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How to Record an Awesome Cover Songs Demo – 9 Steps

Advice for musicians

Advice for musicians

Are you or your band planning on recording a covers demo to impress potential clients? Our resident expert Don discusses the importance of choosing the right songs, how to rehearse and prepare, and approaches to recording, mixing and mastering.

How to Record an Awesome Cover Songs Demo – 9 Steps

1. Choose the right songs

The truth is, clients booking your covers band for weddings, parties or events aren't interested in how clever you are at arranging, how huge your guitar sound is, or how immaculate your vocal harmonies sound are. Above all, they want to know, "can this band entertain the guests at my event?". And a large part of this is down to song choice.

So firstly, choose well-known songs that everyone knows and loves, and try and include classic and modern songs to appeal to both old and young. Weddings are mixed generational events, and you need to appeal to all.

Secondly, choose upbeat, uptempo songs which will get guests dancing, rather than slow ballads. Your primary aim is to keep the dancefloor full through to the last song of the night. Record songs 5bpm faster than the original to give them more of a live feel and ensure energy levels remain high.

If you do insist on recording a slow song, make it a popular first dance, as this is likely the only scenario where you'll be playing it.

Clients browsing bands online are unlikely to have time to listen to a whole track – you've probably only got about 30 seconds to hook them in. For this reason, aim to record a three-track medley where possible, featuring a verse and chorus only per track. If you do record full tracks, avoid long intros.

2. Rehearse

The biggest mistake bands make in the studio is being unprepared. It wastes time and money and it makes your producer (who may be one of the band) tired and unmotivated before the real work has begun.

More than anything, your not knowing that tricky part is stressful and it creates a bad vibe. Bad vibes in the studio are not cool – ask Fleetwood Mac.

Rehearse the songs well enough so that you can focus on the present moment and playing as a band, rather than worrying about your parts. But don't over-rehearse - if the songs don't sound fresh and exciting to you when you're playing them, they probably won't to the listener either.

If you can engineer some of your unique personality or maybe an unusual arrangement in there as well, you've nailed it.

How to Record an Awesome Cover Songs Demo – 9 Steps

3. Get your gear in order

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.

Remember, there are 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.

Bring spares for everything you can think of: strings, plectrums, drum skins and valve tubes.

4. Get a good night's sleep

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.

5. Tune up and warm up

Once at the studio, 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.

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.

How to Record an Awesome Cover Songs Demo – 9 Steps

6. Get your mic positions right

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.

7. Nail the tracks, then 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.

How to Record an Awesome Cover Songs Demo – 9 Steps

8. 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.

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.

9. 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.

Good luck!

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