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5 Deadly Demo Sins Every Artist Should Avoid
By Stacy Lefevre
©2003 Getsigned.com. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
They say that 'first impressions last", and that certainly holds true for
an independent artist's music. To get our music heard and acknowledged in this
industry is no easy task. Our recorded works are our 'calling-cards' in this
business, so if our music is recorded or presented poorly, there's a good
chance that we may never get booked, get published, get promoted, get press,
get gigs, get fans or get signed.
After listening to thousands of independently released CDs over the years (I've
managed bands for years), I've compiled a list of the 5 most frequently made
recording/production mistakes I've heard indie artists make time and time
again. For the sake of being fair, I won't discuss subjectives like talent,
song quality, etc.--although its these elements that ultimately decide whether
or not fans continue to buy your music. Rather, I've focused on objective areas
of recording & production that I feel an artist can improve upon rather
easily. These 5 mistakes are not, by any means, complete recipes for disaster,
though. Like I mentioned earlier, its possible to make awful recordings of
great songs and still become successful. But if you avoid most of these
mistakes, you may start seeing more doors open up for you and your music than
ever before. See if you agree with me:
1. Buried Vocals: Probably the single most important instrument on your CD is
the lead vocals. The lead vocals intimately tell the story of your song and
carry the main melody- -you know, the one that people will be humming days
after they hear your masterpiece. It's a shame then that the most important instrument
in the mix is usually the most sonically neglected when bands mix their CD. So
why do artists bury the vocals? Your guess is as good as mine, but I do have a
couple of theories:
a.) Singer or rapper lacks confidence-- The singer in this scenario is so
embarrassed at hearing their voice on tape (rightly or wrongly so) that they
insist on mixing the vocals much lower than the music and/or processing them
with a million different effects --to the point where the vocals are almost
b.) Singer is the singer 'by default' --Here's what happens: The person in this
scenario usually sings not by choice, but out of convenience or necessity (ie;
no-one else will sing or they wrote all the songs.) They almost always play
another instrument (and usually extremely well) and never consider themselves a
singer first, but rather a drummer/singer or guitarist/singer etc. So, at CD
mixdown, our guitarist/singer in this scenario says something like this:
"Whoa, I can barely hear my bitchin' guitar tracks. Let's turn 'em up a
litle louder. Oh yeah, my lead guitar fills are coming up here, better turn
them up a little louder, too. And don't forget, the solo has to be even louder
than those tracks."
Before you know it, the vocals (and everything else for that matter) have been
buried underneath a wall of guitars. Satisfied that his/her guitar tracks can
now be heard in all their glory, the lead guitarist/singer doesn't even realize
they've pushed the most important melodic/bonding element way out of the average
listener's range of hearing.
c.) The artist mixes the CD himself and doesn't fully understand the technical
process - -In this golden age of technology, independent artists have more
tools available to them than ever before. Recording technology found at the
consumer level today is far more advanced and affordable than what was found in
state-of-the-art recording facilities just 8 or 9 years ago. Its no wonder as
technology advances and prices fall, our demand for tools like Sound Forge,
Cubase & Logic Audio continues to soar. Unfortunately in our quest to have
the biggest, baddest toys around, we sometimes neglect to learn how to use them
properly, and its always apparent in a poorly mixed CD. Don't get me wrong, I'm
a BIG proponent of doing it yourself (I've spent thousands of dollars in
commercial recording studios over the years and will NEVER step foot in one
again), but sometimes, for the sake of the project, it's always good to bring
in other people who may understand things a little better than you. If you feel
like there are some 'problem areas' in your mix, don't be ashamed to ask
someone with a little more engineering experience for assistance. It may
breathe new life into your mix instantly.
2. No Low End: Low-end (bass presence) gives a track power and depth. Boosting
the low-end can instantly transform a thin, wimpy, amateur mix into a 1000 lb.
monster that won't let you go. It puts the "pump" in dance, hip-hop
& pop and gives rock music its 'balls' (power chords alone won't do it). If
you find your mixes are sounding a little on the thin side, try pumping up the
low and mid frequencies and watch your mix come alive. But be careful-- too
much low-end can muddy things up.
3. Karaoke MIDI: There's nothing worse than listening to a CD full of stiff
MIDI noodling s--no processing, no reverb, no EQ....no feeling. Just cheesy,
lifeless, quantized General MIDI (come on, do you really think that General
MIDI electric guitar patch sounds real?). I've heard hundreds of these kinds of
CDs over the years and I still cringe every time I hear one. And I'm not
talking about electronica music, either--there's a BIG difference. I'm talking
about music that's sounds like it was pulled right off the presets of a $29
Casio keyboard. But the sounds alone aren't the only consideration here--the
'feel' of the music (or lack thereof) can greatly determine whether or not you
retain a listener's attention. Overly-quantized sequences end up sounding
sterile, boring, and uncompelling.
Solution? The tracks NEED some life; some realness; some soul; some passion.
