A couple of years ago, on the advice of famed producer Byron Gallimore, I began tracking my country-music song demos in Nashville. My Oregon-based studio offers full-production capabilities, but I just couldn't find the same level of musicianship in my area that the best of Music City had to offer. Gallimore had told me that publishers, producers, and A&R staffers in Nashville were used to hearing song demos steeped in the area's signature sound, and demos that didn't have that sound were at a disadvantage. The Nashville sound is, I found out, largely attributable to a relatively small cadre of ace session players.
These are the players who appear on the overwhelming majority of country singles and album cuts. With the exception of a few artists such as Tim McGraw, most country artists don't use their road band when cutting their records. Instead, a wrecking crew of top country players is brought into the studio to learn and perform the songs together on the spot, a process that usually takes only a few hours per song to complete (a whirlwind pace compared with what it takes to produce most pop records). I was surprised to learn that many, if not most, of these same musicians routinely play on demo sessions in the Nashville area.
FIG. 1: The Nashville Number System is used in chord charts, in lieu of standard notation, on virtually all Nashville-based tracking sessions. The system uses numbers, letters, symbols, and bar lines to denote the harmony structure and important rhythmic articulations of a song.
In addition to world-class session musicians, Nashville also offers a bounty of incredibly gifted demo singers. The cost of using all this unmatched talent on your song demos can be quite expensive, but that's the cost of being a contender in this highly competitive business. Consider this: Lee Ann Womack and her producers (Byron Gallimore and Greg Droman) listened to thousands of demos in the course of choosing the dozen songs they would cut for Womack's most recent album, the award-winning There's More Where That Came From (MCA Nashville, 2005). Such intensive screening is standard operating procedure for superstar albums, and the demos that are pitched for them are typically full-production works using top-drawer session players and singers. That's your competition.
It's a similar story in the pop world. Back when I wrote pop songs (which was up until a few years ago), I was told by creative managers at leading music-publishing companies that a demo had to sound “like a record” in order to have a shot at getting the underlying song cut. To a record label exec, a great demo takes the guesswork — and therefore, considerable risk — out of expensive studio production. Put another way, a producer or A&R executive who hears a demo with a great production knows they can get the same arrangement and sounds simply by mimicking them, perhaps using the same players on the “real” record as appeared on the demo.
On one hand, it's ridiculous that songwriters now have to produce the equivalent (or near equivalent) of a record in order to get a record deal, but that's the reality. On the other hand, once you hear world-class talent delivering the mojo on your songs — and completing killer tracks in a fraction of the time it might take you or your band to arrange, rehearse, and record as many parts — you'll be hooked.
In this article, I'll share my step-by-step road map for producing stunning song demos using ace session players and singers. The main focus will be on how to tightly control expenses and get great results through intensive preparation and efficient production techniques, and by using your own studio for self-contained tasks such as editing and mixing. In particular, I'll show you how to organize and budget for your project.
In addition, I will cover how to import, export, and synchronize audio files for use in both studios (yours and the “outside” studio you'll book), and how to safely transport the media containing all your precious tracks when you're traveling. Although I will include some engineering tips and techniques, I'll mostly emphasize production considerations and methods that ensure your money is well spent and you get the musical results you are seeking. And while much of what I will cover also applies to producing other styles of music — rock, pop, R&B, and so on — and records intended for commercial release and distribution, I'll specifically discuss producing country-music song demos.
FIG. 2: Session players listen to a songwriter''s work demo in the main control room at County Q Productions while reading the song''s chord chart. Seated from left to right are Billy Panda (acoustic guitar) and John Jarvis (keys). Standing from left to right are Troy Lancaster (electric guitar), Paul Scholten (drums, County Q Productions owner), Alison Prestwood (bass guitar), and Karyn Rochelle (singer-songwriter).
I Have Your Number
The first decision that you will need to make during preproduction is the number of songs you will attempt to produce within the studio time you will book. To choose wisely, you need to know how things are done in Nashville. Studio sessions — for tracking instrumental parts — in Nashville are not open-ended affairs but are scheduled according to policies established by the musicians' union, Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians. Sessions are usually booked in two- or three-hour blocks, typically beginning at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m., with provisions for overtime pay, should the session go longer. Weekend and evening sessions are relatively rare in Nashville, but they sometimes can be accommodated.
