[Note: This started out as a couple of tips but I eventually realized it would become an all-encompassing guide to producing a high quality demo. Basically, it's long.]
Let's face it, when you're starting out you can't afford a good demo. Heck you probably can't afford a bad demo, and if you're really early on please, don't even bother making a demo. Focus on doing amateur work for free for a while before you tackle this. Everyone is out there telling you not to even start working before you have a good demo. The catch 22 being that you shouldn't make a demo if you aren't amazing at voiceover and you cant become amazing at voiceover unless you have a demo. Yeah, it's a lot of mixed signals. That's why I'm going to help you make sense of it.
They're right, you shouldn't pay $2,000 for a demo when you aren't ready. They're also wrong, you can get plenty of work with a DIY demo, you just aren't moving to LA with it. When you think of a DIY demo you might be thinking of just plain VO with maybe a music backdrop, but probably not. That's going right in the bin 9 times out of 10 unless you're absolutely incredible. That isn't what we're making today. So let's get into it.
First thing's first, you are going to want a good script. That means writing. Sure you could go out and find a script for a bunch of commercials or character lines that are already arranged and available for you. Edge has those, Voices.com has those and about 3 million non-starting voice actors have those exact scripts in their demos. You don't want those. They are trash. They might be a great place to start if you need a bit of inspiration so by all means look at them to understand what a commercial script should sound like. As soon as you get the formula down, go write your own.
What's more important is that you aren't just writing a commercial or a character script, you need to write it for you. What are your strengths as an actor? I'm great at high energy characters, so I want to feature as much of that in my demo as I can. What is your brand of comedy? Your style of acting? What types of commercials do you often get cast for? Write with those key things in mind.
Finally understand what is happening on the screen when you are writing. Maybe you are writing a car commercial, there is a Subaru Outback going across treacherous terrain, towing a boat around a mountain corner. Gritty and adventurous music is playing in the background. You could be writing a character script for a tower defense tutorial, your character is a valiant knight telling the player what to do as demons march toward the castle. Keep these things in mind and you will know much better in what direction you should be taking your voiceover.
2. The Actual Performance
Having a friend there to direct you is an excellent way to squeeze the best performance into your demo. If you can't find someone who can give you direction then you need to self-direct. That means you are going to be in the booth for a little while because it's going to be a bit of trial and error as you try to figure out exactly the best performance. If you take too long, stop and move on to the next script, or you risk sounding too rehearsed. You can always come back to it later.
Self-criticism is a learned skill and you should be constantly trying to figure out how to improve your performance as an actor. Listen to every script you read, figure out how you can do better in the next script that is similar. Find all your little habits and problems in your reads and get rid of them as you go along. If you haven't taken care of this to a certain extent just yet, you might not be ready to create a demo. Just keep auditioning and working on your own performance, there will be time to make a demo in the future.
Knowing what is going on in the scene will help you to react to certain things, or help you understand the right tone. This is where our writing comes into play. Now you know that your knight needs to react to these oncoming demons but still speak in a calm instructional tone. You know to convey that the Outback is a vehicle for people who enjoy the outdoors by using a rugged but familiar sound for your voiceover. Being able to properly visualize the scene will easily put your performance closer to the best it can be, and casting directors will notice.
Yes, the dirty word nobody wants to believe is going on behind the scenes. Guess what, your audio can be better. When you speak you don't make the best possible waveform to work with. There are spikes in your audio, inconsistencies in your voice. Your voice gets louder and sibilance makes your audio messier. Your microphone makes noise that makes your audio muddy. So yes, you're processing this and yes, so is every audio engineer you send your voiceover. The least you could do for that poor guy is learn to process your own audio.
Let's start with the gate, this should be at the very beginning of your effect chain. You might not need this if your microphone is at the higher end, but it still helps for removing breaths. What a gate does is simple, when you are talking the gate opens and lets sound through. When you stop, the gate closes. Simple as that.
