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Demos: The Digital Business Card

You’ve probably witnessed it; maybe at a convention panel or a networking event at a bar. Someone with buckets of confidence gets the floor for a moment and boasts about their magnificent voice and how talented they are. The only catch they have, is that they don’t know how to “break-in”! They do an impression or a sample voice for the guest speaker (usually a voice actor who has no say in casting) or networking Influencer as if that’s the appropriate way to end a question.

And the recipient of this impromptu Elevator Pitch usually goes straight to one question: “Do you have a demo?”

10/10 they never do.

Now, if you’re not in the entertainment industry, you may not think this is common sense. But let’s look at it logically.

Say you’re looking for a job – any job, cashier to the CEO – what’s the first step you need to do to get noticed? Send in a resume. Or maybe you answered “fill out the application”. True, fine – but what do they always ask for? Employment History.

People want to know what your experience and knowledge levels are. They want to know where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you are already capable of…  it’s essential that you have this 1 page summary of your work history.

That’s what a demo is to a voice actor.

Your Demo Reel is your calling card, your resume, the summary of your talent and skill all rolled into a 1 minute audio file.

So, now that we’ve established WHY you need a demo, let’s get into the meat. I’m going to try this a different way than my usual paragraph style and instead list bullet point answers to questions I have been asked. Make no mistake though, I’ll be sure to be long-winded, per the usual:

  1. PRACTICE BEFOREHAND: To put it bluntly, the studios who produce demos are trying to make money on a service, so they will let anyone book a session. It’s better to wait until you’re ready than to drop money on a demo that will not show your skills correctly. Now, if you are booking sessions with a coach who will help you produce a demo, then you are putting your faith in that coach to grow your talent before you record your demo, which is great! But if you are going separately into a studio where you’ve not previously worked with anyone, be very mindful that, while they will do their  best to cut your demo, they are not there to coach you beyond “mic peaked, do it again.”

I have three demos (truthfully, I need more!) and all three were done with a coach by my side.  With the first two, I was on a tight budget and so my coach actually cut the demos herself, using my practice sessions with her. While I would not have been able to afford a demo otherwise, I definitely hear a difference in my performance between those and my Animation Demo. That’s not to say I regret getting my two demos; my coach did an amazing job producing those demos and I actually booked clients and two agents with them. The lessons I learned through her coaching was also invaluable, as she not only was the first Industry Contact I’d ever made but initially prompted me to pursue my dreams (along with my sister’s support, of course).

For my Animation Demo, I studied with a coach (via skype b/c of geographic location) and then we worked together to find a studio for me to record in. Therefore, I studied the script continuously with my coach and Day-Of, I had him listening to my performance and a second man acting as the Audio Engineer. My session was then sent to my Coach’s teammate, who produced the end product. As you can imagine, the cost of this demo alone cost as much as the sessions + my first two demos combined; that is not factoring in my coaching session fees for the animation demo.

  1. PRICE:  The previous bullet point led straight into this one – what’s the cost of a demo? Honestly, it can range.

You could make one yourself (as in, it’s technically, physically possible but please, please, PLEASE promise me you won’t make one yourself unless it’s a specific “showcase” that you’re using in addition to a demo, like a generic audition you can send to show off “Pirate Bill” or your impression of Siri).

My cost-efficient demos were $300 each (not including the coaching sessions prior and this was also around 2014 or so). I did not have a recording session for the demos, which means the audio was selected from previous recordings I did during our sessions. My coach spliced them together herself, which cut down additional costs.

My animation demo was $1,200. This did not include the coaching sessions however, this did cover the upfront costs that my previous two demos did not have: I had a separate recording session for the demo specifically; I went to a separate studio where I had a professional Audio Engineer record my session; My coach was in the session via Internet Call, so he could focus on my performance while a second tech focused on the recording quality; my raw audio was then sent to a second professional Audio Engineer who cut my best takes together and underlay a music bed. If you take into consideration all that went into it, and all the people who needed to be paid for their time, it makes sense.