Many songwriters try to cram the tracking of four or five songs (not including lead vocals, which are typically overdubbed after the instrumental parts are all laid down) into a three-hour session. To obtain quality results, I generally plan to track only three songs in a three-hour block. That said, I may try to track more than one song per hour if most of the songs are three-chord wonders in the traditional-country style; it has been my experience that Nashville session players can knock these out in one-half or even one-third the amount of time it takes them to nail a contemporary country or pop-crossover song containing a lot of key changes. For example, I've witnessed session players deliver an absolutely killer version of a traditional-country song within 25 minutes of hearing it for the first time. On the other hand, I've spent well over an hour and a half getting the results I needed on an edgy country-pop song that had many key changes, chord extensions, and stops.
Another strategy — and my preference — is to book two back-to-back two-hour blocks (four consecutive hours total) for tracking four songs. The aim here is to maximize my productivity for the same amount of travel expenses, which is fixed. In case the sessions proceed faster than I had expected, I'll have a fifth song ready to track in any remaining time. But because I'm a stickler for getting magical tracks, I'm usually hard-pressed to finish just four songs in four hours. I'd rather have outstanding tracks for four songs than mediocre tracks for five songs that I can't use. Nashville's top session players are incredibly efficient, but they aren't superhuman. Great productions take time.
After I've chosen the specific songs I'll produce, I determine which studio I'll work in. The Mix Master Directory (email address: email@example.com) is a good place to find studio listings for the Nashville area. If you have any friends or industry contacts who live or work in the Nashville vicinity, they may also be able to make some recommendations.
I like to work in a studio that has a lot of iso booths so I can get good isolation between tracks. County Q Productions (615-298-1434) in Nashville offers a good-size tracking room with four adjoining iso booths (one with a tuned grand piano and organ) and a control room, all having good sight lines. By putting drums in the main room, taking the bass direct, and putting the pedal steel guitar's amplifier in an isolation box with a mic, I can effectively produce a 7-piece band at County Q. The studio complex also offers three smaller suites for overdubs, nonensemble productions, and mixing.
FIG. 3: Veteran session player Troy Lancaster sets up one of his electric guitars in County Q Productions'' tracking room before a take.
I prefer to hire an engineer for my Nashville-based sessions rather than taking on that role myself, so I can focus completely on producing. Hiring a skilled, efficient engineer typically adds only a few hundred dollars to the cost of the project and makes the sessions go more smoothly. I often produce while engineering in my own studio, but I don't want to waste any time in another studio fiddling with an unfamiliar console, tie lines, and patch bays while creative energies wane and production costs mount. I may request changes in microphone choice or placement if I feel it is necessary, but otherwise I'd rather not be distracted.
Once I've chosen the studio to track in, I work out my travel arrangements and fine-tune my production schedule. I like to book my flight so that I'll have one full day in Nashville before my sessions begin. Jet lag is a recipe for disappointment in the studio, so a day of rest and recuperation before tracking is a good idea. Besides, with fewer flights and airport hubs for most airlines these days, bad weather or mechanical problems could cause missed connections that could wreak havoc on too tight of a schedule.
I track the instruments on all my songs on my second full day in Nashville and book lead vocals for the following day. I like afternoon sessions for recording vocals because it gives singers time to clear morning mucus out of their throats and warm up their vocal chords with some light singing.
Most Nashville-based demo singers are not union members and will work for a flat fee of roughly $100 per song, with the understanding that they expect to work for an hour to an hour and a half per song. They will usually sing background vocals in addition to leads, if requested, at no extra charge in the same one-hour-plus time slot. I've never requested my hired singers to perform background vocals, however, for reasons that I'll get into when I discuss production techniques.
I will typically schedule and book back-to-back hour-and-a-half vocal sessions for each song. Four songs, therefore, require six hours of time, as well as roughly another half hour for file consolidation. Depending on how you like to work, you may be able to get the lead vocals for each song done in as little as an hour and reduce your studio bill.
When budgeting the sessions for your project, be sure to also include the costs of a hotel room, rental car, food, and incidentals (such as gas for the car).
Talent Search and Budget
It's advantageous to work with a Nashville studio that does a lot of demos for music publishers, because the studio manager and engineers will be plugged into the music community and will be able to recommend — and possibly schedule — singers and players to use on your project. (County Q Productions excels as a liaison.) You can develop your own list of players that you would like to use simply by looking at the credits on the albums you own and listening to cuts to familiarize yourself with each player's strengths and style. Another good source for song credits — with limited audio excerpts — is allmusic (www.allmusic.com).