In the image above, on the left hand side you can see the threshold slider. This is the level that the audio needs to reach for the gate to open. If your noise floor, or the sound of absolute silence, is above -60db you will need one of these. Why -60db? I have no idea, moving on. My threshold is a bit high because I have it set up to remove breaths. In order to do this, find your normal speaking volume. Go all the way to the start of that dialogue, find your breath. Now set your threshold to a level just barely above the peak of your breath.
Take note of these other settings on the window above. My Attack is set to 5ms, which means it will immediately open the gate when the threshold is reached. My Hold is set to 19ms, this means that for a fraction of a second after threshold is no longer met, it remains open. My Release is set to 100ms, this means that the gate will fully close after a tenth of a second.
Let's move on to the second step, your equalizer. All this does is make your voice sound a teeny bit more pleasant. This will require a little trial and error if you haven't set this up just yet. You might want to use different settings for different situations. Your voice probably doesn't sound exactly like mine so you will figure out what makes your voice sound best. There are a few things that will likely be the same across the board however.
The first thing you will want to do is roll up to the 100hz range, as you can see on the left of the graph above. Between points 1 and 2 it arcs up to the 100hz range, this essentially a high-pass. The lowest frequencies of the audio are not important to voiceover as your voice simply doesn't use much of this range. The image above is my baseline EQ, it essentially gives my voice the most natural sound possible from my microphone. In other words, it sounds most like what you would hear from me being in the same room. This is achieved by subtly lowering certain frequencies that are artificially raised by my microphone. Again this takes some messing around but sometimes you can find the microphone's frequency response chart online or in the information that came with it.
The frequency response chart for an AT2035
The image below is what I do to enhance my voice, when it seems necessary. The three humps shown in the image raise some of the harmonics in my voice. You can do this by finding the frequency within your voice that is the most pleasant, then multiplying that frequency by 2 and 3. So in my case the first frequency I want to raise is 125hz, the second harmonic is 250hz and the third harmonic is 375hz.
The next part of my processing is the compressor. A compressor lowers the levels of your audio when they get loud enough. If you set the threshold of a compressor to -10db, then whenever your audio is louder than -10db it will lower the audio. How much it lowers the audio is based on the Ratio. In my case it lowers it at a 12 to 1 ratio. This process usually keeps my peaks below -9db and is just what I have found works best. Below you can see the difference it makes.
Finally the last part of my audio chain is a De-Esser, and guess what! I don't change anything. It's a default De-Esser. Still, what is a De-Esser? Simply put, it removes the stressed resonant sound from "S" and "Th" sounds, or sibilance. It makes your voiceover sound cleaner. I don't think i need to get into more than that on this one. You don't always need to use a De-Esser so decide for yourself when working with your audio.
All of this processing seems like a lot of work to do every time you record. Thankfully you can save everything you've done here as a preset to easily add to your project in a single step every time. If you have headphones handy, take a listen to this comparison between my raw and processed audio.
4. Arranging the actual demo.
Using the processing methods you've just learned, create individual audio clips of each line you will be using in your demo. Then import them to a multi-track session if you are using Audition. If you are using Reaper you are already working in this type of session, Adobe is weird.
On the top track you'll want to arrange your VO lines in a very specific order. The very first thing should be something you do very well that captures the attention of the listener. In my case I chose something that had a lot of intensity and urgency, that is also quite short. My first clip is only 7 seconds long. It is good for your second clip to be something that you are either exceptionally good at, or something that there is an abundance of work for. In my case, the gritty soldier archetype is a very common archetype and the clip I produced works really well here.
The rest of your demo from this point on just needs to be engaging and have a couple examples close enough to your natural voice. End it on a good performance so that the listener wants more. Try to keep your demo between 60 seconds and 90 seconds long. There's no law saying you have to do this, but it's generally good practice. Keeping it in this range is good for a couple reasons. The main reason being that for one, the person listening to it only has so much time in their day. Your demo is probably one of dozens they have to hear. The second reason is your file size. If you go too far past the 60-90 second range you risk making it impossible to add your file to an email.
