FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: The Importance of the Demo

A guest blog entry from Tim Rosser, writer of The Boy Who Danced On Air to be presented at this year’s Festival of New Musicals.  

Everything about making a demo takes an extraordinary amount of time. Writing the orchestrations, rehearsing the singers, doing take after take, mixing it all together. Hours and hours and hours of your life. And it can always take longer. It’s basically up to you – how many hours and dollars are you willing to put in. You want it to be perfect because in some cases you need to sell your show with a song or two and the better technology gets, the more perfect it can be. And if you are a product of the catholic school system like me, you never think you’re trying hard enough. It’s the perfect storm. And then there are the practical decisions that make me want to pull my hair out. Who should sing the song? Who should play? How many people does it take to sound like a chorus? Like an orchestra? Will a click track make this song sound super tight or squeeze the life out of it? To use computer generated sounds or acoustic? How much money are we really willing to spend on a track of a song that could very realistically be cut from the show in a month? I have a heart-breaking story (my heart!) for every one of these variables and even so I still don’t feel like I’m in control most of the time Charlie and I go into the studio. I’d like to think I’m a little better at recognizing when we have a real problem on our hands and knowing how to fix it efficiently. But even then, I don’t actually know how much people care when the drums aren’t tuned right or there’s a mysterious purring sound on the guitar track or the tempo is too slow. Maybe no one notices any of those things. Or only some of them. That’s the thing with writing music and recording demos, I guess. It’s all taste and guessing.  
I’d like to think that you can’t make a bad song sound like a good one with a good demo or a good song sound like a bad one with a bad demo, but I don’t believe that. I don’t necessarily believe that

the average listener can tell when a piano/vocal performance of a song has potential to be extraordinary in the future with a full band and a killer singer — probably because I don’t necessarily believe that can tell. Especially now with contemporary musical theatre, where musicals can look and sound like virtually anything. I think musical theatre lovers are pretty adapted to imagining a full orchestra when they hear a pianist play Rodgers and Hammerstein — we know when a piano lick is meant to imply a woodwind solo or a lush string passage. Guitars and active drum parts are game changers. Pianos often don’t do good, clear impressions of these things and they can impact the nature of a song in a gigantic way. Nothing is more bland than a pop-rock score played on solo piano. It’s a style that relies much less on the rich harmonies and variable dynamics that pianos are fantastic at producing and much more on timbre and overlaying of parts. Pianos sound like pianos and overlaying lines on top of other lines with one hand is generally out of the question.

The Boy Who Danced On Airhas been an adventure as far as figuring out the most effective and basic ensemble needed to get the songs across. When we first started writing the show, I would send Charlie demos of me singing over a large array of electronic sounds. Faux-rubabs and domburas, a multitude of drums, auxiliary percussion, harmonium, piano, flutes, loads of things. I was experimenting, trying to see what worked and what didn’t. Looking for something special and transportive. We recorded our first set of demos over those original tracks with professional singers because it was less expensive and timeconsuming than writing charts and bringing in players. Then, every time we performed any of the songs in concerts, I had to soul-search to decide what instruments we needed to recreate the essential sound. At different points I had a synthesizer playing dombura parts, strings pizz-ing to meagerly simulate rubabs, a real dumbek, a djembe pretending to be a dumbek, glock, electric bass, acoustic bass, no bass, a tambourine, leg strap jingles that I still don’t know the real name of…  After lots of experimenting, it boiled down to an acoustic guitar (because the amazing Eric Davis proved to me that it’s actually possible to play the lute stuff I wrote on an acoustic instrument. And it sounds way better than synth. Surprise, surprise.), an assortment of percussion instruments and a hybrid hand drum, a piano and maybe harmonium. Admittedly, we probably need a bass. And maybe an actual rubab. Or maybe not. All subject to change with the wind…  We eventually made new, acoustic, demos because we think they come across better — again, and ever, that question of what comes across better. I still listen to my original demos sometimes and wonder if anything has gotten lost in all paring down and acoust-ifying. And then, sometimes I wonder if I can save myself a lot of trouble, and just perform the songs with a piano. I can’t tell you the answer, but I’m functioning under the belief that a solid demo really matters and it’s better to leave as little as possible to the imagination.

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