Demo or Master Track?

Demo or Master Track?

Demo or Master Track console image

By Johnny Dwinell

Kelly and I are constantly having conversations with singers, songwriters, and artists about what kind of recording is the most effective for their needs and goals.� Since a lot of you have real questions about the differences between these kinds of recordings I thought I�d write about that today.

Demo or Master Track DDP Podcast image

Demo or Master Track?

Incidentally, you can also hear about this subject on episode 1 of our Daredevil Production Show podcast here.� There are several more episodes on producing, songwriting tips, and publishing as well; all of them are free so please enjoy them, we hope they are beneficial to you..

So let�s take each of these recordings one at a time.


Demo or Master Track demo image

First, let�s talk about the definition and purpose of a song demo.� Quite simply, a song demo is a demonstration of a song, NOT THE ARTIST.� The purpose of a song demo is to sell the SONG to recording artists who are looking for tracks to cut on an upcoming record release.� The successful execution of this process would generate publishing revenue for the writer(s) NOT RECORD DEALS.� There are many singer/songwriters who have secured their own record deals after achieving success with a hit song(s) that was cut by someone else; but that only happens after the song is released, so the idea is not to let your artist self get in the way of doing business for your songwriter self.

While a professional recording for a song demo will render a KILLER track, the process is decidedly quicker than recording an artist track for a proper record; and less time means less expensive. �This price difference often creates confusion by artists who have a limited budget, and who also want to sing on their own songs for a lower cost than an artist track.� By design, you don�t want to spend too much time creating clever instrumental arrangements, vocal �moments�, or arranging background vocals on a song demo.� The more detailed you get with the band arrangements and vocals, the more �style� you are putting into the track which will increase the likelihood of an artist passing on the song because they don�t hear their style in the track; thus decreasing your chances of getting it cut.� The track needs to be killer but bland (in a sense) so any potential artists can �hear themselves� in the track.

On a song demo session, the band will typically get the track on the first take.� BOOM!

Singing professional song demos is an art to be sure; as such, the savvy songwriters are going to leave the art of singing their demo to the artists who know, aka the pro singers.� The singer needs to key the song first with respect to the artist that the writer may be pitching it to, and secondly to their own voice to deliver the proper energy in the track.� For instance, Kelly and I have a pro singer we work with regularly; thus, we are well versed on where we believe this singer would �key� a song for his own voice.� On one particular song,� we had a library track (songs for TV background purposes) in the vein of Blake Shelton. �Kelly and I anticipated the singer key the song up from the work tape, but he actually went down a whole step to ensure the �Blake Shelton� vibe to the track; PRO MOVE.� A pro singer needs to deliver feeling and good pitch (a believable vocal performance) quickly while essentially staying invisible to the song.

Pro singers will nail the pitch and feeling in 1 or 2 takes (with no vocal �comping� and no tuning necessary) and render a quick, obvious background arrangement to service the song.� You see, the song demo has to focus on the lyric, melody, and vibe of the song as these are the elements you are pitching.� If you shop a song demo to a platinum recording artist and they end up blown away by the lead vocal performance, you�ve essentially already lost.� Why?� Because the recording artist ended up listening or being �moved� by the singer which completely took them away from what was being pitched which was the lyric, melody, and vibe of the song.

Think about it, you�re trying to sell the song, not the singer.

While it may make the singer songwriter feel good that some big time recording star commented on their vocal ability, no business will be transacted and the opportunity to get the song cut was lost; epic fail.� All too often we run into singer/songwriters who forget this fact; they are focusing on the fun of getting into a studio and singing.� For this purpose, it really isn�t recommended that you sing on your own song demos as the writer is too close to the song

Basically, if you�re a marginal singer and� you sing on your song demo, yes, you gain studio experience, but you will have practiced bad habits that will not help you sell your song.

If you are a KILLER singer, you will have artistically crafted the vocal to your style, which will not help you sell the song.� Does this make sense?



The definition and purpose of an artist track is to sell the ARTIST!!� Artist tracks happen either with a record label or they come in the form of custom records which is simply a major label quality record project that is funded privately�without a major label�s cash.� If a producer and artist did their jobs right, any listener should be blown away after listening to an artist track.

Blown away by the songpic

Blown away by the vocal performance

Blown away by how tight the band is

Blown away by that cool thing the guitar does in the breakdown

Blown away by the mix


When the listener is blown away, they will go to your website.

They will listen to more songs because they are starving on the mediocre crap that is still being force fed to us.

They will tell all their friends about you because you are bad ass.

They will buy tickets when you come to town to play.

They will buy t-shirts, coozies, key chains, and CD�s at your show.

They will engage you as an artist, hell, they may even pre-pay for the next CD allowing you to finance your next incredible artistic effort more easily.

