Notes Off the Napkin: Das Demo

Notes-Off-the-Napkin-logo1By Andrew Frame

My freelance business offers opportunities for talent to make a little butter & egg money from time to time. Like many freelancers, I rely on friends and long-time colleagues for the bulk of my talent pool. Most, I have worked with for ten years or more, so I know what they sound like, and what their limitations are. Having a small roster, and being close to each person, gives a reliable reference when discussing talent with an agency.

Having a talent group to call on also means having demo material from each person, so when building a presentation to a prospective agency, I can package a select group for the job being offered. Having those demos also means my existing customers can browse the files at their leisure, and select the voices they would like to hire.

It’s a pretty simple concept.

Until you get to the actual demo.

For some reason, like many things in this industry, a demo seems to be one of those things that can get so complicated, it ends up being intimidating. Also like many things in this industry, it doesn’t have to be.

Here’s a little lowdown on demos – specifically the kind for getting voice work.

A good demo is a simple demo. If you’re applying for a production job at a radio station, you can whiz-bang hyper-produce them all you want. But, for voice work, forget the high production value stuff. You’re showcasing your voice and delivery abilities, not your awesomely mad prod skillz. If I can’t hear the vocal skills over the production skills, I’m going to move to the next talent. I really don’t have time to muck about. My agency customers do the exact same thing.

Many of my colleagues have radio demos, but they don’t have voice demos. So, we’ll pull eight to ten pieces of work they’ve done in the last year from their files, looking for diversity. Each cut should have a slightly different sound, so over the course of the demo it will show the talent’s range.

For a composite demo, we include a straight read, a character read, a narrative read, an e-learning read, etc. The composite is the bowl of goulash. A little bit of all abilities, each with a minimum of production to distract from the vocal delivery.

Of those eight to ten cuts, we’ll nip them down to six to ten seconds of the “good part” of the read, then arrange them in some sort of balanced order. Total length on the demo doesn’t need to exceed one minute. The decision to request an audition is often made in the first five to ten seconds.

Once we have a composite, we’ll tell the talent they can now go back and create discrete demos for separate categories: straight, character(s), e-learning, narrative, audio book, etc. Then, if they want to market different aspects of their abilities, they have a demo built for a specific presentation.

The Most Important Thing is to make sure your demo is honest. I have had demos sent that sounded great. But when the person was asked to audition for a read, they sounded significantly different. We’d send it back, asking for a specific sound, referencing a specific track on their demo. And they couldn’t deliver. Needless to say, it not only cost them the gig, it bounced them from future opportunities.

Finally, you don’t have to be neurotic about updating your demo. Every couple of years as styles change is fine. If you can deliver each of the reads that you present on your demo, you’re good to keep sending it out.

Now, since these comments are based on my ten-plus years of brokering voices and working with agencies large and small globally, I brought the subject to colleague Gary Connolly, president of the North American Voice Actors Guild, for his thoughts. Gary hadn’t yet read what I had written here, so it was interesting to see how our very different backgrounds produce a very similar set of guidelines.

Gary wrote:

Almost verbatim what I tell my students when they are putting together their first demo! Only put in what you can do over and over -- I tell them this especially with character voices. You may have a killer voice on your character demo, but if you can’t reproduce it, it does you no good! We’ve all heard the old adage “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Nothing rings more true than in our profession as voice actors. And unless you’re a “big name” actor or you’ve built up an endless supply of clients, you’ll find yourself auditioning with the rest of us for your little piece of that succulent voice acting pie.

Your demo is your calling card, your portfolio, a direct reflection of you, your talents, and your abilities. You can have a resume filled with high-end clients and accolades about all the games, movies, and commercials you’ve voiced, but the truth about the industry is the attitude of “great resume, but what can you do for me now?”

Most clients know within the first ten seconds of hearing your demo whether you’re the voice for them or not. As a professor, I teach students who know nothing about voicing, let alone the nuances we pick up along the way through experience. So, their demo is even more important for them to get their foot in the door and their hands and voices wet with a bit of real world experience.

A lot of times, even for those of us who have a little more experience under our belts, we can pick up a tip or two from going back and embracing the basics. Here is my list, basic elements any of us should incorporate into our demos.

Always start off with your very best. Something about 7 to 10 seconds that you think really showcases your natural voice and abilities. Remember, it’s not what you say but how you say it. There are so many projects out there that need diversified voices, getting that gig will boil down to how you use your voice – sound natural, conversational, comfortable, confident, and most of all like the unique person you are.

Never have your demo longer than one minute. You’ll need about six or seven different pieces of production you have voiced. They can be anything from commercials and “on-holds” to movie trailers and narrations. Just make sure you pull out the best ten seconds of each one.

Vary your clips. Have soft-sell, hard-sell, character, narration, etc. Showcase your voice and abilities. Make sure your clips flow and each one is a bit different. Go from soft to hard or serious to funny. The most important thing is to not have two soft-sells or two hard-sells, etc. side by side.

Try using most all clips that are low-production, not full of music and sound effects. Your demo is showcasing your voice not your production abilities.

If you can’t reproduce a character voice you’ve created or a certain style in which you’ve used your voice, don’t include it in your demo. Clients are going to expect you to sound exactly like your demo.

Word of mouth spreads like wildfire in this business, so if you say you can do something and you can’t, you won’t just lose out on the current job, but you could be putting a noose around potential future work.

Finally, you start your demo with your very best foot forward – end it the same way. Leave them wanting to hear more.

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