As with any product or service, the old expression “you get what you pay for” rings particularly true in the song demo world. Whether you know it or not, there are additional benefits to having a professional studio demo your songs and things you will miss in a cut-rate demo studio that could come back to hurt you later. I thought I’d break down some of the tangible and intangible considerations to keep in mind when you’re thinking about demoing your songs.
In general, recording studios operate on either an hourly rate or a project fee or some combination of both. That being said, it’s important to understand where your money is going and why some studios charge more than others for, seemingly, the same services and personnel.
Let’s begin with the experience level of the studio engineer and producer (often this can be the same person). Quite simply an experienced engineer/producer not only improves the quality of the sound of your demo but also the entire studio experience. By knowing how to sonically capture the performances of the players and singer while keeping the session focused and fun is a skill that only the most experienced engineer/producers possess. The danger in having someone inexperienced at the helm goes far beyond a poor recording. It can also include wasted time and bad feelings among the session musicians and vocalists. A brief comment about the studio equipment, too, while we’re at it. Although the latest, state of the art gear is always a plus, don’t let flashy gear alone influence your decision as even the best gear in the hands of an amateur ends up sounding sub par. Conversely, basic gear in the hands of a gifted and experienced professional will sound world class.
Speaking of world class, I’ve benefitted over the years from being able to hire the finest session musicians in the world. This is one of the many musical gifts having a studio in Nashville provides. What I’ve learned by observing these exceptional players is that great session musicians possess far more than musical chops. Of course the quality of the musicianship is stunning but experienced session musicians, in my opinion, are also great listeners. What this means is that they know how to play in such a way that they leave room not only for each other but, most importantly, for the vocalist. Since a song demo is all about the songwriter’s melody and lyric, the vocal absolutely must have room to shine.
The single most important way to communicate your song’s melody and lyric is the vocalist you choose to sing your demo. Experienced studio singers bring so much more to the table than just great natural tone. They bring a set of studio skills that allows them to immediately capture the essence of your song without the need to sing it song over and over again to “get it.” They also bring a deep understanding of the musical genre they’re singing in which translates into a much more believable performance. Finally, most experienced studio vocalists are capable of overdubbing harmony vocals which goes a long way towards creating a dynamic and moving performance. Most importantly, they do all of this quickly and efficiently saving you time, money and frustration which goes a long way towards making the vocal recording process genuinely enjoyable.
There’s an expression that says “you don’t know what you don’t know” and this can be particularly apt when it comes to what to expect when it comes to a song demo. Some of the additional benefits of a professional studio include giving you ownership of your studio session files. A common horror story with less reputable studios is when the client asks for the session files – the actual recorded instruments and vocals – and the studio either no longer has them or charges an exorbitant fee for something the songwriter thought they owned. Guidance when it comes to getting work for hire releases from the session musicians and singers is another plus that less experienced studios and personnel can’t – and don’t – offer.
One of the less obvious benefits of recording with a professional studio and staff is the reputation they have in the music industry. Names and reputations carry real weight and being able to reference a known studio, session musicians and demo vocalist will mark you – the songwriter – as someone to be taken seriously. Also – while not to be counted on or asked for – the producer, session musicians and vocalist might feel moved to make others in their circle aware of your work. Finally, true professionals are concerned with your song demo experience from beginning to end. It is their goal to make not only a great demo for you but also for you to genuinely enjoy yourself along the way. This counts for more than just having fun as your feelings about your song after the demo experience have a lot to do with your willingness to pitch your song afterwords.
While I understand the temptation to save money when it comes to a song demo, I feel that it’s my responsibility to, at the very least, make you aware of where your hard-earned money is best spent. Another one of my favorite expressions is “when you buy the best, you’re never disappointed.”