YOUR TURN! : What Does Your Demo Do For You?

Last year, Christopher Hogwood and the Handel & Haydn Society were in town at BAM and I wanted to sing for him while he was here, but there just wasn’t time. He asked if I had a tape, so I took him my demo tape. Within a few months, he called my management regarding me, and I received a contract to sing Sesto in Giulio Cesare with the Handel & Haydn Society for the following year up in Boston (just this last March). It was a great gig, and I’m so glad that I gave him that tape!
Marquerite Krull, Soprano

I have a suggestion for students wanting audition tapes. If there is a school or college near you that has a program for training recording engineers (as we have here at Golden West College) you might inquire about the possibility of being a volunteer subject for their student engineers. I also have a general suggestion from our faculty regarding taping in general. If you are using analog tape, use High Bias Type II or Metal tape for better highs without background hiss. And from several sources: DAT tape is not good for archiving. It starts to lose content rather quickly. Get your materials off DAT and onto some other medium ASAP. DAT is best used as transitional storage, not permanent. Henrietta McKee Carter, Chair Music and Dance, Golden West College

When I moved to LA from San Francisco, I mailed out several unsolicited cassettes to vocal contractors and commercial music houses. I had recorded two national commercials in San Francisco, singing the Habañera for Peter Pan Peanut butter and a wordless vocalize for Mazda. I attended a Screen Actors Guild workshop for studio singers, and found out important names and addresses. From that one tape, mailed out five years ago, I now am employed regularly as a studio singer for film, television and album recordings. I also contract recording sessions for film composers Mark Isham and Jeff Beal, and am sent unsolicited tapes all the time.

What I look for in a singer is flexibility (the ability to sing with straight tone or vibrato in a variety of styles and languages) pitch accuracy and consistency and musicality. Also necessary: fabulous sight reading ability, a sense of humor and a laid back, non-diva(o) attitude. The most successful studio singers are friendly, talented and easy to work with. They get called back again and again.Commercials are using operatic singers, and film composers want a classical sound. There is work but it takes perseverance, a good demo tape and finding people in high places that will mentor you.

Joan Beal. Joan and her husband, composer/trumpeter Jeff Beal, recorded a duo CD of wordless vocals, The Gathering, for Triloka/Mercury Records. The Beals live in Studio City, with three- year-old son, Henry.

Demo tapes are great, but there is no guarantee that the people receiving them actually take the time to play them. I created a fabulous demo tape from various video recorded performances of mine, but from the 35+ tapes I sent out, only three companies actually sat down and watched…of those companies I have gotten offers and/or contracts!

Now I really need to compile a new tape, but getting quality videos from professional performances is difficult because of the musicians union. My husband is an excellent videographer using TV quality cameras, but he isn’t allowed to film for me!
Name Withheld

I haven’t had much luck with demo tapes because my voice seems to be changing all the time and I never get my money’s worth out of them. I’m a bass-baritone in my thirties, and that’s a time of great change for my voice type. I always like my demos for the first three months and than refuse to send them out after that. Our business is too competitive to risk sending out demos that don’t reflect ones present vocal state.
Name Withheld

Doing demos is always precarious for me because I don’t know what the day will bring in terms of allergies, sickness, stress, bad voice, bad weather, etc. I shared expenses with another singer to record my last demo, and I’m glad I did. I would have been without voice in a relatively short while had I sung continuously. Switching off with the other singer made things more bearable, not to mention less expensive. It’;s also important to have another pair of ears around to listen carefully and criticize constructively.

