If you want to offer your songs to music publishers or artists or their producers, you would do well to produce a professional demo. Recording technology was still in its infancy at the time of the Beatles. 4-track recorders belonged to the upper class of sound technology. But as time went on, the technology got better and faster. In the seventies, eighties and even in the nineties, elaborate and expensive recording studios were the only way to make a good-sounding recording.
But this changed when computers became faster and more powerful. In the meantime, it is possible to achieve far better sound results in a small, inexpensively equipped home studio than the Beatles did in the sixties. Therefore, it is usually no longer enough for a songwriter to record his demos in poor quality. It can be appealing to record a song with only guitar and vocals – but even then, the guitar and vocals have to be very good in terms of sound quality and the quality of the musicians (i.e. singer and guitarist).
Nowadays we have two possibilities to produce a good demo or good music: on the one hand via a home studio and on the other hand by producing in a professional recording studio. In this article we look at both options, consider the differences and what to look out for.
Demo and music production via a professional recording studio
Let’s first take a look at how we can produce music in a recording studio.
Booking a recording studio
Putting your music in the hands of a recording studio has a lot of advantages – but also some disadvantages. The advantage, of course, is that if you hire a professional sound engineer, you can expect the results to sound professional.
Sound engineers usually complete several years of training and are well versed in both recording technology and the physical realities of acoustics. They have experience in studio recording and the necessary know-how to achieve excellent results.
Sometimes recording studios also have the advantage of having contacts in the music industry. It may well be that a demo finds its listeners through a contact that came about through the studio or the sound engineer.
Also, finding professional studio musicians through a recording studio is usually very easy. It is in the nature of recording studios to have extensive contacts to studio musicians. After all, they are often needed here. What makes a good studio musician will be explained in more detail later in this article.
The first negative thing about a recording studio is the price. As a rule, you pay per hour. The price per hour depends on the size, popularity and professionalism of the studio. Although you can reduce this price through good preparation, it should still not be underestimated and is of course a hurdle in the production of several demo songs.
Another point is that although the songwriter acts as a music producer, since he pays the recording studio and the sound engineer, it can still be the case that the demo does not sound as the songwriter or the band would like it to. The reason for this is simply that in interpersonal communication, of course, mistakes happen all the time.
Many of the words we use to describe things are not clearly defined. For example, the songwriter may want the guitars to sound more “flowery”. However, the term “flowery” is very subjective. It may therefore be that the sound engineer understands something completely different by this term and the songwriter is ultimately not satisfied with the result.
How do I find a good studio?
The question now is how to find a good studio. The first thing to do, of course, is to look on site. Are there recording studios nearby that are sufficiently professional?
The big problem is that since studio equipment has become cheaper and cheaper, there are many amateur or semi-professional “hobby sound technicians” on the market. The recording studio is then located in a cellar, for example, and looks quite professional at first glance. But when you hear the result of the song, you soon realise that it was not worth the money you invested. Even if the supposed sound technician has thrown around so many technical terms.
So it’s important to make sure you have good references. Who has already recorded in this studio? Is there even a well-known name or two among them? Does the recording studio or its sound engineer have qualifications? Have they taken training courses, courses or even degree courses in the relevant field? Are there sound files that you can listen to beforehand so that you can hear whether the quality of the music produced meets your quality standards?
Last but not least, the price also plays a role. Are you able to afford the studio? And do you like the people who work with you there? Does the entire process make a professional impression (even in advance)?
These are all things you should clarify before booking. Because when you hire a recording studio, you invest money that should subsequently materialize in the quality of the demo.
What does a good studio cost?
The costs for a studio recording vary greatly. On the one hand, it depends on the studio, on the other hand, it depends on how many studio musicians you need for your demo or song and how complex the recording work is. A pure MIDI production of a song that you sing yourself should be possible for between 200-400 €. The prices of studio musicians vary. In addition, recording real instruments naturally requires more studio time, because instruments have to be set up, connected and tuned, microphones have to be set up and musicians don’t play every song the way they want to on the first try. In this respect, the recording studio stay also becomes more expensive. The best thing is to ask the studio what a studio musician costs per hour. Depending on the degree of professionalism, there are sometimes studio musicians who record demos for as little as €40 an hour, others charge €80, others €200 and more.
When choosing a studio, always look for professionalism
It is important to find a studio musician who is professional enough to be able to sight-read notes fluently. If instead you choose to bring your “good friend”, who always plays the guitar so beautifully around the campfire, into the studio, you are saving money at the wrong end, as the recordings are guaranteed not to sound as good as those of a musician who already has studio experience. Recordings with semi-professional musicians often become tedious and long – and therefore expensive.
