Thursday, January 19, 2012

Songwriting: Making a Demo

Recently I finished composing/writing a new song, for myself to sing at a fundraising event in March, called "The Power of Love." I auditioned the song for two of three artistic staff for the event, but the third person couldn't be at that audition, so I was asked to make a demo version of the song. That's mostly so they know how to program my song within the larger context of the fundraiser concert: where to put it, what it's mood and tone are like, etc.

Well, naturally I said, sure, I'll make a demo. Not having made a studio demo for some few years, nonetheless I was willing. For two reasons: first, to complete the audition process and assure my performance slot for the concert, and also to give myself the pleasure of a new creative challenge in my recording studio.

Now that I seem to be a songwriter as well as a composer, I suppose making demos will become more common for me. And I believe I will keep writing more new songs, now, both to keep up the compositional momentum, and to continue to grow as a writer. Words and music: that's going to be phrase on my new business cards.

I'm about to leave for a month-long roadtrip. It's time for my annual trip to the Southwest and to California, cameras in hand, writing journal nearby. I've been packing for this years' trip, organizing objects in a new system. Since the video camera I will be taking this trip is smaller and lighter than previously, I will be able to walk farther, and take longer hikes, with just a shoulder bag or smaller backpack. My strength during my post-surgery recovery has reached levels unseen for a decade, and I feel up to hiking a mile or two to get a good image. There are trails I know about that I haven't been able to attempt, which I feel able to do now, this year.

One of the bags I packed is my creative arts bag. It has pens and colored pencils, a couple of back-up notebooks for writing in, some drawing and watercolor paper, a few ideas sketched out to work on more later, and a few other things.

I have every intention of writing more song lyrics, or maybe a new art-song for voice and piano, while I'm on the road. As I've written before, it's become obvious to me that I do best when I am always making art, always writing. So the creative arts bag also contains some song lyrics that I wrote last year that I have yet to set to music, and a spiral music composition notebook, for writing music of whatever kind comes forward to be written.

I will probably take along a couple of my more portable musical instruments. Maybe my Stick.

Most definitely my newest musical instrument: my iPad, which is turning out to be a source of great creative possibilities for me. I have lots of photography and video apps on there, but the most useful apps so far have been musical tools. I have already used the iPad as an important computer-music source for an album I recently composed of music for meditation and healing.

All hail Rockmate! All hail GarageBand!

With these two iPad apps, I spent a few hours over the last couple of nights laying down basic tracks for a demo version of "The Power of Love." I have yet to record the vocals; which I'll do tomorrow, as it's late at night as I write now, and I'm too tired to do a good job singing. I will also probably lay down piano and/or classic Hammond B3 organ tracks, just a few bits here and there to give the demo some life and depth. Those also will likely by done with the soft-synths (software-based synthesizers) that I have in my recording studio.

Making a demo is about making a rough recording of a song to give a sense of what the song is about. It's not meant to be a final recorded version, it's not perfected or produced to the same level as an album track. Demos are meant to get people to listen to the song, and see what it's about. When you play a demo for a record label or a producer, it's always at least partly about auditioning your work for them, to entice them to work with you, and release your music as a produced album. Lots of demos never get any further than that, and that's fine. Lots of songwriters produce demos that get their toe in the door, which are then re-recorded.

I am making this demo to present the piece for concert performance later. But it can also serve as an introduction to my new activity as a songwriter. Being a songwriter these days usually means being a singer-songwriter. I don't have a lot of self-confidence as a solo singer. Maybe that will develop over time.

For this demo, I laid down some rhythm guitar tracks first, following the song's chord structure. Then a few fills of guitar lines in places where a short solo might fit. I don't play guitar, and have no real experience on or feel for the instrument. Rockmate was extremely useful for laying down the guitar tracks.

Next I laid down some bass lines, using an upright bass softsynth. I basically played a jazz bass line by hand. I'm a bass player, my first instrument after piano was upright bass, which I began playing in orchestra at age 13. (I was small for my age when I began playing bass, and the instrument dwarfed me for a couple of years.) I chose a jazz bass line, albeit a groove-based rather than freeform line, in part because in my mind "The Power of Love" is not a pop song, but a jazz-inflected folk-rock song. That's how I hear it in my head.

The drum tracks were actually the easiest to do. I basically used the SmartDrums feature in GarageBand, synchronized to the metronome click track I was using for the demo. I used a classic studio drum kit, useful for both jazz and pop music. Again, I programmed the drums to be more of a jazz than rock style, but with a strong backbeat. Once I synced up with the metronome click track, tracking the drums was the easiest of all, for this demo. All I had to do was make little variations in the rhythms, and fills, to keep it sounding organic and live. the software already does this well, but you can also tweak it on the fly, while it's playing, to make the sorts of stylistic and volume changes typical when shifting from the verse to the refrain.

This demo song, which I expect to be able to complete tomorrow, isn't going to be a perfect performance, just a heartfelt one. Demos aren't about perfection, they're about presentation. Of course you do the best that you can, given the time constraints, and in this case given all the other things I need to do before I leave on my upcoming roadtrip. I have no doubt that when I perform the song live in concert, a month or so from now, I will not only perform it better than on this demo, I will know the song better. Self-confidence in performance involves knowing your material really well, everything memorized and internalized. So I plan to take my Stick along in part so I can keep practicing and learning this new song that I've written. First you write it, then you have to learn it well enough to perform it.

And after that, who knows? Maybe more songs. Maybe a whole new writing project. Something to keep me creatively busy for awhile longer.

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