So the time has finally come to “do the demo”! You've got music, lyrics, you're really feeling like you've got something a bit special and you're desperate to go about committing it to tape (well, hard drive).
Thing is – how do you actually go about it? Quite often, you actually find that your ideas aren't 100% fully formed, and nor can they be – you need to hear them to work out what needs editing, tweaking, moving, shortening, lengthening etc. Many times, you'll find that what worked in your head doesn't quite work when you hear it played back.
This is where the guide track comes in. This is going to be just you with a simple rhythm guitar (or piano, or whatever you've written the song on) along with ideally a rough vocal. The vocal doesn't need to have finished lyrics, or indeed any lyrics – what you're doing is find where the melody is going to be, as all your other parts need to be arranged with the idea of supporting that melody.
Now, if you're recording using a computer based set up running software like Logic, Pro Tools or (my personal choice) Cubase, you can actually see the waveform of the track, and this lets you sort out the structure. You can make virtual cuts to delineate verse, chorus, bridge etc. and “paint” those sections different colours, which makes rearranging things far easier. You can experiment with (for example) maybe cutting the length of the second verse and lengthening the chorus. Maybe a bar's break before coming in with the guitar solo for a bit of extra impact.. these are all ideas that you can experiment with before settling on the perfect song structure.
Once you've got your structure, I like to re-record the guide to make everything a little more organic and even sounding, and then it's time to get recording in earnest.
First up, drums. I'm fortunate enough to have a small electric kit which allows me to send MIDI pulses straight to Cubase to activate the drum samples, and for any project studio I would really recommend one. Don't worry about it's built in sounds, you're using it to trigger samples so as long as you've got MIDI out you're in business. Certainly, I've found learning the basics of playing drums a damn sight easier than programming drum machines!
Once the drums are done, I go in and tidy them up (there's a reason I'm not a drum teacher...) quantising and clearing up any mistakes, adjusting dynamics etc. Another good trick is to duplicate the drum track twice – the first one I wipe everything but the kick drum, set the EQs and compression (most audio software has good presets to help with this), the second track is just snare with EQ, compression and usually a decent chunk of reverb. Reverb is something that's nice on a snare but you really don't want on a kick, and the original track I treat as an “overhead”. Now you've got dedicated kick, snare and overhead – professional engineers will often mic each drum individually and treat them as such along with an overhead, but I don't tend to have the patience for that.. one day!
With drums down, alongside your rerecorded guide track, the next step is bass. When working out a bassline I like to make sure I've got the kick drum heavily boosted in my headphones as root note + kick drum is really the basis for any bassline, and quite often it can be all you need – less is very often more in this regard. Lay back and try and play as behind the beat you dare, because most of us have a tendency to speed up as we play and this can often impart a “nervous” feel to the track. You really want your timing to be rock solid here to build a solid foundation along with the drums.
With the bassline recorded, compression is a good idea to ensure a tight punchy sound. Check your EQ to make sure it's not boosting the same frequencies as the kick drum – you want your boost close but not overlapping as otherwise you'll have a messy low end as both instruments compete for the same frequencies. Panning is not really something that works down in these low registers, and neither is reverb, so make sure you've got your EQ together to ensure the bottom end, the foundation of your track, is nice and clear.
Right, with a solid foundation for your track, next month we'll take along at building up textures with the guitars and keyboards! See you then, and don't forget TUNEICEF LIVE! Sunday December 15th at the Cask Bah in Loughborough.