Recording At Home: Taking A Song From Demo To #1

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People often ask me if they have to do full-production demos to present songs to publishers or major artist? I do a fair amount of full demos, but I also have had about half of my major cuts from pitching home demos done on a very basic set-up on my mac laptop.

 

The Home Recording Gear I Used…

Let’s break down the process and equipment I used on my simple home demo of “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” (The first #1 hit for country artist Darius Rucker). First let’s look at the gear I used:

1. Refurbished Macbook Air Laptop Computer- $499

2. Garage Band (recorcording app) – Free with my computer purchase

3. Audio-Technica AT4033 Microphone ($399)

4. Universal Audio Apollo Twin interface w/effects plugins ($699)

5. Mic pop filter and stand ($100)

6. AKG K 240 Studio Headphones ($99)

 

My Recording Approach…

So you can see for the price of a couple demos, I had a complete recording studio with everything I needed. After writing the song I decided to make a simple guitar/vocal demo to send to Darius’s manager. First, I recorded two strumming acoustic guitar tracks with the mic pointed straight-on to the neck of the guitar guitar (where the neck meets the body). Just about 4-5 inches away from guitar. I then panned them hard left and right in the mix to create a full sound and leave lots of space in the center of the track for the vocal.

Next I recorded my vocal. I usually record my vocal about 6 inches away from the mic for loud sections like a chorus, and move up closer to the mic for more intimate sections like verses. After I felt I had a good vocal performance, I recorded to background vocal tracks. One part above the lead vocal and one part below. Again I panned these left and right but around 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock, leaving the center of the mix for the important lead vocal.

Finally, with the recording process complete, I added a “chorus effect” to one of the acoustic guitars and a touch of reverb to the vocal. All this done with the Apollo Twin plugins which are amazing sounding plugs.

After a quick mix-down, I sent an email over to Darius’s manager with the recording. I didn’t hear anything back and figure the song was dead in the water. But 2 months later the manager passed the song along to Frank Rogers (Darius’s producer) and the rest was history.

So, as you can see, with an investment of what you would spend on two full demos, you can have your own pro sounding set-up at home.

Write On! ~Clay

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Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. His songs have been recorded by such artist as Lady Antebellum, Darius Rucker, Babyface, and Kimberly Locke. He has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Follow him here: www.songtown.comat www.claymills.com

 

If you’d like to hear my original demo for “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”, side-beside the radio hit, check it out below.

Demo:

 

Finished Darius Rucker Hit Record:

60 thoughts on “Recording At Home: Taking A Song From Demo To #1

  1. Nicely done Clay, I’m always more intetested in hearing what won over the artist, producer or publisher before the song was released in radio format. You clearly wrote a great song here in this example and it’s one of my favorites. Many great songs like yours are originally pitched as guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demos. I actually use this theory for my final litmus test in the studio. If my song stands up on it’s own with guitar/vocal, it most likely will sound even better as a full band demo, just as “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” surely does. Not that I’m advocating a stripped down or full demo in any given case. It is IMHO that a great song doesn’t care who, how, when or where it’s performed…!
    Thanks again for sharing your inspiring song demo…..
    Cheers

  2. Awesome song! Thank you for the inspiring words Clay! Good to know it’s still possible. Will keep on writing; nice to hear my little studio(similar to your equipment) has possibilities!
    Peace,
    Pat Reid

  3. Thank you very much for sharing this, great to have a true insight on how the system works! Very generous of you, thank you! And thanks for writing an amazing song that I really enjoy listening to, great job!

    1. Angelina, I use Slate Plugins now and they have some great tools for getting a mix nice and hot. when I did Don’t Think I Don’t Think About it I used the Waves L1 Ultra Maximizer but for demos I don’t go crazy with mastering. If I’m pitching an artist to a label I might send off the mix to a mastering guy.

      CM

  4. Hi Clay, Great song.
    Just a simple question, am I confused, or did they change the key on the final (Darius Rucker) version?
    Does that happen a lot when you pitch songs to major artists?

    1. Luke, artist want to sound their best, so they will record they final version in the key that fits their voice the best. Sometimes it’s the key of the demo, sometimes they change it. Good question.

      CM

    1. Donna, we have a free 22 video course for members of Songtown that guides you from taking a simple guitar/vocal demo and turning it into a demo at home on a program like GarageBand.