FIG. 4: This is an example of how I edit a composite lead vocal using Digital Performer to build a flawless, captivating track with all the best phrases. Even with a superb singer, a difficult song may require one or more edits per bar of music, each consisting of a region as short as a single syllable of lyric. Instrumental tracks typically require far fewer edits.
For each instrument I want played in my productions, I'll give the studio a wish list of my first, second, and third choice for the player (if I've developed that many preferences). The studio serves as my liaison and attempts to schedule the players for the sessions I've booked.
Here's where things can get dicey. It is understood and accepted that a session musician may cancel playing on your demo project in the eleventh hour if they get an offer to play on a “master” project (that is, one intended for commercial release). Master projects offer players over twice — sometimes over four times — the pay of demos (see the sidebar “Money Matters” for info on union rates), as well as notoriety and, arguably, more satisfying work. So it's understandable that in-demand players universally insist on this caveat when agreeing to work on a demo project. It's been my experience that around half the musicians I request will already be booked for another project or will be lured away to play on a master project before my tracking date arrives. A studio that has regular contact with many top session musicians will be able to book substitute players in the final hours before your session begins and keep things on track for you. Late-hour cancellations are another good reason to give the studio a list of your second and third choices for players.
Most session players earn regular demo scale, but the requisite bandleader — who is typically one of the players — usually earns double the demo scale paid to a sideman. The most in-demand sidemen may also charge double scale, or they might not even be available for demo work because they're too busy doing master projects. That said, you might be surprised at the country royalty you can have perform on your demos for the standard demo rate. Besides their hourly wage, you'll also need to pay for each musician's instrument cartage. Cartage is usually a small expense (typically $6 per player, per session), but some pickers who play multiple instruments may charge you $50 to transport a large case containing their instruments to the studio, unless you instruct them to limit what they bring.
Demosinger.com (www.demosinger.com) is a fantastic resource for hearing audio clips of and contacting demo singers in the Nashville area for your project. Alternatively, ask the studio (or friends in the business) for a list of demo singers who have impressed them the most, including their phone numbers. Call each singer you're interested in and ask them to send you a copy of some of the demos they've sung on. Most professional demo singers will have the means to email you MP3s, which is great for doing fast research. Others may only be able to send you a CD by snail mail. In any case, make sure you specify what musical style you're looking for (for example, traditional or contemporary country, a crossover ballad, or edgy or mellow vocals) so they send you material that will give you a good idea if they're right for a particular song. You may end up hiring a different singer for each song.
One other point: try to get the singer to send you at least a few songs, even if they don't all fit the style you're looking for. Almost anyone can sound good on one demo, but consistency indicates you've found someone who can likely deliver the goods.
We Can Work It Out
With the talent chosen and booked for your sessions, it's time to produce a work demo for each song. I usually choose a key signature that is comfortable for all the major-label artists I feel the song is suited for (the key can be determined simply by listening to their records), but occasionally I'll have to raise or lower the key by as much as a major second so that it optimally fits the demo singer's range. Because the power, intonation, and feel of the lead vocal is absolutely critical to a demo's success, I feel it's most important to ensure that the work demo fits the demo singer's range: most people agree that a recording artist will transpose a song into their favorite key, if necessary, if they like it enough to cut it.
FIG. 5: Grouping together the imported audio files from your Nashville-based sessions inside your DAW project will make it easier for you to quickly distinguish them from your work-demo files so the former can easily be found and dragged into blank tracks. In this figure, files are viewed by source type in Digital Performer''s Soundbites window, causing all imported files to be listed together. Different instruments'' files from the same take have the same numeric suffix (for example, .01_03) in their names that was created in Pro Tools, making it easy to know which files to drag into which of the new, blank takes you created for each track.
Many female demo singers, for example, are used to accepting a work demo sung by a male songwriter and transposing it into their favorite key (or the key the songwriter specifies). However, I prefer to produce the work demo in the key in which it will ultimately be performed. That way, there is no chance of confusion that may require last-minute transpositions, which eat up studio time and cost money. This also allows me to use my work-demo vocal as a scratch-vocal track during the actual session. If I need to sing the song's melody on a work demo meant for a female demo singer, I'll typically sing the song an octave lower than it was written and simply instruct the singer to sing it an octave higher than I did. Of course, male demo singers receive a work demo with me singing the melody in the correct key and range.
