Commercial Demos: The Rules
Beginners and Working Pros 💖 the Voice Acting Expo
Here are the secrets to how a commercial demo is constructed…and the most common errors.
You must capture vocal resonance and avoid tinniness. How? First, use a decent condenser microphone. Second, use the default settings of software such as Audacity, but recording settings must be at least 32 kHz sample rate at a resolution of 16 bits at a minimum. Higher is better (default settings will be higher). Here’s a great article if you’d like to learn more.
Note that the quality of a phone call can be in the range of a 4-8 kHz sample rate (32kHz+ is preferred) so recording with your phone is generally a very bad idea for a demo. Background noise should be minimized, but can be “buried” at bit in the mix. But if your voice lacks resonance and warmth because of using a poor mic, your recording needs to be scrapped.
Avoid the #1 and #2 Performance Problems
If you’re working from home, realize the #1 problem that happens above all else is that you will start to space out your words. No one wants a case of the “S.L.O.W.’s” — Spaced-out, Lethargic and Oddly Wimpy Speech:
The home practice problem is also the #1 performance problem overall: unnaturally spacing words apart from one another. We speak naturally in clumps of words. Well-known example: “Know what I mean” sounds like “no-whuta-meen” in common speech. That does NOT mean you should have bad articulation, but words must blend together as they do in natural speech.
The #2 problem is that on demos, everything sounds too much the same, or if it’s different, it simply sounds fake. The demo problem causes you to not get an audition, and the performance problem gets you rejected in an audition should you land one.
As will become clear, it’s easy to over-think all this! However, we will always over-think it on your behalf. We end up talking talent down from an obsession over details that we admittedly educated them into. We obsess over the best way to present talent that we train.
How Important is Production?
Some places will ONLY listen to a demo with NO music or sound effects—ZERO production beyond the voice. (This is known as a “dry” demo). In one marketplace where I know a number of agents, the #2 agent in town ONLY uses a particular studio that the #3 agent NEVER uses. And the most expensive studio in town is the one LEAST liked by the town’s #1 agent.
When the AGENTS don’t agree, how can you decide what’s best for you?
Realize that your performance is what matters most! Put 90% of your time and money into being a great talent. Whenever I read articles from companies that charge $2,000-$3,000 talking about how great their demos are, I absolutely cringe. 95% of demos are rejected, many in less than 4 seconds! TALENT matters, not production!
Align Your Priorities With Your Future Agent’s Priorities!
I’m not saying do bad work. I AM saying agents do NOT care about your production, they care about your TALENT. Of course. Duh! Also: They do NOT believe your demo. Some people have even put other people’s voices on their demo and tried to pass it off as their own! I’m sorry, but the more polished your demo production is, the less they believe your talent. It’s a sad fact, sure, but TALENT is what wins, not spending money for production.
Look at it from the agent’s perspective: They want to make money from good talent, not listen to demos that they can’t trust anyway. Align your priorities with an agent’s priorities and you’ll be fine. Put your money and time into gaining skill and experience.
Preparing a Demo From Existing Clips
First, learn where to get sounds and how to add them to voiceover to create a demo. ►Your initial goal is to create three short commercial clips that contrast with one another, using your main voice. Consider 3-4 clips to be a short (vs full) demo that you can use instead of a full demo in many situations.
There will always be disagreement among industry insiders as to what is on your demo. We’ve seen an agent suggest moving one take closer to the beginning, and another agent suggest removing that take altogether! Don’t take ONE person’s opinion. Always get a second and third opinion before making changes (unless you already have an agent, then you can simply do what they ask if you wish).
Also, make sure you read the key tricks of sound design (how to add music to voice) before choosing music. Although not everyone agrees exactly on what the basics of a good commercial demo are, here the things you MUST know:
1. Do a Commercial Demo First
Other demos (narrative, IVR, promo, etc) come later, and don’t matter as much.
