Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Demos and Masters Explained

If you've been making music for any amount of time, chances are pretty good that you've heard the terms demo and master tossed around a time or two. Most musicians have a pretty good idea of what a demo is and why they need one, but the concept of the master, and how it differs from a demo, seems to be less understood. Both types of recordings play equally important roles, but they differ in many ways, such as cost and intended use. Let's take a look at the differences between them, as well as when and how each one should (and should not) be used.


Not surprisingly, the purpose of a demo is to allow musicians to demonstrate their music for music publishers, record executives, club owners or other artists. They are intended to be heard only by people inside the industry rather than by the general public, so there is less emphasis placed on overall production value, which helps to keep the recording costs down.

There are a couple of different types of demo recordings, depending on your situation and your musical goals. An artist demo is typically a collection of 3-5 songs designed to help an artist or band attract attention to themselves, usually for the purpose of finding gigs or getting a development or record deal. A song demo is a recording of a single original song that can be used as a vehicle for songwriters to pitch a song to music publishers or recording artists, or by artists as a way to sketch out ideas before entering the recording studio to create the master recording. In both cases, production is usually basic or non-existent, and the arrangement often includes only the essential instrumentation. For a rock band, a typical demo arrangement might consist of drums, bass, two rhythm guitars, a lead guitar, a lead vocal and some minimal background vocals. For hip-hop, the demo might include a pre-recorded instrumental "beat" track with lead and background vocals dubbed over it. Because the primary objective in the studio is to capture the songs as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible, most of the recording is done in 1 or 2 takes with little or no overdubbing. The tracks are usually mixed, but without the level of precision and scrutiny that a master recording would normally receive.


Master recordings essentially pick up where the demo recording leaves off. These recordings are intended for sale to the public, so their production value tends to be much higher, and as a result, they cost more to produce. Much more time and care is taken during the production and recording process to maximize each song's potential; arrangements tend to be denser with many layers, mixes are considerably more detailed, and the song's lyrics, structure, melody, etc. have been polished to perfection. A producer has usually been brought in to work with the artist to refine the song, and to act as an objective observer that can help guide the song(s) in a direction that will connect with audiences. Once recording and mixing is complete, the tracks are then sent off to a mastering engineer who, in addition to providing yet another fresh perspective, applies specialized EQ and dynamics processing to help the songs blend together better as a group. Traditionally, master recordings would then be sent to a manufacturing plant where they are burned onto CDs and packaged with the album artwork, liner notes, etc., and occasionally other "goodies" to help entice potential buyers. Recently, though, more and more master recordings are being released digitally through online markets like iTunes and Rhapsody, with few if any physical CDs ever being produced.

Demos are NOT Masters

These days, it is becoming increasingly important for artists to understand the distinction between a demo and a master, and when and how to use each one. There are seemingly a million different ways to record and distribute your music to the public, and a big part of being successful in today's music industry is learning to take full advantage of these tools. However, as anyone who has spent much time perusing ReverbNation or Myspace can tell you, this uninhibited influx of music comes at a stiff cost. The overall quality of music being released through these outlets is, let's face it, pretty terrible. Poor recording quality, lackluster production and underdeveloped songs have become the norm, and one of the biggest problems I see is the practice of releasing demos to the public in lieu of a proper master recording, either in an attempt to save money, or simply because the artist doesn't know any better. Unfortunately, this is entirely counter-productive. Once you release a demo to the public, you stand an excellent chance of falling into the abyss of musical mediocrity that inundates listeners every single day. In this age of dirt cheap recording equipment and unlimited direct access to potential fans, releasing only those recordings that best represent you and your music is more important than ever before; it is the only way that you can be sure that you will stand out from all of the background noise. One of the biggest steps toward artistic maturity is understanding that the casual, unacquainted listener is not going to give you the benefit of the doubt. They have nothing invested in your music, and unless you give them a polished product that is worth listening to, the chance of them hearing more than a few seconds of your music is pretty slim.

So don't sell yourself short...consider the money you spend on recording great quality masters as an investment, with the goal being to maximize the return on that investment. The better the quality of your product, the better your chances of recouping your costs and turning a profit. And if you ever intend to create music for a living, turning a profit is pretty important. Just think how nice it would be to have the income of one recording help pay for the next, or to have a little extra money to set aside for a rainy day.

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