lo-Fi July.”  During the month of July, I had to write three lo-fi songs.  Having this clear objective helped me focus my time and actually get it done.  For the next month, I had a new genre to write in.

Whenever I was writing and came up with something cool that wasn’t in the genre, I would shelf it for later.  It did wonders for my productivity.

It’s great to be prolific, to write a lot and make a lot.  Just don’t fall into the trap of being a kid in the candy store when it comes to writing.  There’s a lot of great sounds, ideas, and styles to pick from, but don’t jump around so much that nothing gets done.  Be disciplined enough to finish.  One completed song will teach you more than 10 unfinished beats.

Planting a Tree

My original plan was to release a singer-songwriter EP every year.  I succeeded in 2015 and 2016, but in 2017 I procrastinated.  I kept giving myself excuses and putting it off.  Other projects took priority and after missing my self imposed deadline, I lost motivation.  I’m just releasing it now in 2019, and although that makes me happy, I wish I had done it earlier.

I was trying to think of a better way to phrase this without using the old cliche, but better late than never.  This phrase applies to many things in my life: quitting a bad job, losing weight, going back to school, and learning piano.  These are all things I could have done a long time ago.  Once I finally took action, that was clear, but just because you didn’t start when you should have is no excuse not to start at all.

Take it from me.  If you sit around thinking about something you wish you had done, and every year is another year you wish you had already done it, do it.  Don’t give into the lie that there was a perfect time to do something and now it’s too late.  The only cure to the regret you feel is to do what you should have been doing all along.  As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I’ll leave you with the long-awaited EP.

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.

infamous dog pic
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.

fade away print
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.

Thoughts on Collaboration

Well, the semester is winding down and so is my final project.  My three song EP is due this week and I’m putting on the finishing touches.  I’m recording, mixing and arranging.  One of my tracks needed a solo, and my classmate stepped in.  Here is just the solo section, by Noah Battles.

You’re probably wondering why I would have someone else play a solo when I play guitar.  Most of the time, I do just that.  My philosophy used to be that if I could do something alone, I would.  I liked having control over every little thing.  Since then I’ve learned to appreciate the magic of letting others be involved.  They can take the song to places you wouldn’t expect, and try things you wouldn’t consider.  The results can be dope.  In the above example, I was originally writing a synthesizer melody, but that wasn’t cutting it.  Noah’s bluesy playing was much better.

In 2016, I was writing my EDM album.  For one of the songs I wrote a melody that was too high for me to sing.  I could’ve transposed it, but I liked the energy of the song the way it was.  I recruited my old college buddy, Jacoby Filand, to sing it.  I gave him the lyrics, a clip of me singing it (badly), and a demo of a synth playing the melody.

He changed a couple notes, had a more punk rock delivery, and overall improved the idea.  Listen for yourself.

Collaborating is awesome.  As much as we like to shape everything ourselves, letting others into the process can spark unique outcomes.

I’ll give one more example.  In 2014 I was working on my electronic side-project Lobster Boat.  It was mostly instrumental tracks and I was sending people demos for feedback.  One of those people, Phillip Emery, asked if he could take a crack at singing over one.  I was skeptical at first and only agreed on the condition that I could reject his vocals if I didn’t like what he did.  The result was pleasantly surprising and I kept them.

It’s easier said than done, but I’m a big fan of the idea that we shouldn’t be precious with our music.  Not only does it get in the way of actually writing music, but it can lessen the music we do finish.  In these situations, had I been precious, I would have missed out on some great input from other artists.  Don’t be afraid to let others get their hands on your canvas.  You might be surprised at what they do.