Don't Demo to Death!

Remember the adage, "A good song speaks for itself"? That same philosophy can be applied to the making of your demo. You've got a new tune, and maybe you can even hear the band parts in your head. And over there in the corner sits your lonely little multitracker, urging you to flesh out every facet of this brilliant new nugget.

Especially if you're the visionary, multi-instrumentalist type who can quickly conquer guitars, bass, drums, and all the bells and whistles on your own, a simplistic rendering with an acoustic guitar and a boombox recorder just isn't going to do the trick.

But why not? Jon Brion, the multifaceted songwriter and producer for Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright and, most recently, Fiona Apple, is someone who really can do it all, and very often has. The exception is that Brion usually saves his one-man show for Take 1 in the real studio. "There's this spark that you get when you're first starting to work on a 4-track that you can never really get back," says Brion. "I hate demos for that reason--so many people spend their first-take energy that way, and then go out and try to re-create it later on. I feel like if you've got a song, save it, and keep some of that excitement for the moment of recording it."

Brion's point is well taken, especially since those initial takes often reveal some of the best moments of inspiration. Like that great guitar line you suddenly stumble upon while tracking a casual lead. An accidental miscue that turns into a chord you never would have thought of otherwise. An absolutely brilliant vocal effect achieved by just jamming an SM-57 through a fuzz pedal.

All these unplanned tracks might well result in one amazing-sounding demo version of your new tune. But unless you're planning on releasing your slaved-over "rough take" (and most likely you're not), you're then faced with the arduous task of recreating those pearls of inspiration once you get into the real studio; only this time, you'll have to hope that your lead guitar player can cop the exact feel you pulled out of your hat on your demo, or that your engineer can get that same cool vocal sound through a different stomp box. And so on.

Though I don't profess to be in the same league as a Jon Brion, I can speak from experience. For years, all my songs were dutifully committed to my beloved (now deceased) Fostex X-15, making full use of all possible overdubing and reduction-mixing capability. The drum machine was programmed to the exact beat I'd heard in my head; the bass parts were also meticulously worked out, along with several acoustic and electric guitars tracked totally off the cuff (and yielding the occasional great sound or cool mistake). Partly because of the tightly packed cassette medium, the final mix would invariably have a dense, ethereal quality that gave the recording a noticeable, if amateurish, edge. Though these tapes always had the feel I liked, they could never be considered for release. The problem was compounded by the fact, that no matter how I tried, I could never again capture that raw, first-take energy once I'd begun to attempt the "proper" take with the band later on.

My conclusion: don't demo to death. This is not such a radical idea-some would prefer you not demo at all. But, you say, I've got this brand new Roland 1680 that lets me cut 256 virtual tracks with signal processing and tons of hard-disk space! That's nice. But did the Beatles need 256 V-tracks to record "Revolution"? Actually, they made do with about 248 less, and that was the final take. You're just doing a demo. Okay, so we're not about to start trashing our digital workstations and go running off to Walden Pond. But maybe the next time you've got a new tune you could try popping a cassette into a boombox and playing the song on acoustic. Lay it down on one run-through, warts and all, and then hit stop and rewind the tape. That's it. If the song is worth its weight, it'll hold itself together.

When your band comes over, plug and play - record it on garage band, logic, pro-tools or heaven forbid, a cassette tape. Let your bass player figure out an original part, ditto for the drummer. Hold your tongue. Give your bandmembers work out their own parts. Let them help create the bed your tune will lie in.

The result? By tapping into the creative energy of your band instead of blueprinting the entire song in advance you might actually wind up with the same kind of song detours and cool musical accidents that you're used to getting on your one-man, full-fledged demo. Your song will have a flow and a feel that's natural to the players and healthier for the tune. And this time you won't have to explain the parts to everybody, because they've already been created for you. After all, that's what having a "band" is all about, isn't it?  

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