Sonic Sketches: The Virtues of the Demo Recording

How Low-Fi Recordings Provide a Unique Glimpse into an Artist's Evolution

This week I had a massive realization...

Demo recordings or demo-quality recordings might be my favorite musical genre.

Stick with me on this one.

This week I realized that I have a thing for demo-quality recordings.

30 years ago, The Beatles' Anthology would massively influence my musical sensibilities. My dad was a decent Beatles fan but rediscovered the band when that series was released. His enthusiasm for the newly revealed demo material was my entry point to the Beatles catalog. In fact, I wouldn't hear the official releases of many of the songs on these three compilations until I was well into high school.

I remember spending late nights listening to these demos with my dad. He would highlight all the absurd side chatter and differences from the studio releases. From then on, the demo established this self as the most urgent portrayal of any musical artist.

Later, in 1998, my dad would give me a Steely Dan compilation called Android Warehouse; it featured two discs worth of early Becker & Fagen material that would either end up on the cutting room floor or on later Steely Dan Releases. Hearing so many familiar songs in such a stripped-down presentation intoxicated me. It was life-changing to hear a song's DNA. When you listen to a demo, it's like looking at the earlier evolutionary stage of a creature you're familiar with. You recognize the evolutionary ancestor as alien, yet some aspect maintains its familiarity.

In my adolescence, I would track down Weezer demos from obscure FTPs. Weezer was an incredibly forward-thinking band in this regard; for a while, they released 2-3 demos a week on their official website. I would obsessively compare the demos against each other to see how the songs would change and develop. Eventually, there would be entire albums whose demos I preferred to the official release.

Eventually, I discovered independent home recordings and scores of artists whose recording style was barely above demo quality. Artists like Elliot Smith, They Might Be Giants, of Montreal, and many others released incredibly sophisticated music recorded on a shoestring budget. This music often ended up having the same (albeit) unintentional roughness I found captivating in demo recordings.

I've been trying to unpack what I find exciting about demo recordings. One thing I find striking is how much unintentional emotional content comes through in a demo recording. How a person sings on an "average" day differs from when they're supposed to be "on" in the studio. Artists try things in these recordings to see what sticks, and often it's really unique and exciting.

The scale is also very approachable.

Demo and home recordings were encouraging because the quality seemed attainable and showed that a good song could cut through any recording quality. Demos have a rough texture, almost an antidote to pristine pop production. I've always loved the sound of low fidelity and distortion. The harmonic content is copious and produces an impressionistic quality that tricks my ear into hearing things that aren't there.

This affinity for the demo has undoubtedly shaped my music. I have often aspired to sound like other people's demos or low-budget recordings. It's an aesthetic, like shooting photos on Polaroid film. Demos leave an intimate document of an artist's journey. When you listen to a demo, you feel like you're in on a secret -- a special moment when a song is still mostly potential. It's encouraging to see what your favorite artists start with. It humanizes them, so you can't think they just come up with this stuff fully formed and ready for release, which takes the pressure off recording.

I hope that what most people take away from this post is that they should be recording demos on their phones of songs that they never intend to produce professionally. I think music would become even more fascinating and meaningful if more people left idiosyncratic records of their musical ideas behind. So if you haven't considered singing songs into voice memos on your phone, maybe now's the time to start.