It’s a fun process turning a demo or sketch of a song into a full blown production. This blog describes an instance where a vocal coach asked me if I could produce a new version of his old demo.
Here’s a clip from the original demo:
It’s not amazing sound quality, but good enough to work out the individual parts. To start with, I’ll usually take the original track and add it to my DAW (Logic), so I can continually reference back and forth as I'm building up the new track. I’ll then use markers to map out the arrangement, e.g. verse 1, pre-chorus, etc, so I can focus on individual parts at a time. Then I’ll work out the basic chords and write down the lyrics, using Evernote.
Around this point, I often try something experimental, and put together a version of the song that I hear in my head. With song sketches this is a great way of testing out different arrangements, but in this instance the client wanted the new production to have the same arrangement and music as the old one. Anyway, I quite liked the alternative version, and may re-use the music, which is different from the original (so no copying!).
The plan was to replicate the first verse and chorus in the track, to check that the client liked the direction. In the track, I could hear drums (probably a drum machine), bass, keyboard, a synth lead, and a synth pad (used to transition into the verse). I could hear most of the parts, but had a little trouble hearing what the lead synth was doing in the pre-chorus section. To solve this, I used a multipressor plugin on the track, to duck all other frequencies that were not the synth. This made it much easier!
The first thing I recorded was the bass and drums. I always set the main groove of any song around the drums and the bass. In this case, I built up the drum parts using Superior Drummer, and used an electric bass (my Fender Jazz). For the guitars, I replicated the main rhythm part, and also played an arpeggiated part using the same chords. These were hard panned left and right, and sounded great to me! Then I replicated the synth and keyboard sounds using stock instruments in Logic, which worked well. To give it more of a contemporary feel, I used a drum machine sound for the riff and first part of the verse, then shifted to an acoustic kit sound, which the client liked. After this, time for a guide vocal!
I find it hard to hear if an arrangement is working without recording a guide vocal, so I’ll always record myself singing the part, and send that to the client along with an instrumental version. So here’s a clip of the initial track with guide vox:
At this point the client was happy with the sound, but asked if a real drummer could be used. I currently don’t have an acoustic kit in the studio, and have been getting on fine with Superior Drummer. I plan to record using a real kit in the future, but at the moment, it’s an issue of cost and overhead. What I ended up doing, was recording the part with my electric drumkit, which fed into Superior Drummer. This let me capture the groove of the drums so they didn’t sound robotic, and then I just fixed some timing and bleed issues in the editor. Here’s a clip of recording this way. Usually I’ll play a little more seriously than this, but you get the idea.
Next step was to get the client into the studio to record the vocals. He was happy with the first session, but thought he could do a better take, and also wanted to bring in the original composer to sing backing vocals and offer advice on the lead vocal. We did this, had a great session, and the backing vocals brought out a definite pop feel for the song, which you can hear in the video. A final request was to remove one of the keyboard parts that the client didn’t like from the original, and we replaced this with a cello (East West Composer Cloud).
The client had quite a large vocal range, going from a baritone into a softer mixed voice. When applying EQ, I referenced against Isaac Hayes for the low part, and John Legend for the higher part, using a Pulteq plugin.
Here's the original and final file to compare:
Here's the client singing a section of the song from the vocal booth:
I probably lost a bit of time experimenting with the drums, and testing out instruments that were not in the original such as electric guitar. In this case, it's best to keep things simple, and not try and guess what the client might want. I'd still love an acoustic kit at one point though!
Overall, I'm very pleased with the track, and feel we produced a radio worthy version.