      CM

  5. This demo is excellent. I’m learning to be a songwriter and this demo reminds me to focus on the basics of the song. I am able to focus more on the lyrics in this demo. Plus it gives the producer and the artist to build around the foundation that has been put in place. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

  6. Hello Clay.
    I had a long message typed out and somehow erased it lol. (Called being mid 50’s I think lol)
    Would you consider listening to my son Patrick Sampson . He’s now 17 only been singing and writing for two years now. I am not financially in a good place right now but I believe with my soul this young man was given a gift.
    He has written several songs . And what you hear on his album and live recording videos is 100% all him. We will not allow anyone to touch his vocals.
    I would very much appreciate a songwriter opinion. As I’m doing everything I can to help him get someone to “discover” him.
    You are a good person for giving folks a point to ask questions and help them. That is something I’m sure will come back to you ten fold 🙂
    Here is one song link to Youtube he wrote when he was I believe 15. https://youtu.be/Svdt9L4RQTI

    Also his website is http://www.patrick-sampson.com
    And Facebook is Patrick Sampson. He has almost 15,000 followers now. (Not sure where that is on scale of things )
    Have a great day and thank you !!
    Ed Sampson

    1. Ed, it would really benefit Patrick to get involved in a songwriter/artist community like Songtown where members and pros share info on what is working and not working for them.

      Cheers, Clay

  7. Pingback: Home Recording:
  8. I have a Mac Powerbook, Focusrite 2i2 interface, Garageband and Reason 9 and a few mics and a set of Monoprice monitors. I like my setup, but can hardly use it due to a full house (too many people around). Thanks for the tips

  9. I don’t need to lean to be a better songwriter I have loads of great songs but I don’t know how to get them to the right people .I know people who have deals but none of them help .its like its taken them so long find out yourself. Music biz have changed so much I’ve been playing since the 70s I would love to write for artists . can’t gig anymore old age aches plus years of enjoying myself has caught up with me lots of medical problems. I don’t like much I hear these days. Voice I like don’t like the song . my advice just go hell for leather at it when your young time goes so fast. I’m a guy if it was handed to me on a plate something would go wrong . . All the best Mr Miserable Do a deal you get me the right artist and I.ll split my first hit with you . that’s my offer..

    1. If you TRULY have great songs, it’s not hard to get your songs heard today. We have major hit publishers available through the SongTown website any time you want to book a session.

      CM

  10. It’s great to see that someone who has had a successful pitch pass on this brilliant insight. My respects to you for doing so. Your demo stands up on it’s own in my view!! Great voice and a great song.

    Kindest Regards

    Denis Connolly

  11. Thanks for the tips Clay. Really like that tune! Nice to hear both recordings and see how it all came together (of course Darius was bang on). Now I have more hope using my Garage Band app. I have been slugging away at songwriting/singing for years and can use great advice like yours! I have been laying down the piano tracks and spending a lot of time playing and creating midi tracks using my DAW keyboard.The main point I picked up here is to ‘keep it simple’.
    Peace,
    Pat

  12. Thank you Clay for posting this and then showing us what your original demo sounded like. Truly helpful and so appreciated. 🙂

    I just got a non exclusive publishing deal with a reputable company out in Los Angeles so I’m really having to start to use my home studio more often now.

  13. Sounds like you’ve definitely had some hard luck with that stuff. As a writer you have to play your music for folks to be in the game. So, I write my heart out and if someone takes an idea I wrote today, I’ll write a better one tomorrow! If I think about people taking from me it would shut me down creatively. I’ve written about 6,000 songs over the last 25 years so honestly I have little time to think about protecting myself from others. I’m too busy trying to write a great song each day and enjoying the process. I can’t control anyone else.

    CM

  14. Can’t sing like you. So I’m a writer who would have to waste tons of money on pro demos, which I don’t have currently. Did you ever get a bit concerned about such a great title possibly being lifted from you before you could get your song on the charts with Rucker, because you waited 2 months before you heard back from anyone after your pitch? Or did you know Frank and the management of Darius and could therefore trust them? Did you also do the demo on your own because it was such a great title that you wanted to avoid a lot of extra people listening to it in a studio to protect the title as much as possible? Thanks. Such a good demo done on your own. I can’t make mine sound that good, so I can’t pitch songs I need to that are just sitting.

