One of the first things you’ll hear as a new voice actor is that you should never ever ever make your own commercial voiceover demo. While many voice actors should follow that advice, I don’t believe it should be a hard and fast rule. There are many voice actors out there who, I personally believe, have the skills to create a top-notch commercial demo in their home studios. Here’s what I believe you need to have and do to make your own commercial voiceover demo.
WHY and WHEN You Should (and Shouldn’t) Make Your Own Demo
If you’re serious about pursuing a career in voice acting, eventually you will need to have your own demo — and ideally a commercial demo first. This is your calling card, and the first impression you will make on potential clients, casting directors, and agents. In other words, it needs to be really good. This means that every component that goes into creating a commercial demo needs to be really good, including your voice, the background music and effects, and the editing.
The problem is that really good externally produced professional demos can come at a very steep price. They can also take a long time to produce, and not all of them are great. I’ve seen the cost of producing a commercial demo for a voice actor range from $400 to $2,400. From my experience, many voice actors just getting into the business don’t have that chunk of change to throw around. And because you need to have an arsenal of demos to increase your match percentage on certain pay-to-play (P2P) websites, creating your own demos is a very attractive option.
There is a considerable amount of debate swirling around when you should make a demo, either through a production house or on your own. The rule of thumb seems to be “when your coach says you’re ready.” Personally, I think this is solid advice. If you have a bad voice or you’re a bad actor, no amount of production and editing sorcery is going to make your demo sound good. If you’ve done a ton of auditions, gotten shortlisted for a good percentage of jobs, and booked at least a handful of jobs, this is also a good indicator.
Bottom line, if you have a great coach and he or she tells you you’re ready, and you have a decent amount of disposable income that you’re willing to use as an investment in your voice acting career, then by all means, go the route of getting a professional demo done through a studio. However, if you need a demo sooner rather than later, your coach feels that you’re ready, and you don’t have the money to drop on a studio production, then producing your own demo could be a good option for you. That being said, many voice actors don’t need to be making their own demos, and this is why.
WHO Should (and Shouldn’t) Make Their Demo
Even if you’re new to voice acting, once you start submitting auditions, you know that you’re on a very steep learning curve when it comes to audio engineering. A good number of new voice actors get their start on P2P sites, where you and you alone are responsible for recording and editing your submissions. This means that you need to be familiar with at least one digital audio workstation, or DAW. If you’re even remotely considering producing your own demo, you need to be intimately familiar with your DAW. In other words, you need to be able to edit your audio to within a millimeter of its life when it comes to approaching perfection.
You also need to know how to add, mix, and level music. If this doesn’t sound like something you’re comfortable with, stop now, back away slowly, and come back when you are. You don’t need to have a really expensive DAW to create a demo. I record and edit my vocals on Adobe Audition, which is paid, but I mix my music on Audacity, which is free. I could technically do both in Audition, but I’m much more familiar with using Audacity for music mixing. Go with what you know.
As I mentioned earlier in the previous section, if you’re not good at voice acting, you have no business making your own demo. Ask for an honest assessment from your coach or from a fellow voice actor, as they are more likely to be straightforward with you, as opposed to your friends or your mom. I also mentioned earlier that getting shortlisted for jobs and actually booking jobs are often a good indicator of your talent. However, this isn’t necessarily the case if you’ve only been booking $5 jobs for 5,000 words on Fiverr. In other words, don’t even think about creating your own commercial demo unless you’re really good at both voice acting and audio engineering.
The great thing is that both of these things can be learned and practiced. Admittedly, the former does require some talent in addition to training, but the latter mostly requires the investment of a considerable amount of time on YouTube and reputable voiceover training websites, like Gravy for the Brain and the Global Voice Acting Academy. It can be done without a college degree, and here’s how.
Step 1: Listen to a LOT of professionally produced demos
How can you know what to shoot for with a self-produced commercial demo if you don’t know what a really good one sounds like? Eleven years ago, I made the switch from writing counter-drug analysis for the government to becoming a freelance writer on Mexico’s drug war. It’s a completely different style of writing, and while I was really good at the former, I had absolutely zero training in the latter. However, for years I had been reading books and articles on the subject, and I knew what constituted good writing. So, I bought myself the Associated Press Style Guide and started imitating the styles of my favorite journalists and authors.
