What do I need to record a demo?

I’ve recently had a request from a friend for some advice on recording some demo songs. I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing a response, so thought I wouldn’t waste it on just one person, so here it is for the world!

You are probably going to do the recording and mixing on a computer (I may say PC in future, but I don’t mean a windows machine, I just mean a computer!)

Let me suggest some software:

Pro Tools – you can enter the world of the industry standard for just $99 (around R1000) and get a mic too: http://m-audio.com/products/en_us/AvidVocalStudio.html
This version of pro tools is severely limited, but you will be getting used to the interface of a DAW that you are almost 100% guaranteed to find in use at any professional studio that you could possibly be visiting to make a record one day!

Logic – this is a favourite for many producers making pop music today, its a fully fledged DAW and comes with loads of virtual instruments, its only $199 (around R2000) but the snag is that it is mac only, and if you have a mac, you have Garageband which will do the job easily and its free.

Cubase – this is a favourite for many local (south africans), my theory is that there are many cracked version available so its considered free! For those wanting to stay on the right side of the law, it will set you back about $120 for the entry version http://www.steinberg.net/en/products/cubase/versions.html

Others to mention are: Ableton live (popular with DJ’s and EDM producers), SONAR (cakewalk) and Tracktion (from mackie, comes free with some of their sound cards)
If you have no money to spend, you can check out Reaper (http://www.reaper.fm/) its not free, but you can ‘evaluate’ it for as long as you like until you have the money to spend on paying for it. Also Audacity is a free open source DAW, but… just my opinion, but I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole!!! http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Almost any DAW is fine and will honestly do the job, however, you will need an interface to get audio into your PC. Most desktop machines, and some higher end laptops have built in sound cards that have a line input. unless you use a ‘mixer’ connected to the line in on your PC, assuming you have a line in. Again, If you have absolutely no money to spend then you can do this, but monitoring can be harder this way… I’m not going to go into an explanation for this in this context, but there is plenty info online… see my previous post!

I would recommend recording a live drum kit. Even with just one mic in the room, you can get a good enough sound for a demo recording, and a live drummer will (hopefully) play much better than you will be able to program MIDI drums. It also takes less time if the setup is convenient!

Have a listen to this track. (Drums recorded with one mic):

If you are recording drums or vocals, you will need a mic… you at least should have one. An SM58 can be used for everything if it is all you have, otherwise there are some cheap large diaphragm condensers available for almost a third of the price of a 58!

The only other things you will need are probably the more important things:

1. A good song, and good musicians to play it.

Maybe it goes without saying, but 99% of the compliments I have received from people about sound have been a result of the band playing well. We had Stuart Townend play at G1 Fourways last year sometime, and everyone was blown away by how good they sounded… Same gear, and 90% the same settings on the desk the following week, and no one is impressed!

2. A good room to record in.

Time and time again I’ve slaved over recordings of an awesome drum kit, wicked player, great mics that all sound kuk coz of the room they were recorded in.
A good room is hard to define, but it needs to be a good size, the bigger the better really, unless you are getting to warehouse size!!! It needs to be as sound proof as possible to keep out external noise, assuming there is external noise!? It also needs to have good low end(bass) absorption, which is only really possible with mass – heavy curtains, duvets and couches are good for that. Carpet is not good at all, especially the cheap tiled carpeting in most offices these days.
Hard Flat surfaces are not necessarily bad, but if you have too many, there will be flutter echo. Ideally 1 of any parallel surface would have absorption.

3. A good producer.

The producer doesn’t have to be just the producer, but it is often better if they are not too emotionally attached to the song coz they wrote it, or biased towards an instrument coz they played it, so someone other than the ‘band’ is good. They could be the person operating the recording equipment, but again its better if they are freed up from that to keep an overall view of the song & recording. Basically, there needs to be someone to make the final decision about stuff, oversee all the processes of the recording and mixing, and push everyone to be their best!!

At the end of the day, many classic recordings, think The Beatles, Van Halen etc are pretty bad by todays standards, but they are still popular “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is the number 1 best selling album in the US on the site where I buy mp3’s. The reason is that they were good songs, and good musicians… if you don’t have that, the recording quality doesn’t matter…

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