How To Mix & Master Demo Sessions
Demo recordings are in such a weird state of flux right now. It’s no longer enough to just have a quick recording of a single mic set up at band practice to showcase your band’s potential to a label.
Everyone is expecting studio quality, all of the time.
We’re fortunate that recording technology allows us to do this, but it really leaves us with a new question:
How long should you realistically spend mixing and mastering a demo?
Depending on your genre, this can vary greatly. I know for a fact that programming drums takes far longer for some styles of music than others. I also know that mixing and mastering sampled & synthesized instruments can be a much more fluid process than mixing and mastering live ones.
While the time you spend on each session will vary, you need to remember that the majority of these sessions are going to be re-recorded. You’re not working with the final product and you don’t need to act like you are… With everything being digitally captured, you can always go back and revisit your session if it becomes something more than a demo later on.
So for now, let’s focus on the efforts you should be putting into mixing and mastering your demo sessions.
Mixing Your Demo
Mixing is a process usually kept separate from recording, but in the case of pre-production and demos, I think we’ve got some flexibility.
Mixing while you record can be a good time saving effort, especially for those who write their music as they’re recording. By balancing their mixes as they go, these songwriters have a growing picture of their overall sound and can add different production elements accordingly.
At the same time, there’s a left brain/right brain issue with this approach. Your creative side and your analytical side are in conflict with each other and your writing or your mixing may suffer as a result.
A good rule of thumb is to mix while you record if the mixing is something simple like turning something up/down or adding a high-pass filter to a track. Save the automation and “real” mixing for after the tracking is finished.
Focus On Your Biggest Pain Points
Mixing a song can be tedious work. You’ve got muddiness that can be caused by a number of different instruments, compounding low end to account for, and sometimes hundreds of tracks that all need their own space in the mix.
With your demos, your goal should never be to fix all of those time-consuming pain points. You can’t let them slow you down.
Focus your mixing efforts on where you can get the biggest results.
For many home studio producers, this means focusing on the instruments that were tracked live and need the attention most. Your programmed drums are likely going to sound great already – they’re preprocessed and premixed. The same could likely be said for any MIDI instruments.
But your live guitar tracks? Your vocals? These are the elements of your mix that are going to need some attention.
Just take a look at this mix tutorial where Julian Cifuentes shares where his efforts go when mixing a demo session:
Did you catch how quick/simple his drum mix was? Because of the samples being used, he was able to spend a minimal amount of time getting his kick and snare to sit right before moving on to more important aspects of the song.
Mastering Your Demo Session
Mastering in a traditional sense would usually involve another engineer or producer to have a second, impartial set of ears working on your song. For demo sessions, this additional insight is much more optional.
A great mastering engineer can take a mix to new places, but if this isn’t your final mix, why would that matter?
Instead, shift your mindset to your mix bus, where similar mastering-style decisions can be made. With demos, it’s all about getting the right balance here.
Use an EQ and a spectral analyzer to make sure everything seems balanced across the frequency spectrum. Use bus compression to glue everything together for the final output. You don’t want to over compress things here, but short of a full mix/master session, compression is a great way to get a polished sound without too much extra effort.
Programming Some Life Into Your Mixes
One of the keys to any professional production is the use of synthesizers and sweeteners. Both add complexity and size to a mix, filling in the lulls of a song where you just need a little something extra to keep things interesting.
For demos, they can be an easy solution for adding a bit of professional flair to your sessions.
To learn more about how you can use synths and samples to liven up your mixes, download your copy of our eBook, The Producer's Guide To Synthesizers & Sweeteners.