In most instances when producing a work demo, a simple guitar or keyboard arrangement and a click track will suffice as an accompaniment to your scratch vocal. I include a click track for a few different reasons. First, it obviously helps me to lay down my instrumental and vocal tracks. Second, a click — mixed low so as not to be obnoxious — helps the singer discern and learn the melody's rhythmic articulation in the absence of drum or percussion tracks. And third, I will want to import my click track into the real session for the musicians to play to. (I'll discuss why and how to import tracks shortly.)
Sometimes in the work demo I'll include guitar or keyboard hooks that I want the session players to hear and learn. I may even keep my own instrumental hooks in the final production in some instances, and have the session musicians play to those imported tracks during the tracking session. But I won't let any of the musicians hear these hooks unless there is a strong likelihood they will ultimately be used, because I don't want to box in better players than me with ideas they may easily trump if left to their own unfettered creativity.
Once I've recorded a song's work demo, I'll mix three different versions to send to the hired singer for that song. The first version has a basically balanced mix, so the singer can hear how the vocal melody relates to the harmony structure and rhythm of the song. In the second version, the vocal is mixed a lot more out front than any other elements, allowing the singer to readily hear and learn any subtle pickup notes to phrases, quick melodic runs, and so on. The third mix has all vocals muted, so the vocalist can use it to practice singing their part along with the music.
Along with an audio CD containing the work demo (all three mixes), I also send the singer a few lyric sheets. Two are for the singer's use to mark up however they want in preparation for the session. The third sheet may include some notations of unusual or quickly articulated musical notes that I want sung on select lyrics and that may be hard to learn from the work demo alone. For this purpose, I'll simply circle the relevant lyrics and write the letter names of the desired notes above each word. In a cover letter to the singer, I'll explain that I want them to sing the melody as I wrote it but also do some wild-card takes in which they present their own ideas. A great singer's economically placed improvisations can really bring a song to life, after first presenting the basic statement of the verse and chorus melodies to the listener.
Although I always send the singer of each song a work demo, lyrics, and a cover letter, the session musicians won't hear the songs until the tracking session actually begins. They wouldn't want to practice for a session they may be pulled off of to play on a master project, and they don't need the rehearsal anyway. But I do bring the work demo (the balanced-mix version) for each song to the session along with chord charts — using the Nashville Number System — for the musicians to reference (see Fig. 1). If you don't know how to write charts using the Nashville Number System, make sure the bandleader for the session agrees to do this for you (and make enough copies for all the players) before the session date arrives.
FIG. 6: After you''ve dragged-and-dropped each imported file in turn into its proper blank track and take, move all the files to their original time stamps in order to sync them up properly. In this figure, all imported sound bites for a given take are selected in Digital Performer 4.61. The Move To Original Time Stamp command (Audio ‘ Time Stamps ‘ Move To Original Time Stamp) is used to automatically return them to the start points at which they were originally recorded in Nashville.
One note of caution: make sure you protect your songs before sending out work demos to hired talent. Most people are honest, but it's good to play it safe. See the sidebar “Guarding Your Songs” for more information.
Talkin' 'Bout My Generation
Most songwriters instruct the studio they'll be working in to generate a click track at a specified tempo for each song for use during the tracking session. Then, during the session, the songwriter sings a scratch vocal to guide the players in laying down their tracks. However, I have a different approach.
I don't want to be distracted from producing by having to sing a scratch vocal during the tracking session, and my live vocals could never be as inspiring to the players as something that I fashioned from multiple punches. Therefore, I elect to import the scratch vocal from my work demo into the hired studio's DAW for the tracking session.
I also want to make sure that all the tracks I record in Nashville will line up later with my click track, the bar lines in my DAW's sequence for each song, any keeper instrumental hooks I've recorded, and scratch tracks I might want to use as timing or pitch references. So I also plan to import the click track (with spoken count-off) for each song into the hired studio's DAW. If the session musicians lock to my click track, their tracks will be perfectly synced to my work-demo tracks once the musicians' tracks are imported back into my DAW. (That is, as long as the same sampling frequency is used in both project files and all files are time-stamped.)
