5 Mistakes to Avoid When Preparing Your Demo
The chances of major success in the music business are, at the best of times, infinitesimally small. There’s only so much you can do to improve your chances, so you’ve got to nail down everything like a boss since your demo could still get tossed because some music exec had a fight with his girlfriend.
Don’t lose sleep over what you can’t control. When it comes to your demo, there’s plenty you can control. Focus on showing off your music in the best light possible, and that means the most appropriate mix.
But what is the most appropriate mix? That might be the most important question to answer. If you’re auditioning as a singer, then obviously the mix should show off your voice to best effect.
The songwriter wants to highlight the words and melody. A band, on the other hand, may want to display its instrumental virtuosity or arrangement abilities. Creating broadcast-ready mixes for television and movies is another discipline altogether.
You don’t feed beef to a vegan house guest, so you don’t want to feed the wrong music to the wrong appetite. This leads to the first and most important thing to get right about your mix...
Know Your Audience
The Mistake: Sending the wrong music to the wrong industry contact
It doesn’t matter how hot and happening your house mix is, Ed Sheeran probably won’t cover it. Likewise, if you’re a singer in the Taylor Swift mode, don’t submit to a label that specializes in deathcore.
In the chase for any opportunity, some aspiring artists scatter demos everywhere, in hopes that something sticks somewhere. What really happens is that you waste resources.
While wasting your own resources may be okay with you, you’re also wasting the time of someone down the line. Your demo is your first impression. When it ends up on the wrong desk, you’ll seem amateurish and unprepared.
There’s no shortage of amateurism in the music business. Don’t add to it. Research your sources and make sure you’re providing what they want, or a reasonable facsimile.
Be brutally honest with yourself that you’re providing the music your target is after, or your effort is wasted. The music industry gets remarkably small sometimes, so you never know where your reputation as a time waster may crop up. Avoid it out of the gate.
Use the Good Mics
The Mistake: Using a mic best suited for live gigs on a lead vocal
Even in an age when world-class recording equipment is as close as our tablets or laptops, there’s still an investment to be made, and not all of us are made of money.
One computer and a reasonable digital audio workstation software package provide the basis for an amazing recording studio. Spending money on a quality large diaphragm condenser mic is never a bad idea. If you really can’t swing the purchase price, rent.
Here’s why: Even if the condenser mic you use isn’t a perfect match to the voice appearing on your demo, the sound of a large format condenser is recognizable to many people in the industry and it says, “I’m serious” to them.
Unless you’re a garage band presenting a grungy sound on purpose, using a beat up dynamic mic still dripping with beer from your last gig sounds like you’re not serious.
Should your demo fall on less experienced ears, there’s still the bigger than life quality that large cap condensers impart. It’s the magic fairy dust on so many hits and a bit of that sprinkled on your mix won’t hurt.
By all means, use whatever you have to create your tracks, but if vocals feature in your music, make sure there’s a large diaphragm condenser mic in front of your singer.
Good Enough is Never Good Enough
The Mistake: Settling on a mix that contains obvious flaws rather than fixing these
Any recording engineer who claims they never uttered the words, “I’ll fix it in the mix” is a liar. Things get fixed in the mix. Bum notes are lived with. Errors stay stuck on major releases.
When you’re on your third platinum album, you can be forgiven for letting things slide. Until then, don’t settle. Don’t leave obvious errors because “it’s only the demo.” First impressions, remember?
Far too many musicians send out “good enough” in hopes that it their laziness will pass muster. Once again, record execs know what lazy sounds like. Some of them may be record execs because they themselves were lazy musicians.
When you’re preparing your music, it deserves your best. At the same time, don’t sacrifice emotion or excitement for technical perfection. It’s a very thin tightrope to walk.
And to be clear, the “good enough is never good enough” rule applies to not just the mixing of your track. This also applies to your lyrics and the musical ideas behind your track.
The bottom line is that you’re competing with the best of the best out there. When you settle for “good enough” in your own work, count on the fact someone else is doing it that much better.
If you’re fortunate enough to get worthwhile feedback on your demo, do not dismiss it. Take it to heart and look at your demo until you understand why they said what they did about you. Learn from it and get better.
Reverb Narcosis: Care and Prevention
The Mistake: Over-use of effects
Reverb has a funny way of getting nudged up as a mix session progresses. What sounded like audio gold at 2 a.m. sounds like marshmallows covered with pillows underneath a moving blanket the next morning.
Ears get tired and lose their objectivity. It happens to everyone. Count on it and know that no matter how good things sound after 10 hours of recording, you’ll want changes tomorrow. Don’t make the mistake of sharing a mix at the end of the session.
Alan Parsons, one of the most highly regarding engineers in the game, mixes on the fly. Instruments are adjusted, compressed and effected on the fly. The result is that his work rarely has long, involved mix sessions.
However, his work does have mix sessions. Those judgments made along the way to need to stand up to the light of a new day before being declared done. Reverb gets turned down, compressors are backed off, EQ is moderated and flangers are de-flanged.
Before you go all T-Pain with the AutoTune, remember that jaded record exec who is just going to roll their eyes at your audio cliche. Very few recordings suffer from too little reverb, so if you must err, err in that direction.
Cross Reference Your Mix
The Mistake: Never checking mixes on other sound systems
Put your mix on a beat-up, 30-year old audio cassette. Find a 1973 Ford Pinto with a Radio Shack car stereo duct taped into the dash. Take a pencil and jab numerous holes in both of the 5-inch oval speakers in the back seat. Then play your tune.
If it sounds exciting and coherent on the worst sound system you can find, then there’s a chance that maybe, just maybe, it will sound good out of whatever sound system your industry contact plays it on.
Don’t count on it being a top end system with stereo subs and 1,000 watts of booty-crushing bass. You may be lucky to get laptop speakers.
The truth is that great mixes sound great everywhere. Chuck Berry helped father rock music out of tinny, 3-inch car speakers in the 1950s and the magic was unmistakeable. Your mixes may not hold the same lightning in a bottle, but you’re doing your music a disservice if you don’t test your demo on other systems. This is called translation. A good mix translates on other systems. It sounds similar to the way it did in the studio. Poor mixes, well, they get lost in translation. Make sure your demo sounds reasonable on more than one system. Home studios are known to lie from time to time.
The Last Track
Unless you’re providing final masters that are used as-is, you probably can’t go wrong making simple choices that support your feature performance. Demos highlighting your voice don’t need guitar solos.
The same goes for songwriting demos. Stick to the song. Present it cleanly. Leave the orchestration to the producer who records it down the line. Owning the latest and greatest plug-in does not obligate you to use it.
Play to your heart’s content on your own versions. There is so much fun in contemporary hardware and software. Experimentation is a key way to learn your tools and craft.
However, when it comes down to your demos, keep it simple, sunshine.