You need to do the same thing when it comes to creating your commercial demo. Go on the websites of at least 20 top voice actors, if not more. Listen to all of their commercial demos. What do they have in common? Most likely, they will hover around the one minute mark for duration. They will have anywhere from 6 to 10 different clips in very different vocal styles for different products or services. The scripts will be very current for what’s trending in the marketplace, and the music will be totally appropriate to the mood for each script. These are the things that you need to imitate when it comes to your making your own demo.
Step 2: Find and select scripts that show off the best variety of your voice
Finding good scripts to use in your demo is probably the most challenging part of making one. This is definitely an area where a good production studio has the advantage because they can write custom scripts that are created specifically for your voice. If you are reading this article, that is probably a skill that’s not in your wheelhouse, so don’t try it.
Many new voice actors creating their own demos will go to websites that have libraries of thousands of voiceover scripts. While technically you can use them, I highly recommend that you don’t. I did for my initial demos, but the problem is that thousands of other voice actors are using the same scripts. I still have plenty of demos that contain these, but they’re not the demos that I’m putting in front of casting directors, production houses, and agents. They will hear those scripts and know right away that you’re an amateur, not only because they’re not unique, but more so because they tend to be very dated.
I recommend using portions of scripts that you’ve recently auditioned for, or jobs you’ve already completed, as long as there’s not a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) involved. You’re only going to be using two or three sentences from each script, tops, and these are legally covered under the Fair Use Act, so you don’t have to worry about copyright violations or infringements. I also recommend recording the audio from TV or radio commercials on the air right now, and just transcribing the text.
All of this being said, I can’t provide any guidance on what types of scripts or styles of speaking will suit you best as a voice actor for your demo. This is why you need a good coach to give you guidance. If you don’t know what voiceover styles your best at, or exactly what your range is and what you’re capable of, stop now , back away slowly, then come back when you do.
Step 3: Record and edit each clip to absolute perfection
This is where your auditioning and editing experience is going to come into play. I don’t feel the need to go into much detail here, as you should know already what it takes to create a top-notch broadcast-quality recording from your home studio. This means taking out all the breaths, equalizing all the plosives, eliminating every click and pop. Yes, the music can technically cover up some of the flaws in the vocal, but you should never rely on this as a corrective measure for a bad vocal track.
But while you’re doing this, make sure that your voice still sounds like you. Your demo is meant to show off the best of what you can do, and how great a studio can make you sound for a potential job. However, it’s no good if the studio has to work too hard to re-create the voice you “Frankensteined” in an over-processed demo. Just make sure the audio is as clean, clear, and crisp as possible, and that it sounds like you.
Step 4: Select royalty-free music perfect for each clip
While the sound of your voice is clearly the most important aspect of your commercial demo, the music you choose for each clip is also a critical component. If you’re doing a clip on an air freshener, you’re probably not going to choose driving hard rock with a ton of electric guitar. If you’re doing a clip for a 2-ton pickup truck, you’re probably not going to have an orchestral track with a dozen violins playing. It’s possible, but not likely.
This is where research is critical. Go on YouTube and listen to a bunch of commercials on different products and services. Go back and listen to those professional demos for those top voice actors. Pay attention to the music this time instead of the voices. Get a feel for the style of music, the pace, and how they align with the vocal message.
When you’re selecting music clips, you really need to make sure they’re royalty-free. This is so you don’t get into a lot of legal trouble for copyright infringement. Unlike voiceover scripts, professional music clips are not typically protected by Fair Use. Personally, I use Storyblocks for my royalty-free audio clips. The library is absolutely enormous, and you will definitely find what you need there. However, it does require a monthly subscription, and I know not everyone can afford that. There are some good websites that are free where you can find royalty-free music, like Free Music Archive, and in this case, Google is your friend to find those sites.