This is simply because recording in a recording studio is a completely different situation than playing live music. In the recording studio, everything has to be just right: the timing has to be exactly right and every little clang/ every little uncleanliness in the playing, which is easy to ignore in live situations, comes out clearly on recordings. If it is an acquaintance you are hiring, he or she should at least have recorded in the studio (or at home using a multitracker or on the computer).
On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be the best and most famous studio musician. After all, it’s just a demo for us as songwriters or a song that we publish on YouTube or Spotify. It is true that nowadays it sometimes happens that a music producer directly uses the instrumental (i.e. the recording without vocals) of the songwriter and simply has his singer sing the vocal track over it – but usually the music producer produces the song anew. And if you have real musicians playing in your music, you already surpass 90% of all music productions on the market in terms of authenticity.
What does a good studio do?
A good recording studio is characterised by the fact that you receive good advice. They take you seriously and explain things that are new territory for you.
A good recording studio will take care of booking studio musicians for you and also offer you studio musicians in different price ranges if you ask for them.
The recording will be professional and quick. The sound engineer will recognise that you, as the one paying, are the music producer. He will therefore listen to your wishes and not try to put his own stamp on the recording.
He will offer to rough mix your recording at no extra cost so that you have a recording that you can take off-site for mastering. If you wish, they will also offer to do the mastering for you. By the way, mastering is the final polishing of a song. Of course, this costs extra (and is not absolutely necessary for well-mixed demos or songs).
A good recording studio has all the equipment you need and will give you better results than you (as a layman) could usually achieve in a home studio.
Booking a musician
If you want to take care of finding musicians yourself, the following tips should help you.
Finding good musicians is difficult at the beginning. You are constantly buying the proverbial pig in a poke. After a while, of course, this becomes easier. After all, with each recording you get to know the individual qualities of musicians and thus build up a small network of reliable, professional studio musicians. In the vast majority of cases, a recording studio already has this work behind it and can reliably recommend good musicians for its own production.
Finding musicians for your own production
But how do you find musicians if you record your demos and songs via a home studio? For one thing, you can rely on the recommendations of people you know. However, this is only possible if these acquaintances are musicians themselves and actually know something about music.
Because often the definitions of “good musicians” differ widely in the opinion of professionals and amateurs. Of course, it is helpful if you have songwriter friends or musicians from the same region who have already had good experiences with studio musicians from the region.
If this is not the case for you, it can also be worthwhile to take a look at the internet. There are now numerous platforms where musicians can register to be found by interested parties, such as music producers, recording studios or songwriters.
As a songwriter or music producer, you can also ask around at local music schools and see if you can sign up a music student or long-standing musician as a studio musician at a slightly lower price. In this way, the musician does what he or she likes best and can earn a little money on the side to supplement his or her studies.
Assignment of neighbouring rights
We have already covered copyright (here: What is copyright? And how do I protect it? – Link opens in new window) and found out that as songwriters – those who write the lyrics and music to a song – we are entitled to remuneration. This is similar for performing musicians.
After all, you too are exercising a creative, creative activity when you play your instrument in a certain way. This right is called ancillary copyright. We have to obtain this ancillary copyright from the musician.
This is done by paying a remuneration for his performance. In return, the musician signs a waiver of his ancillary copyright, since the remuneration has already taken place through the payment. This is done by means of the so-called “artist’s receipt”.
When do instrumental musicians become songwriters?
Now, of course, the question arises whether the performing musician does not also act as a songwriter in addition to the ancillary copyrights – i.e. also holds the normal copyright to the song, at least in part? This varies from case to case. As a rule, the following applies: If the musician performs according to the songwriter’s instructions, it can be ruled out.
If, however, the musician “acts as composer” – for example, by adding a distinctive riff to the song (without the songwriter’s instructions) that is characteristic of the song (compare, for example, the riff of “Smoke on the water”), it can be assumed that he or she has co-composed the song.
So the songwriter does well to give precise instructions about how the musician is to play and not let the musician’s creative freedom flourish to the point where the musician actually ends up being the composer at work.
Tips when recording in a recording studio
Some tips may prove helpful when we record our demo in a professional recording studio.
Good preparation can help save costs. Firstly, it is important to work in a concentrated and organised way and to use the studio time as well as possible. But as a songwriter, you can already do your homework in advance.
For example, if you don’t sing the songs yourself and have to hire a singer, it’s worthwhile to send him or her a rough recording of the song in advance (this can be done amateurishly with a bad microphone and a guitar from the PC). This is simply a recording that you have made yourself.
This way, the singer can already hear how the song sounds and can prepare for it, which saves studio time later. Also, the singer can tell you if the song is too high or too low for him/her. This way you can change the pitch of the song. If you did this in the studio, valuable time would be lost.