To make sure file importing into the Nashville-based studio's DAW happens without a hitch, I first bounce each track containing multiple regions (“sound bites” in MOTU Digital Performer) to a new continuous track beginning at 0:00:00.00 and let it play to the end of the song. I then export each of these bounced files to a separate folder — one for each song — on my hard drive or desktop, making sure they are named for easy identification and exported in a format that is compatible with the hired studio's DAW. I then burn all these folders and the files they contain onto a CD-ROM.
Next, I mail the CD-ROM to the studio in Nashville with instructions to import the files into their DAW — importing the audio files for each song into a separate sequence — and to confirm that the files all sync up before the tracking date arrives. I burn a separate copy of the CD-ROM for myself and also back up the files to a new external FireWire hard drive, both of which I bring with me to the tracking session as backups to use should the mailed files self-destruct at the last minute and the mailed CD-ROM be misplaced. That's never happened, but I have too much at stake to blindly trust it won't.
CD-ROMs and hard drives can go through bomb-scanning machines at the airport without compromising data, but I take all media onto the plane as a carry-on to avoid loss, misrouting, or damage en route. With preproduction finished and my butt in Nashville, I'm now ready for the tracking session.
Before the tracking session begins, I have a clear plan for which order I'll track the songs in, which player will take how many bars to solo on each break, and where the solos will occur. I'll typically track the least complicated song or the one with the slowest tempo first, so the players can warm up before performing the tougher tracks.
Before we track each song, I play a balanced mix of the song's work demo for the players in the control room as they read the accompanying chord chart (see Fig. 2).
I give the players limited direction initially so I don't inadvertently stifle their creativity. I may tell them that the production style should be contemporary country, referencing a certain artist or hit song, and that I want a specific subdivision feel. I may also suggest a possible capo position for one of the guitarists to use (see Fig. 3) or ask the drummer to play aggressively right out of the chute. But mostly I keep specific musical ideas to myself until I've heard the band run through the song at least once. Often, if left to their own devices, the players will take the song in a wonderful direction I hadn't thought of, so I like to cut them loose for the first take or two.
From what I've been told, the overwhelming majority of tracking sessions for demos in Nashville proceed by picking the best of a few takes and then punching in for solos and to fix flubs on the chosen take. I find that I get much better — and faster — results by doing four to six takes of each song, skipping punch-ins altogether, and editing all the takes for each track into monster composite tracks back at my studio. In the time it would take to laboriously construct solos and fix “clams” using punch-ins, I can usually get at least two more complete takes accomplished with the entire ensemble. That gives me the opportunity to try some different approaches to the song's production and amass more licks for editing into super arrangements back at my studio. And by forgoing punch-ins, all tracks for a given song start at the same exact timecode position and proceed uninterrupted to the end, making reassembly back at my studio much simpler.
By the way, I keep every single take, no matter how lame. On my last trip to Nashville, the very first phrase electric guitarist J. T. Corenflos played on one of the songs — during the first take when everyone was just learning the chart — became the great instrumental hook I pasted into all the other breaks. He never played that same phrase again.
As the tracking session progresses, I'll make sure I have enough material for each song to build great composite solos later on. I'll also note which were the overall best takes for each song so I can use them for the vocal-overdub sessions the following day.
Sing to Me
At the start of the vocal session, I'll have the singer run through the song from start to finish a couple of times, singing it however they like. These are often the most magical takes in terms of vibe, but they can also be the most pitchy. For that reason, and to ensure that I have plenty of material to build a killer composite vocal track, I'll then go through the song section by section with the singer to make sure I end up with at least a few great takes of each line of lyrics before moving on to the next section. (If the singer gets hung up on one particular line, we'll put it on the back burner and return to it later.) Back in my studio, it's not uncommon for me to combine individual words, and even syllables, from different vocal takes to build a virtuoso performance; there can be as many as 70 to 100 vocal edits in one song (see Fig. 4).
I don't like to record background vocals (BVs) immediately on the heels of lead-vocal overdubs. I'd rather focus all my time with the singer on getting the best lead-vocal track I can, as that is by far the most important aspect of a demo. And until I edit together a composite lead-vocal track back at my studio, the BVs won't be able to lock to the “finished” lead. For this reason, I overdub BVs back at my studio, after all the tracks I produced in Nashville are composited.
