voice-over demos

Factory Demos: Fatal First Impressions

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Promotion, Studio 15 Comments

You know what they say about first impressions and second chances.

As a voice-over, a demo is often your only chance to make that first impression. It’s your business card, resume, portfolio and audition all compressed into one 60-90 second package.

A great demo is the result of the combined expertise of those behind the mic and behind the glass. If done right, it condenses years of experience into a minute or more of magic.

A professional demo does not come cheap, but not having one could be an expensive mistake.

There’s one thing it should not be:

Mediocre.

If that’s a given, then why are so many demos completely underwhelming and unmemorable?

Audio and production professional Cliff Zellman thinks he knows the answer. He has been hiring talent for over 35 years, and receives between 12 to 15 demos a week. He’s heard everything. From the best of the best to the worst of the worst.

As the Voice-Over industry began to change, Cliff noticed what he calls a detrimental shift in the way VO demos are created. A shift, he says, that does not play well for the VO Artist.

DISTURBING TRENDS

Emmy Award Winner Zellman, who has a degree in Audio Engineering, is referring to a few things. 

First of all, he receives demos that have been slammed together after a “talent” has taken some entry-level voice-over class. You’ve probably seen the ads for those trainings. They always end with the words “demo included.” These demos are usually stitched together from old scripts and they’re overproduced to mask someone’s level of incompetence and inexperience. 

Then there are demos that will tell you more about the single-mindedness of the director, than about the versatility of the voice talent. Zellman told me he often wonders:

“Whose demo is this really, the VO artist’s or the director’s? There’s no variety. The copy is uninspired and the music is outdated.”

Demos from a third category may sound terrific, but Zellman says:

“I have been disappointed more times than I care to remember because the talent could not reproduce the level of competency I heard or that I require. And they give me no indication of what their audio will actually sound like.”  

In other words, each line of the demo was spoon-fed by the director and recorded and sweetened in a million-dollar studio. It’s false advertising, because the talent can not deliver the same quality in a home studio setting.

Cliff has a name for all these demos. He calls them “Store-Bought,” and warns they are a big risk to buyers.

Cliff Zellman

A NEW CONCEPT

Having listened to way too many of them, Zellman started asking questions:

“When a talent leaves the booth after three or four grueling hours of a store-bought demo session, did they do their best? Were they relaxed? Were they intimidated? Is one session really ample time to allow the talent to shine?

And when they leave the studio, what do they have, really? An audio file. No real world education, no new knowledge of microphone selections, what works best for them in their environment with their voice. They are not receiving the collective years of experience and success of multiple directors… Just one person’s ability or inability.”

And out of his frustration, an idea was born:

• What if he could get the best directors and voice-over coaches in the nation under one umbrella?

• What if one voice talent could pick six of these coaches and work with them via Skype for six one-hour sessions in his or her home studio, using six different microphones?

• What if the result of these sessions would be professionally edited and mixed by an award-winning master digital music editor to create one outstanding 60-second demo?

This is precisely the concept behind Zellman’s latest endeavor: Done By Six Productions. (click on the name to visit the website) 

He calls it “The Industry’s first Online, Menu-based Voice Over Demo Production Company.” 

EXCLUSIVITY

I have to warn you. It will take more than a dream and a credit card to get access to Zellman’s roster of experts. He explains:

“There is a vetting committee of four or five industry professionals. If someone is NOT ready, we will be happy to suggest a coach that can help with their gaps.  When the coach says they are ready, we re-evaluate. We are a team created to actually HELP the voice talent succeed… not a factory.

This is also why Done By Six REQUIRES a talent to have a professional website, an approved home studio, knowledge of delivery methods and previous VO experience. We exist to elevate, not to hold hands.”

CONFUSION

At this time, talent can choose from a list of 39 seasoned professionals who cover all areas of the voice-over industry. People like Marc Cashman, Roy Yokelson, M.J. Lallo, Peter O’Connell, Dan Friedman, Randye Kaye, Doug Turkel, Amy Snively, and even the writer of this blog.

When I first heard about the concept, I thought:

Six directors for a 60-second demo. Isn’t that overkill? Aren’t six different coaches going to give conflicting advice, thus confusing the talent? Zellman:

“ABSOLUTELY NOT. It is a “real world” experience. When one goes to college, they don’t have the same professor for four years. Six directors will produce 60 seconds each. Each 60 seconds can be used as a full spot demo as well. 360 seconds will pretty much ensure that there is quality sections within each read.

