FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Recording the demo

A guest entry from Julianne Wick Davis, composer of Southern Comfort
Years ago, a friend showed me a YouTube video of a local cable talent show from the early 80’s.  One of the acts was a woman with a thick cockney accent who had a two-sided conversation with herself about demos. “What’s a demo, you say?”  And then answering herself, “Well, Libby, it’s a recordin’ of me singin’ voice.”  I appreciate this woman’s ability to boil it down to the essence, but geez, if only demos were that simple!  The demo is the calling card for your show, and since the score of your show doesn’t come to life unless someone plays it and sings it, demos are obviously the most important piece of representation musicals have.
Recently my collaborator, Dan Collins and I thought it was best to expand upon an earlier version of our demo for SOUTHERN COMFORT as part of our preparation for the NAMT Festival of New Musicals.  We recorded 8 songs several years ago, but since then the show had grown and changed and some of the recordings weren’t even relevant anymore. Our goal was to record as many songs from the show as possible, keeping several of the recordings from the earlier demo.  This kind of goal involves a lot of people and the merging of many schedules, but it is worth every hurdle to get it right. 
Once the list of songs was made, the negotiating of the schedules began.  Since our show uses all acoustic instruments, we decided it was best to record everyone live together as opposed to laying down different tracks.  I had a window of about 7 hours one day where I could gather David Lutken, Joel Waggoner, Lizzie Hagstedt, and Jeffrey D. Smith.  Because I had such an amazing team of musicians, we ended up recording the instrumental tracks for 11 songs in under 5 hours.  Having everyone play together doesn’t leave you a lot of room for fixing any errors.  If one person screws up, you have to start over.  The guitar player’s best take might be the bass player’s worst take, but we took our chances—it was too important to us to have that feeling of a live performance on the demo. 
Which brings up the question:  “To orchestrate or not orchestrate?”  Dan and I decided a long time ago when we did the first round of demo recordings for SOUTHERN COMFORT that the orchestration was important in understanding the story and tone of the show.  Early in our writing careers I remember hearing people say that it’s not important to have orchestration on your demos, after all, they’re demos.  Our experience has shown us otherwise.  Orchestration on your demo helps the producer/artistic director/new works director understand the aesthetic quality of your musical. 
Orchestration was not a question for us; however, one element of our recording that lead to a lot of discussion was whether or not to include any dialogue in songs that contained scenes.  Does it make no sense otherwise?  Will it sound like a bad radio play?  Is it the best idea for this particular show? We decided that even though we had an amazing production at Cap21 in 2011, we could not call it our definitive production because we have made changes since then and probably will continue to make changes as we seek development.  We didn’t want to be left with songs on a demo that suffer from “older-draftitis,” so we decided to leave out the dialogue.
Oh, I should mention that we did not go into a fancy studio.  We had a tiny budget.  We asked friends who had played/sung the score before, many from our Cap21 cast last year.  Instrumentals were done in a classroom at the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.  Vocals were done in the small recording studio in the department, although at one point they were going to be done in my living room in Inwood. 
What this demo experience has taught me is that all you really need is a decent room, a quality microphone, and people who are well-rehearsed.  Now, THAT is boiling it down to the essence, Libby…

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