Demo Dos and Don'ts

Think you're ready to enter the competitive world of voiceover? Like an actor's headshot for on-camera work, your primary tool as a voice actor is the voiceover demo reel. Indeed, choosing a voiceover demo producer is not all that different from finding a good headshot photographer. You want to listen to samples of a producer's work. You want to find a producer who has a good understanding of the current trends in voiceover casting and what voiceover agents expect, and someone who has proper recording equipment and sound editing programs. Above all, you want to find a producer with whom you are comfortable.

"Hire the person you get along with the best," advised Lauren Adams, a voiceover demo producer and voiceover teacher. "If you like what you have heard on the producer's demos, then it pays to have a private [session] with the person, just reading copy to see if you like him. Picking the right person to work with, who understands you and gets you, is very important—someone who is professional and who works out of a studio. Some people have really nice home studios with good gear, and that's fine, but you need to really investigate because there are people out there who may have ProTools [a popular computer program used to edit sound], but they don't have really good mics, or they don't have all the great programs you can use, or they don't have a music library that is up to date. Even stuff from 2000 is old now."

Said voiceover demo producer William Williams, "I wouldn't just go to any kind of recording studio to do it. You might be able to do it less expensively, but what you're really hiring is a producer who understands what the industry is listening for and also someone who can coach you and direct you in a way that will bring out what the industry is listening for."

Voiceover demo reels are expensive. An average demo that meets today's standards for sound and production quality costs $700-1,200. The average is around $1,000, which usually includes the cost of a few private coaching lessons before the recording session, which most producers recommend. A coach can help you hone in on copy that best suits your age, personality, and vocal sound and ability. Some producers, such as Adams, coach clients themselves. Other producers will initially work with a client to figure out what copy best suits the actor and then recommend the client to a private vocal coach to rehearse.

Any reputable voiceover demo producer will tell you that before you ever step into a recording studio, you need to familiarize yourself with the techniques and terminology associated with voiceover and the sound booth. That means training in a voiceover workshop first, becoming comfortable with a microphone and headphones, and becoming aware of how voiceover is used in current commercials. And it means knowing what your voice sounds like when recorded and where your strengths lie.

Besides watching television and listening to the radio, another avenue for hearing what top voiceover actors are doing is, used by the major talent agencies and advertising agencies to send and receive voiceover auditions over the Internet. While the public is not able to listen to those audition recordings, anyone who logs on to this site has free access to talent agencies' house reels.

"It's a free resource," said Hixon, owner of VoiceBank and the Los Angeles recording studio Voice Box, where he produces voiceover demos. "It's a great place to listen to demos by people who make their living in voiceover and to get some ideas as to where you are and what you need to do. And it's sobering, because there is some very good work."

Commercial Breakthrough

Because voiceover demo reels are so costly, you don't want to waste your hard-earned money on making a demo if you are not prepared. Your time and money are going to be best spent, in the beginning, learning the craft involved with voiceover. As with any area of acting, it takes practice and know-how.

"Really be ready," advised Hixon. "I know there is a certain anxiousness, and it's like, 'Hey, I've been told I've got a great voice,' and perhaps you do, but time is expensive in a studio, and that's not the place to get ready. That's the place to go when you are ready."

Hixon, along with most voiceover demo producers, recommends that anyone breaking into voiceover focus on making a commercial demo first. As Hixon explained, commercials are the easiest avenue for a voice actor to break into (though by no means are they easy). Other areas of voiceover—such as animation, promo, audio books, and movie trailers—tend to be more difficult to break into and typically rely on a smaller pool of talent, compared with voiceover for television and radio commercials.

If you are interested in breaking into other areas of voiceover outside the commercial realm, it's strongly advised that you make separate demos for each of these categories. For instance, you might have a voiceover demo for your commercial work and another for animation. For the purposes of this article, we will concentrate on commercial demos.

And if you're "making" a demo, that means creating commercial-sounding clips without any tape from jobs you've worked. That's where a good producer comes in: Reputable producers will provide appropriate ad copy from aired commercials, or copy similar to commercials that are currently made, and supply the necessary sound effects, including music, to make the demo sound as close to a series of actual commercial clips as possible.

"You want the person who is listening to your demo to think, I can absolutely hear that person doing commercial spots; that is what it's going to sound like [when I send him on auditions]," said Hixon, who added that voice actors need to be able to instantly recreate anything they've recorded on their demo reels. Just like a headshot needs to look like you, a demo reel needs to sound like your voice. So avoid letting a producer overly manipulate the sound of your voice when editing your demo.

Today's Trends

If you are creating your first voiceover demo, or you are returning to the voiceover field after a long hiatus, you need to be aware of some important trends. First, today's demo reels are no longer than two minutes; most average between 60 and 90 seconds.

Said Hixon, "Do not make a four-minute demo. Just don't." Hixon also recommended, "Keep it simple. Keep it close to who you are. Don't go in mad directions. Start and end with your best."

