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What is a Demo Song? How To Create Pro Music Demos

May 3, 2024 - Create a first impression for your music with song demos! Learn what a song demo is and how to create demos that showcase your music and grab the attention of producers, labels, or fans.

Guy and girl making music

Demos? Masters? Mixes? For anyone starting out in the music industry, a lot of the jargon used in the creative process can be vague and unhelpful.

If you’re a songwriter, producer, composer, or anyone who creates music, there’s a good chance you’ve already created a demo without realising it. You might have recorded a vocal melody on your phone, or used your DAW to record a chord progression that you want to develop later.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the raw, unpolished world of demos!

What is a Demo?

A demo is a recording of the foundational elements of a song. Think of it like a rough pencil sketch, which will then be developed into a painting. A demo lays out the future intention of the song, and demonstrates the musical ability of the performer or producer.

The confusing part is that the word ‘demo’ is used in many different ways. It’s an umbrella term for everything ranging from phone recordings, to songs recorded in a studio space. You can also use your demos for many different things. A demo project can be something that is purely for the artist’s reference, or you can shop it around to producers, publishers, or labels.

The one common feature that unites all demos is that they are unfinished, and typically not ready for commercial consumption.

History of the Demo

In the past, demos would be recorded using very crude equipment. Studio time has always been a significant investment for any artist, and boom-boxes or four track cassette recorders were easily accessible and cheaper for an artist to record on. The limited number of tracks on your average Tascam Portastudio meant that demos were often recorded with minimal instrumentation.

With the advent of the 21st century, personal computers with powerful DAWs became more ubiquitous and it became much easier to record high quality music demos on a budget. If you want to create a demo in 2024, you don’t need it to be limited to 4 or 8 tracks!

In 2005, Nirvana released a compilation of some of their best demos called Sliver: The Best of the Box. It’s a great example of the different forms demos can take, ranging from acoustic home demos recorded on a boom box, to fully fledged studio recordings which are rough around the edges.

Demos vs. Master Recordings

“Hang on, you just said demos aren’t ready for commercial consumption, yet Nirvana released an entire album full of them?”

That’s because Nirvana’s masters were the first thing people heard. If people had heard all their rough demos first, it’s unlikely they’d have the commercial power to successfully release an album full of demos.

If demos are sketches in the notebooks of artists, then masters are the paintings hanging in galleries. Masters are songs that contain the best takes, the best instrumentation, they’ve had a full stereo mixdown, and they’ve undergone a process called mastering, which optimizes the stereo mix and makes it sound great across all mediums and formats.

It’s increasingly common now for artists to complete and self-fund the mixing and mastering process before passing it on to labels or publishers. In the past, artists would create a demo in the hope of a label funding the recording, mixing, and mastering. However, demo recording is still a vital part of the creative process for a variety of reasons.

Why are demos important?

For Yourself

Have you ever gone to bed after a long day, and just as your head hits the pillow, an incredibly catchy melody pops into your head. “I’ll record the full thing tomorrow” you tell yourself. After 8 hours of sleep the hook has gone, along with any chance of turning it into the single that launches your career.

This was the exact situation legendary hit-maker and producer Max Martin found himself in just over 25 years ago. As he was drifting off to sleep, a song idea popped into his head. After dragging himself out of bed, he recorded a short vocal line on his dictaphone. That vocal line ended with the words “Hit me baby one more time.”

Demos bridge the gap between your brain and your masters. They help capture the moment when creativity strikes, and are key in helping you remember the ideas that resonate with you the most.

The lesson here: always make demo recordings, no matter how tired you are!

For Others

Having demos is crucial before going into a studio to record your track. In most creative industries time is money, and the music industry is no exception. Studio engineers need to have something to work with, such as bpm, melodic elements, song structure, and basic lyrics so that you can get started. If you’re spending most of your studio time working out the basic elements of your track, then there’s a good chance you’re going to start hemorrhaging money.

Not only that, but you also run the risk of potentially having to include your studio engineer in any royalty splits for songwriting if you use their ideas in your song. Having a solid demo project to refer to makes everything run smoothly and makes things far less complicated.

A good demo can also be shopped around to labels, publishers, and other artists if you want to provide songwriting services to them. In this case, a more sophisticated demo will have to be made, one that conveys more than just the basic elements of the song.

Man creating music using MIDI controller

How to Create a Demo

While recording a demo on your phone is straightforward enough, creating something more polished can present a unique challenge. Should it be mixed? Mastered? Should it be recorded in a studio or at home?

Typically if you’re pitching your demos to labels, publishers, and artists, it helps to have things recorded in a DAW. Phone demos won’t do, and it’s unlikely they’ll leave a lasting impression on whoever hears them.

Online DAWs like Soundtrap are perfect for musicians who are just getting started with the recording process. One of the most important things a DAW has to do is avoid being a hindrance on the creative process, especially if you are trying to capture the moment when recording a demo. Soundtrap has a user-friendly interface, cross-platform capability, MIDI capability and unlimited cloud storage; features which are arguably essential for any modern DAW to have.

Ultimately it’s about recording at the highest quality possible and operating within a reasonable budget. If you need to take the music into the studio, try and find studios with lower rates and remember the purpose of your demos.

They are to convey intention; the real budget will be spent on the masters. If you need access to high quality microphones to record at home, hiring equipment can be a great option.

When I’m songwriting for clients, I’ll typically record demos in my home studio, and provide a tracking mix (a simple mix which I do whilst I’m recording) which allows them to record vocals in a dedicated booth or studio.

I’ll also apply some very light mastering so clients can get a clearer picture of what the master will sound like. In the past, I have also used AI mastering tools for my demos. However, when I was recording the masters I recruited an experienced mastering engineer.


Demos are an essential part of the songwriting and recording process. They are a springboard for experimentation, an opportunity to get your ideas heard, and a great way to have fun! Recording music should always be a fun experience, and demos offer a great opportunity for pure musical expression.

About the author

Max McLellan is a composer, songwriter, and audio engineer with credits ranging across film, TV and radio. He provides composition, mixing, and mastering services through his company MKM Audio.

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