They will like your Facebook page

They will follow you on Twitter

They will become part of your �tribe�

Artist tracks are going to define the artist; the brand.� They have to be AMAZING to stand out in this new music business.� Think about it�back in the day and artist and record label could afford to be mediocre (and how often did that happen?) on the radio because it was the only delivery system of the drug we call music.� If you were lucky enough to live in a big city or perfectly between 2 big cities, you had 2 rock, pop, alternative, or country stations, otherwise there was one; each station playing an average of 12 songs per hour.� If you were lucky enough to get the major label machine behind your single it was being spun constantly and that is the only choice people had for their genre.

I�ll repeat that; radio was the only choice.

There was no Pandora

There was no Spotify

There was no iPhone, iPod, or iPad.

There was no XM/Satellite radio.

Now the listeners have choices and they can and will choose to move away from mediocre in a heartbeat.�� So the song, the track, the vocal, the vibe has to be breathtaking.

Breathtaking starts like any other crucial project you have experience with�PREPARATION.� Ya know, like painting a room; 90% of the work is scraping, filling holes, cleaning, removing old wallpaper, taping, and priming.� Only 10% is actually painting.� What do the building contractors say??� Measure twice and cut once!!� You get the idea.

Did you think a recording project should be different?

Before you spend any money on artist tracks, you need a good team.� You need a killer engineer and a producer.� That�s right, A PRODUCER.� Typically, a great engineer isn�t going to cut it.� Of course there are exceptions to the
rule, but there are quite a few engineers who are not musicians, and many engineers are not producers.� In fact, the best professional engineers who regularly work with high level producers are practiced in the art of being invisible!� That�s part of the job description; to SHUT UP.� So if you team only has an engineer, you better make sure that they know how to produce; how to speak up.�� Otherwise you end up looking for a creative sounding board (i.e. producer) type feedback while you are tracking, in the heat of the moment, while you are spending cash, and all your questions are answered with questions.� Bah!

Artist:� �Did that sound OK?�

Engineer: �Well, did you like it?�

Artist: �um�er�yeah, I guess�

Engineer: �awesome, let�s move on�

Sound familiar?

This is the sound of you spending money on artist tracks and producing your own record; YIKES!

Producers will have killer relationships with the band based on mutual respect.� So when it�s time to �fight� for a performance during the session, the band will follow the producers lead, because they trust that he�s not going to waste their time.

If you are a self-contained band, the producer has to have AMAZING communication skills to reach each member of the band and ensure all musicians are in a state of mind to receive the information.� This is how a producer will get performances out of an artist that they often are unaware they are capable of.� FUN!!

Just and FYI, in any business, engineers typically lack communication skills.� I have spent years in the electronics business, the sales guys NEVER let the engineers talk to the client�it ends up messy.� Think about that.

An artist track should involve tons of preproduction.

Starting with the songs, are they up to par?� Can they be better?� If they can be better, the producer should provide a solution.

What is the style of the project?

What kind of guitar sounds?

What�s the vibe of the record?

What should the drums sound like?� Dry and cool like Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, or big and roomy like Bon Jovi or Miranda Lambert�s Revolution record? (love that freaking record�I mean the John Prine cut on there��That�s The Way The World Goes Round��.guitar feedback�.ON A COUNTRY RECORD!!!!)� Yee Haw!!� I seriously freaked out when I first heard it�thought I had a loop going on in the console, too funny.� But that�s just the 80�s rocker in me getting excited�.I digress.

There should be a mental sonic map for each track that is created in advance of the recording.

What keys should these songs be in?� What keys will suit the singer the best?� What keys will work for the singer and make the guitars darker and heavier?� Which key will brighten the guitar to give it that magical �chimey� sound that the song requires?

If you are an artist working with a studio band, the producer will then process all the information from preproduction and �cast� the sessions appropriately.

When you get to cutting artist tracks, things slow down.� You need more time for the band to be creative with arrangements, to explore the happy accidents that happen,

More time for studio magic.

More time to cut a stellar vocal�with tons of vocal �moments�

More time for the creative exchange between producer and artist and band.

More time for the mix.

Bottom line, BADASSNESS comes with a price because it takes time.

When you are done with these tracks, you should be able to incorporate them into any future record deal you sign because they sound that good; radio ready mixes.� There is no excuse for a poor sounding track or a poorly written song in today�s music business.

A producer attached to artist tracks should be there throughout the whole artistic journey of the project.� The producer should be the extended member of the group or artist with a trusted opinion as their job is to stay at 30,000 feet when the artist digs in and can no longer see the forest through the trees.� If your producer tells you the song needs to be stronger, then believe him.� If he tells you to sing higher to service the collaborative vision you both came up with for the track, you believe him.