    1. Hey Chuck, I would suggest you could co-write with writers that are good singers to cut back on demo costs. I got some of my biggest cuts writing with Shane Minor who was a great singer on our demos. My voice was not always a good sound for certain pitches. As far as your second question, I am NEVER concerned with someone stealing anything. Most writers are too busy trying to get their own ideas out there, to stop and steal yours. Even if it occasionally happens, pro writers spend little time thinking about it. And this was a good title, but it was a figure of speech that I had heard over the years. I can’t claim any real ownership to that! Writing the title well is the real key.

      CM

  15. Love this, Clay. Great song! I’m just getting back into writing after quite a hiatus and did a class with Apogee and Apple for Garage Band the other day…their loops are craaaazy! Your songs inpired me!

  16. Love it-spot on minimalist lyric “the work, the hurt, the whiskey…” MAXIMUM visual imagery impact. (I see it all). And your sharing the studio setup you used is just as inspirational. Going to write a plan of acquisitions starting tomorrow. Bless you!

    1. Henrik, we have avenues for our SongTown members to get their songs heard. Have you joined yet?

      Cheers, CM

  17. Well written! Great hook and tightly constructed! I believe that show through in your recording as well! Makes it easier that you know what a person/artist/industry looking for!
    Do you ever write a song for yourself! “Hey I like this song and want to record it and release it?
    I think that’s an advantage also! How one thinks about/or maybe whom he writes for/style!
    Great share. Helps me out a lot. ?????

  18. Hi Clay,

    Thanks for posting. Do you think it’s safer to do a guitar vocal demo instead of a full scale demo? The last pitch my co writer and I did, the publisher was pretty focused on how he knew the demos weren’t done in Nashville and he mentioned that it wasn’t up to par with what he was hearing.

    1. Justin, the worse thing is to hire players to do a demo that are trying to sound “Nashville”. I would suggest working with Nashville players, or not even trying to sound Nashville. Often Nashville artists and publishers are turned on by new sounds and songs. Just keep it Real!

      CM

  19. Nice job, Clay! Congrats on having Rucker using your song.

    I’ve been at this a long time myself with a few shining moments to look back on in songwriting contest runner up, and co-writing with some accomplished songwriters and a few contracts and residuals periodically showing up from time to time.

    I said all this to say this, you’ve reiterated something I’ve learned myself in making demos over the years – KEEP IT SIMPLE! It’s the SONG the recipient is interested in NOT your lead guitar playing, your voice or your production prowess. THE SONG is what they’re looking for. Don’t muddy up your presentation with a lot of production ideas that they’re not interested in.

    Thanks for that reminder!

    I wish you well with future song submissions!

    James Edwin Jones

  20. Great on a number of levels – obviously song structure i.e. different enough to be interesting but still keeping in the framework of what is current, now that’s a talent in itself, emotional connection, a perfect fit to the right artist & finally the demo is all the song needs to get across the songs potential.
    Thank you for sharing this insight, it is much appreciated.

  21. Clay,

    Thanks for posting this. Nice to get the info and hear both versions. I have a Korg D1200 12 track I bought years ago but hardly ever use. Motivated to learn it now. Wish I had the cash for a Neumann U47, but no matter.

    I’m with Judson on this one: I really like the demo more than the produced track. That has to do more with me liking things simple and more organic I suppose. I love guys like Chuck Cannon and Travis Meadows but seems their songs lose a little intimacy when they get produced “up”.

  22. LOVE THIS!! Great to be able to read about and hear the journey to finished cut….oh and awesome song too!!

    Just love songtown and what you guys bring to the community…Thanks Clay!

  23. Clay,

    It would be helpful for some newbies to get a step-by-step of how you recorded it. Did you use a click track? Did you record each guitar then add the voice, or did you do the voice and main guitar at the same time? Etc? Thanks

  24. This may sound weird, but I would actually rather listen to your demo than the (IMHO) over produced recording by Darius Rucker. Of course we all understand that it’s also important to get paid, but you wrote a great song to begin with and that’s the key. I’m a fan of simplicity without lots of lush strings, percussion and twang added to make it “better”.

  25. Clay,
    You’ve posted this before. I enjoyed it again! Very clean demo. I can hear the chorus. Simple, and it helps to have a good song. Lol. Also, you’re a good demo singer. How come you didn’t get a deal back in the day? ?

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