A demo is a critical part of a songwriter’s process
Songwriters write songs (ok super obvious), but then what? How do songwriters get those songs into the ears of other people like publishers, artists, a&r managers, and the like?
They record demos!
What’s a demo?
A demo is basically a “demonstration” (woa! See that?) of what a song could sound like if it was cut by an artist. It’s a songwriter’s way of putting their best foot forward by making their song sound incredible for someone who’s never heard it before.
What do demos sound like?
Demos can be anywhere between a simple piano or guitar and vocal, or played by a full band. It all just depends on the song, the budget, and who it’s getting pitched to.
And songwriter demos always need one thing – musicians to perform the song!
That’s where I come in. I’m a session singer, a.k.a. Sometimes, I’m a hired gun to sing on songwriter demos!
Here’s an example of a full band demo of a song I cowrote with my friends John Cirillo and Dan Reifsnyder:
And here’s what a stripped down, guitar/vocal demo sounds like:
Granted this one has a little bit of percussion added in – a kick and claps. Also wrote this one with John and Dan!
Singing on other people’s tracks is one of my favorite parts of being able to live and work in Nashville. How nuts and cool is it that there are an abundance of songs out there that could use someone like me to sing on them? I absolutely love any excuse to sing, and singing on demos is so. Much. Fun.
Preparing for the session – finding the perfect key
Sometimes, the producer for the track will be able to send me the quick rough version of the song in order for me to practice it, as well as find a key that fits my voice.
When finding a key I’m thinking about a few things:
- Where does the song sit best in my range?
- Can I place it so that the chorus really sounds powerful?
- Where is the highest note in the song? What’s the lowest note?
- Where do the verses sit?
Considering this will help me to deliver the best performance of the song I possibly can. The client is relying on the demo to help sell their song – and the vocals have to lead it!
Once I determine the best key, I send that info back to the producer and he takes it from there. Either he’ll create a scratch track for me to sing along to, (a simple acoustic guitar or piano only track that will be removed later or serve as the base of the full production) or he’ll go ahead and track lots of instruments to resemble the final version of the demo.
Practice makes perfect! Learning every line.
Before the session, I’ll spend as much time with the song as I can. I go line by line and make sure I’ve learned it exactly as is – and come up with new ways to interpret it as well.
Typically I prepare for the vocal performance in two ways:
- WROTE MEMORIZATION: Some clients want their songs sung exactly as they are on the reference, note for note, emphasis by emphasis. They have a plan in mind for the vocals from the beginning – they have it all mapped out, and it’s my job to make it real.
- ARTISTIC INTERPRETATION: Some clients in the other hand, rely on the professional vocalist to represent the song as professionally as possible, which may include taking liberties with the melody or interpretation to really “feel it” and make it contemporary.
I always make sure to prepare for both possibilities since I never know the clients particular preference before hand. When I get into the vocal booth, that’s where I ask, “How would you like this performed?” and the client or producer will let me know what they’re imagining.
Day-of warm ups
The days leading up to the session include practicing (in the new key), making lots of notes in the lyrics, and warming up. But the day of the session requires a little different of an approach!
Usually I cut out all dairy products 24 hours before the time of the session. That means no creamer in my coffee (oh, the sacrifices I make for my clients!), no yogurt, no cheese, etc. Dairy has a nasty way of congealing the mucus in the back of the throat which is not ideal for singing. In those 24 hours, I also stay away from overly sugary foods and butter, and I over hydrate!
A couple hours before the session, I’ll do a 30 minute – 1 hour warm up that’s tailored specifically to the song I’m tracking. I run through the song once or twice, referring to my annotated lyric sheet, then it’s time to go!
I usually bring a Yeti water bottle full of warm water with me to sip on in the booth. Warm water keeps the vocal chords nice and toasty and ready to sang! This tumbler is my favorite piece of drinkware I own, no joke. It keeps my water at the perfect warm temperature for the entire session. And it’s sea foam green, I mean, come on – SO cute!
Sometimes I’ll bring an herbal tea called Throat Coat. I’ve been using it for years at the recommendation of my voice teacher. It has licorice root in it, which is a lovely lubricate for your vocal chords. And of course, it’s served nice and warm which keeps the blood vessels open and your muscles relaxed!
In the vocal booth – where the magic happens
On the day of the session, it’s time to let loose and have fun! A friend of mine always says, “This is the music business, but it’s really the ‘fun business!'” And he’s so right! This is one of the most fun parts of what I do – SINGING!
In the vocal booth, it’s time to utilize all the prep and practice and enjoy singing the song. This is where the emotion will shine through the vocal performance. Practice is important, but if you don’t feel it, no one else listening will, either.
A post shared by Sarah Spencer (@sarahspencermusic) on
The actual tracking process is a bit different from producer to producer and client to client, but typically: I sing the song down once for levels and to get warmed up into it. We keep anything we want from that pass, and we go section by section from there. After the melody is tracked, we do harmonies. Sometimes I write them, sometimes the producer does. We’ll get those down, maybe double them, and listen through from top to bottom. If adjustments are needed, I make them – if not, the session is over!
It usually takes about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours in the booth to record vocals, dependent on how long the song is and how many different harmony parts it needs.
Sometimes I get to stick around to see other musicians track or hear the producer mix my vocals a little bit. But once I’m out of the booth, my job is done!
Want me to sing on your song? Let’s book a session!
I’m available as a session vocalist for most projects, from songwriter demo’s to BGV’s to work for hire projects you want to release.
If you’re looking for a vocalist for you song, or need to get the song demo’d from top to bottom, these are the two studios I work with the most in town, and they’re run by two of my favorite people! They are amazing producers and will take great care of you. Reach out to them, tell them you read my article, and you can request that I be your vocalist. 🙂
From Cliff’s website:
“Writing great songs but not being taken seriously by the music industry? Maybe it’s your demos. Hire Cliff to produce broadcast quality recordings of your songs using world-class studio vocalists and musicians. Want to make sure you’re getting what you want? Cliff’s studios use revolutionary streaming technology to broadcast your session to you live and in full fidelity wherever you are in the world.“
From Chip’s website:
“Chip Martin Productions is home to a 24-track digital recording facility, located just 12 minutes from downtown Nashville and Music Row. A 1200 square foot space, C.M.P. has the feel of a larger commercial studio, but because of the convenient home location, is able to work with tighter budgets in a more relaxed atmosphere.”