"Good" is a subjective term. It can mean a couple of things when used in the context of making demo tapes. "Good" can mean the song (with a slant toward "hit" potential), or it can mean the engineering or production values on the tape. If the ultimate use of your demo is to land a record deal, and not to impress your friends and relatives, then this article is for you.
Imagine this scenario: The Vice-President of A&R at a major record label is sitting in his office listening to tapes (which by the way is how they typically spend less than 10% of their time at work). The first tape he pops in to his cassette deck sounds great. The cymbals are crisp. The lead vocal cuts right through the mix. The guitars are warm, but edgy. The bass is round, fat and punchy. The kick drum gives you a heart attack with each beat. The snare pierces like a hollow point bullet. The mix is perfect. The musicianship is superb. The song is very good, although just a little bit dated. All in all, a very good demo.
The next tape goes in to the deck. The drums sound distant and a little muffled. The guitars are raunchy. The bass is okay. The musicianship is sloppy, but it has some feel and emotion to it. The song however, is unlike anything this man has ever heard. It's unusual, and very infectious. It's raw, but it has something about it that won't let go. The lead vocal is "in your face," and the singer is sweating emotion from every pore.
Which of these demos will the A&R person sign? The latter. Why? Because it's a hit song, not a close call. The first demo had everything going right for it but the song. Record companies are in business to make money. They bet a portion of the farm on every release. You can bet dollars to donuts that they would much rather bet on a hit song than a demo with great engineering or great production. You can also bet that they would rather put their money on an artist who has "star quality" than one who obviously spent a small fortune on their demo.
What's the lesson here? Buy yourself a home studio system that you can afford, and learn to use it well. You'll spend a few (maybe several) thousand dollars in the process, but you would have to spend that on one round of demos anyway. Read everything you can get your hands on to get yourself up to speed with your gear. Become obsessive. Listen to every record that you love. Study how each instrument sounds. Notice their relative placement in the mix. Play with your equalizers until you understand the nature of an eq curve. Experiment with reverb and delays. The more you play around, the more you'll learn. It's not rocket science. It just looks like it from a distance.
The most important thing to remember is not to become a gear junkie. Gear will not get you signed to a record deal. Great songwriting will. A unique artistic vision will. Star quality will. A zillion dollars worth of gear will not.
For your purpose, the use of your home studio requires that you get as familiar with it as you are with your car. Feel comfortable with it. Have a good command of it, but don't plan on driving it in the Indy 500. You only need the gear to make a good clean demo of your music.
Assuming you master your studio, there are some other things you'll need to know. First and foremost; songwriter demos don't need much production. A solid rhythm track with a great lead vocal is often all you'll need. A full production can often hurt a song pitch more than it can help. Leave some room for the listener's imagination to do it's thing. If a song demo is fully produced, it leaves the listener with only one way to hear it -- your way.
The second rule of demo production is to match the gender of the lead vocalist with the gender of the artist you want to pitch to. For song pitches, the lead vocal is crucial. No flat notes. No lackluster performances. Sell the song. Sing with your entire being, but don't go overboard and over sell. And please don't be shy about mixing the lead vocal nice and hot in the mix. The lyrics are very important, not the guitar part!
Artist demos should be a little more produced, but again, don't feel compelled to include the kitchen sink unless the kitchen sink is absolutely necessary to make the song's point.
What else should go in to a demo package? If it's a song pitch, all you need to include is a lyric sheet. Make sure the lyric sheet and the tape display the copyright symbol, the name the song is copyrighted under and the year the copyright was registered.
For an artist demo, it's always a good idea to include a photo and a bio. The reason the record company will want to see a photo is so they can see if you have that elusive "star quality." An 8 x 10 glossy has always been the standard for photo presentation, but it's much cheaper to scan your photo and print it on your bio page.
What does a record company want to see in a bio? Anything that will show them that you are successful in your own back yard. News clippings from successful shows. Proof of radio airplay. Better yet -- proof that you've sold a few thousand tapes or CD's in your hometown or surrounding area is the best ammo you can have to snag a record deal.
But remember, the single most important aspect of any demo package is the song. All the bells and whistles won't do you any good if the song isn't great.
During Michael Laskow's 20-year tenure as an engineer/producer, he worked with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Eric Clapton, Cheap Trick and countless others. He continues to write articles for magazines like Recording and Electronic Musician. He's also the founder of TAXI, an independent A&R company that links record labels with unsigned artists and songwriters.