Is My Studio Recording Only As Good As A Demo?
You’re absolutely thrilled to have finally completed the recording of your EP, album, or single at an honest-to-gosh real recording studio! You worked hard, you put the time in, and because you or your band have been out growing your fan base and earning a little cash, you were actually able to afford the real thing! Now all you have to do is wait for the mix, package and sell it!
Well, hold on there, because you are at surefire risk of being immensely disappointed – it’s quite possible that all you’ve got in your hands is a decent demo. Something that isn’t really even worthy of sale, and quite possibly something you may not even want anyone but you (and your band) to hear.
“Wait! What?! But we just spent all that money! It was a real studio recording!!” you shout.
I hate to tell you this but studio time and money don’t really mean what you think it means. There are some major steps you need to take before you go in and record “for real”.
Relax. It’ll be fine. Hear me out.
What Is A Generic Studio Recording?
In my previous post I talked about how important it is, when crafting your songs, to ensure that they are engaging. To do that, I explained that you need to follow the Hook, Line, Drive method (in other words, you need a Hook; a Line or Melody; and Drive – the energy). But this isn’t the only thing you need to keep in mind when crafting your songs and preparing to get them out into the world. Beyond a great promotional campaign (which is something I may or may not talk about in another blog), you need a great production.
“But this is a real studio,” you say. “This was a real production! I paid for it!”
Okay. Fine. You paid for it.
So you pay your $500 for studio time, you go in to record 4 songs and expect it to be fantastic. But what happens is (even if you’re well-rehearsed) the engineer (who does this stuff in his sleep), just puts up the mics to your amps and drums, dials in the levels (that he’s probably saved as a template to save time) and sits back.
For the most part, that’s it. Seriously.
Even if he mixes it, what you end up with is a very flat and generic-sounding studio recording because he’s only paid to ensure that it’s recorded (and potentially mixed) right. He knows nothing of your style, your sound, your image or your brand, and quite frankly, he doesn’t care. He does this every day. You are not important to him. He just wants to get his paycheck, go home and take care of his family. You are one of a million bands that thinks they are going somewhere.
But no matter how unique you may think you are, on that recording you sound like everyone else. The basics. And you do not want to sound like everyone else, particularly when you’re sending out press kits.
So congratulations! What you just spent that $500 for is a decent demo! Nothing more.
What Should You Have Done?
First, let me say that I’m not trying to belittle a real studio recording. It’s certainly one of your end-game options. In fact I highly recommend it as your go-to end-game option. And I’m not trying to call out studio engineers – they put in a ton of work and know what they’re doing. It’s because of them that you sound pro. So the issue isn’t that you’ve recorded in a real studio…
…The issue is that you skipped some important steps along the way. The stuff that will give your end-game studio recording a sound, will accentuate your brand and image, and keep you from sounding bland.
See, artists, singers, songwriters and bands, they sometimes get so locked in on the prize at the end of the road (making that real recording) that they forget they actually have to develop the songs, the style and the production before they get to that point. So many of the failures of many artists aren’t so much in the songs themselves as they are in the actual end product. Radio station DJs, A&R folks, venue management – they listen to a ton of music all the time. You’ve got to imagine that after a while they have to fight to make a lot of the music they hear sound different in their heads. It’s your job to help them see your stuff as different.
What am I trying to get at? That sounding professional is not the same as sounding unique. Sounding professional helps, (and that’s where the recording studio comes in), but that’s just part of it. And thankfully, there are ways you can prepare yourself to have that real, honest-to-gosh, just-cleared-my-savings studio recording work for you.
How To Prepare For A Studio Recording – Demo And Producer
Record your own demo – It doesn’t matter if this is poorly-produced. It doesn’t really matter if it’s mixed well. That’s not the point. What you’re recording here is something for your own personal posterity and development. The only thing that matters is that all the parts are clear and you’re putting this song together 110% the way you (or your band) feel it should be done. No outside influences (aside from the bands or artists that you either consciously or unconsciously emulate). Just you and your own instincts. Make the songs you want to make.
Just remember, even though the production value of this recording doesn’t matter, and even though you have no intent to sell it (though it’s worth noting you may want to later on down the line when you have an audience that might crave these kinds of things), you need to put some real work and time into it – the same as if you were going to sell it. Craft those songs; use Hook, Line, Drive; create something that you feel is a masterpiece. Just do it!