Instead of relying exclusively on studio musicians, it can be worthwhile to create the basic framework of the song as a MIDI production either in the studio itself or beforehand on your home PC and only have characteristic instruments recorded by real studio musicians. Especially instruments that are difficult to record (for example, because many microphones are needed, as in the case of a drum kit) are less time-consuming to use a MIDI production. You can find out more about MIDI production on your home PC here in this article.
Limitation to hits
If you rent a recording studio, you invest money in a good recording. That’s okay, but it should be in reasonable proportion to the usability of the song. So you should determine in advance that it is your most commercially promising songs that will be recorded in the studio and limit your recording studio production to those songs.
Make sure that at the end of the studio sessions you are given not only the finished song, but also the instrumental to it (i.e. the song without vocal tracks) and each audio track separately. After all, you paid for it and it could well be that a music producer later finds your song good and asks you for the instrumental so that he can quickly and easily have his own singer sing the vocal track over it.
In this case, the instrumental is of course very helpful. And the individual sound tracks are always practical anyway. Be it that you want to have the song remixed. Whether you want to replace a music track (e.g. because of differences with one of the studio musicians). Or for a remix.
Demo and music production via a home studio
Cheaper than recording via a professional recording studio is recording in a home studio. Nowadays, you can set up a relatively good home studio for as little as €100 or €1000. However, it is necessary to learn a little about music production and music technologies.
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It is an industry standard that enables control information between electrical instruments. It sounds complicated, but it is not. MIDI is based on the fact that only data about a tone, its length and velocity are transmitted. Since only data and no actual tones are transmitted, the transmission is particularly flexible. This enabled the use of keyboards, synthesizers and so-called samplers long before the technology reached the possibilities it has today.
Music production with samplers and synths
Originally, MIDI was only developed for synthesisers. It was quickly followed by applications for samplers, drum machines and other musical technologies. The development took place in the 1980s. The way it works is very simple. When you play a key on a keyboard, it is digitally transmitted which note was pressed at which velocity (i.e. the force you used to strike the note) and for how long. Based on this information, you can, for example, operate a sampler.
A sampler is a device that uses real recorded sounds, called samples, and plays them at different pitches. Let’s illustrate this: Imagine that in a professional recording studio, every single key of a very expensive grand piano is recorded at every velocity. So, for example, the pianist presses very hard on the note C. Then he presses very lightly on the note C. Then he presses in a medium velocity on the note C. The same follows with all notes in several octaves.
Within the sampler, each recorded sound element is now assigned to the corresponding key. Using MIDI, you can now press the note C with a light velocity on a keyboard that is actually silent, and the sampler replaces this data information with the real recorded sound file. While samplers originally had to make do with small amounts of data due to the technology and sometimes only comprised 1 MB, it is now possible, due to modern computer technology, to record complete symphony orchestras individually and make them controllable via MIDI.
Piano players have a clear advantage in music production
So the ability to play the piano nowadays makes it possible to imitate practically any existing instrument via a sampler. This technology is used in practically all Hollywood films to create film music, as well as in modern pop, rock and folk music.
If you are not yet familiar with computer and MIDI-based music production, this may sound strange. But it really is possible to create complete songs exclusively on the computer, to use guitars, strings and even singers in a completely flexible way and to master only the piano. At this point, let’s take a little look at the programmes that are currently particularly well-known and frequently used.
REASON is a music software that originates from Sweden. The first version was launched in 2000. REASON comes in the design of a studio rack. If you don’t know what that is, here is a screenshot. REASON offers a variety of virtual devices that would normally have to be bought expensively in a real studio rack. There are several samplers, drum machines, loop players and many other devices that are necessary for the production of professional music. REASON offers a variety of so-called refills.
These are extensions, such as especially elaborately sampled pianos, strings or instruments from special music styles, such as dubstep, dance or funk. Through an extension, REASON is also capable of recording vocals via the computer. All in all, it can be said for this software that, after a short training period, it is also excellently suited for people to whom the whole subject is new. It is intuitive to use and yet offers a very high degree of flexibility. Every songwriter who wants to produce at home (and can play the piano) cannot do without REASON.
More information at http://www.propellerheads.se/
Cubase is also a music software. It comes from the German company Steinberg and has been around since 1989. Since then, many new versions of the software have been added. On the one hand, Cubase works as MIDI production software – similar to REASON. On the other hand, you can also record computer-based with Cubase. For example, you can plug a microphone into the computer and record your voice. Cubase is a semi-professional to professional application. You should therefore have some interest in music production to be able to use the software successfully. Unlike REASON, for example, the large number of options can cause some confusion from time to time for beginners and those who only want to use the software for demo production. On the other hand, very professional results are possible after familiarisation.