Pack a Punch
When the vocal sessions are over, I instruct the engineer to consolidate all the punches for each take into one continuous file and name it according to its take number (for example, voc_01). Then I have them dump all the files to the FireWire drive I brought to the session. (If necessary, I'll have them export the files in a file format that is compatible with my DAW, before they put them on my drive.)
If you elect not to bring a hard drive to the hired studio, have the engineer burn the data to DVDs. With all the takes I do, this is not that practical, because over 20 GB of data may be involved.
Whatever file format is chosen for export, make sure that it supports time-stamping. A time-stamped audio file has its original SMPTE timecode start and end points embedded in the file. The Sound Designer II (SDII) format, for instance, automatically time-stamps audio files as they are created. This allows you to drag all time-stamped SDII files from your Nashville-based sessions into your SDII-format work-demo sequences and move them to their original SMPTE locations so that all tracks sync up exactly with the click tracks you used throughout production. Using time-stamped files relieves you of the burden of having to start all your Nashville-based tracks at 0:00:00.00 in order to preserve sync with your work-demo tracks. (That would be a nightmare requirement if, for example, you wanted to overdub a solo in Nashville in the middle of a song.)
In addition to exporting all the audio files for your tracking and vocal sessions onto your FireWire drive, make sure the studio backs up all the files to DVD-R, Exabyte, or other media for safekeeping at the studio. That way, if the worst should happen and your hard drive gets damaged during your trip back home, you won't lose all your precious tracks. Remember, don't put your hard drive in checked luggage when you fly. Take it as a carry-on.
Once you're back in your own studio, import all the audio files from your Nashville-based sessions into the corresponding work-demo projects for each song. Opening the project file for the first song you want to continue working on, create enough tracks — or enough takes within each track — to accommodate all of the takes you did in Nashville for that particular song. Do this same thing for each instrument and the lead vocals in turn.
Sort all the files for the project so the imported files are grouped together and are easy to locate. For example, in Digital Performer you can view all the sound bites in the Soundbites window by source type, which will result in all the imported files being listed next to one another (see Fig. 5). Next, drag-and-drop each file in turn into its proper blank track and take. As long as each file is time-stamped, there is no need to worry about where (that is, at what SMPTE time position) you drop the files in each track. After the files have been dropped into their proper tracks and takes, simply select and move them to their original time stamps using the appropriate DAW command (see Fig. 6 or consult your DAW's manual for how to do this). Everything should line up perfectly.
After confirming that all the tracks for a song sync up, it's time to create a composite edit for each one as needed. Although composite editing is worthy of an article on its own, I will briefly summarize and oversimplify the process here.
Play each take from the tracking session in Nashville and decide which take is the best overall. Be sure to listen to all the instruments at once, perhaps using one of the lead-vocal takes as a melody reference. Then, starting with the rhythm section for that take, find any weak points in the performance and paste in better material from the other takes. The better material may simply be played tighter or comprise great arrangement ideas and licks you'd like to use.
Once the rhythm tracks are edited to the point that the groove is really solid and infectious throughout the song, composite edit the other tracks in turn until you've pasted together an arrangement that flows and excites you from beginning to end. With painstaking appraisal and selective assembly of all the considerable material you have spread out across all your takes, the end result should be incredible composite tracks and song arrangements that blow away what any one unedited take could ever offer.
Once all the instrumental and vocal tracks are composite edited to your satisfaction, overdub any BVs and new instrumental parts you feel the song needs to bring it to its highest potential. But be sure the song really needs your extra parts. You used all those world-class players and singers for good reason. You don't want to dilute the impact of their performances with any additional tracks that don't enhance what they already gave you.
After your overdubs are finished, take plenty of time to mix each song. Even the best performances can be sullied by a bad mix. Remember, your goal is to create a demo that sounds like a record. A killer mix is critical.
Your song demo is the calling card that lets industry pros know you are on top of your game and your songs deserve to be heard. While pitching material can be a frustrating endeavor, great demos will eventually open up doors and build important relationships for you.
You may have only one shot to impress, however, so make sure you've got the goods before you stick your foot in the proverbial crack in the door. Having ace session players and singers layin' it down like there is no tomorrow increases your odds of success.
