How to Produce Your Voiceover Demo - Basics to Help You Get the Show on the Road

Tom-Richards-1By Tom Richards

So you’re expanding your horizon beyond your full-time radio position to take your first step into freelance voiceovers. And, at least this time, you’re going to sidestep all those demo producers cooing of fame and fortune – hey, maybe next time. For now, though, your voiceover demo’s looming before you like it’s the Super Bowl and you’re nothing but a lowly water boy. You may not believe it now, but everything’s going to be okay. By identifying your best reads, by selecting material that showcases your strengths, by producing audio with variety and texture, and by editing and sequencing for maximum impact, you can produce a demo that’ll not only get you in the game, but score, too.

A demo for voiceover work is similar to the aircheck demo you use for a radio gig – it shows what you do, without going into great detail. It’s hard to overemphasize its importance. Like an actor’s headshot, your voiceover demo has to be a concise yet accurate picture of you at your best. It’s your calling card, and since first impressions last the longest, you need it to be as good as can be. You know that few people have so short an attention span as a PD zipping through audition tapes, so pacing and composition will be critical.

Yeah, producing your demo means putting a lot on the line. But it’s also a great opportunity to have a whole bunch of fun. Think of it as a hook tape of your personal greatest hits, all Power 1’s and 2’s, one…bang! …after…pow!…the other…boom! No stiffs, no album cuts, no filler – just pure 100% PrimeAA filet. The best of the best, and nothing but the best.

Step One: The Mirror

Yet while you may be eager to get the show on the road, first block out some time for an honest-to-goodness, no-fooling, may-God-strike-me-dead-if-I’m-not-totally-truthful inventory of your personal voice assets. Take a deep breath…this could sting a bit.

Oh, all right, let’s go. How do I know what my strengths are?

When you’re at your most comfortable in front of the mic, when you feel you’re communicating most effectively, where do you place your voice? Chances are that’s where your “money read” is, the one you use when you’re at your very best. And if you remember only one thing, let it be this: Your demo must always begin with your money read.

Why? Because that’s the only part you know they’ll listen to.

Sure, they may wade in a little deeper than that, but you can’t be certain. So open fire with guns blazing. Your money read is your best shot to draw them into the rest of your demo. If it doesn’t, they won’t, and whatever comes after it won’t matter. So remember, always, always, always lead with your money read, and yes, there will be a quiz at the end.

Not sure what your money read is? Do some informal research – ask a trusted colleague or friend; you may be surprised. Do not ask anyone from the request line.

What about my weaknesses?

C’mon, we all have ‘em – remember, we’re being honest here. Who hasn’t been forced outside their comfort zone by a PD or producer at one time or another. Sometimes the experience can broaden our range, while at other times we just sound…well, forced. If you’re feeling like somebody’s holding a gun to your head, it’s probably not a delivery you’d want to include—and your demo won’t have any weak material, will it?

Is my voice good enough?

Time to make an important distinction: the difference between your voice (your instrument) and your interpretation skills (the way you play your instrument). Which is more important? Just listen to the voices that surround you daily on electronic media. If yours is better than the best of them, advance your token to Boardwalk, build a hotel, and find a wheelbarrow that’s big enough to carry all that money to the bank. If it isn’t, you’re probably not attracting a lot of attention, are you? So let’s figure that your voice is sufficient for what’s required from most scripts. And while a certain level of timbre is necessary, that shouldn’t be too demanding; after all, you’ve already been working in radio.

No, what producers are looking for most is a communicator – that special breed of talent who can make the printed word magically spring to life. If you merely “announce” the script, though your voice may be marvelous, your interpretation will be flat, dead. But if instead you can see the copy as a dormant trace of something that a real person would actually say, and if first you can feel that person’s emotion or attitude, and then express it in a way that makes the listener feel it too, congratulations – you’ve brought life to what was otherwise a mere collection of words.

How broad should my range be?

Some VO talents have a range wide enough to accommodate several different styles, while others focus more on a particular sound. For now, try to offer as wide a variety as you comfortably can; this is not the time to specialize – not yet, at least. The more you broaden your palette, the more reasons you give a producer to hire you.

Any vocal issues that I need to address?

This may be tough, but we need to be honest. Does your speech reveal any regionalisms? Nothing will turn off a producer faster than an accent that’s not specified in the script. Any dysfunction, like a lisp? Challenges like these can seriously limit your possibilities. Breaking these chains by yourself can be difficult, so get help now from a voice coach, or other professional. You’ll have to work hard, but you can do it, you must do it, and the time to get started is now.

Hey, man, you’re bumming me out.

I’m sorry. I’ll stop.

OK. What about stuff I’ve done that people have complimented me on?

Sincere, unprompted feedback can be like a mini focus group. Take advantage of it by asking probing questions about the feeling or emotion your work evoked. Then stow that information away so that if a director ever asks you for that vibe, you’ll have something to recall, if only as a starting point.

