Are You Making a Record or a Demo?

A long time ago, making records worked like this: an established artist walks into a commercial studio with a professional engineer/producer, who utilizes arcane equipment and something called ‘a budget’ to record that artist. The resulting recordings then are distributed by some third party to that artist’s salivating fans … Repeat.

“Demo” just referred to any sub-optimal recording scenario; a stepping stone somewhere on the road to “real record-making.”

But It’s 2016. No one has any faith in those sorts of models anymore, right? I mean, that’s why you’re here trying to learn more about tracking and mixing your own songs in your practice space, basement or slanty-floored apartment.

Instead, let’s talk about a more fundamental distinction between records and demos and the only distinction — for better or worse — that is still fundamentally within your control.

Let’s talk about making art. Assuming you’ve got access to some recording gear and at least one song to track, the most significant influence by far over whether your session is going to produce art or an unsatisfying pile of noises will come from your honest answers to the following questions:

  • Are you making a record? A record is a confident and durable chunk of musical art that precisely captures your unique musical universe and conveys appropriate levels of professionalism and gravity when experienced by the listener.
  • Are you making a demo? A demo is a harmless, limp work in progress that “doesn’t really sound like it does in my head” or “is much cooler live,” and which lives and dies on Soundcloud, accompanied by apologetic parentheses dangling off the ends of its composite titles that contain bashful words like “rough” or “unmastered” or “First Mix”.

Right now, I can hear you screaming: “But dude, there’s a lot of technical limitations to recording professionally! It’s just dumb to expect the stuff I’m cooking up in my bedroom is gonna feel like it came rolling out of Abbey Road!”

Actually, I agree with you. But what are those limitations? Are you using the wrong preamps, sample rate or tape speed? Is it the budget and time constraints that prevent you from stretching out? Or maybe it’s the chops level of the musicians, engineer or producer?

The difference between making a record and making a demo is your mind frame.”

Guess what? Nope. It isn’t that stuff. It’s way simpler. The difference between making a record and making a demo is your mind frame.

When a group of people step into a room with some mics in it with the unified intention of making a record, those people will end up making a record. Period. Full stop. I’ve been there. I’ve done just that with some of the most talented guys and girls in Chicago on some pretty awesome gear. I’ve also done it alone at age 17 in my mom and dad’s basement with a Tascam Portastudio and using headphones for a mic.

Regardless of circumstance, it was the attitude and approach that accounted for 99% of the “holy shit, this sounds like a real record!” vibe emanating from the resultant recordings. Each time, it was because I found myself in a situation that involved the following:

1. Thoughtful and dedicated musicians who had genuine respect for every scrap of music being tracked, regardless of who wrote it or how well it fit the sound.

Positive attitude is a must. Skeptical arguments that lead to productive dialogues are totally great, but negativity kills records. This also entails everyone remaining respectful, clear headed, and ready to work. Baggage, significant others with video cameras, and too many mind-altering substances shouldn’t be “the norm.” They’re distractions.

2. Music that is “psychologically fit” for the rigors of recording.

You just need to be cool with the idea that you may love a song one minute and be totally unsure about it the next.”

Songs don’t have to be 100% prearranged. In fact, I often tell clients that it’s usually preferable to record when their songs are 90% there, so there’s still a little wiggle room left. But if you’re intentionally using the studio as a place to write, then everyone involved needs to be completely at ease with the feeling of being really confused sometimes. Recordings made in this manner often morph dramatically over the course of even a few hours; you just need to be cool with the idea that you may love a song one minute and be totally unsure about it the next.

3. Appropriate dimensions of time and space for liberating/containing 1 and 2.

You definitely need enough room for your gear and a few bodies to coexist without the former caving in and burying the latter, but not so much that it doesn’t feel cozy, intimate and pleasantly informal — that’s the charm of the “home studio.” You also need enough time for the ideas to flow at a pace that’s comfortable for everyone and allows for mistakes to be made, but not so much time that it impairs anyone’s sense of urgency or ability to make quick decisions, commit to them and move on.

4. Nonattachment to the outcome.

Every great record I’ve been a part of has had a certain easy messiness about it; a little wabi-sabi. Urgency, but no pressure. The best way to achieve this is, ironically, to keep reminding yourself that you are an artist! Music is a passion of yours, and whatever happens, you’ll live to make another record. You do not need to sum up your entire artistic worldview in one perfect song. If this one doesn’t quite tick every box, no sweat. You’ll make more music tomorrow.

And, well, that’s it. These are the parameters that really transform recordings, not technical prowess, expensive signal chains or even “expertise” levels. Provided you have these four things going for you, you’ve got the hard stuff nailed, and I promise you that both you and your audience base will feel the sheer power of this “mind frame” stuff and really pick up on the fact that what you’ve made is a legitimate piece of musical artwork worthy of being called “a record.” Congratulations. You’ll never make another demo again.