Michael Cooper is a contributing editor for EM and Mix. His company Michael Cooper Recording provides out-of-area clients flat-fee mixing and mastering services via Fed Ex delivery. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Critical to the success of your demo project is having a realistic budget. The table “Aiming at Expenses” shows a sample budget for a three-hour tracking session and subsequent lead-vocal-overdub sessions to produce three songs in Nashville. The sample budget assumes six musicians will be used to track six instruments: drums, bass, keyboards (piano or organ), acoustic and electric guitars, and either fiddle or pedal steel guitar. (If you can afford to, and the songs warrant it, spring for both fiddle and steel guitar for a bigger and more idiomatic sound.)
Note that the musicians' wages cited here are for demo productions and are set by Nashville Local 257; union scale will differ in other locales and for other uses. For example, Local 257 sets union scale for a three-hour session at $217.84 per sideman for a “limited pressing” of up to 10,000 copies, and $399.48 per sideman for masters. Also, demos that later get placed in films or TV commercials, for instance, will be subject to significant union “new use” fees, an important consideration if you negotiate a synchronization license through your self-owned publishing company. All the union rates I've cited include required payments into pension and health and welfare funds for members of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which Local 257 belongs to. For more information on current union rates in Nashville, call Local 257 at (615) 244-9514.
If the songs you will produce are all simple traditional-country tunes, you may be able to track four or even five songs in a three-hour block, in which case you may need to adjust the sample budget for vocal-overdub sessions by roughly 33 percent (for four songs instead of three) to 66 percent (for five songs) higher. The best approach, however, may be to commit to recording vocals on only three or four songs (regardless of how many you end up tracking) and finish up vocals on your next trip to Nashville for any additional songs tracked. That way, if tracking gets bogged down, you won't have to cut corners just to keep your work commitments to all the singers you hired.
The budget estimates for the vocal sessions assume you will be working in a smaller room at a slightly reduced rate. It also assumes you'll hire three singers who will each devote roughly an hour and 15 minutes of studio time to singing their assigned song. (The costs work out to be the same if you use the same singer for two or three songs, unless you can negotiate a multisong reduced rate with the singer.) An extra half hour of studio time is budgeted for consolidating and exporting files.
The sample budget also includes estimated travel and related expenses for a three-day stay in Nashville. Of course, these expenses can vary widely depending on where your travel originates and what kind of accommodations you need to feel comfortable. Songwriters who live in the Nashville vicinity can obviously subtract these travel expenses from their budgets.
GUARDING YOUR SONGS
An inexpensive and lightning-fast alternative to copyright registration for your songs is the Web-based Songuard service, offered by MasterWriter (www.masterwriter.com). Songuard is a date-of-creation registration service designed to protect your lyrics and melody in their development stage. Songs are registered by uploading your lyrics and work demo (the latter in the form of a WAV, AIFF, or MP3 audio file) to MasterWriter's Web site, using MasterWriter software (Mac/Win, $289). (MasterWriter is an outstanding songwriting tool — visit www.emusician.com for a full review.) Songuard is free for one year with your purchase of MasterWriter and costs $30 per year thereafter.
Although copyright law is beyond the scope of this article, I will mention here that Songuard does not replace the need for copyright registration of published works (that is, those commercially sold and distributed). Copyright registration is required within three months of publication in order to recover statutory damages and attorney fees in infringement suits. For more information on copyright, visit www.copyright./font>gov.
AIMING AT EXPENSES QUANTITY DESCRIPTION PRICE TOTAL
TRACKING: 1 Bandleader, union scale, for 3 hours $369.58 $369.58 5 Sideman, union scale, for 3 hours $184.79 $923.95 5 Cartage fee $6.00 $30.00 3 Studio hours $70.00 $210.00 3.5 Engineer wages per hour (incl. setup) $25.00 $87.50 Subtotal:$1,621.03 VOCAL OVERDUBS: 3.75 Studio hours $60.00 $225.00 4.25 Engineer wages per hour $25.00 $106.25 3 Singer's pay $100.00 $300.00 3 Back up project files to DVD $5.00 $15.00 Subtotal:$646.25 TRAVEL: 1 Round-trip flight to/from Nashville $300.00 $300.00 3 Day's car rental (compact car, incl. taxes) $28.00 $84.00 3 Day's hotel charges (room rate and taxes) $80.91 $242.73 3 Day's meals at restaurants $40.00 $120.00 1 Tank of gas for car $40.00 $40.00 Subtotal:$786.73 Total: $3,054.01