Follow up to songwriting process. To demo or not?

Are you all doing demos (then going back and full rerecording the song) or are you laying down the actual tracks as you write the song??

I can see benefits and downsides to both methods

? Thanks, JJ

I typically do demos, though I’d like to move towards just laying down the song as I get to be a better performer and have a more consistently nice space to record in. I had a thread about this process a while back… doing a demo can suck the life out of a song when you go to record the final version, because it becomes kind of a tedious effort to create something “polished” when most of the raw energy was used up in creating the demo.

The nice thing about demos is that you don’t need to worry at all about polish when you’re working on it, so you can at least get those creative ideas out quickly. I wonder if it might be a good idea to always have a long wait period between doing a demo and doing the final version. Let it sit for… a month or two? That way when you come back to it, it can be exciting again.

yeah, i think energy is sort of the key. As in, we only have so much energy at any one time. Trying to lay down perfect tracks takes a huge amount of energy IMO. It can be cold in my apt but once I hit record my body finds some way to start sweating

It ALSO takes a lot of energy and focus to create from scratch, So to try to creat from scratch AND lay down perfect tracks at one time seems a bit much

of course the flip side to it is that doing a demo and then going back and rerecording is pretty much 2x the work lol.

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Well, I don’t think it’s twice the work actually. If you do a “scratch vocal” track, that takes… 5-10 minutes? To get something that’s 80% of the way there and suitable for a demo. Same deal with a lot of other instruments. For me, the bulk of the time spent on the demo is creating the various parts and figuring out how they work together, how to build the song so that it has varying amounts of tension, modifying the lyrics, adding other parts for interest or accents or layering or whatever.

Actually going back and recording everything in a higher quality way is a totally different sort of thing for me. I’m in a more analytical mode, looking at mic positions and listening critically to the sounds I’m recording. I’m paying close attention to the performance and making sure it’s got good timing and other things. The problem is, analysis doesn’t always jive with actually getting a good performance. I believe the trick to a good performance is to practice practice practice, and then forget everything you’ve learned and just feel it. So it can be tough to switch modes. Plus it’s no fun to seek perfection–it’s a lot of pressure. I struggle with this part of music making, myself.

5-10 minutes to write an entire vocal melody for a song??

if so I need to quit now

this was a preexisting drum/gtr track.

i wasnt watching the clock but it probably took me an hour to write and lay down these melody ideas (starting at 2nd verse etc) Bash these scratch demo ideas

Oh, I didn’t mean the songwriting process. I meant like, if someone were to give you a finished song, it might take 5-10 minutes to record a demo-worthy vocal for it. I was just comparing the amount of time it takes to create a demo (performance wise) to the time it takes to create the final performances to show that it doesn’t take twice as long to do a demo first.

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As we mainly use a recording studio we tend to use the following format, not that it is the right one to use:

  1. Write the songs
  2. Introduce them to the band and begin working a collective format out. We always work as a team at this stage, not as individuals.
  3. When we feel we have the right format we send a rough recording to the engineer so that he has an idea as to what we intend to do. In the meantime we rehearse the track/s well.
  4. We usually out the drums down first whilst the rest of us lay down some guide tracks (vocals, bass, rhythm and lead guitars)
  5. We then lay down the other tracks as we go along. As we tend to go there and do batches of songs, we pick and choose who lays down theirs next!
  6. We then collectively sit down with the engineer and advise him on the mixing process, etc.

So yes, once we have the drums down alongside the guide tracks we effectively have a demo.

When we home-record a similar process is used, but as we only use a TASCAM we tend not to bother with a demo and simply lay down our tracks in an appropriate order…

Here’s my basic process as a completely in-the-box, one-man band kinda guy.

With just a couple exceptions, everything I’ve written started life as some kind of guitar progression (my primary instrument), most often stumbled upon while playing my main Martin 6-string (the guitar I pick up most often when I just want to play). If I’m playing in my music room, I have the DAW fired up and a mic plugged in just in case I happen across something worthwhile. If not, I keep my phone handy to do such captures.

Eventually I have some kind of basic structure – verses, chorus, intro, outro – and I get that recorded just so I don’t forget it, no frills, no click track, just get it down. (This is the single biggest thing that has allowed me to evolve from solely an interpreter of others’ music to composing my own-- capturing something I stumble across.)

I live with that for a while-- typically a matter of days-- and let it stew and simmer. Most times, I make some kind of change-- this segment works better as the chorus or that phrase is a good one for an intro/outro – and get it to where I can play it fluidly all the way through. It’s at this juncture that I make my first go/no-go decision about whether to pursue it any further.

If so, I then record the guitar track to a click so that it’s on time and in tune. I then start adding other instruments, and the next is either drums or bass at this point, depending on the nature of the tune. For more uptempo stuff, it’s usually drums, but if it’s slower (or may not end up with any drums at all) it’s bass.

I then arrive at another go/no-go point. Is it something I could realistically write lyrics for? Do I have anything sticking in my brain I want to try to get out (a la @Cristina’s comments)? Or is it better as just an instrumental?

And finally to address the question in the OP: it’s things at this stage that I would call a “demo”. The basic ideas are all there, and although always subject to change, I have a good idea of what the song “is”.

This is where lots of things sit for a long time, because I struggle at lyrics in a big way. But assuming I do come up with words that make sense, the next thing is to do a scratch vocal, just to establish the phrasing more than anything else. That guides me for where to add the remaining instrumentation, and how it will have to weave in and around the vocal lines.

Then I work through adding whatever other instruments I want, and it’s at this point that I start overtly trying to capture finished performances. One of the things that happens at this step is to go back and re-do the original guitar part, because it almost always needs to be played along fresh with the new instrumentation that has been added to this part.

Once I have all the instruments done with performances I think are good to go, that’s when I return to the vocals and record the best performance I can muster.

All of this is obviously a highly iterative process, and it can take weeks depending on how much free time I can pry away (I have very little). It’s only after I get all of this done that I then post here on BTR and get feedback from the wonderful folks on the forum. I’ve progressed to the point that most of my stuff needs just one or two revisions to get into a state that listeners reckon is legit.

Sorry that got so long winded! Hope it is at all useful. :smile:


yeah, that is one of my roadblocks. on the plus side im very creative. I have never NOT been able to come up with some decent sounding riff or chords or whatever. But coming up with an inventive riff and actually REMEMBERING how to play it are 2 different things. Especially if stuff sits for a while. I may be no better at figuring out how to play my own stuff as I am at playing someone else’s stuff lol

This is partally why I did this thread in the first place. Im not sure that ive ever went back and redid a guitar part. I usually try to lay it down right from the start etc. of course the problem with tat is that u r locked into those chords etc and for instance on the chorus maybe you want a different chord for when u lay a melody over it.

The issue gets to be that it could be weeks or a month later and there is no way youll go back and overdub a chord because you will never get the tone close to the original etc

That is why I am thinking of going the demo route to start with. What I am doing right now is getting me nowhere fast


Agreed. This is why I end up re-tracking the entire guitar part once I’ve decided on its final form.

And having the ability to capture my ideas for later re-working has been transformational for me…