Remember, we are NOT working with newbies. A talent is already used to working with different directors. Otherwise, why would someone attend a seminar with Pat Fraley, then Marc Cashman, then Myself, then Peter O’Connell et cetera. Conflicting advice opens doors! If everyone would bet on the same horse, the race would be boring.”

OWNERSHIP

When talking to Zellman, I mentioned that one of my colleagues had recorded a demo he wasn’t happy with. The pacing was off and the music was dreadful. He asked the producer for the dry audio so he could go somewhere else for a remix. Even though he had paid for his demo, the producer refused to give him the building blocks. And so I wondered: if a demo is produced by Done By Six Productions, who owns the audio? Cliff Zellman:

“The talent owns it! All dry files are already in the possession of the talent on their computer. I think any demo producer that doesn’t “gladly” give all dry audio to the talent is a paranoid fool and a charlatan. I am not looking to “lock-in” someone. I WANT them to spread their wings! Let them grow. Let them edit… let them punch-in!

I especially do not want the responsibility of being the ONLY one to help a talent. That’s ridiculous and I know demo coaches that feel very differently. I totally disagree. This is THEIR future, not mine. I am here to help, not control.

As far as music, I sublicensee it to the talent for this specific project. If a director has music in mind, cool. If not, all music used will be mixed into the production. If a talent wants to get creative in a few months, change up things on their own, I say YES!  They are one step closer to mastering this profession. Again, we are to HELP, not control.”

PS What happens if the voice talent isn’t happy with the end-result?

CZ “As long as they are in possession of the mics, every director I have spoken with agrees to an additional session of up to 15 minutes (or within reason).  Some may stick to 15 minutes sharp, others may be more liberal. If things get out of hand, I will step in, take responsibility and make sure the talent gets what they need. If I receive multiple complaints/concerns with a director, I remove them from the roster. Simple as that.”

Speaking of microphones, each talent receives a flight case with six of the industry’s most popular microphones: the Neumann TLM 103, the Sennheiser MKH-416, the AKG Perception 220, the CAD E100S, the Audio Technica T2020 and the Harlan Hogan MXL VO: 1-A.

This is the perfect opportunity to test these microphones in your own studio. It also ensures that each segment of your demo will sound differently. Shipping and insurance is part of the price of the package.

VOICEZAM

But there’s more. Included in the demo-package is a free 2-month subscription with VoiceZam.

VoiceZam is a new way of showcasing voice-over demos that gives clients and agents an opportunity to skip through the individual tracks of each demo. The user can also track who’s been listening to their demos. Cliff Zellman:

“I LOVE VoiceZam. My time is VERY valuable. I appreciate the speed, playback quality and ease of operation. I have had lengthy conversations with Bob Merkel (the man being VoiceZam), even to the point of offering him ideas and strategies at no consultation fee.

VoiceZam shows a professional attitude and a certain amount of savvy. I know if I go to a talent’s site and I see a VoiceZam player, there is a very good chance I am dealing with a solid pro.”

By the way, the VoiceZam image is just a picture. If you want to get a feel for how VoiceZam works, go to Bob Souer’s site and try it out. 

PS Why just focus on demos? You have a great line-up of coaches. Why don’t you offer more coaching services?

CZ “In time. Many new start-ups fail by trying to do too much too soon. Every Done By Six director is a potential coach. I know each of them personally and professionally. I know their strengths and weaknesses. Between the members of the vetting committee, we can steer the talent in the right direction. One of the benefits of being a Done By Six Director is the possibility of being selected as a coach. Once a coach is suggested by Done By Six, it is between the coach and the talent… for now.”

TASTE TEST

Go to any supermarket and you’ll find shelves filled with factory-baked breads. They may be packaged a bit differently, but you know that most of them are low on nutrition and they all taste the same.

I usually buy my bread at the local Farmers’ Market from an artisanal bakery. They have a huge variety made from different grains, nuts and herbs. The ingredients are high-quality and the bread is baked with love. I can taste the artistry and dedication that went into the making of the bread. It’s a taste that lingers on.

If voice-overs are your bread and butter, what type of taste test are you serving your clients?

Are you feeding them stale, factory-baked bland bread with margarine, or fresh, wholesome, hand-made bread, topped with real butter?

If you only had one chance to make a first impression, what would you rather serve?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS: Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc, photo credit: Phil and Pam via photopin cc