Add some real instruments and/or some good session players to the mix and watch
a CD like this come to life. If you have to sequence your music, try using a
"groove" quantize feature to give your patterns more of a human feel.
Most sequencers today have this function and they're definitely worth checking
out. Oh, yeah--and ditch the presets. I'm sure you can come up with something
4. Signal Distortion/Level Imbalances: What's a guaranteed way to get people
screaming in pain after listening to your CD? Signal distortion--and not the
cool, lo-fi, intentional kind, either. I'm talking about the kind that's caused
by excessively "hot" signals clipping the meters on your
multi-tracker. It's not pleasant, to say the least, and it can render your CD
almost impossible to listen to.
The solution? Watch your meters carefully and invest in a compressor. A
compressor is an amplifier whose gain decreases as its input level is increased
and its one of the most important pieces of gear a recording artist can own.
Sadly, most don't own one. Here's a list of good compressors you can find for
1/.) Presonus Blue Max: Highly recommended. Its Preset settings for a number of
instruments (3 for vocals alone) make it one of the easiest-to-use compressors
I've ever seen.
2.) Joe Meek C2: Another great, easy-to-use compressor with that distinctively
British sonic imprint.
3.) ART TubePAC: Part tube-based mic preamp and compressor. Very warm!
4.) Alesis NanoCompressor: Clean, quiet & compact. The least expensive of
this bunch at around $99 U.S.
5. Bad Drums: I love drums...big drums. I love groove. I love rhythm. It kills
me to hear a great track ruined by bad drums. More specifically, badly
programmed drums. Here's a controversial tip for all of you one-person rock/pop
bands out there: If you don't understand drums, rhythm and how the drummer
interacts with his kit, then don't program a drum machine by
yourself....especially if your music of choice is rock, metal, punk, jazz or
country! Hire a real drummer for your session or hire a professional programmer
(and/or drummer) to program your drum patterns and sounds for you. I know that
doesn't sound fair, but if you're not ready, then sit back and learn from those
who know a little bit more about rhythm than you do. If you don't have the
means to hire a live person to either program or play for you, there are also
plenty of 'How-To" drum machine programming books out there that have
"suggested" drum patterns for a number of different musical styles
and they're usually in an easy-to-understand diagram form, too. A number of
companies also offer MIDI drum grooves for sale (played and programmed by real
drummers- -some famous, some not) all queued up on floppy disks and ready for
you to use with your own drum samples on your sequencer or computer at home, so
check them out. My favorite solution? Acoustic Drum loop CDs with real patterns
and fills played by real drummers (Drumkit from Hell, Joey Kramer Loops, Pure
Drums, Discrete Drums).
If you absolutely have to use a drum machine and want to program it yourself,
then please listen to the following advice: When recording a rock song, don't
forget that a real drummer only has two hands! Tom hits with simultaneous
percussive hat fills and simultaneous snare triplets and cowbells (not to
mention the short-decaying 909 cymbal crash) sounds FAKE! Real rock drummers
only have two hands, so it's difficult for them to maneuver these kinds of
aerial feats! Now, if you're doing a jungle, drum-n-bass, pop, experimental or
any other type of electronica style of music, then these kinds of awkward kit
matches may sound acceptable, even kind of cool. But not for rock, metal, jazz,
punk or country. And especially not if you're trying to make the rhythm flow
like a real drummer would.
As for choosing the right kit sounds, well, that's a pretty subjective thing.
Usually, what sounds good to you will work for your song. But you may want to
keep this little tidbit of advice handy: If you put reverb on your kick, (I
don't recommend much-- irregardless of the type of room or arena you're trying
to simulate. It will usually just make your kick sound muddy and mask the
"click" and presence that's so crucial to rock drums.) you should probably
put the same kind of reverb on your snare and hats), too (again, like the kick,
you probably shouldn't put too much reverb on the hats and cymbals as they'll
lose their character--apply just enough to give them a sense of the room you're
And, what about hip hop drums? Simple. Be creative...be different. Use
different sounds. Don't use stock loops that come from the popular hip hop drum
loop CDs out there. Definitely use their construction kits (kicks, snares,
hats, percussion, sound effects), but come up with your own loops and beats. If
you absolutely have to use the loops right from the CD, at least change it up a
little with some stutters and breaks. Make the beat different. Make it your
Remember, success is how you define it. If you have broken any of these demo
'rules', and still believe your music will get the exposure it deservesno
matter what it sounds like...then so be it! Keep at it. Don't let my pointers
stop you (but please, just one request....no more MIDI clarinets)
Good luck with your demos, have fun, and keep it real! :)
is the author of the controversial and wildly popular article
“The Eight Reasons Why You Are Not Signed To A Record Deal” which has been
translated in over 10 languages and published in magazines and journals all
over the world. LeFevre, a pseudonym for a well-known music industry executive,
has managed major label and unsigned recording artists alike in his twenty+
year career and is also an accomplished guitarist and home recording
enthusiast. He lives in Los Angeles with his cat Blink and his computer.