Mixing an effective demo recording can be as simple...or as complicated as you want it to be. In the not so long ago days of four track cassette recorders, the limitations of the equipment left fewer options for consideration. The home recordist of today however, has more toys at his command than the well stocked studio of even twenty years ago. But in spite of this, many demos still sound like shit. The reason? No matter how many compressors, equalizers, multiband mastering tools, phasers, flangers and fuck-with-the-sound toys there are in the box, you gotta have ears...and the brains to use them.
I can't tell you how many times I've listened to a home-recorded mix where the young genius pulls up a frequency analyzer and says, "Look at that curve, ain't it just perfect?" The problem is that you can't "look" at a mix, you have to listen to it. and if the song is fighting to get out of the speakers, you have a problem.
I listen to a lot of new demo mixes on the Sellaband web site. There are over 4500 artists currently showing their wares on Sellaband so there is no shortage of listening material. The quality ranges from simple guitar and voice writing demos and Garageband sequences right up to studio quality recordings. I'm going to address this to a typical 4 or 5 piece band with some sort of computer recording rig and the hopes of catching the ear of a big time A&R exec.
First of all, as I've preached before, It is all about the song. No song, no dice. Period. Assuming that there is a song to record, every aspect and every detail of that demo must have a reason for existence. This is where it is so easy to go wrong. No one will be impressed with effects. All the filtering and modulation effects are in those rigs for fun. And if you get caught up in that world to the point that the song depends on a flanging effect, that is what you will be playing for...fun. Keep it simple and let the song dictate what is needed. Effects and imaging are the herbs and spices of a mix, not the main course.
So how do you image a song demo effectively? Using our 5 piece rock band as an example, the first consideration when attempting to draw attention to the song is the vocal. A track can sound fabulous and then, when you drop in the vocal, there just isn't room left in the center of the stereo image. Here are some practical suggestions for making sure the vocal is the focal point of the mix.
1. It will probably make life easier if you record the parts to mono tracks. Yeah, I know, you just got a new stereo what-the-fuck box and when you play bass by yourself it's amazing. Forget it! You're asking for trouble.
2. Kick drum, bass and snare should be panned to the center. And here's a tip, Introduce yourself to the phase button. It's just a button, go ahead. Push it. Sometimes putting the kick or the bass out of phase can give the impression of more low end focus without affecting the overall volume.
3. Rhythm guitars, organs, pianos and most keyboard pads should be panned off center. These instruments can soak up much of the frequencies you will need for the vocal. Use your stage plot as an example. If the organ is on the right, pan it that way. And try to balance the instruments from right to left as they would be on a stage, sort of like picking teams for softball. One big guy for you, one for me. One girl on each team, and so on.
4. EQ adds amplitude(loudness) as well as frequencies(tone). Pulling certain frequencies out can be more effective that piling them on.
5. Watch that you don't put up a killer mix and then bury the detail with delay and reverb. Try the old school mono reverb trick. Pan a rhythm guitar hard right. Now put it through a mono delay or reverb and pan the effect hard left. Then pan the organ hard left and pan its effect hard right. This will give the mix size and will leave room in the center for the vocal and any solos. Remember that reverbs and delays are based on the concept of sound reflecting off of surfaces. Keep that in mind as you image the effects. Reverbs and most delay effects should be like faint halos around the edges of the mix.
And 6. The vocal. It all comes down to this. No matter how rockin' or complex the track is, you must be able to hear every nuance, every breath and every word of the lead vocal. If you listen to the dry vocal in the mix, and this isn't happening, keep the vocal playing as you solo the instruments one by one and find the culprit. If the vocal sits nicely in the center, it's time for a little reverb. If you have the toys, try this. Put up two mono reverb channels. Pre delay one of them by 20 ms and pan it hard right. Pre delay the other by 40 ms and pan it hard left. Now send the Vocal to each reverb. The vocal will be charging up the center channel and have plenty of size as well. The panned reverbs will insure that the details will be heard.
An effectively mixed song demo doesn't have to be extravagant. Your band may play great music, have amazing chops, and you can have cool outfits, But nobody will ever know how cool you are if they can't hear the song. So get that shit out of the way and let em hear the vocal.