By Jim Sabella
How many of you have spent dollar after dollar of your hard earned money just to record a demo that sounds like well... a demo! We spend hours on that mix that sounds real cool on that pretty good sound system just to bring it home and realize it doesn't sound nearly as good as all of your favorite CD's. In the record business (like in any true art form) there is no room for "good enough."
A&R departments have changed a lot over the years. There once was a time when an artist could walk right into an A&R executive's office, with an acoustic guitar in hand, and croon a little diddy about "Missing His Darlin." The singer would then sign his life away and be on the radio that weekend. They would buy him clothes, find him some songs, change his name and voila! Overnight sensation. It's not like this anymore (except the part about signing your life away). The record companies are not looking to spend a half-million dollars to develop and re-record an act, when there are so many other acts who have already done all the work for them. These acts will save them time (they won't have to re-record the demo) money (better spent on promoting the record), and hassles (wondering if the band will even stay together long enough to finish the record).
There are literally thousands of bands recording demos of 4 to 6 songs which all sound "kinda" good. What makes you think that your music will stand out in this cluster of mediocrity? It must sound better than any and all of your competition. At the very least, a finished product will show a commitment to your music and to what extent (or expense) you believe in your music and/or yourself.
It is very important, in the evaluation of an artist, for an A&R executive to clearly envision your music on the radio, or even MTV. These people are not record producers. They can't always hear a hit song beyond the cloud of cheap electronics from which your CD has been siphoned through. It is to your advantage that your music sound as clear and professional as the music it will be going up against if it were to be heard on the radio.
By recording and presenting a finished master, you have also obtained control over your musical integrity. As these troubled economic times persist, record companies are submitting smaller and smaller budgets and therefore are pressing more and more records made independently by the artist. This gives you the opportunity to stretch the limits of an ordinarily typical market. Which is probably the reason for such a change in what is usually known as "Commercial Music."
It is crucial that we raise the question here, of how many songs should be recorded. There are a few different ways of looking at this. If money's no object, (yeah right!). I would suggest recording a full length CD. A lot of ambitious bands have already taken this step and are now one up on you. Would you want your (pretty good) CD sitting on an A&R executive's desk next to one of these ready to go CD's? I doubt it. Another way of dealing with finished products is to record three master quality songs. (Note: It is better to do two or three master quality songs than to do six or eight decent sounding demos. if the sound of the first song doesn't blow them away then they're not gonna even listen to the second song, let alone eight.) Very often a major label will sign a band and just invest the money for them to complete their record at the studio from which the first three cuts were recorded. The first three songs must be finished products. We have personally experienced, in our studio, a surge of bands in the particular situation. The days of starting from scratch with an unknown band recording in the record companies' own studios are rapidly seeing their demise.
This is not to say that 4-16 track studios are obsolete. It is always advantageous to demo your song to see if it is worth making a master quality recording of it. Even Aerosmith demos over twenty songs in an 8-track studio to select their best cuts in which to complete. Every songwriter/musician should own at least a small 4-track or midi studio to get his or her ideas down. You need to try every possible variation of your song on your own "free" time. When you have worked it all out, then you can then take it to the next step. Make a "finished master."
By now you are probably wondering what a “finished master” means. This is a very delicate subject. Most studios are obviously gonna tell you that their sound quality is of the highest caliber (the biggest brightest fattest sound ever). Oooo-kay. A good test: bring our favorite CD to the studio you are considering recording at. Then let them play you some of their best sounding projects. Does their material sound as big as your favorite CD? Can you clearly hear all the individual parts of the mix without straining? Does the vocal reach out and grab you? If the sound of these studios compares favorably to your favorite CD's, then you should have no problem creating a "finished master" on your next project. (Depending, of course, on your material and performances.)
I do realize for most up and coming bands, money (as always) can be a problem. However, you would be surprised how affordable a "state of the art" recording can actually be. The essential point to remember here is that quality is more important than quantity. Would you trade your three favorite CD's for all of the $1.99 bargain bin cassettes at Kmart? I would hope not!