A good voice over demo is worth its weight in gold. But what is a good voice over demo? In short, it's the one that a casting agent looking for a voice like yours will choose after listening to twenty six other demos by people with a voice like yours.
How do you achieve the Holy Grail of voice over?
Put yourself for a moment in the shoes of a producer looking for THE voice for his project. You have twelve demos to listen to. Twelve demos that correspond quite precisely to the type of voice you're looking for. What do you do? Make an initial selection. How do you do that? By listening to the first five seconds of each demo. Yes, no, maybe, definitely no, yes, no, maybe, no, no, no, never, yes... Cruel, but true.
That's seven demos in the bin, so that leaves five to go. So what do we do now? Well, like in the elections, we'll have a second round. This time, we'll listen for three seconds every seven seconds. And there's another two in the bin.
For the third round, we listen to each demo, all the way through, or even two or three times each. And there you have it, a winner on top of the podium, shaking a magnum of champagne... well, almost.
It's easy to see why, given that casters don't have much time, the first few seconds are crucial to making an impression. But what else?
Your demo is about... you
Firstly, there are certain tell-tale signs. For example, the length of the demo. A professional compilation demo lasts between sixty and ninety seconds maximum. When a casting director sees a demo that's five minutes long, it's a sign that the person presenting it hasn't mastered the codes of the sector and is therefore an amateur. In the bin.
Secondly, the content of the demo. A demo that includes an entire advert, with several voices, then a poem, followed by a dentist on-hold message and a hysterical cartoon character, is indicative of someone who doesn't understand what's expected of them. Different types of work require different types of demo. An advertising demo, a corporate demo, a character demo, a promo demo, an e-learning demo, a narration demo... Why? Because someone casting for a TV commercial, for example, wants to hear - ONLY - what's relevant to his casting, which saves him precious time. Anything else? Yes, in the bin.
Let's move on to what your demos should be. They're your shop window, your brochure, your CV: they should be a faithful representation of your talent. YOUR talent, not that of the producer who directed you, not that of the sound engineer who put it together... You. Either you've got several years' work behind you and your demos will be edits of different jobs you've recorded, or you're just starting out and you'll have purpose-made demos. It doesn't matter. Just make sure that what you're recording is right for your voice. If you're a woman with a very young voice, don't play a 45-year-old executive. If you have a voice like mine, don't pretend to be a teenager. Don't pretend. And why not? Because in the bin.
Chameleons live in the desert, not in the studio
Claiming that you can do anything to get every job is rarely a winning strategy. In fact, it almost never is. Leave the concept of the chameleon voice to the very few actors who have made it their speciality and to the many more who mistakenly think they belong to the Chamaeleonidae family. I develop this subject in my article 20 Tips To Get Ahead In Voice Over, which I strongly encourage you to read.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, nobody wants a chameleon: if I'm looking for a friendly, natural, gentle, reassuring and professional 35-year-old osteopath mum, I want to hear a talent present different facets of her voice, how she approaches the script, her interpretations... not a chameleon.
I couldn't care less whether this voice over talent is good at doing a toothless great-grandmother, an overexcited prepubescent teenager or the sound of a TGV train in the middle of the countryside on a rainy Sunday in November. Unless, of course, I'm looking for all four at once, which I'm sure you'll agree is a statistical near impossibility. If you really can do it, these vocal prowesses belong in the character demo, not the commercial demo. Or join a circus, you'll make a fortune.
Demo? No, Demos
If you take only one thing away from this article: one demo per genre. Well, try to remember more than one thing, or bookmark this page! Seriously, your commercial compilation demo should ONLY contain national. If you've already got a few campaigns under your belt, it should start with the biggest ad you've recorded: a well-known brand gives caster confidence. Not the whole ad: just the most representative part, with the brand.
By the way, NEVER use a voice other than your own. It's confusing.
For number two, put something that best represents your voice and offers a different interpretation from the first extract. You want to present your trademark, but also your range. Mind you, this doesn't mean: first, the voice of a real, tattooed tough guy, followed by Caliméro. It simply means offering a variation that allows your client to hear your versatility, and that you can adapt your interpretation to what is required. For example, you can go from a warm script to a more informal reading, then to a more informative tone. Without losing your identity. Consistency is the key word here. Each time, extracts of around 7 seconds, not much more, professionally mixed. Normalise the levels so that the sound doesn't jump several decibels. It's downright unpleasant and if it persists, do you know where your demo ends up? Yes, here.
Your e-learning demo should contain extracts that demonstrate your ability to narrate technical, difficult and sometimes - let's face it! - boring subjects, and to do so in a way that keeps the audience interested. This demo should contain at least a few dry extracts, i.e. without music or effects - just your voice. This allows the producers to hear your phonogenic which, for a corporate video for example, is extremely important as it 'colours' the video, the soundtrack (music and effects, or M&E's) being often just a bed.
Why isn't this recommended for the commercial demo? Good question. Answer: because in advertising, the voice is only one of the sound elements used in a spot, and it's important to demonstrate your ability to work in harmony with the sound (rhythm, silences, projection, intention, emotions), rather than in opposition (more on this subject in my article A Question of Organ).
The character/animation/video game demo: you need to master characterisation perfectly before you even think about it. I repeat: perfectly. No, really, perfectly.
The narration demo: include interpretations of documentaries, selected texts and an extract from a book (a short paragraph, not the whole book!) if you want to try your hand at audiobooks. Here again, it's extremely difficult to master this particular art, and should only be recommended to voice-over actors who are very experienced in this exercise. I talk about audio book narration in my article Audiobooks: Let's Talk About It.
Do you sing? Do you sing well? And by "well" I mean at a professional level? Do a jingle demo - but absolutely never any jingles in your commercial demo. Ever.
If you have years of experience, know your market inside out and have the necessary technical skills, why not? If not, don't even think about it. Remember, you've got one chance and one chance only - don't blow it by presenting amateur work when applying as a professional. Investing in the best demo possible is absolutely essential to your success.
And finally, technique: don't skip this paragraph!
First of all, this is the 21st century: no tapes, no CDs, just email demos. I know it sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised...
Make sure your demos are in mp3 format, 128kbps mono. It's not the best quality, of course, but a demo is just a demo, not an opera - and it reduces the size of the file, which makes it easier to send by email.
If you send a 74MB WAV, you know where it's going to end up.
Thank you for reading this article and if you've found it interesting, don't forget to share it with your voice over friends and colleagues. Remember to subscribe to be notified when new articles are published!
And don't hesitate to share your experience here and leave your comments, suggestions or questions. Don't hold back, I'll do my best to answer them.