What type of delivery have I been wanting to try, but haven’t quite gotten the right script to use it with?

Some radio people explore lots of deliveries and attitudes; others are seldom challenged, like a pet who lies around the house all day. Don’t let that happen to you! C’mon, get out of your rut! Every spot you hear, no matter how extreme, ask yourself, “can I pull off that delivery?” Then try it – you never know what’ll pop up. When I was in radio, I once amused myself while producing a spot by imitating Don LaFontaine. As it turned out, my homage was so well received that I put it on my commercial demo, and it still gets me work today. Go figure.

These “man in the mirror” questions are starting-off points for evaluating your talents, ultimately to help determine just what it is that you bring to the table. If you don’t know your strengths, you can’t expect to generate a whole lot of business. Remember, any producer who listens to your demo is asking, “why should I use this talent?” Let your demo be a radiant beacon of truth to all who listen – let it deliver one clear message that resounds from one valley to the next for all to hear, both near and far: “Why use me?? Because I kick butt, that’s why! Any more questions?

Step Two: Selecting Material

Once you’ve returned from the mountain top, it’s time to gather material. The creative choices you make will be refined to best highlight your strengths. Your weaknesses we ignore.

Can I use material that was previously produced?

If it’s the best example of a sound that’s important for you to feature, sure. I also like it when mic textures vary, as they would when using “vintage” material. In fact, try using different mics with the copy you do from scratch – it’ll add dimension and help maintain listener interest.

Can I re-do material that someone else originally voiced?

As long as you don’t try to claim the credit, it’s not a big boo-boo. It’s understood that entry-level voice talent wouldn’t have yet worked on any national accounts, and no, the copyright cops aren’t going to bust you for transcribing a script for Chevy pickups and using it on your demo. But at the same time, use your head. Even if you really do say “like a rock” better than James Garner or the late James Coburn, you’re going to have a tough time convincing anyone else of it. Better redirect your energy. Back in the 70’s, the iconic Orson Welles pitched a brand of wine with the tag, “we will serve no wine…before its time.” It became such a buzz phrase that even civilians were using it. Now imagine a voice person using that on a demo. Instant disaster. Save the icon stuff for when you’re an actual icon.

I did a nice two-voice spot with someone else. Should I use it?

There is simply no way that a same-sex voice should ever make it onto your demo. The opposite sex? Maybe, but you’d still need an overwhelmingly compelling reason. At best, another voice is an unnecessary distraction that confuses the issue at exactly the time that you’re trying to make a crystal-clear statement: “This is a great voice. Uh, no, not that voice; THIS one!”

Whose demo is it, anyway?

Exactly.

I have some existing material that barely meets technical standards, but it’s pretty good. Should I include it?

The fine line between high intrinsic value and low production values cuts a little too close for my comfort. Sure, extremes of one can theoretically overcome the other, but the gain/loss ratio would have to be heavily one-sided, and your demo’s not the place to take risks like that. Better to re-record it or replace it.

Material that’s technically below par is a distraction that no one can afford. In fact, don’t let anything on your demo that isn’t 100% the best you can do. 95%? Nope. 96, 97…99%? Sorry, doesn’t cut it. Or, to give Johnny Cochran his propers, “If it doesn’t kick ass, it must stay in the grass!”

You’ve got to be joking.

Sorry, but it was the best I could do at the time. Feel free to e-mail me with anything better.

I hear a lot of talent doing the “slacker” kind of thing. Maybe it’s a fad, but I can do it kinda okay. Should I use it?

“Kinda?” You’ll have to do better than that. It’s not so much that it’s a fad – hey, if it’s a strength of yours, by all means use it; you could get work with it. But if it’s not a strength, the fact that it’s currently popular is irrelevant. If you can’t pull it off, it doesn’t belong on your demo. Like that old programming rule of thumb: “what you don’t play can’t hurt you.”

Step Three: Let’s Slice & Dice!

At this point you’ve chosen your best material – a little of this, a bit of that – and you’re ready to blend these diverse elements into one coherent sequence of audio excellence that exists for the sole purpose of making you sound absolutely fabulous.

So…what should I lead with?

That’s a trick question; you got the answer above, so repeat it after me, lest there be any doubt: always lead with your money read. If you got this one wrong, go directly to Step One. Do not pass GO, and it’s certain that you won’t be collecting that two hundred dollars, either. Remain at Step One until you’ve gotten yourself right, and are ready to rejoin the world as we know it.

How long should a cut be?

Only long enough to make the point – no more, no less. Again, think of a hook tape. No need to set up the clip; your listener will fill that in on their own. If the sweet spot of the copy is, “Here’s why it pays to shop around for the best rates,” then that’s what you use. We don’t need to know that it’s a spot for Acme Mortgage and Refinance. At the same time, just using “shop around” wouldn’t make a lot of sense, either.

What should the right sequence be?

