By Jim Sabella
So your band feels it’s ready to record a demo. You’ve picked your three songs and you have rehearsed them thoroughly. The guitar and bass player have had their guitar’s intonation checked, strings replaced, and amps (tubes, I hope) biased. Your drummer broke down and bought all new skins for his set. You would be shocked to discover the difference in sound recordings when something as simple as drum skins are replaced. Sure, it costs more for the drummer, but maybe the band should consider the worth of such an investment into the recording budget. Yes all this does affect the way your next demo or record will sound. But…let’s see. Have you forgotten anything? What about song arrangements. Most bands today don’t realize how much a song can suffer in the studio if the song arrangement is not taken into strong consideration.
Always record your rehearsals so that you can hear your band’s sound from both directions, from both the playing and the listening perspective. You must learn how to analyze your own material from the listener’s point of view, unless of course, you don’t care if you ever sell a record. Now, listen to three or four hit songs from successful bands that have a similar style to your band. How does your material compare and contrast in song form, temp, and rhythm tracks? Their songs did not hit by accident, there are a lot of changes that your band can make to improve your recording and the size of your listening audience.
When looking at your song, try to be objective and sensitive to the melody of the song. The melody is what the rest of the music in the song should be supporting. The best place to start is by laying down a strong foundation: the rhythm track.
We will concentrate first on the kick drum pattern. The kick drum part should be independent from the other parts, i.e., the melody line, the guitar parts. For example, in Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” although the guitar riff contains many accents and upbeats, the kick drum still resides on a solid 1 and 3 pattern. This may seem simplistic to some, but it ends up creating a clearer, massive sound with a hypnotic groove. The distance between kick hits creates a psycho-acoustic phenomenon for the listener, giving more emphasis to the sounds that occur less often. In other words, the more space between kicks, the bigger each kick-hit sounds.
Next, we will examine the bass lines. Whenever possible the bassist should try to avoid simply repeating the guitar line. Too often, the bass line is taken for granted. The bass should be the anchor of the song. At times it can even act as a sub-hook. The lower notes and the less often they occur, the more likely you will get a product that has more clarity and punch. For example, if the bass player is playing eight notes and the guitar player is playing eight notes, the guitar will just end up sounding muddy and the bass will be indistinct.
Song form plays a vital role in the presentation of your music, whether it’s song length, structure, tempos, or even intros. Although each individual part may be interesting, the song may still be perceived as being boring. A song must be presented in a way that keeps the listener’s interest. When listening to the hits of you favorite bands, write down the structure (ABABCAB) for each of the songs. Notice that similarities in structure between these songs, and see how your material fits in.
One sure fire way of keeping your song interesting is to get to the chorus quickly. We’ve all heard the expression “Don’t Bore Us To The Chorus.” Always keep this in mind. Get a stopwatch and time as many songs as you can. You’ll find that nine out of ten times, the chorus will appear within the first minutes. This is a conscious effort on the artist’s part, and it is a good guideline for you to follow.
The tempo of your song is incredibly important. Most bands push the tempo of their song in rehearsal to create excitement. The faster your song is, the smaller it sounds on CD. If a song is too fast, it will feel nervous, but if it lays back – it feels huge!! It’s the psycho-acoustic thing again. Write down the tempos of your song and compare them to your heroes. If your song is a familiar tempo to other songs getting radio-play, then it increases your chances of getting radio-play.
Intros are a tricky subject. A lot of bands fall into the trap of being so bored with their song (hearing it a thousand times) that they think it will be interesting to make a spectacular introduction to their masterpiece. Big mistake!! When you sit in an A&R office and play a minute and a half of keyboard-preset #36 “The Wrath of Kahn” before your vocal even comes in, you’ll see what eternity feels like. Keep it to the point. You’ll notice that your average hit song will have a ten to twenty second intro before the lead vocal comes in. Save the special effects. They don’t sell records.
If all of the previous guidelines have been considered then there should be no problems with song length. Again, take out the stopwatch, or just check your CD’s. Are your songs six minutes long? Are there fifteen different parts? Maybe it would be a good time to cut out all the insignificant parts. You’ll notice that most songs, by a new artist, are between three and a half to four minutes long.
One of the most common mistakes a band unfamiliar with record will make, is to overproduce. They get into the studio, see all the toys, and think it’s playtime. The strength of the song should not depend on the amount of guitar overdubs recorded. Just because you have 48 or 96 tracks, doesn’t mean you have to use all of them. Even with digital formats like Cubase or Pro Tools, when it is easy to just quickly add an extra track, fight the urge. The more space in the mix you occupy, the smaller the sound. Overproduction can also refer to the overplaying of each instrument. For example: the more drum fills and cymbal crashers in a song, the less important each one of them become. One powerful snare fill before each chorus will make a bigger impact than a tom fill after every four bars. K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid!!!!
The sound of your CD is very dependent upon the parts you play: or should I say the parts you don’t play. Some people believe a great sound comes from the right eq, compressor, the newest reverb-delay unit, or the newest plug-in to come out this week. Not!!!! The sound starts with you and your performance. If you feel your material is along the lines of Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Extreme, or Motley Crue, and your bass player plays more notes than Jaco Pastorius, and your drummer tried to outdo Neil Peart, you may want to reassess their position in the band. A baseball player doesn’t come out to the field with a football uniform on.
It is important to note that these guidelines do not always hold true for all forms of music, but it can't hurt to compare your music with that of commercially released material, and it certainly will improve the sound of your recording.