Step 5: Combine music and VO tracks in your DAW and edit to perfection
Folks, this is where the sorcery happens. Combining your vocals and music in a way that is pleasing to hear, shows off your voice (i.e., allows your voice to cut through the music without getting drowned out), and is short enough to maintain attention requires a good amount of editing skills.
I will preface these particular statements with the disclaimer that I am not a professional audio engineer or demo producer. I’ve been working with audio and video editing software for five years, so I’m really comfortable and familiar with it. However, I’m pretty sure at least one person will disagree with my suggestions here. Please understand this is only what I’ve done, and professionally this has worked out really well for me.
When it comes to mixing and editing your own demo, once again, go back to those top voice actors’ demos and what they have in common. I think it’s rather subjective when it comes to how many clips you want to squeeze into a one minute demo. If you choose too few, then the demo doesn’t give you the opportunity to showcase the range of your vocal style. If you choose too many, it doesn’t give the listener enough time to appreciate each style, and it can just become a jumbled mess of noise.
Once you’ve decided on how many clips you want to including your demo, and which clips you’re going to use, then you need to decide on the order of the clips. One hard and fast conventional rule I will definitely stick to is that you should always put your best clip first. It’s entirely possible, and maybe even likely, that a producer or agent or casting director won’t listen to your demo past the first or second clip. So, make sure your first impression out of the gate is a good one!
As for the rest of your clips, this is just my personal preference, but I like being able to clearly tell when one clip transitions to another. Sometimes this can be challenging because there should be no audio space whatsoever between clips. This means no silence, fade in/fade out, and very little music without your vocal. I also don’t think that you should put clips with similar vocal and musical styles back-to-back. Again, remember that I’m not a professional producer, and many people out there may disagree with my preferences here. This is a solely based on my experience listening to dozens and dozens of professionally produced demos for top voice actors.
Finally, don’t be afraid to crowdsource opinions! There are several great Facebook groups out there that allow you to post your demos for feedback on certain days of the week. Comments tend to be very kind and helpful, so I wouldn’t worry about getting ripped apart. Just make sure that you’re very specific about what feedback you’re looking for. Are you having trouble picking your best clip to put first? Are you worried that the music is too loud or too quiet, or appropriate? The voice acting community is very supportive, so let people know it’s okay to private message you with feedback in case they don’t want to post anything critical in a thread where everyone else can read it.
And in case you’re curious about what my commercial demo sounds like after doing all of this, here it is.
Extra Credit: Add video to your demo for a visual dimension
I was a video content creator before I started voiceover, so I strongly believe in adding a visual component to anything whenever possible. It attracts people’s attention, and gives the listener something to focus on while listening to you other than whatever object is in front of them. Adding video to a voiceover demo can spark the imagination, and give the listener a concrete idea of what your voice will sound like in an actual commercial.
I would not advise a voice actor to try this unless you’re familiar with video editing software like iMovie, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, or something similar. You will need to take just as much care perfectly aligning your video clips with your audio, and determining what types of videos and how many clips to use. You also need to make sure that your video clips are royalty-free, and once again, I use Storyblocks for this.
When choosing your clips, pay close attention to the scripts. When you hear your voice during each part of the clip, what do you picture in your head? If you’re doing a clip for Crayola markers, for example, you would probably picture children. If you’re doing a clip for an automobile, is it an SUV going off-road in the mountains, or a mom driving her family in the suburbs? If you’ve chosen a clip that is specific to a geographical area or industry, are you able to find stock video for that place or type of business? Yes, adding video to your demo is one more layer of complexity, but if done right, it can really have an impact.
For your enjoyment and critique, here is my video commercial demo.
Another cool benefit of having a video demo, as you may have noticed in mine, is that you can include a brief slate slide at the beginning, and a social media and contact slide at the end. It’s also very convenient to have the ability to include a YouTube link when sending out your demo in emails, as opposed to (or in conjunction with) an MP3 attachment. Some producers and agents prefer links to attachments, and there’s always a concern that an MP3 attachment won’t make it through spam filter. Either way, I don’t think it can hurt to include the YouTube link in your emails, with an indication that it has the video component.
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