This is where the producer’s magic comes in, so let’s see how much of it rubs off my fingers and onto the keyboard. What we’re going for is a brief audio joy ride with some curves, some tunnels, a few hills, maybe even a surprise, and then a skillful, controlled return to where we started. We want our passenger to be engaged and entertained, even delighted – eager to discover what’s coming next.

Uh-oh, you’re losing me again…

Sorry, I’ll translate. Say your money read is a big, authoritative “voice of God” delivery, with secondary reads like “friendly,” “wry, humorous,” “detached,” “serious,” “storyteller,” and “high-energy but not shouting.” Plot out these cuts like the curves, hills, and valleys of our road trip. Let each one be different than the ones surrounding it…but not too different – you don’t want your listener wondering if you’ve switched talent on him. So rather than abruptly cut from, say, “voice of God” to “storyteller,” use something neutral between the two as a buffer.

Remember when we talked about how quickly a producer zaps through demos? Why not beat him to the punch? If he knows that your demo transitions nicely before he gets bored, he’ll tend to keep listening. Vary vocal texture, music intensity, emotional level…anything to provide movement from one cut to the next.

How about an approximate rundown?

As always (and, just for practice, repeat after me), start with your money read, move into two or three cuts, play another money read, run another two or three or four, and maybe bring it home with another money read. All this in just about a minute, and no longer than 1:15.

Step Four: My Own Private Listening Party

After all that work, just sit back and play it over and over for about a thousand times, making notes like, “tighten segue from two to three...” “cut six: roll off 80db and below…” “hey, I really am talented, am I not?” Do not act on any of your notes. In fact, forget about it and go to sleep, because despite what you think, you don’t have a demo yet.

When you awake, you’re going to want to play it another few hundred times before you’ve even had your coffee, but you must resist the urge. In fact, don’t listen to it at all. Burn it to a CD and bring it to work, but still leave it alone. And no, you may not listen to it on the way to work. (And hey, if you got sent back to Step One earlier, it’s okay, you can come back now; you need to hear this.) Go to lunch, but leave the CD at work. Finally, when you return from lunch, you may play it, but only once. Consult your notes from the night before. Does that segue still need to be tightened? Do you really want to EQ cut six? Are you (gulp) still brilliant? No matter – you still don’t have a demo yet.

Now play it one at a time for three or four people that you trust and respect. Ask that they not comment until they’ve heard it through at least once. If they ask, play it again until they’ve heard enough. Then ask for their comments. Do not agree, argue, explain, or whine. Take notes. Ask follow-up questions if necessary, but only for clarification. Remember, you still don’t have a demo yet.

Now, in the solitude of your studio, sit down with all your notes and read them straight through without stopping, setting aside those that contradict each other. Sort them out, from simplest to most complicated, and soberly make your editorial judgments, point by point, until you’ve decided how you’re going to act – or not act – on them all, remembering all the while that even now, you still don’t have a demo yet…though you are getting close.

The time for final editing has come, but before you begin, save the work you’ve done so far as version 1.0. Start a new file called 1.1 or 2.0 or 1.0a—anything but 1.0—and get to work. When you’ve completed your edit list, take another listen, fix any obvious clunkers, and listen once again. Now, sit back and be proud – you’ve just produced your first voiceover demo.

(SFX: cheesy gong, followed by mysterious, slow sitar music)

You are now awake. You feel refreshed. You remember everything.

YOU: Huh? Hey, wasn’t all that listening party stuff a little melodramatic?

ME: Perhaps, Grasshopper, but consider that which you have forgotten: in deciding to produce your own demo, you are bound by the teaching of the Great Master: He who works very close on own demo… must listen back from very far. And by the way: always lead with your money read.

(SFX: cheesy gong)

YOU: Ahhhh…I think I see, Master! You mean that it’s hard to maintain my objectivity when I’m producing myself, so I need to estrange myself from my own work, in order to listen with new ears!

(SFX: sitar music out)

ME: Cool.

Epilogue:

There’s plenty more that goes into producing a voiceover demo, maybe even more than we shared here, but this ought to get you going. From here, you’ll duplicate your CDs, distribute them to the right people, follow up with phone calls, and remember that finding voiceover work is a numbers game – more calls beget more sales. And, as an old sales friend once counseled, “plan your work, and work your plan.”

On the way to success, you’ll no doubt make some mistakes – I make my share, too. Here are some signs to help keep you on the road:

Keep your tools sharp – record, edit, and master on the best gear available to you.

Presentation isn’t everything, but it helps. Keep it simple and clean, and remember to at least include your phone number.

Make cover letters punchy and concise.

Be truthful about your resume; there’s no need to fabricate.

Take direction like a pro–positively, dispassionately–because that which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.

Lots of good-paying voice work never gets broadcast. Roll out narration and industrial demos as you see fit.

SFX: (drum roll)

And the all-time, granddaddy, Number One rule of voiceover demos: Always lead with your best read. Always, always, always.

(SFX: cheesy gong)