As a voice over artist, you need demo reels. Without them you'll seriously limit your chances of getting work.
Yes, you'll be able to do auditions but what happens (and it will happen) when someone says "send me your demo"? And your P2P profiles and website will look (sound) a bit sparse too.
When you create a voice over demo and see your ideas go from notes on a page to a finished piece of audio with music and/or effects, you'll see it's an incredibly rewarding process.
I wouldn't be afraid to create your own voice over reel too early on - just be prepared to take criticism and strive to improve. I think my first ever demo reel took around 6 months to complete. Constantly refining scripts, re-recording, getting critique from mentors, practicing, learning, applying new techniques... all 'til I had a piece I was proud of, where constructive criticism turned to praise.
Voiceover isn't a sprint. Some things take time, so as long as you're willing to put in the work, you'll get there. I'll say at this point that the last reel I recorded took about 2 days - from the start point of writing scripts to the end point of mastering the audio.
Get on with it mate, where do we start?
Sorry. The intro is done now.
Before you start getting carried away with scripts, you need to settle on a voiceover genre. Demo reels should NOT be compilations of all types of work. By that I mean don't include a commercial, a telephone message, a character etc etc all on one reel.
When you send demo reels to hirers, you're applying for a job in a particular genre. Which means they'll want to hear examples of you voicing that genre. It's no good sending a demo with all those examples above if the role is for a highly specific medical narration, for example.
So, pick a genre. There are lots to choose from and you can create a voiceover demo for them all if you want. But initially, focus on the one you're most interested in or have been practicing most.
Throughout the blog, I'll use a commercial voiceover reel as the example.
Once you have your genre, you're next task is research. Lots of it.
As the example we're using is a commercial reel, watch commercials. You can Youtube them if you like but I still think the best way is TV. Tape shows from a variety of commercial channels at different times of day so you get a nice selection for different demographics and audiences.
Then do the opposite to what you usually do. Fast forward through the show and play the ads.
Listen to what voiceover styles are being used and for what types of commercial. Make notes on what companies and services you see. This will come in handy when writing scripts. You could write out a few of the ads so you can get ideas on how the script is structured.
Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash
Also think about companies that you would love to voice for - lots of voice actors make a reel that is in fact their dream client reel.
Try to find some voiceover agent websites and listen to the reels there. This should give you more of an idea of what you should be aiming for. Listen for styles, content, how it's edited and mixed, how long the clips are. Keep making notes.
If you aren't working on a commercial reel, you can use VO or agent websites to research any type of reel/genre.
Putting pen (fingers) to paper (keyboard)
There's no reason why you can't take inspiration from the ads or reels you hear, but absolutely don't copy them.
You should use real company names, but not the words they've paid someone to write. And if you just "re-record" an ad that's already out there, you'd better be good enough to pull it off. But like I said, don't.
So my preference here is to write your own scripts. But don't panic, they only need to be 10 seconds long each, at the most. You need to be catching a listener's (in this case the hirer's) attention as quickly as possible. Don't give them a reel of 8x 60 second commercials. They don't have time to listen to all that.
In your notes you should have lots of ideas on what different types of ad there are - holidays, cars, perfume, shops, charities, insurance, mobile phone, public service message etc. I'd suggest writing down between 10-15 ad types so you have more than enough to get going on a reel.
You need to be thinking about making each each one as different as possible - don't do three car ads, even if the voice sounds different.
I'm not going to give a course on writing scripts - that's what the research is for. But for commercial reel clips, make sure you say the company name so the listener can identify with it and get context. Throw in an emotional hook too, something that "connects" with the listener.
Pick the first one on your list and start writing. You can edit as you go along or even during recording. Sometimes you won't find out a script doesn't quite work until you get in the booth and start voicing it out loud.
Include one that stands out. Something even more different. That could be an over the top voice, a funny script or something just plain odd. The idea is to get the listener's ears to prick up and take notice. If you can do that, you're doing something right.
When you finish a script, time yourself reading it a few times. If it's over 10 seconds, edit it down. If you can't edit it down, start again. There's no room for epics on a commercial reel. Less is very much more. Actually, this goes for most reels - keep the scripts short so you show as much range and versatility in as short a time as possible.
So you've got your scripts. Now you need to prepare them. I'm going to assume that by this point you know how to mark up a script for reading. If not, you're probably not ready to make a reel yet.
Decide on your tone/style for each script. You probably had an idea while writing them what this should be, but now is the time to solidify it. If you've got some that are too similar, write a different script or just ditch one. That's why you write more than you need, so you have room to shed if needed.
Photo by Serghei Trofimov on Unsplash
Mark up your scripts.
Rehearse your scripts.
Rehearse them some more.
You need to make sure every clip on the reel is your absolute best performance.
REMEMBER: Every clip needs to sound different. Use varying tones, styles, attitudes, emotions, accents, etc etc etc.
I'm also going to assume you know how to record yourself. If not, you're DEFINITELY not ready to make a reel yet.
