Note: This guide has relevant parts for both vocalists and music producers. For any bits you can't personally do yourself, please refer the advice to your chosen beat maker or vocalist.
Making demos is an important part of writing and creating music. In fact, I consider it to be a skill as valuable as writing.
The act of writing a song and taking it all the way through the demoing process is incredibly useful in many ways: creating parts, arranging the song, and can even help you become proficient on multiple instruments.
Interestingly, many writers with publishing deals are now expected to fully demo every song they write. If this is something you're interested in doing, pay close attention!
Making good demos has other, practical benefits: you’ll save money by creating demos at home, you’ll save money and time in the studio by having already thought about parts and arrangement, and you’ll have a much better sounding product to shop to producers and maybe even labels.
You can either go to a studio and create your demo, or if you prefer, do it yourself. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need much to create home recordings. Here’s a basic breakdown of what you need:
- An audio interface (could be two, or even one channel).
- A Digital Audio Workstation, also known as a DAW (e.g. Logic Pro X or Pro Tools. Reaper is a great DAW with a free 60 day trial, and it’s only $60 to purchase).
- Any mic (it doesn’t need to be great, I’ve created full demos using just a SM58).
- A computer to record on.
- Your instruments of choice.
If you already have a computer and instruments, you should be able to get everything else you need for under $200. Trust me, it’s worth it.
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How To Create Music Demos – Step By Step
You’ve got what you need or have hired a studio for the technical stuff, but where do you start? Here's how to make a music demo, step by step:
1. Arrange Your Song
I like to play the song and make a simple voice memo or video of it. Then, I listen to the song and listen for the following things:
- Wasted time – too much space between verses, a guitar solo that drags on too long, a verse that takes too much time to get to the chorus, etc. I usually find my songs coming in around the 3 – 3:30 minute mark, with very little wasted time.
- Important parts to accent, or important musical ideas – these are usually little shots or accents throughout the song. Or, big picture musical ideas such as a quiet chorus, or a vocal chorus breakdown. This is when I decide on some of those things.
- A great intro and a great ending – I usually don’t like my intros to be too long, and the endings need to feel “right”. I also take into consideration what my other songs sound like; if every song fades out, that can be tiring for the listener.
2. Build The Bed Tracks For Your Demo
I always start with drums, because they give me inspiration for the rest of the parts. If you’re a drummer, or decent at drums, try laying down live drums. It’s super valuable to learn how to get good drum sounds.
If not, don’t be afraid to use automatic drum programs or loops. A lot of these programs are super effective, convincing, and malleable.
I then lay down bass, and a basic rhythm guitar, piano, or synth part. If you don’t have a bass, a keyboard bass, or guitar track through an octaver works just fine. “Old Brown Shoe” by The Beatles has a “bass” track that is actually just guitar an octave down!
If you’ve done your homework in the arranging part, building your bed tracks is usually just fun and creative. All the shots and different sections will lend themselves to specific parts. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it!
3. Lay Down Your Demo Scratch Vocal
Now it's time to lay down a scratch vocal. A scratch vocal means that you probably won’t end up using that specific vocal take. So don’t put too much work into it, you’re basically just using it to build other parts around it.
I usually only do the lead vocal at this time, but you can experiment with harmonies or backing vocals as well if you want to.
For me, this is the fun part. Your song is really sounding like a song now, so you can get creative with your extra parts. I love creating hooks with guitar parts, rhythmic keyboard parts, etc. Also experiment with pads and organ to create a sense of space in your recording.
Keep the old saying “less is more” in mind here. It’s fun to add a lot of parts, but you may find yourself trimming them down as you go through the song over and over again. Keep the ones that grab you or truly serve a purpose, and ditch the rest!
5. Lay Down Your Vocals
Lastly, you’ll be laying down vocals. Vocals are really fun, and really challenging. It sometimes helps to have someone assisting on this part; pressing record and letting you know if you’re sharp or flat.
Keep in mind that you can comp a vocal take together, so not everything has to be completely perfect. Nearly every single vocal take you’ll hear on the radio is comped together from many, many takes.
You’ll probably also want to add some harmonies on your recording, even if you don’t do it live. Something about many voices singing can really lift a chorus or accent important lyrics/hooks.
6. Put A Mix On It
Mixing is a whole separate discussion that deserves many, many more words. However, I believe you can make some major differences in your recording, simply by doing a few simple things.
Set your levels. Take all your faders (volume sliders) on every track, and put them to zero. Then, start with drums, and raise and lower levels until the track is balanced. Suddenly, it starts sounding very well put together!
Now, add some depth to the song. With you pan knobs, create a musical space. Move instruments left or right, and watch your song come alive. It’s generally advisable to keep kick, snare, bass, and lead vocals right up the middle.
I won’t get into EQ, compression, delay, reverb or any other effects right now, but I will touch on:
When you export your track, it will be too quiet. You can get it mastered, which will make it sound quite a bit better, and it will also be louder. However, this costs at least $50 per track if you want it done professionally.
For your purposes, you can put a plugin called a Limiter on your Main Output channel, and this will boost the signal to listenable levels.
Making demos can be as simple or as complicated as you make it! The more you do it, the better the demos will get, and the better you will get at making them. Keep in mind that this is my process, and it’s a really cursory glance at a procedure that can be quite complicated. It’s music, not math. Experiment, and have fun!