Production 512: Crafting The Perfect Production Demo

I received some interesting responses to last month’s post, all positive, mostly pointing out that advice on VO demos is kind of hard to find. More than a few emails asked if I could do the same for production demos, so I’m back on the demo track this month, this time for all you production wizards. Hopefully, I can pass along some of the experience I’ve had reviewing demos with (and without) Program Directors/Operation Managers to help you understand what it’s like on the other end of a job application.

Prod512 Logo 400pxMy hope is you’ll be able to approach it with an efficient style which can give you the greatest odds of being heard fairly. Just remember that if you suck, you’re not gonna get the gig no matter how perfect your demo is, but if you really are ready to make that jump to something bigger and better, this will hopefully open the door for you.

As the Creative Services Director of iHeart Media/New York (Clear Channel and all the other iterations before that going back 30 years), I sat through hours of demos from people all over the world, offering my insights to Program Directors and Senior VPs for their evaluation. I clearly remember hearing the demo from a young woman at KDWB/Minneapolis and discussing her future in the company. We all decided Kelly Kelly Kelly’s future was wicked bright, because her demo was wicked good.

Before I get into it, there was one aside I made last month that drew a few questions about the term “T&R” from some our younger brothers and sisters in the production biz. They’d all seen it in some production employment ads but never knew what it meant. It made me laugh a little because it has been a few years since I got a Tape and Resumé. Perhaps it should be changed to F&R now. (File and Resumé?)

Step 1: Collect Your Best REAL Work

There are some producers who think nothing of creating bogus spots or promos to make a demo that can really show off their skills as a producer, but I am telling you up front that they are playing a dangerous game. That will become clear as we work through the process. You will always be better off using work that has been approved or even extolled as excellent by PDs, AEs or clients. It’s kind of sad that you have to deal with doing work that requires validation by others, but it’s real life, my friend. You will always know when your work is at its best, but getting an attaboy from the PD means that others can appreciate your skills and style. That’s what you’re hoping for in this whole process, so go with the flow. Use the real stuff.

To be fair, people who are relatively new to this business might not have a huge library of substantial work to draw from and, like many VO people new to that business, will be forced to do some bogus work. I’ll have some special advice for that later in the column. Hang in there wizards.

Production demos, by their nature, will be a bit longer than VO demos, so I will always recommend that you have at least a dozen of your best pieces. If you can get 20, you should be golden. Try to get as many different styles of production as you have in your arsenal. Happy and sad, excited and subdued, scientific and goofy should all be in there somewhere. As you collect them, start thinking about the order of promos or spots in the demo, with an eye to drawing a sharp contrast every time you transition. This will give you at least the appearance of being versatile.

Step 2: Pre-Edit Each Piece

If you’ve read more than a couple of these columns of mine, you know that I constantly preach the religion of the Unique Selling Proposition. Find the 20 seconds in each piece that truly defines the USP. You will not be using all 20 seconds in the final version, but you want to make sure that it is very plain what the USP is and how you showcase it. This is the MEAT of the spot or promo and absolutely must be there to demonstrate your skills. If anyone can listen to these shortened pieces and know exactly what you are selling, you’re way ahead of the game.

Step 3: Pre-Assemble Your Demo

Begin by grading each piece on a scale of 1 to 10, one being the absolute best and 10 being just “pretty good.” Be hard, but be fair and remember to take into account other people’s appreciation for your work. If you have an award winner from the RAP Awards, I’m thinking that’s gonna be a 1.

Once you’ve graded them, stack them so that your best pieces alternate with your not-so-best pieces, to help keep interest up during the listening process. Use your absolute BEST piece to begin your demo. You want a WOW factor of ten right off the bat for a very simple reason. If the PD or Senior VP doesn’t have a tingle running up their leg, there’s a really big chance they’ll shut it off mid-stream. I’ve seen five minute demos get the plug pulled after 45-seconds. If your best work is buried in the demo, it’ll never be heard. Use your second best second and then alternate.