Your commercial demo is a collection of actual commercials you have done, OR (more commonly) a simulation of actual commercials. It is NOT a clever production in itself. Please, please, please don’t be clever or over-produce! Don’t have characters talk to one another. Don’t have music or effects without voice. Don’t change the VO to match the music. Don’t put very short clips next to one another, etc, etc. Mainly: Don’t make the production noticeable. ►If it couldn’t have been made from a collection of actual commercials, you have made a mistake. The voice MUST be the star, not the production. (If you can’t help yourself, only do something clever on the very last clip only.)
2. Avoid Variety for Variety’s Sake
The #1 mistake beginners make is intentionally including bad acting “for variety.” Bad acting is bad acting! It doesn’t belong on your demo. Use only the most authentic of your recordings. If there isn’t enough variety, try different choices or take more voice acting classes. When someone says “What I’m going to record is…” it’s almost always a mistake. You can’t plan what will be good. If you could you would already be one of the top pros. ►Do your best and only use the best of what you get.
The #1 mistake to avoid if you are a radio DJ: ►Do not include include anything related to a radio station, e.g. avoid anything with call letters, imaging, sweepers, intros, promos, liners, station identification, etc.
Some agents (more than you might expect) will listen to as little as three clips despite saying they only accept full demos, because they generally make a pass/fail decision about a talent in the first three clips anyway. So three clips IS a demo (albeit not a “full” one) that you can share online, or with agents in many cases. ►Do NOT try to create a full demo until you can put together three clips that meet most of the requirements in this post.
3. LENGTH and Music
A typical demo clip is 4-11 seconds long. Yes, they have gotten shorter over the years. A few alternate clips (interjections) can be three seconds or less. A FULL commercial demo contains 60 seconds worth of clips. The total length can be a couple seconds longer or shorter, but not much. Each clip sounds like a portion of an actual commercial.
- You should not have more than two long (10-11 second) clips, and preferably one or none. Only use long clips if the show range/transitions/variety of ability, for example, switching from a problem to a solution and then highlighting the brand name (i.e. showing three skills in one clip). If it’s all the same, cut it shorter, or at least have a musical transition and more than one sound effect. And if you do have two long clips, do not have them both in the first three clips. Optional: You may include 1-3 very short clips, 1/2-3 seconds each, but they should be in between longer clips. A short clip is where you can “cheat” in some variety. Go too far and see what you can get.
- A track ends when the voice stops, and starts when the voice starts. There are no music or sound effects before or after the voice, they stop before or at the same time that voice stops, or within 1/5 second or so. There is no space between tracks, or less than 1/5 second of space. Music can start AFTER voice, or end BEFORE voice, but don’t have music without voice.
- You should avoid long pauses in your read, i.e shorten the space between phrases on your voiceover track.
4. Acting Styles and Variety
- Don’t include clips “for variety” that are simply bad acting! It doesn’t matter what you think “would be good to include”: include ONLY what you are able to do authentically.
- Avoid most character voices, particularly in the first three clips. You can be quirky on 1-3 clips (if that is your specialty), but a REAL person—you!—being quirky. Sometimes a stock character—the “Saturday Night Live” version of a real person is okay. But avoid characters that sound like they belong only in an animated movie.
- Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity. 95% of demos are rejected in 3 seconds or less, according to one survey of agents. ►Make CERTAIN your first clip has a real person speech pattern in the first three seconds: no punching, bending or artificial pauses, just smooth natural groups of sound.
5. Contrast and Sound
- ►Each track MUST contrast with the previous one. When you have narrowed down your top takes to five or so, start looking for the portions of each read that contrast with the reads from other scripts you have chosen. This is easier if your clips are not too long.
- Music, script topic, and vocal style MUST all be different from one track to the next. (If it’s not clear what the topic is, that’s fine.)
- A new talent will almost always NOT have enough vocal variety. You can cheat by changing up the music more, and putting the most vocally different clips back-to-back early on. But again, don’t try to create a FULL demo until you can put together three clips that meet most of these requirements.
The best takes should sound like first takes. Like you just “tossed off” some comments on something that interests you, excites you, something you know really well. They are also likely to be the ones with the most contrast to one another.
A demo follows the same rule as all other kinds of acting: You have to make them want to listen.