You asked for good/bad experiences about studios/demo tapes. The biggest problems I see in the studio are caused by a lack of communication between the singer and the recording engineer. If you are lucky enough to have a Producer on the project, his job is to be the link between all aspects of the production. Many sessions do not have a producer present. Many engineers are very technically adept yet most are not singers and some are not even musicians. If you are fortunate enough to work with an engineer who is a singer and a player, there is a better chance for communication on several levels. Singers do tend to have a special language at times, and, as we all know, this can be intimidating to non-singers. My advise to all singers who find themselves in the studio environment, for the first time or the 40th time, is this: Make friends with the engineer! Try and find a common ground between the two of you and encourage an open line of communication. It’s almost as important as having a good relationship with the sand man at a live gig. These professionals can be your biggest ally.
Katherine Montcrieff, New York

One of the great hidden secrets of the twentieth century is Sean Swinney in Manhattan (212/799-4632). He has amazingly reasonable rates (strictly hourly, with no change in rate depending on whether he’s editing, mastering, listening, etc., which is where others bleed you dry). He has tons of excellent equipment with which he is very fluent, and a beautiful piano. On top of all that, he’s incredibly mellow, totally patient, very professional, a real sweetie and a total pleasure to work with. And he has a very cute dog.
Name Withheld

I don’t much like demo tapes, as they usually sound too much like studio recordings. I did make a demo in a church with professionals and that worked out OK. Unfortunately, like most demos, it still lacked immediacy. I try to get segments out of live performances of concert work and have a nice video of segments from opera that I have done. That works pretty well. Name Withheld (aol name not correct)

Studios: I have used three in New York. I think you have to consider the studio, the engineer, your own voice (mine is full operatic lyric, full medium-sized, old-fashioned Italian technique), and the type of music you are recording. I like to record straight, with as few edits as possible, and to me the basic acoustic quality of the studio is the most important thing. Since I do mostly opera, I like a lace with lots of natural warmth and resonance.

Triton Sound/David Smith. The acoustics in Town Hall were really good for my voice. This is the only place where the tape actually sounded like me, high notes and all. Getting the balance and mike placement took a really long time, the engineering could possibly have been more efficient and the editing was just OK, and that could be an issue if you want to do a lot of cut and paste, which I didn’t. The editor is very knowledgeable (which should save time but for some reason didn’t). This place fills up pretty fast, so book early. Oddly enough, when taping I also put my little old mini-recorder up in the first balcony and that was the tape which came out the best. But, for my next tape of arias, I will definitely go back here.

Juilliard School. An OK studio, not as good as Town Hall but big enough to get natural reverberation. But the highest notes were a problem. For me all the notes above the staff were a problem and the engineer had to do everything kind of lower, which took a lot of color out of it. The engineer did a good job with balance, but it still sounded far away, and the editing was just OK. The editor was knowledgeable about the rep, but I felt rushed here, as if I were being treated second best to the school’s own students. I would only go back here in a pinch.

Adrian Carr Music Designs. Adrian Carr is a superb engineer and a terrific editor with a good ear, although not an opera or classical expert. But his studio is really small, and although he has it set up with great panels, and is an expert at getting the best sound out of it, I wouldn’t use the studio again for opera recordings. It just wasn’t natural sounding enough, and the high notes were a problem. But I would give it a try for more intimate songs. I think Carr also does on-site work and that would probably be a very good bet.

Small Recorders. I currently have three. One is the SONY 580V, a great little workhorse recorder, perfect for carrying to lessons, rehearsals, auditions, etc., With a built-in mike, the sound is fair; with a small, separate mike the sound is pretty realistic, but I wouldn’t use it for demos or for splitting hairs on voice quality. Cost was under $150. Another machine is the Sony Walkman Professional WM-D3 According to the experts, this is a great recorder but I don’t really like it. I think it makes everything sound harsh and tinny, even with some adjustments and a good mike. No one likes the tapes I made with this recording. The buttons and controls are tiny and hard to operate. You need headphones for playback so it’s not the best for times when you want to stop and listen frequently. The sound is better than the 580V, but not as good as the TCM-5000EV. Cost was about $200. Sony Stereo Cassette Recorder TCM-5000EV. This one is bigger (about ten x six inches), not huge but not pocket-sized, but it’s small enough to leave in a studio or setting up at the back of a hall for a recital or impromptu taping. You can operate this one without your glasses! The tapes made with this sound the best to me no matter where I play them back. Supposedly the recording mechanism is the same as in the Sony Walkman Professional, but to me this one sounds rounder and more natural. I have gotten the best results with this recorder. Cost about $450.
Name Withheld