Step 4: Begin Editing

Typically, in a really good VO demo, the longest piece will be about 10 seconds long, others will be 5 to 8 seconds. The overall length will be 90-seconds or less. Casting directors seldom will take the time to listen to anything longer, and often cut them off in mid-stream.

Prod demos are different. Length will typically run 2 to 2.5 minutes and the individual cuts will be 12 to 15 seconds with one or two running slightly longer. The main difference is again, at the listening end.

A VO demo is showcasing the talent’s ability to emote and most of the time all it takes is a couple of phrases to make the case. A Prod demo is more about transitions and how the production tells the story behind the VO. How the USP is supported by all the production elements and that takes more time to unfold.

As you start shaving time off of each piece, pay attention to the transitions and the USP support. Any sound effects (natural) that are critical to the story need to be there. Music transitions within the piece which help tell the USP story need to be there. I’ve found that using a sound effect (electronic or natural from the spot or promo) is a great edit point and helps the overall flow of the demo. Just keep the USP intact and if you need more than 12 or 15 seconds, go a little longer, but plan to make up for it later.

Step 5: Processing Everything to Match

Chances are excellent that the bulk of your work was all done on one or two stations, meaning that they’ll all have the same kind of compression and EQ. If so, that’s great, you should be in great shape. Just go through each piece you’re going to use to make sure they all sound like they’re coming from the same station in one stop set. That is simply helping with the flow again. It’s subtle but important step to the listening end so your potential new boss isn’t doing mental gymnastics to keep up with the different sound from piece to piece.

Step 6: The Final Assembly in TWO Steps

Once you’ve edited all the pieces, line them up sequentially in your work station and live with it for a couple of days. Invite others to listen and tell you what they think. Most people have a natural instinct for this sort of thing, believe it or not, so it can be anyone you know, not necessarily a fellow producer. They will have insights you probably hadn’t thought about that could prove very valuable. So ask your spouse or roommate, your parents or even someone at the station who can be discreet. (Let’s not start any rumors before you’re ready. LOL)

After a few days of listening back from time to time and perhaps adjusting the order a bit, you can start making the hard edits, creating the transitions between pieces that will ultimately give your demo the flow you want. Don’t make the mistake I’ve heard so many times of creating false transitions using a tone burst or sweeping sound effect. That’s a cheesy way to do it and your prospective employer will probably dismiss you early in the process.

Step 7: Have Your Finished Demo Evaluated By Someone You Trust

If you know a really good producer (who can be discreet), have him or her put some fresh ears on it. You might have to go back and revamp a bit, but once you get their blessing, you’ll know you’ve done the most you can.

Step 8: Getting The New Gig

Update your resumé, include a small photo, if you like, and dump your new demo onto a thumb drive. You can also post it on your Soundcloud, Dropbox, Hightail or other cloud service, but remember that this entails an extra step for the recipient. If they’re really looking for someone, it won’t matter, but you might miss out on someone who wasn’t really looking until they heard your work. Cover your bases.

One last thing to include in your package is a cover letter introducing yourself. On that letter, I highly recommend you include a line that says full-length versions of all pieces on the demo are available online or by request. My advice on this kind of work is, if you have included any bogus spots or promos in your demo, make sure that you have the entire piece finished.

If you choose to do everything via email, think of it as a ‘virtual’ package that could have been sent via snail mail. Include everything: links, photo, resumé and the “complete pieces are available” business and make sure it’s ALL in one email. If the person who gets it is NOT the one evaluating you and your work, it makes it easier for them to forward everything to the person who will be.

I should probably add an 9th step telling you to not lose faith. Sometimes it takes months or even years to get the gig you really want, but if your demo is as sharp as it should be, it will net you the gig.

For my contribution to the Soundstage this month a promo I did back in 2015, with a lot of help from Andy Jackson at Production Vault/CHR and a nice lift from Justin Timberlake. It’s fun and energetic, which is perfect for a “Pays Your Bills” promotion.

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