“Just one more listen,” I thought to myself, “because I need perspective.” This went on for the duration of the writing/tracking process of my recent solo project, A Calmer Collision.
I felt like an addict, crawling back to those demos again and again. Was it good? What needed to change? Could I even tell anymore? I was hooked on the possibility that I might discover something new that I hadn’t considered before, and though many times I did, I’m not sure that my system was doing me any favours.
The problem with this kind of obsessive listening is that it sucks you into subjectivity, even if you think you’re liberating yourself from it, like I was trying to do. There are so many opportunities to derail your objectiveness through the course of a song’s development. Losing perspective during the writing process holds the fundamental issue of potentially convincing yourself that you have a great song on your hands when you in fact don’t. Then, even if you move forward with an incredible song, you chance losing perspective in production, which is why we have producers and why, more often than not, great music is a collaborative effort. This is also why self-producing is so difficult and why relying on listening back to yourself to gain perspective is a double-edged sword.
Which leads me to 'demo-itis', or the process of favouring a recording because it’s familiar to you. The inherent problem with demos and rough mixes is that we’re often so excited to hear the development of a song that we end up over-listening and then treating these works-in-progress as though they were gospel. We condition ourselves to something rife with arbitrary decisions. At best, demos and rough mixes should be viewed as impressions of a song and a means to convey its essence to people privileged enough to be involved in the song’s creation.
Most of us suffer from the symptoms of demo-itis to at least some degree and are extremely hesitant to find a cure, because if we only had one more listen… But if you’re ready to take your medicine, here’s some for those who are artists or who are self-producing:
• Limit the exposure you have to your demos. Recognise that these are just sketches to show the potential of a song but that, in its current form, it probably hasn’t reached its potential.
• Be true to your vision but keep an open mind about a song’s direction. Sometimes the least obvious choices end up being the most compelling.
• Keep your inner circle small and avoid getting too many opinions. Nothing makes your symptoms worse than hanging around other sick people.
• Recognise that you are not being objective, which is okay but only to a point.
Engineers and producers who are dealing with clients affected by demo-itis need to take something different though:
• Try to discourage lengthy times between when a project is finished recording and when it gets mixed. This way the artist won’t have a lot of time to acclimatise to the rough mixes.
• If you feel really strongly about an idea that the artist isn’t responding to because of demo-itis, try some reverse-conditioning. Often an artist will come around to an idea if they sit with it long enough to shake the sound of the initial demo.
• Be decisive (because it’s your job to be), but make sure that you have a reason for your decisions. Make logical, compelling arguments and hope that the artist will listen to reason. Just saying “because it sounds better” will inevitably end in a stalemate.
• Recognise that you are not being objective either and that in the end you are working to fulfill the artist’s vision. Ultimately it’s their music and you have to respect that.
This article wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t address the role of rough mixes to mixing engineers. There are two polarised schools of thought: Some mixers embrace the rough mix as a road map of the song, a sort of guide for what the artist and producer’s visions were. Others don’t want to be tainted by preconceived notions of what direction the song should take and they believe that the song itself, faders up, should provide the road map.
I personally feel that it depends on the artist and the producer. If you are being hired to mix because the team believes that your vision can contribute something, I think that a rough demo only complicates things. On the other hand, if the team’s vision is strong and you’re really only being hired to iron things out, it’s completely understandable to reference the rough mix. Either way, mixing engineers tend to have the most exposure to the affects of demo-itis through the expectations of the artist, producer, manager, label, etc., and should take the same medicine as producers dealing with the problem.
My personal demo-itis story ended in rehab. What I learned through self-producing is that it’s a very different job than producing another artist. My demo-listening system only worked for me for a while, at which point I had to recognise my condition and get some outside help. I was fortunate enough that a colleague and friend of mine, David Bottrill, signed on to co-produce A Calmer Collision with me or else I’d still be feverishly reaching for those demos. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, though.
Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.
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