How does a demo become a song?

by Todd Madson

Copyright 2004, All Rights Reserved.

By way of explanation

I recently worked on a tune called "Life" that was much more structured and complex than a lot of my other tunes. Most of my other tunes are done in one go and then they leave me alone. Not this one.

This tune had numerous parts, lots of connecting work between the parts and also at least 12 revisions. The darn thing wouldn't leave me alone. The idea was three runthroughs of the progression (the initial version had four or five) with a keyboard solo in the middle and a guitar solo at the end.

Just when I thought I'd finished it, it kept coming up with other ideas.

It was annoying because I thought I was happy with it, I'd announce "okay, it's done" on various message boards upload a new version to zebox and the tune would nag me into re-doing parts of it.

The tune had an unusual structure in that it wasn't your typical verse- chorus-verse type tune, but rather a multipart suite in a six minute instrumental.

Musical Theory

I'm not going to get into the musical theory behind this piece but what I like to do with a piece is play with mixtures of consonance and dissonance as well as tension and resolution to that tension. What I prefer to hear in my head will be different from what you like to hear.


The tools I work with are several electric and acoustic guitars, a banjo, a kalimba, several synthesizers, some percussion, a drum machine I use as a drum composer which triggers a series of software drum machine(s) (actually drum samplers) on my computer as well as a Mac G4, 1.5 gigs of ram, two 80 gig drives and one 60 gig, as well as several different audio sequencing/munging programs. I also use a lot of software synthesizer programs.

What was done first?

The first portion of the tune done was the keyboard and drums track.

Simple enough - I think it took all of a few minutes to bang together and I left it for the next day since it almost was an afterthought. It actually was based on a guitar piece I did (see below for the mp3 demo) at one time.

At this point the track could be properly considered a demo since it was just a rough idea sketched out and no more than a minute or two. But it held some seeds for growth that I heard.

One portion of this keyboards/drums section was actually rewritten since there was a rather odd section of chords (500 KB 128 Kbps MP3) that although interesting was just a little too weird for my tastes.

I wanted the tune to have some dissonance and spice, but it just sounded....wrong between 17 and 23 seconds especially but I liked the remainder.

I went back to the keyboard and worked around a little bit and kept most of the last part of the progression but changed bits of the first. After playing around for a little bit I came up with something suitable to my ears.

I ended up with this (568 KB 128 Kbps MP3) that seemed much nicer to my ears. It sounds much less "forced."

I also took the liberty of adding a synth bass track because the already existing synth bass was a little anemic (you can hear the difference on the MP3 tracks here and the final result below).

Solos - first the keyboard

After I had the progression nailed down it was time for solos. Since I'm not Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman I had to work for some time to get a solo that worked for me in terms of timbre and secondly the actual performance. when it was done I did no more to it.

Here's some noodling sans backing so you can hear what I was doing (or trying to) (45 seconds, 712KB 128KBPS MP3).

You can hear the final keyboard solo on the hi-bit MP3 below.

Solos - secondly the guitar

I worked with this quite a bit - the final part was actually a melody that kept re-occurring from the original demo. I tried using the Roland VS distortion and it was just too thin and tinny for this kind of tune although I left one tiny bit in several of the versions and just scrapped it all at the end.

I ended up going back to the Mesa Boogie studio preamp which is a much better tonal source for guitar than anything else I have on hand.

I tried to make faster/crazier versions of the out-tro solo but they're all best unheard. The demo version seemed to work slightly better.

Here's the guitar based demo (604 KB 128 Kbps MP3) of the final chorus that I liked much better than the actual completed chorus on the "11th final" version. It just felt better even though it was the same guitar, same processors and same basic tone.

It was just a matter of muting one set of tracks and unmuting another to get the demo guitars into the "real final" version of the track.

The Coda Section

The tune originally ended with the same progression it began with and more than one observer noticed the same progression was sort of monotonous. It needed an obvious conclusion.

I then thought of another piece of music I'd written quite a while back but wanted to use someday.

It was just titled "Blue Coda" (1.3 MB, 128 Kbps MP3) and sat around doing nothing for quite some time. Here it is, sans backing.

I then thought of ending the track with this - initially I ended up having a quick fade from the final verse riff to the crazed drumming which starts the coda section. Close but no cigar. It sounded like two pieces instead of one - not my intention.

Luckily computers working in music can be like erasable sketchpads - you can demo things to your hearts content.

The Epiphany

That lasted about a day until I realized (on a long bike ride) that I had a perfect spot to put the drums I'd done: right after the final legato descending lick that concludes the guitar solo and just prior to the progression starting up again!

The hardest part was getting the drumming going in a semi-realistic manner to kickstart this section and to find the right spot to start them so it meshed properly with the keyboard.

Also, programmed drums always seem to sound like programmed drums so you have to overdub fills played by yourself on either drum pads or via the synthesizer keyboard. You can get reasonably close to sounding like real drums but my preferred drummer just isn't easily available these days nor do I have decent mics to mic him up!

I added a final melody guitar solo part and it was done.

It didn't take too long but I was finally satisfied with the result.

So how did it all turn out?
Here's the final version (12th!) of the track as a 14MB 320 Kbps MP3 file:

You be the judge. It's not that different from the first versions except it was all strung together, compression applied and proper fade-ins/outs completed.

The difference between the demos and the final aren't that huge but they are there - it takes a lot of time and effort sometimes to have things work.

All content, copyright 2004 Todd Madson, all rights reserved.

Back to my website.