But just because today's demos are so much shorter than in years past, it's no easier to produce a demo. If anything, it's more of a challenge to piece together eight to 10 short clips into a seamless 90 seconds. However, the advent of digital technology has made it much easier to update your voiceover demo reel should you wish to add or subtract cuts from your reel.

The other crucial thing to know is that the trend in today's commercial voiceover market is for "real" voices, meaning that most advertising agencies are seeking voices that are more "natural" and less "announcer-y." There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but what is most valuable now in a voice actor is acting skills.

"I would say that it's all about good acting," said Hixon of today's casting trends. "You will often see in [commercial breakdowns] that the part is calling for, say, a man, 35-45, non-announcery. The trend is toward real. The trend is toward truthful. The trend is toward acting. The great thing is that it opens up opportunities for people. It's a much more diverse field now."

Added Adams, "You have to have talent in acting to be a good voiceover artist. The trend now is for more of a real sound—less pandering to the audience, less of a heavy-hitting hard sell. It's a kinder, gentler advertising world now. I think the believability of voiceover reads has to be there. The genuine feel of a real person has to be there now."

Another trend in commercial voiceover casting is the use of "edgy" voices. As Williams explained, this type of voice is the kind often heard in spots that are "argumentative or sarcastic." Said Williams, "If you listen to a Carl's Jr. spot, it's like they're having a fight with you or something. There is a lot of that now."

There seems to be a difference of opinion regarding the versatility an actor should display on his demo. Some producers recommend that you show off a wide range of readings—dramatic, comedic, edgy. Other producers will tell you that if you fill a certain kind of voiceover niche and that is where your strengths lie, you should concentrate on selling that to agents. The bottom line is that you need to only include your best work, and work that represents only your strengths, not your weaknesses.

As for packaging, you want to send your CD in a standard jewel case that has a readable spine on which your name can be printed. You also want to create professional-looking graphics that may or may not include your headshot. Most agents will tell you they don't care what you look like, only what you sound like.

Some voice actors have embraced the digital age and now prefer to send their demos by e-mail or by sending a link to an agency. For an annual fee of $199, a voice actor can also join, where he can have his own page that includes his demo reel, as well as video clips from commercials he's booked. He may also include his headshot, bio, and resumé.

It is not recommended that you make 1,000 CDs of your first voiceover demo. There are only so many agents who specialize in voiceover. So make 30-50 CDs. If you're lucky enough to get an agent to take you on as a client, you're going to have to make a new CD cover that has your agency's information on it. You also don't have to update your reel the instant you book your first voiceover job. Most producers and agents recommend that you update your demo every 18 months or two years to keep up to date with the latest industry trends and standards and to add more recent clips from jobs you've booked. Also make sure that as you book jobs, you get a copy of the commercial on a CD or DAT tape.

Making the Most of Your Session

So you've taken some voiceover classes, you've hired a producer to record your first demo, you've chosen ad copy to read, and you've rehearsed the copy, hopefully with a coach. It's now time to record it. The recording session will typically last two to two-and-a-half hours, and you can expect to do at least eight to 10 takes for each piece of copy you read that day. Studios charge hourly rates and range in price, typically $75-175 per hour.

Once you've recorded your copy and the producer is satisfied with it, he or she will then spend time editing the pieces together and incorporating appropriate sound effects and music to create a polished demo. You can expect to walk out of a producer's studio that same day with a finished master of your demo in hand. Be sure to get a copy of the recording session on a CD in the event that you ever want to update your reel.

The most common advice demo producers give for first-timers—besides being as prepared as possible on the day of your session—is to relax and trust the producer's direction. Listen to your producer's suggestions. Again, you want to find a producer you feel comfortable being around, as you want to be as natural as possible in your recording.

Hixon had a few detailed suggestions for voice actors when they step into a recording booth for the first time: "Don't fidget. The microphone picks things up. Don't have loose change in your pocket. Leave the jangly necklaces at home. When you approach a microphone don't hesitate to make sure that the part of the mic you are talking into is pointing just below your nose. A good rule of thumb is that you want to be three to four fingers away from a mic. Understand that when you turn your head down to read, it changes the tone. So maybe adjust the music stand that is holding your script so that it is in such a way that you can be looking down and still have the relationship with the mic."

Hixon also recommended that actors munch on an apple or drink some apple juice just before stepping into the recording booth. According to him, the pectin found in apples helps gets rid of "lip noise," which can interfere with a good recording.

Finally, the best place to find voiceover demo producers, if not by referral, is through The Voiceover Resource Guide, a quarterly publication available at Samuel French Bookstore. The guide has a comprehensive listing of voiceover agents, coaches, and demo producers. And, of course, Back Stage West is another excellent source for finding out about any of these services, particularly in this week's Spotlight on Voiceover. BSW