by Susan Berkley
As I often say in my voice-over training programs, "We all love radio, but almost no one gets rich doing it... unless they do voice-overs." I still remember how shocked I was when, after five years of being in radio, I did my first agency voice-over and got paid more for twenty minutes of work than I made in a whole week on the air! Hopefully you, too, have been as pleasantly stunned.
But the question remains: How does one turn the occasional voice-over into a steady flow of high paying sessions?
Certainly not by accident. Top voice-over talent makes as much as $800,000 a year, and to get to this level takes an effective marketing plan and a killer demo tape. In the competitive world of high-paying voice-overs, producers and casting directors don't care about your years of radio experience or all those hours you've spent in the production studio. They won't even look at your résumé, and your cover letter is merely a formality. They want to hear how you sound. Just as a Program Director can tell in the first ten seconds of listening to an aircheck whether or not someone is right for his station, so can a producer tell in the same few seconds whether or not you are right for his spot.
With that in mind, here are eleven things that will really make a difference in your demo tape and your voice-over career!
1) NO LOCAL SPOTS: A demo tape for voice-overs at the ad agency level is very different from the tape you would send to apply for a job as Production Director or air talent. Although you might be perfectly capable of voicing a national campaign for one of the big auto makers (a campaign which could net you thousands of dollars in talent fees), producers and casting directors cannot extrapolate how you would sound in such a campaign by listening to the spots you did for the local stereo chain. A big media buy can cost the advertiser hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they are very nervous about hiring "local" talent when so much is as stake. But there is a way to convince them you can handle the job even if you've never done a national spot.
Listen for national TV and radio copy that's right for your voice, tape it, transcribe it, and reproduce it for your tape. There's nothing devious about this. It's for demonstration purposes only, and you're showing them how you would sound if you had actually done the job. Caution: just
don't pick copy for well-known spots that everyone knows you didn't do, such as a spot voiced by a celebrity.
To really sound convincing, keep a lookout for jingles or donuts for nationally advertised products that make their way into the radio station. Use these on your demo wherever possible for a really impressive effect.
2) KEEP THE DEMO SHORT: No more than two and one-half minutes long. This means five or six selections, fifteen to twenty seconds each. Don't put the entire spot on the tape at the risk of boring the listener. Cut to the next spot right when you feel the listeners attention might wander. For variety and spice, feel free to throw in a quick tag (for a national product, of course) or a TV bumper or promo.
3) KEEP COMMERCIALS, NARRATIONS AND
CHARACTER VOICES ON SEPARATE TAPES: (or separate sides of the same cassette). A producer casting a medical narration will never sit through your Daffy Duck voice to get to your narrative samples. For a commercial reel, show a range of styles and products: soft and romantic, hard and driving, natural and sincere. Choose from a wide range of products such as cars, foods, cosmetics, retail (national chains), pharmaceutical, toys, etc.. Try to include at least one spot where you are portraying a real per-son. Show some acting ability.
4) NO SAME SEX DOUBLES: If you're doing multiple person copy, don't put a person of the same sex on your tape. They may get confused as to which voice is yours. Or worse, they may hire the other guy!
5) CHOOSE BRILLIANT COPY AND USE HUMOR WHENEVER POSSIBLE: When listening to TV or radio for copy for your tape, choose well-written spots that grab your attention. Look for a range of emotion and humor. Pay attention to trends in advertising and go for types of spots that are popular now. Notice which voices you seem to hear over and over again and try to emulate their style. Spots are cast a lot by "type" and you can easily adjust your tape to reflect what's hot. For example, the trend in voices now seems to be more natural, less hyped.
6) DON'T DO CHARACTERS UNLESS YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING: Nothing is more embarrassing that a bad French accent, or a bad Tweety Bird! When doing character voices, create your own. If you try to imitate someone else's characters, the best you can be is second best.
7) BE SUBTLE WITH MUSIC AND EFFECTS: Make sure the production music compliments your voice and doesn't drown it out. Be wary of excess horns or drums. Don't use harmonizers or reverb. Your tape should be a realistic representation of what you can produce in the studio.
8) GET PROFESSIONALLY PRINTED LABELS: Packaging speaks volumes about your professionalism. Most duplication houses can also generate printed cassette labels, and because demo tapes often sit on a shelf, make sure you label the spine in an eye-catching color. I use wrap around peel and crack labels on the box of my demo cassette.
9) DUPLICATE IN REAL TIME: Hopefully, you'll be blanketing the market with your demo, and that means hundreds of copies of your tape. High speed duplication may be cheaper, but it can make you sound like you're talking with your hand over your mouth. Regular bias tape is fine. No need to spend extra for chrome. Professional duplication houses are usually cheaper than recording studios.
10) DON'T PRODUCE YOUR OWN VOICE-OVER DEMO TAPE: You should be concentrating on the delivery, not the VU meters. Does the movie "Ishtar" ring a bell? Consider bringing a coach into the studio to help give you direction.
11) CONSIDER RECORDING YOUR TAPE IN A PROFESSIONAL STUDIO: This is a must if your station facility is less than top of the line and doesn't have a current production library. Remember that a great tape can make or break your career. Investing in a professionally produced tape is something to consider. A word of caution: thoroughly research the studios in your area before you plunk down your money. Make sure the studio has produced demos for other voice-over people, and ask to hear samples. Hourly rates can range from $25 to $350. Expensive is not always better. A 2-track facility is probably all you need. Ask about any hidden costs such as tape charges or needle drop fees. Go there yourself and make sure you feel comfortable. Stand in the booth and make sure it's sound proof (don't laugh -- it's happened to me!) Some studios will even provide a coach or can recommend one. We produce demo tapes in our 2-track facility for as low as $400 complete; and that includes coach, copy, music, engineer and unlimited studio time. I have also coached many tapes over the phone in facilities with a phone patch.
Voice-overs, for me, has been a wonderful way to keep making money with my voice without the crazy hours or politics of broadcasting. I do an average of four sessions a week and make more than I ever could hope to as an employee of a radio station.
If you are serious about doing more voice-overs, it will be my pleasure to critique your tape free of charge. Send a cassette with a self-addressed stamped envelope to Susan Berkley, Berkley Productions, Inc., 611 Broadway, Suite 815, NY, NY 10012. We would also be happy to send you information on our seminars and cassette courses.
Susan Berkley is a New York based voice-over artist who has voiced thousands of commercials and industrials. Her clients include AT&T, The Travel Channel, Sony, The Lifetime Television Network, Citibank, Amtrack, and many others. A former radio personality, she has served as DJ and news anchor for some of New York City's top radio stations including a stint as Howard Stern's beleaguered traffic reporter. In addition to her busy voice-over career, she runs Berkley Productions, a voice-over training program with offices in New York and Los Angeles.