If you want artist tracks, radio ready tracks, and you have no producer than you are executing the definition of crazy.� You keep doing what you have always done, and you will keep getting what you have always got.� I mean contemplate this with your common sense�Most artists who ended up disappointed with their tracks were looking for artist tracks and paying for demos.� What did you expect?



Back in the day, records cost $250,000 to make.� The projects were recorded on analog tape in huge $2,500 per
picday recording facilities.�� These studios housed the thousands of dollars of outboard equipment, the $500,000 mixing console, along with several $30,000 2-inch 24-track analog tape machines, endless reels of 2-inch tape ($100 per reel) plus all the microphones and other gear necessary housed in a room that cost 1 million dollars to design and build.� All total, you were looking at multi-million dollar studio facilities that were necessary to create the radio ready, sonic quality we all are accustomed to.� Looking at these up-front costs, it was impossible to own your own studio, or even be able to afford to access this kind of world class studio facility without major capital behind you; in other words, record label money.� Of course, labels wouldn�t sign you and give you the capital necessary without hearing a sample of what your music was about.� So, the common sense economic move was to record a �demo� (or demonstration of your band or you as an artist) tape to �shop� to record labels in hopes of getting the labels to pony up the real money.� These demos were recorded at far less expensive studios (with inferior equipment and thus inferior recordings were made) and filled a niche, they were the low budget house to record your music that would ultimately get you signed; a necessary bridge between you and the label.

NOW, anybody can afford a decent studio in their basement.� It is actually common (almost ubiquitous) that an artist will have some sort of digital recording system in their home or at least access to friend with one.� No more tape, no more outboard gear, no more $500,000 console is necessary to demo up your songs.� The artist can spend hours upon hours of time perfecting the song and arrangements before heading into a proper studio.

So here�s the thing�If record labels are not developing talent any more, what�s the purpose of �saving money� by spending $500-$1600 per song on a �demo�?� You are wasting your money.� Here�s why.

Demos are done FAST.

There is little creativity

little time to tweak or experiment with arrangements

little time for mix recalls

little time to re-sing a vocal (in Nashville they�ll tell ya �that was terrible, come on out� meaning they will tune your vocal and put it out�after all�it�s just a demo).

So by definition, on a demo, you are paying for an inferior representation of your artistry.� You are ASKING FOR IT!!!

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but 99% of the time, artists need more time and attention than a demo will allow to raise the bar of their music.

The necessity for a band/artist demo is gone.� Ok, ok, once again, there are exceptions to the rule.� If you have 20,000 twitter followers, 30,000 Facebook likes, and consistently sell out the 2,500 seat theater in your home town with no CD at all, I am quite sure a demo would suffice as at this point, it would be a formality of sorts.� The label would see that you have connected with a TON of people in some way so it would seem logical that they could add money to your existing momentum and step it up a couple notches.

The fact is, most of you aren�t at that local/regional level and are putting all your faith into a demo with the hopes that someone important will hear you and sign you.� This has become a flawed business plan.

Forget the pricey �demo�.� Do the necessary �demoing� on your home studio where you aren�t paying for time and can be completely artistic.� Demo constantly; at home.� Jon Bon Jovi recorded over 50 demos of �Runaway� before he had one placed on a compilation record for WAPL in New York that garnered tons of attention which got him signed.� He had to sweep floors at the studio nights in exchange for the opportunity to utilize the off time at the studio to record his demos.� Now you have the same technology in your home.

Are you using it?

Out Of The Basement Into The MarketPlace

Today, you need to jump right out of the basement onto the international marketplace, and your recording has to compete with that.� So if you�re an artist trying to make a living, by getting signed or on your own, bypass the demo step and go right to recording artist tracks.� Yeah, if you approach this process professionally (ya know, the way a
picrecord label would?) and get a producer, these tracks are more expensive, but you no longer need a full CD.� In fact, unless you are playing AT LEAST 180 dates per year, why record a whole CD?� An artist that is constantly touring can justify recording a whole CD because every night, people will spend money to buy a souvenir CD; so it makes good business sense to sell a product for $10 as opposed to $5.

For the artists who are not constantly touring, spend the budget on AWESOMENESS in the recording, on the team, and marketing the singles.� A hit song is a hit song is a hit song is a hit song�.you get the idea.� All to often artists are focused on recording a whole CD with no budget allotted for marketing.

They record the CD

It�s a mediocre product because their budget not large enough to record 10 songs of something amazing

They order the first run of 1000 CD�s

They give 50 out to friends, family, and the 1 or 2 business contacts they hoped would break them.

They ended up with 950 CD�s in a closet.

Sound familiar?

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