Record each script until you think you've nailed it. Keep all the takes though, just in case there's a blip you notice later on during editing.
To speed up the process, I like to record a take and then listen back. I note anything I can improve and go again. It's much quicker than recording 5 takes, listening back, trying to decide which is best... or even worse, realising all 5 sound the same and none are good!
Record all the voice clips on individual tracks.
Edit your voice recordings. That's it. This section is done.
Source some bangin' tunes
Chances are that you'll already have an idea of what sort of music you need for a clip due to the delivery style and the words in the script.
If not, now is the time to have a think about it. It's not rocket science really - if it's a sombre style read for a charity, you don't want a chirpy Euro Pop dance floor filler.
There's plenty of sites out there where you can download music for your demos - just do a Google search for "royalty free music".
You should know straight away if a piece of music isn't right - it will sound odd when paired with the voice.
When you have the right piece of music for a clip, fade it in for around 1 second before the voice starts, then fade out at the end for around 1 second after the voice stops.
I usually arrange my tracks so they are like this:
Track 1: Voice for script 1 Track 2: Music for script 1 Track 3: Voice for script 2 Track 4: Music for script 2 ...and so on
When hirers listen to a reel, they rarely listen to the whole thing, skipping from beginning to end. So with that in mind...
Rank your clips from best to least best. I won't say worst because remember, these should all be your best performances.
The very best goes at the start. Obviously. Followed by the 1 or 2 next best.
Then put more good ones at the end.
Then the others go in the middle.
You need to make sure the reel flows. To do this you need to "blend" the music of the clips together, from the end of one clip to the beginning of the next, so there's no gap in the audio til the end of the reel. This makes it much easier to listen to but also it condenses the overall time of the demo.
You may need to fiddle around with the starts and ends of the music to get them to blend with each other. Sometimes you can "beat match", where a drum hit during a fade out corresponds with a drum hit in a fade in, to create an almost seamless transition from one tune to the next.
You might find that some music just doesn't sit well next to another piece, or one voice clip flows better into another, so the order you put them in may end up changing. That's ok - as long as you keep your strongest clip first, a little bit of rearranging won't do too much damage.
Next what you need to do is try and get all the levels of all the voice tracks at the same level (not by looking at the faders, but by using your ears).
Photo by Kyle Smith on Unsplash
Starting with track one as the "gospel volume" (i.e. don't touch it), listen to track one, then track 2 and compare the perceived loudness, moving the volume up or down on track 2. Then you need to do the same with track one against track 3 and so on. Once you've levelled everything against track one, you need to finish the rest of the tracks. Track 2 against track 3, then 2 against 4 etc. Then track 3 against track 4, etc.
Then, with the voice tracks still audible, do the same with the music tracks as you did with the voice. You're balancing everything out so that you have an even sounding piece of audio. No voice or music track should be noticeably louder or quieter than the others.
Get more critical
When you think you're done, listen to your new demo over and over. Listen to it with and without music. Try and listen both as yourself and a potential hirer. It might be an idea to leave it for a day after you think you've finished, so you can come back with fresh ears. You might end up hearing something you missed previously like a click in the middle of a word or a bad transition between music.
When you can't bare the thought of listening to it any more, tough! You have to master it. Export the whole thing as stereo (so you get the benefit of any panning in the music and fx) and then re-import to master it.
All we're going to do here is run a light compressor over the finished demo and then normalize to -1db. Coupled with your track balancing (where you compared everything to everything else) this will make it smooth, even and polished.
Get others to be critical
If you have a voice over mentor, ask them to critique your reel. Getting someone who has been working in the industry for longer than you have to listen and comment is such a valuable process. At the very least, it's a different set of ears with a different perspective.
Don't get precious. Yes, you've put a lot of work into the reel, but if you get negative comments, take it on board. Any comments will help you learn and improve and grow as a voice artist.
Ask friends to listen - but not your best friend or close family. They're less likely to really listen and critique. "Oh yes that's lovely dear"...
Be fully prepared to go back and re-record or re-work scripts. You should always be looking to improve as a VO and it's no different with your voice reels.
Put it to work
When your mentor/teacher/friends have stopped criticising, you've stopped crying and you've made any changes you think necessary, get your demo out there.
Put it on your website, post on social media about it and use it to try and get work.
Always keep your demo reels, even if you record a new version in 3 months. When you make new ones, it's nice to go back and listen to previous versions. You'll be able to take a step back and see how far you've come as a voiceover. I think this is a really important exercise, no matter what line of work you're in. Look back and reflect.
I've been sent quite a few demos over the past year and I always enjoy listening to them, offering my humble opinion to the VO. If you've created a demo recently and are struggling to find someone to listen - bung it over to me!
I hope this post has given you some good pointers in the process of creating a demo reel. It's an amazing creative process and journey, one that I love, that needs so many different skills from beginning to end. It might seem like an insurmountable task to begin with but if you focus on having that finished product, it's easier to move forwards. Get it done!