The harder you try for variety, the less you get. ►Overworking doesn’t create the off-the-cuff conversational sound. Record yourself talking to a friend about something that interests you for at least ten minutes to hear your more natural sound.
Why Your Demo Doesn’t Matter as Much as Other Factors:
To succeed quickly when you are starting out, please the agency first, and the voiceover agent second. Several things can matter to an agency MORE than what is on a voiceover demo.
Two things worth doing before you approach a voiceover agent:
• Find some VO work on your own;
• Get some on-camera training and be available to do background agency work (for example, get paid to sit in the background at a casino during a print or commercial shoot). Providing background actors is where agencies make a lot of money. It is NOT a job for models. They need ALL types. The less you look like a model, the more likely they do NOT have someone like you on file and need you to fill a hold in their roster.
Firstly, Demos are well-known to lie. They show more what an engineer can do in editing than what a talent can do in auditions.
Agents don’t believe demos. In fact, the better the demo, sometimes the harder it is to believe. They believe more in industry insiders. This means • talent who have done recent voiceover work for multiple clients outside their day-to-day employer (we recommend a home studio and some easy online work to “check this box”) • have a headshot so that the agency can make money from them as background for on-camera and print • and, ideally, talent who already have an agent. So get an agent then get a better one.
You can be red-flagged and rejected by an agent due to any of these factors:
- Need: Do they need someone like you. Do you fill a hole in their roster?
- Suitability of demo: Does your demo show that you have been well-advised and appropriately trained?
- Commitment: Are you actually someone who does agency work? Do you have a headshot, recent industry work and an agent already? Do you have realistic expectations? Are you going to do this long-term? Having ZERO work history is not a good sign that you can be trusted to commit. There is more hassle than money in voiceover in the short term.
- Believability of demo: Is there reason to expect you might be unable to achieve directable, authentic results equivalent to your demo?
- Skill level evidenced by demo. Yes, this is really only considered fifth.
- Competition: Is your competition more committed and experienced than you? Is there a need for your type locally? If so, is it under-served or over-served?
- Age: Are you young enough to be aging into other types as you grow? Or will you be aging out of the industry all together?
STRATEGY TO GET A GOOD GRADE ON YOUR DEMO
We follow what we call the 3-3-3 demo strategy:
- First three syllables. Most demos are rejected almost immediately. That means the first three syllables have to demonstrate the three acting and appropriateness points below.
- First three seconds. Ditto. Agents may stop listening after three seconds. You have to pull them into continuing to listen.
- First three takes. Outside of other factors, your “grade” is pass/fail from your first three takes. If they’re interested after three, the rest of your demo is just reasons to reject you.
To get an agent to continue listening, each of your first three takes, particularly the first one, must meet these criteria:
- Authentic conversation: Real person talking to real person. Do you understand how to speak in your own personality and demonstrate your brand voice?
- Commercial intent: Clearly this is a commercial. Not some other kind of writing. You have a strong point-of-view (believe what you are saying, believe in the product/solution).
- Voiceover: Is your performance voiceover instead of some other form of acting? Do you get how your brand voice is used in the marketplace? (Are you attempting appropriate acting for your voice type).
Then you are graded additionally on professional production and guidance.
- Is this cluelessly produced? Distracting errors? Do most clips average 7-9 seconds in length, e.g. are there enough clips? Is there no more than one clip over ten seconds?
- Is there clear contrast between takes? Do two takes in a row sound the same? Are you attempting enough different things to demonstrate acting skill?
- Are you trying things you clearly aren’t good at? Are too many takes a misguided attempt at “variety”?
Key Points Summary
►Create three short commercial clips that contrast with one another before solving other problems or trying a full demo.
► It must sound like it could have come from a collection of actual commercials.
► Each track MUST contrast with the previous one.
► Don’t plan “variety”—do your best and only use the best, most authentic of what you get.
►Do NOT try to create a full demo until you can have three great clips that are authentic and different from one another.
► Make CERTAIN your first clip has a real person speech pattern in the first three seconds.
► Radio folks: Do NOT include include anything related to a radio station!
Of course, if you haven’t yet, learn where to get sounds and how to add them to make your own demo.