I’m often sent demos by bands that I’m working with for feedback and I have to listen with a critical ear. The first listen is always the most important for me, you can only hear something for the first time once! On this first listen I’ll sit and write as many notes as I can wether they’re good or areas that can be improved. To do this effectively I have some certain things I’ll listen out for every time so I thought I'd list a few things down that you might be able to use and be better at looking at your songs objectively. Don’t take my word as gospel though, music is entirely subjective and every song is different. These are just a few things that help me and might give you a good starting point.
1 - Too fast, too slow or just right?
This is an easy one and Tempo is one of the first things I’ll often pick up on. I find the best way to identify if the tempo suits the song is by listening to the vocal and noticing if it feels rushed or too slow.
2 - Is the hook the right hook?
More often than not, the main hook with rock music is a guitar part (but not always). However it’s important to take a step back and with an un-biased ear decide if the hook is good enough or if perhaps there’s something else in the song that stands out more. This can be difficult to do objectively if you’ve been writing and demoing the song for a while so it could be a good idea to get some feedback from an outside perspective.
A good personal example of this is a song call. The main guitar hook that you hear at the start, middle and end of the song started life as a short 4 bar transition. I was so excited by this little part I wanted to demonstrate how it could sound to the band so I ended up putting together my own roughly recorded demo showing how it could sound. They ended up agreeing with me and I‘m really happy with out it came out!
3 - Lock it in
I like to make sure that all of the instruments and vocals patterns lock in tightly together. A simple formula that I work with is listening to the vocal melody and making sure downbeats on the drums accent the right part of the vocal melody. Then I’ll listen to the kick drum and bass guitar to make sure the low end patterns lock in together before finally making sure the guitar strumming patterns match the bass. It’s a balancing act and often you might write one part first and then need to adjust it at a later stage when you start adding other elements. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a simple way of analysing the different parts and making sure they work together.
4 - It’s all about the vocal
Vocals are THE most important part of the song (no matter what your drummer might think). I’ll listen to the melody to make sure all of the syllables fit and flow nicely. Sometimes this can mean changing certain words or tweaking the melody slightly to make things flow better. If you’re going into record it’s also a good to have your main vocal harmonies worked out prior to the session to save time in the studio so start adding them into the demo and find where they work best.
5 - Trim the fat
This is a trap that’s easy to fall into, but also one of the easiest to identify and correct once you notice it and that's writing sections in your song that are in-necessarily long. Unless you’re writing a 9 minute prod epic, you probably don’t need a 16 bar guitar intro followed by an 8 bar band intro that repeats 4 times in the song... I like to make sure all of the sections in a song have a purpose and aren’t just there as filler. Trimming these parts where necessary can often help get songs down from over 4/5 minutes to a much healthier 3:30 range.
So there you have it, 5 areas to look at when you’re producing your next song. Hopefully you found these useful and you can use them when you’re working on your next song.