For any recording artist, big or small, everything starts with the demo. A song can exist in your head, in your bedroom, or even in your live performances, but it can’t truly be shared with the world until it’s recorded — and a demo is the first step on the road to release. As part of our new Song Start series, Noteable by Spotify for Artists sat down with musicians Phoebe Bridgers and Marshall Vore, Kito, and TOKiMONSTA to learn more about the fundamentals of creating and recording a demo.
“Anyone that tells you there’s a proper way to record anything, they’re wrong,” said Marshall Vore, a frequent collaborator with Phoebe Bridgers, advising artists to experiment with different sounds and recording setups. “There’s no proper way, there’s just things that you try and the consequences of those things and do you like that or not. Does it work for your particular situation?”
While it’s easy to think that making good music takes expensive, high-end studio setups, Phoebe Bridgers noted that many of her earliest song ideas were captured on her smartphone, and she still sometimes records vocals in her bathroom. “Some of the most exciting and coolest art has been made by teenagers with no money in their bedrooms,” Vore said.
Of course, there are a few fundamentals that any artist should be prepared to use during the recording process. Kito outlined the five key tools every artist should know about when creating a demo:
- An interface: how you power and send sound into a computer in order to capture it
- A microphone
- A MIDI keyboard: a piano-style electronic keyboard used to trigger sounds and instruments
- Your voice and instruments
- A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW): a computer program like Logic or ProTools
Once you have your basic setup, the next step is testing your microphone. “Test the levels before you record,” Kito advised. “You can tell if something sounds distorted.”
Vore noted that the right setup is key to getting good quality audio. “When it’s too quiet you’re gonna get a lot of extra noise. When it’s too loud, that’s just gonna distort,” he said.
Kito recommended always having “some sauce on the vocals,” citing common plug-in tools like pitch correction (also known as Auto-Tune) and a De-Esser. The latter tool is designed to reduce instances of sibilance, a harsh sound that can show up on a vocal track when making “S” or “T” noises. “Whoever’s singing, they feel like they sound good so you’re gonna get a better performance,” she said.
There’s also tools like reverb, which can give audio more warmth and depth. “Reverb adds room to sounds,” TOKiMONSTA explained. “If you’re in a cathedral and you talk, you don’t really hear an echo; what you’re hearing is reverb, the sound of this large space and how sounds bounce back. But it also gives things an airiness, it provides a texture. Not everything sounds good with reverb and not every artist likes to use a lot of it.”
Underpinning the vocals of just about any demo track are instrumentals. Some artists and bands will record their instruments in the studio, but many create them using a MIDI and DAW. Artists and producers can choose from a huge array of instruments, samples, and more, and record them directly on their computer with MIDI controls.
Drums form the base of many demo tracks, and TOKiMONSTA advised using a sample library controlled by your MIDI keyboard to create drum patterns. “It does really allow you to create a really consistent sound in your music,” she said.
There are many approaches to recording instrumental tracks with MIDI, including not using the keyboard at all. “You can draw chords in MIDI using your computer without actually touching the MIDI keyboard,” said Kito, referencing the common “pencil” tool in many DAWs. “A lot of producers I know learned like this, just drawing MIDI in. And you kind of start to recognize patterns. Even if you don’t have a keyboard, this is a really great way to make music.”
Any instrumental performance is likely to have small imperfections, which can be fixed by “quantizing” the track. This converts performed instrumental notes into a perfected representation that lines up with the beat and eliminates any anomalies.
The process of recording a demo will vary based on an artist’s workflow, but whenever it’s done, the mixing and mastering process shouldn’t be overlooked. Mixing involves balancing all the individual elements of a song, including vocal and instrumental tracks, into a single stereo track using tools like EQ, reverb, and compression. TOKiMONSTA advised artists to listen to their demos in multiple environments to create the perfect mix.
“For me to find ideal levels I need to listen to the song over and over on different speakers,” she explained. “In my car, on my laptop, on my airpods, different kinds of monitors, and then I’ll go micro-adjust. But balance is incredibly important. Even if I can make a song in a day, I take a very long time to mix.”
Mastering is often referred to as the “last line of defense,” where the song’s stereo track goes through a quality control process looking for “artifacts” like pops and distortions that would otherwise appear on the final product.
“Mastering is not that hard,” TOKiMONSTA said. “Your music should always sound good without anything on the master. Mastering is just supposed to enhance and level out things.”
All four stars ultimately advised rising artists to trust themselves, even if they’re just starting out. “Apologize for yourself as little as possible,” Bridgers said, reiterating that it doesn’t take high-end equipment to make great music.
TOKiMONSTA concurred. “It’s really important to trust your instincts,” she underscored. “A lot of people will not understand your perspective in the beginning, but that’s what’s going to set you apart later on.”
To learn more about creating and recording demos, check out Spotify’s Song Start episodes below:
Phoebe Bridgers & Marshall Vore - Recording an Acoustic Demo
TOKiMONSTA - Building a Demo
Kito - Setup for a Demo