How to produce an awesome covers band demo – 7 tips

25 Apr

Are you or your band planning on recording a covers demo to wow potential clients? Read our seven tips first! Don from Millennium Bug discusses the importance of choosing the right songs, how to rehearse and prepare, and approaches to recording, mixing and mastering.

1. Choose the right songs.

It sounds obvious, but the clients you want to impress need to hear your strengths. Your strengths are whatever makes you unique; whatever makes people say “we’re booking these guys, we don’t need to hear anyone else”. Unfortunately, unless you’re a niche tribute band it’s not usually that simple. There is a balancing act involved here; clients don’t actually want to know how clever you are at arranging, how huge your guitar sound is, or how immaculate your vocal harmonies sound. You can impress them with that stuff, but that’s not what they are looking for. What they are actually wondering is this: “Can this cover band entertain the guests at my event?” Regardless of whether your cover band specialises in weddings, corporate events or parties, they want to know that you can play something for the oldest guests and something for the youngest, and above all that you can keep people dancing.

The client also wants to know that you can change pace, so you need to show versatility in your demos – but remember most clients are unlikely to click on your ballad, and most that do won’t get beyond the first chorus. Wow them instead with a song that has a mellow verse and a kicking chorus, or an atmospheric intro followed by a nice groove. Choose songs people have heard of and that they’ll want to click on. You probably only have a quick visual scan and two or three clicks before they decide to look at another band. If you can engineer some of your unique personality or maybe an unusual arrangement in there as well, you’ve nailed it.

2. Get the basics right.

The biggest mistake bands make in the studio is being unprepared. Firstly it wastes time and money; secondly it makes your producer (who may be one of the band) tired and unmotivated before the real work has begun; and thirdly there are still a lot of things that can’t be “fixed in the mix”. No amount of equalisation will make old guitar strings sound clear, old drum heads sound punchy, or a tired voice sound energetic.

If you play out of time or out of tune because you had a few beers the night before and you aren’t in the mood, then yes it can be tuned or you can move hits around – but do you really want to do that? Does your producer have the time or the inclination to do it thoroughly? Do you have the money to pay for the extra mixing time involved? Even if the answer to all these questions is “yes”, remember a doctored part will still never sound or feel as good as one that was right in the first place. Turn up sober, relaxed, and with your equipment in good shape and you’ll be glad you did.

3. Preparation is half the battle.

Tune your drums so that they sound right in the room. Do this before you even put a microphone in front of them. Set your guitar amp so that it sounds great a few feet in front and your engineer will have a much easier time capturing it. Check the intonation on your guitars and basses a day or two before, with the new strings you’re intending to use on the day. Tune up when you arrive, warm up, have a coffee – whatever – now tune again. Your guitar was out of tune, wasn’t it? It needed to adjust to the heat and humidity in the room. It will do this all day to varying degrees, so tune before every take. We’ve all forgotten this at one time or another and it’s a huge time-waster.

If you arrive hungry or thirsty or without having warmed up your voice, you’re not ready. If you haven’t practiced that tricky part already, it’s too late. Your not knowing that part is stressful and it creates a bad vibe. Bad vibes in the studio are not cool – ask Fleetwood Mac. If you’re mic’ing instruments yourself, spend as long mic’ing as you would eq’ing. Get the mic position exactly right and you might find you don’t need to add any post-equalisation at all. Many of the albums we all love were recorded exactly this way. The best mic’d sound is nearly always the one that captures an already great sounding instrument.

4. Having done all of this, trust your producer.

At this point, your job is to play your best. If the producer says “we’ve got it there”, you’ve done your job. If he says “that part/sound just isn’t working in the mix – try it like this”, do what he says. Assuming you have put effort into picking the right producer, he is in a far better position to assess your performances than you are at this point. Concentrate on your playing and stay relaxed and focused. Don’t forget to take a short break if that’s what you need.

5. The best mix is one where everything can be heard.

That sounds laughably simple, doesn’t it? So why do so many bands get it wrong? The key to mixing is in the word. You’ve got a room full of great musicians, they’ve all got great sounds and performances to tape, everything’s in tune, everything’s in time – so what’s left to do? Well actually, if you’ve really done your job, not much.

Maybe that clean guitar part needs compressing a bit to stop it jumping out; maybe the keys need some low mids cutting to stop them overwhelming the mix; probably you need to shelve the lows on the guitars to create space for the bass and the bass drum; sure you want to pan the harmony vocals so they spread nicely – but a good producer can do all of this in a few minutes because he’s done it a thousand times before. Now you can spend the rest of your time creating mixes that have space, warmth and detail, and where everything can be heard. If something doesn’t seem to sit right, consider compressing it differently. You can add a few flourishes, maybe some tasty reverbs and some bus compression for the drum group depending on the vibe you’re going for; but this isn’t rocket science – it’s a covers demo. It needs to sound punchy and polished like a record and it needs to sound like you.

6. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

You need one or two guys mixing your demo. You can all come in for minor mix tweaks, but you should be making their coffee or you should be making yourself scarce. If you’re one of the mix engineers, take breaks, don’t be hungover, and always check your mix the next day, on as many different systems as possible.

7. Mastering can be the biggest enemy of a great mix.

If you get overzealous with your expensive tube limiter during the mastering stage and compress all the space and detail out of your mix, you just wasted all the time you spent making sure that information went to tape. If your overheads are compressing so hard that they seem to drop out every time there’s a snare hit, why did you bother mixing them in the first place?

You can look at this the other way round and it makes an even stronger argument: mix your demo right and your mastering engineer should have almost nothing to do. He is there to make your mix louder and punchier, not to alter it.

Written by Don from Millennium Bug.

Function Central offers cover bands, musicians and DJs for hire, specialising in wedding bands.

Posted in Help & advice for musicians