Review the demo with a producer – Before you freak out about this, let me explain what I mean by a Producer. For the sake of this process, a “Producer” can be a friend, someone you know, etc… (not a relative) but it must be someone you all trust to hear what you’re doing. They don’t need to have any idea what a producer really does but what they do need to do is listen to that demo, give you constructive criticism and suggest ways it could be better, ways to cover up areas where someone may be weak in their playing (at this point) or something that makes this song sound less like that song and definitely way less like another song he’s heard on the radio. He must be a music listener and he must know what today’s music sounds like.
He isn’t trying to make you sound like today’s music, he just needs to know today’s music as a reference.
Bring him into your rehearsals and let him make suggestions or recommendations, let him direct you a bit as to some things to try (just make sure you set expectations that, in the end, he’s not a member of the band, and you all have the final say — if you truly don’t like something he suggests, he needs to deal with that and move on to the next thing). I would say though that when you do eventually go in to do the studio recording, give him some kind of credit in your liner notes. What you’re doing here is taking those basic songs and actually creating the band’s sound. You’re starting to create your identity. That also means the Producer needs to understand your goals and objectives, and what you may or may not want to sound like.
If you know someone like this who also has an idea how to arrange things, how to really pull the song out of what you have, that’s even better. Sometimes you need someone to say “you know, that hook needs to be over here and this right here sounds a whole lot more like a verse than a chorus to me” etc. He might also say “you know, this part should really have an effect on top of it… it just sounds like all the other songs you showed me otherwise”. Or “this guitar player isn’t disciplined enough but here are some ways you could cover that up.” Expect criticism even on your talents. Take it. Get better because of it. If you think the criticism is uncomfortable or difficult with the “producer”, you’re in for a rough ride when you “make it”. You need thick skin and objectivity.
And you absolutely have to keep in mind that at least 2 of the songs you’re working on have to be radio friendly. Practically hits. That doesn’t mean they will be; that doesn’t mean they’d ever be released to radio, but the people you show this stuff to have to be convinced that there’s a potential there for that. Treat A&R and anyone else you want to impress in the business like you would potential fans. You need to hook them just like you do your fan base. Those two songs need to be less than four minutes. And they need to grab you in the first ten seconds.
I can’t stress how much you need this kind of outside influence to help you hone your sound. And it’s sticking around from here on out.
How To Prepare For A Studio Recording – The Second Demo And Booking Time
Record a second demo – Once you’ve fully honed and crafted/reworked these songs with your Producer, then you take all of that and make another demo – practically the same way as before. But this time it needs to be a little prettier (as in, a little bit better mixed). You need this as a reference point for you and for the engineer when you do finally pay that $500 for your studio recording time. This demo truly represents your sound. Who you are and what you’d ideally like to be. Aside from the fact that it probably isn’t mixed that well, and again that’s okay.
This is what you take to the engineer when you finally record in a studio. This is your reference point.
NOW book that studio recording time – Some artists think that simply bringing CDs of artists they want to sound like is helpful, but the truth is, those CDs aren’t your sound. Some engineers may be jerks about it. Don’t work with them if you can avoid it. This is about you and your sound. If an engineer or a studio isn’t game, professionally decline to record with that person or at that studio.
Some engineers will actually think “oh this might be interesting for once!” because they’re tired of the same thing every day. Some might even let you bring your producer in with you to ensure it’s getting done like you want.
It really is hard to know what to expect but in any event, you now have this reference point. You now have what your ideal sound is. So it’s a lot easier now to be able to tell an engineer “that’s not what we want”. And remember, you’re paying for the time, it’s your money. When you pay for a service you expect quality in exchange. It’s a lot easier to tell an engineer where he’s not cutting it if you’ve got that reference point. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and your work but, again, be professional about it.
Do You Want This Or Not?
At some point I’ll talk about the importance of mixing and mastering. But both of those things – while important to the process of sounding professional and even unique – are very separate from the concepts I’ve described above.
And while these instructions make things seem very daunting, and may give you a sense that this is a lot harder and longer a process than you had realized… tough. At the end of the day, you either want this or you don’t.
Remember: Work Hard. Be Good.
What other methods have you heard of or practiced yourself? Was the above useful or am I way off track? Don’t be afraid to share in the comments below!