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Testing, Testing—1, 2, 3

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Demo CDs are an essential component of any performing artist’s press kit. They have the power to make—or break—a decision whether to engage you. Since there are so many factors to consider when making a recording, I’ve decided to highlight two issues germane to young artists at the beginning of their careers.

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The first issue is one’s audience: to whom are you sending this demo? For most musicians, there are a variety of potential listeners, including conductors, directors, presenters, record labels, orchestras and ensembles, managers, booking agents, faculty search committees, movie directors, and more. Each demo you create should target a specific individual, with selections that would be of greatest interest to them.

Identifying characteristics of recordings that appeal to you will dramatically improve your communication with the engineer and the outcome of your own demo recording.

For example, if this is your first demo and you are seeking engagements at venues that frequently present recitalists, create your demo with that presenter in mind. Whatever you do, don’t try to knock out two birds with one stone. There is no surer way of creating a mediocre recording than trying to record too much for too many purposes. Keep it focused, and you will come out ahead in the long run, both financially and psychologically.

The second issue is selecting a studio and engineer. Artists both young and experienced ask for recommendations with price being the dominant factor in the decision. (The piano is a close second factor.) Rarely, if at all, does the microphone or the engineer’s résumé factor significantly into the decision. It’s a fallacy to assume that your sound can be “manufactured” to your specific taste after it has made it into the computer. Yes, it can be modified to a degree—but the raw material you produced through a particular microphone has many limitations. I can’t possibly overemphasize the importance of choosing a microphone that is going to get you closest to the sound you are seeking.

Considering the microphone presents a battery of questions about your sound. What sound quality would you hope to achieve in this recording? Before looking into recording studios, you should have a firm grasp of the quality of recordings that appeal to you most. Try this exercise: Choose a dozen or so of your favorite commercially released recordings of artists whose sound you admire, and listen carefully to them through headphones. How close is the microphone to the artist? What is your perception of the room the artist is performing in? Is it a large room? Is it a hall? Is the sense intimate or distant? Do you prefer intimate, or do you prefer a sound that suggests you are listening from the 25th row? These questions will attune your ear to the myriad characteristics that define a recording. Identifying the characteristics that appeal to you will dramatically improve your communication with the engineer and the final outcome of your recording.

Once you have narrowed this down, your next goal is to go microphone shopping. Huh? Yes—in an hour of studio time, you can ask to try the studio’s selection of microphones and create a demo test track with each. If you are really on top of it, bring the engineer a track from your favorite recording and invite him or her to approximate the sound in your session. This prerecording homework will yield a recording vastly superior to the one you might have let happen because the studio’s price was the most reasonable.

In an hour, you can reasonably test three to five microphones within the studio’s arsenal and have the engineer burn the tests to a CD. Travel to at least three different studios and ask to sample their microphones. Don’t forget to make notes on the characteristics of each one. I would suggest bringing along a friend whose opinion you value.

Too many artists walk into a studio at their appointed time and accept the microphone that has been set up for their recording. Engineers have their preferences, which have come from working on dozens of other recordings. These may or may not be what you are looking for.

I’m betting that if you take the extra time and expense to test microphones, you will likely find one that has your name it. Once you find the perfect match, send me note. I’m always thrilled to hear when an artist finds the hardware that captures and interprets their ideal sound.

For more information on recording studios, creating a demo, digital distribution, or making a commercially releasable recording, set up an appointment to speak with us in the Office of Career Development.

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