I only know from my own experience, so here are my recommendations for you.  Most demos these days are in the range of $1,500. You can get them a few hundred cheaper but if it’s under $1,000 ask yourself why. Where are they cutting the costs for you? Is it a one-person edit? Is there a coach involved? That being said, if the cost is above $2,000 ask yourself why. Are they marking up the fees for “the experience” (handing you a glass of wine and giving you a velvet seat to rest on) or perhaps they’re sending your demo through an approval committee who all need to be compensated? There is a limit to what a demo should cost but ultimately, that limit is up to you. If you have any worry, ask for samples of previous work you could hear if you’re worried about the quality.

  1. SCRIPTS: I was asked if I wrote my own scripts or if they were provided to me. My commercial demos referenced old commercials for the script whereas I actually did write most of the lines for my animation demo, with a few exceptions; they were from old video game scripts. This is something you will need to consider before purchasing a Demo Production Service. Are you responsible for your lines/samples or will they be provided? If so, how soon in advance will you receive them? I’ve only ever recorded demos with a coach, so consider if you will be tasked with practicing the scripts on your own or if they will provide someone you can practice with.

If you are tasked with writing your own scripts, I would highly recommend asking a coach for assistance. But here are some tips from me: the key is to keep them relatively short while also showing off two to three emotions or characteristics. So for example, my first voice ‘the Heroine Princess’, goes from her peppy self to serious and a little abrasive and then circling back to peppy. The key is to try to show off both your vocal range and your acting ability.  I have no experience writing a commercial or narration script for a demo as mine were provided to me. But speaking in terms of my Animation demo – character demos can be slightly longer than a minute and you show off about 5-7 voices. With that in mind, each voice gets about 10 seconds to shine. Use that as a starting point. Some can be shorter to give others more time. So then, what can you show about your voice and the character in approx 10 seconds? Yes, you will need to record practice runs using a stopwatch. It’s important to be precise.

The main difference (that I’ve seen) between Animation and Commercial demo scripts, is that the commercial ones used existing scripts that were 30 seconds to 1 minute in length and then the Demo Producer selected the best phrase or sentence from the whole thing to use in the demo. Whereas with the Animation (Character) demo, I wrote the script with the timing in mind and used the entirety of my piece in the demo.

  1. BACKGROUND MUSIC: It was asked if you had to be responsible for providing the music bed or if you had a selection to choose from. You as the talent have no part in that. The music is selected after the samples have been recorded, so the Demo Producer decides what fits the mood with each segment.

  2. MAKING A PRACTICE DEMO:  Certainly there’s nothing wrong with practicing at home. And making “amateur demos” sometimes really pans out for people, especially if they’re found on YouTube! My advice would be to still follow the base guidelines of demo production, if you want to call it that; keep the genres separate (don’t mix commercial with animation etc), stay right a 1 minute long, don’t use licensed songs for the backgrounds, etc. Otherwise, you could say “vocal showcase” which I’ve actually done on my own as well. These are just extra soundbites of additional voices, which can help illustrate your range to potential clients.

For example, I put together some of my lines from an Indie video game I was in to show off my lower range; that has actually been used as reference to what a client wanted. I’m also going to be recording a Japanese Language Showcase. It’s not a full demo because I don’t speak Japanese fluently. However, I have studied it enough to pronounce the words correctly and I understand the grammar and where natural inflections would go. Many times I’ve been asked to send a Japanese Language Demo because they see that I list “beginner Japanese” on my skill set. I always say that I am not fluent but that doesn’t seem to be an issue. It’s not something I would advertise in a full blown, professionally made demo. But having something I can send quickly to show my understanding of the language would definitely be beneficial!

The difference is the usage. My vocal showcases are to compliment the demos I already have. I list them on my website and at some point, I will be posting them on YouTube, just for the ease of sharing the audio sample. However, I do not refer to any of the reels I do as a “demo”, nor would I send them to potential clients in an initial outreach. These are available to help illustrate my range for the client before a custom demo has been requested. (For the sake of education, a ‘custom demo’ is another way of saying “audition”; it’s when a potential client sends you some lines from the script to read as though you’d gotten the part).

In closing, while having at least one demo is essential to marketing yourself and finding clientele, you don’t want to rush into it. This is your first impression you’re sending out; is your reputation worth saving money? Is having your college roommate cut down the audio you recorded in a pillow fort the best option for you? Are you throwing money at a pop-up Demo Production company that has blinded you with exciting terminology?

Do your homework. Practice. Prepare.

Then get your Demo!

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