More information at http://www.steinberg.net/de/products/cubase/.
Pro Tools clearly belongs to the professional products. Here, too, training is necessary. And here, too, MIDI-based productions as well as real recordings on the computer are possible.
More information at
PlugIns / VSti’s
We already touched on it a little in point 2.1. through MIDI production, it is possible to control the sound of complete orchestras, grand pianos or choirs on a home PC with a conventional keyboard. This is made possible by sophisticated sample technologies combined with the speed and power of today’s computers. While REASON has relied on a software-internal format, the so-called Refills, an overarching standard has simultaneously emerged from a Steinberg standard.
The so-called VSTi’s: Virtual Studio Technology Instruments. These plug-ins can be used under Cubase or Pro Tools (and also other music software applications). If this is new territory for you, it is best to listen to some audio examples on the following websites. Always keep in mind that these are not “loops”. The sounds you hear are created by someone pressing keys on a keyboard. So it’s like you’re playing the piano and the choir is singing exactly that, the guitar, the grand piano, the violin, the drums are playing exactly that. you’ll be amazed.
Examples of current plugins/ VSTi’s:
http://www.soundsonline-europe.com/ (All kinds)
Multitrackers – Mobile Recording Studios
Normal computers often have noisy fans and poor sound cards. Sometimes the configuration is also so bad that it is difficult to make a real recording in real time through a microphone in good quality. The delay between the incoming signal (e.g. your singing) and the processing on the computer is called “latency”.
So imagine you are singing while the computer takes two seconds to process your singing. The result will be that your singing is delayed by 2 seconds in the recording. It is also difficult if you want to hear yourself singing.
This is where so-called multitrackers come in handy. These are small, independently functioning and usually portable recording studios. They allow you to record several sound tracks one after the other. For example, you can start by recording a guitar, then add a bass and finally record one or more vocal tracks.
On the other hand, you can also produce a so-called instrumental on the computer via MIDI production – a karaoke version of your own song, so to speak – and then put it on a stereo sound track in the multitracker. Afterwards, you can record the vocals in the Multitracker.
Multitrackers often already have integrated effects such as reverb and echo and, depending on the model, also other features such as a “master ring section” where you can put the finishing touches to the song and much more.
The great thing about multitrackers is that they are primarily intended for beginners and semi-professionals and are easy to use even after a very short training phase. Within the virtual campus you will find a small list of multitrackers that are suitable for beginners.
Large-diaphragm microphone with pop protection
When recording with a multitracker or a computer, make sure that you use a large-diaphragm microphone. As the name suggests, large-diaphragm microphones have a large membrane.
They therefore pick up the signal to be recorded particularly clearly. Diaphragm microphones are the microphones you see most often when a star is in the recording studio recording their vocal tracks. Because of its sensitivity, a diaphragm microphone is not held in the hand but attached to a microphone stand.
In front of it there is usually a so-called pop shield – sometimes also called a pop guard. It prevents the so-called plosive sounds, such as P, T, K, etc., from creating a pressure wave that negatively affects the recording quality. You can find some examples of large-diaphragm microphones in the virtual campus.
Large-diaphragm microphones only work with an external power supply. This is done via so-called phantom powering. The mixing console supplies the power. There are also large-diaphragm microphones that can be connected directly to the computer via USB. In this case, the microphone draws its power from the computer via the USB cable. If you want to record with a multitracker, it needs to be able to supply phantom power. If you want to record directly with a PC, you should choose a USB large-diaphragm microphone.
Most multitrackers have a line input. This can be used, for example, to connect a keyboard, a stereo system, an MP3 player, the lineout output of a computer or other external sound sources via so-called cinch cables.
A guitar input is hardly missing on any multitracker. It is accessed via a so-called jack cable. Thus, electric guitars and also some acoustic guitars (namely those with an electric pickup) can be connected directly.
Mixing midi production and multitracker
As mentioned at the beginning, it can be advantageous to combine MIDI production and recording via the multitracker. In this way, you can use a music programme on the PC to create the instrumental via a MIDI production with REASON or Cubase, for example, and then add vocals, guitars and other real instruments to it using the Multitracker and a large-diaphragm microphone.
In this article we have learned what ways there are to record a good demo. We have seen that, on the one hand, it is convenient to book a recording studio – and also that the results are in most cases better than doing the work yourself. However, it is also more expensive in the long run. In contrast, it is possible to set up a home studio for little money and take the reins into your own hands. For this, however, you have to deal with the topic of music production a little more closely and have both passion and talent for it. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages. Which ones outweigh the others is up to you and you alone.