Yes, I spelled goblin wrong, I wasn't paying attention.
The next step once you have arranged all your voiceover lines is to double or even triple your voice tracks. This means duplicating and layering your VO over itself up to 3 times. This will allow it to cut through the music and sound effects a bit easier. You can see this in the image above.
Now the fun part! Finding music and sound effects. This is probably going to take you a bit of time. If you are doing this on a no-budget, there are free resources available for music and sound effects. They will be lower quality but they will still work, I've used them in my previous demos. So for free stuff you can visit freesound.org, Incompetech.com and the smartest man in the world, Google. In my latest demo however I stepped up and put a little bit of money behind it. There are multiple stock audio websites offering monthly memberships for unlimited downloads - in my case I shelled out $33 for a monthly membership to Envato.com. This gave me a massive selection of stock audio with a high quality of production. It really shows through in the end product.
Now think about the clips you've chosen. What is the right type of audio for each one? If it's an intense moment before a battle you might want some kind of epic suspenseful orchestra playing. If it's a high energy sports commercial you may want an upbeat rock song with a bright guitar. It's going to take a bit of thought to really figure this out, and a lot of searching to find each song.
Once you've found what you need it's time to put it all together, but oh no! Your music is too loud for your voiceover even after you've tripled your VO track. There's a simple fix, sidechain compression. Now you know what compression is but what is sidechaining? Sidechaining means that it is compressing your audio in reference to another track. So you can lower volume of your music whenever the VO track gets loud enough. If you are using Audition, you can do this by going to your music track and adding Dynamics Processing to your effects rack. I use the default settings for this. Now on your top VO track you will need to add a send. Click where it says S1:None and in the dropdown menu go to Sidechain>Dynamics Processing(Music - Slot 1). That's it. Now your music track will compress in regards to your VO track and make your voiceover pop. Mike DelGaudio has a tutorial for doing this in Reaper.
Next step, once you have all your music set up is of course the sound effects. Get all your sounds that you will want to use the same way as with the music before. Whooshes, booms, crackling and whatever else you need for your project. It's up to you what is appropriate for your demo, you're the artist! The most important thing is to try to make everything sound like it is from a real finished product. Tweak the volume of certain sounds if they are too loud, move them around if you dont like when they come on. There are all kinds of things you can do to make it sound exactly the way you want.
You don't want to go overboard when picking sounds. Too many effects can overwhelm the listener and drown out the VO. If you need particularly loud sounds like explosions or effect transitions, be sure to lower the volume of them accordingly.
Here I decided to have the music cut out, so I needed to remove a portion of my tripled VO track.
The final step is to clean it all up! Here's what you should listen for. Check to see if your VO clips are overlapping, make sure to separate them enough that the listener will be able to distinguish what is being said. Listen to see if any of your tracks are too loud. You may need to reduce part of your tripled VO to only be doubled. If you have transitions between your clip, are they too loud or obtrusive? Don't be afraid to have a slight overlap in your music clips, add a cross-fade between your music clips for a smooth change. If you are using Audition, this is done automatically when tracks overlap.
Do any of your clips not sound like they belong in a real finished product? You may need to go back over those clips and try again.
If all of your audio is nice and clean go to the master track and add a slight compression to the Effects Rack. You want a consistent volume just below -3db. I used a Tube-Modeled Compressor on my master track, for a light touch of added warmth.
When everything is finished, give it a good listen and if you're satisfied with the end product go ahead and export it. Send it to a friend for some feedback before posting the final demo. You may still find something you missed and want to go back and rework something.
Congratulations! You've made a high quality voiceover demo! It took a bit of work, but it's worth it. Now you can send it to casting directors, post it on your website and use it as a reference for new clients. Just listen to that beautiful new demo! Feels good to put in that extra effort.