It’s never been easier to make a demo, but…
There’s no doubt that the technology available to songwriters these days makes it easier than ever to make good quality demos of our songs. The technology ranges from free open source applications like Audacity to expensive digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Cubase, Logic and Ableton Live. I’ve been using a second hand version of Cubase (SX2) that I bought on eBay for a few years now and it’s great. Recently it seems everyone has been talking about Ableton Live so I bought a cut-down version called Ableton Live Intro to try it out. Both of these programs enable you to use software synthesisers, drum machines and other instruments to produce professional-sounding recordings of your songs.
And your problem is?
The ability to produce demos that sound like they have been made in a studio by professionals seems to be increasingly important these days. The writer of a song that was number one in four countries and made the top five in several others told me that he takes demos to publishers and producers and is told that they are “not very sonically interesting”. This amazed me; I was sure that someone like him wouldn’t be facing issues like this after all the success he’s had, so what about the rest of us? The availabililty of audio software will help us with this won’t it? Yes it will, but I think it brings some problems too.
Writer, producer, artist? Whatever
We have to be clear what we are trying to achieve with recordings of our songs. The successful songwriter I mentioned above was writing good songs but the publishers and producers wanted to hear the finished article so they didn’t have to use their imaginations (at all). As less successful songwriters (so far anyway) we have to be careful that we write excellent songs that sound good with just a guitar or piano accompaniment and that we don’t try to repair a poor song with layers and layers of electronically produced sounds to try and make it more interesting. I think the expression is, “you can’t fix it in the mix”. We need to be clear about why we are recording the song – is it as a demo or as a final version for release. Are we writers, producers or artists? If all three, great. If not, then what?
Have you ever noticed how songs that were hits sound great when they are sung with just an acoustic guitar or piano, even if the hit version was highly produced? YouTube is full of videos of people singing hits from all genres with just their guitars and pianos, and I don’t see many bad ones. This is what we should be aiming for; songs that sound great with just a basic backing.
Wasting time or developing new skills?
The other big problem I have is messing around for hours with production technology (because it’s easy to mess around) instead of rewriting music and lyrics to make the songs as good as they can regardless of the production. The other danger is thinking that if you just had a certain piece of equipment, hardware or software, everything would be alright (I thought this when I bought Ableton Live – Cubase worked just fine). I can’t help thinking that the smart thing would be to focus on the writing, and of course rewriting, because that’s how success will come. Having said this though, at the same meeting where the hit songwriter I mentioned above talked about his sonically dull demos, an aspiring songwriter was told that just writing songs isn’t enough these days. He was advised to learn how to produce the songs he writes so that he could present a more complete package to interested parties. Doh!