Songwriters need demos to pitch their songs, and the world (that is...Nashville) is full of studios ready to make them. Being a good demo studio, however, means more than having the ability to make great recordings. It means having the ability to translate a songwriter's rough ideas into a performance that sounds honest and genuine. It takes an experienced demo producer to do that - one who understands how songs tick, and knows how to milk them for all they're worth.
Galen Breen is one such producer. For nearly a quarter-century he has been crafting top notch demos, and giving his studio The Gator Hole a reputation as one of Nashville's finest demo facilities. He graciously took a few minutes in between sessions to give The Song Garage the lowdown on all things demo:
In just a few words, describe what you do.
I take songwriter worktapes and turn them into professional recordings to pitch to
publishers, artists and A&R people.
How long have you been doing demos?
I bought my first recorder in 1987 and did my own song demos for a few years before moving to Nashville in 1989. I really came here to write songs but ended up doing a few demos for fellow NSAI members and pretty soon via word-of-mouth I ended up in the demo business.
How has the songwriting world changed in that time?
Mostly in the format of the recording process and delivery melthodology. Everything is digital now...no cassette duplication and you can deliver songs via mp3 using the internet or your phone now. The basic requirements for the songs themselves haven't changed much...people still want short, catchy, universally-themed songs.
Describe your process. What order do you do things in? What recording gear do you use?
I've been digital since around 1995. I had ADAT digital tape machines for a few years and then switched to a digital hard disk system in 1999. I've never had more than 16 tracks...which is more than enough for song demos...heck...more than enough for major album work if you ask me. I am getting ready to make the plunge into computer-based recording though...just for the convenience sake of swapping files etc. My basic process is to chart the song...find the tempo...put down a static drum pattern as a click track and then add either a guitar or piano part. Then I record the vocals and build the rest of the song around that...usually creating the drum program next...adding the bass....then keys, additional guitars, instruments etc. I've done it this way since day one. I think it's best to have that vocal down before judging what will work best to compliment it. Your track definitely needs to revolve around that vocal performance.
How much of a demo do you do yourself, versus hiring talent?
I'm pretty much a one-man show unless I need fiddle, steel, banjo or some other more exotic instrument. I learned to play 5 instruments in my early teen years....piano, guitar, harmonica, saxophone, and clarinet. By the 80's I'd dropped sax and clarinet and learned electric bass and I added mandolin in the 90s. Although I do sing I rarely add my own voice to demos...outside of the occasional harmony part. The vocal talent in Nashville is so impressive I'd be foolish to do so.
Who are some of the people you hire? Drop some names.
Well....my main male singers are former WB's / Big Machine recording artist Dusty Drake, former CURB artist Jeff Carson, longtime demo standout Ronnie Kimball and a newer guy named Jason Eustice from KY. My main female singers are Julie Burton, Melissa DuVall and Shawna Thompson. I've had the pleasure of working with a multitude of great singers over the past 20 years...Les Taylor & Mark Gray from the band Exile, cajun artist Jo El Sonnier, Buddy Jewell was a main singer of mine for over 10 years 'til he won the initial Nashville Star contest, local greats Jonelle Mosser, Lance Miller, Donna Ullisse, Robin English, Shelly Rann....too many to name really. The amount of vocal talent in town is staggering.
How long does it take to complete a demo, from submission to finished recording?
It can vary quite a bit depending on my schedule and mostly the singer's schedule. I try to get songs back within two weeks.....but it can go longer or much shorter depending on when I have that singer booked. I try not to make my singers drive around Nashville to do one song...I try to have 2-3 songs ready to go for them. The winter months can be particularly trying since colds spread like wildfire through the musician community. Singing isn't one of those jobs where you can just “push through” the workday if you're sick. The vast majority of my clients are extremely understanding under those circumstances. Only on rare occasions do I have to hire a substitute singer to fill the void. As for turnaround time I always try to accommodate writers if they have a rush-pitch for a song. I'll work a weekend if need be to fill that request...as will many of my singers.
What do you think is right about the songwriting world these days, particularly the Nashville scene?
I think that musically it's never been more open to different styles and approaches than it is right now. That's a good thing for sure. No one should feel hemmed-in musically. You still have to follow some lyrical rules of the road of course but even that is loosening-up a bit.
What do you think is wrong?
I'd like to see less co-writing really. While most of the great songs in Nashville come via co-writing I think in the long term it tends to water down the individual style of the music in general.....which is why some folks can only take Country music in small doses at times. You can only hear so many songs about barbecue chicken and Sunday morning before you lose interest. I really dig artists like Aston Shepherd who write on their own a lot and just personalize every iota of their music with style and attitude. But....the co-writing system of the past few decades has made Nashville a gabillion dollars so it's not gonna change anytime soon...I just think we give up a little bit of sincerity at times because of it.
Do you think a song can get any traction these days with a simple guitar/voice or piano/voice demo, or is a fully produced demo the baseline now?
I think it really depends on the song but I'd never suggest a simple single-instrument demo for an uptempo song. If you have a great song like Broken Road you can pull that off with a piano/vocal because of it's lyrical content and melody. Most songs benefit greatly from the signature riff on guitar and a driving rhythm section. Generally the person with the most weapons wins the battle....everything else considered equal. That's not saying every demo should have a 7-piece band but it sure helps to have drums and bass to propel a song along it's way.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview with Galen, where we get down and dirty on what it takes to write a great song, and make it stand out from the crowd.
Galen Breen offers top notch demo recordings for a song. To contact him for more information, visit The Gator Hole Studios website.