A Shoebox Full of CDs: Voice Actors' Reels for Fiction Podcasting

An in-depth guide on voice reels: what they are, how to make one, and why you might need one.

8 min read

Somewhere in a shoebox, buried under bits of life, my voice is burned onto a neat stack of CDs. They’re in thin cases. They have polite labels written in pen. My first ever voice reel was made in 2011 at the tail end of when actors’ materials were delivered by post. Twenty seconds after I finished writing the labels, the industry went digital.

In media with a longer history than podcasting, the industry has settled on certain promotional materials for actors. Headshots. Actor directory memberships. Showreels and voice reels. At first glance, the most applicable of these to actors who want to work in fiction podcasts is the voice reel. 

So what are they, what do they look like, and do you need a shoebox?

Opinions vary. These are mine.

Defining terms

A voice actor (VA) is an actor bringing their skills to any space where a character is recorded through microphones. For our purposes that includes audio drama (including fiction podcasts), gaming and animation, but they pop up in other places too, like interactive museum exhibits. Sometimes one actor will take charge of multiple characters for the same project, though a facility for multi-voicing is not necessarily a prerequisite.

A voice over artist (VOA) may come from an acting background but, then again, they may not. They work primarily in non-fiction media: commercials, documentary, e-learning, telephony, lifts... 

There is a lot of crossover between the two (see audiobooks), and many actors are also VOAs and vice versa, but the two are different specialisations. 

What is a voice reel?

A voice reel (or voice demo in the US) is a promotional tool used by actors and VOAs. It is typically industry-facing; our immediate clients are rarely the final audience. Despite this, actors often have them publicly available, for the convenience of those who might hire them.

The length of a voice reel varies, as do opinions on what it should be, but they’re usually short – one or two minutes. Sometimes they start with the actor or VOA introducing themselves.

Typically, there is more than one reel available as different types of jobs use different reels. These include but are not limited to commercials, gaming, audio drama, animation, audiobook, narration (such as of a documentary), and e-learning. Occasionally, these categories are grouped under broader umbrellas such as ‘Character’ (which might include gaming, audio drama and animation) or ‘Documentary and E-Learning’. The more you specialise, the likelier you are to have a specific reel for your specialisation.

A variation you sometimes come across is the full reel followed by a granular list of its constituent parts. Say the actor is a New Zealander who speaks fluent German and is comfortable working in both British and American. They might include separate clips on their website with names like:

  • Commercial
  • Documentary (German)
  • Commercial (German, NZ accent)
  • Audiobook (RP)
  • E-Learning (General American)

This quickly points clients to relevant examples, particularly clients who are new to the industry.

What is the point of voice reels?

When a casting breakdown goes up, the number of applications could be in the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands. Casting directors do not have the time to meet every applicant so our materials, including but not limited to our reels, are used to choose the candidates they want to take to the next round. That might be the actual job! You'll hear stories of people cast from their reel. Just don't bank on it; more likely, the next round is an audition.

Sometimes, the process works in reverse: your reel is available online, an employer is doing their own research and comes across it, and an offer pops up in your Inbox.

Casting Directors want to know three things: do you/can you sound appropriate for the role, does your voice fit with the other actors they've cast and, bluntly, do they think you’re any good? 

A useful reel is an honest representation of the actor at their best.

How do you make one?

Your budget and experience define what kind of reel you use. Here is a short list of possible types. Please note, when people refer to voice reels or demos without additional context, they are most likely thinking of Items 3 or 4 on the list.

The Voice Clip

The simplest reel. In fact, it's a misnomer to call it a reel: this is just you illustrating what you sound like. If you have zero budget, are just starting out, or are looking for a placeholder while you get a more involved one made, consider this. 

Record a ten to fifteen second introduction of yourself in your everyday speaking voice. (Allow up to eight minutes to panic that you don't know what your everyday speaking voice sounds like, that you have lost the ability to form words, that you were never able to form words, and that you have now resigned yourself to a life without speech. Then do it anyway.) That’s it.

I think every actor would benefit from something like this, even if they have a full reel too, because increasingly, clients want to know how our home setups sound. Having an introductory clip to hand will give you a polished little sound file to send in reply.

The Self-Made Reel

I’m hesitant to include this because if you have ever read anything about making a reel, you have probably been warned not to make your own. People who listen to a lot of reels have a good ear for them. If you have no budget and asked me about this option versus The Voice Clip, I would suggest going with The Voice Clip until you can afford the help. 

However, it does happen that people make their own and if your only interest in the audio world is fiction podcasts, well, an awful lot of podcasters have by necessity been learning to edit sound. If you, a podcaster, are recording from home, you may find contractors or have a willing colleague working independently of studios. Remember that your voice reel is a calling card and that you only get one first impression, so please be cautious: look for evidence of this contractor’s past work making voice reels.

The Studio Reel

Congratulations, you have the budget to have a professional reel made! 

Voice reels will set you back wildly different amounts. I have seen them advertised from $200 to $2000 and higher. Do you get what you pay for? Maybe. On the one hand, experience is expensive. On the other, people love to fleece actors. Your best guide is listening to a studio or producer’s previous work in voice reels.

I would typically look for a studio that offers a consultation period as part of the deal. They will help guide you towards materials which suit your voice. It’s likely they will focus on more profitable parts of the industry than audio drama, so if you specifically want a reel aimed at fiction podcasts, make sure they know this.

The Portfolio

You've worked a lot and have plenty of mp3 files to show for it? That's great! If you’re going to edit it yourself, make sure you can make it sound tight. If not, bring in someone with better skills. Do your best to use clips which don't have other actors' voices in them, and make sure the first clip is your everyday speaking voice or at least close to it. You’ll want to update this reel every now and then as you make new work you want to show off so keep it in an updateable state on your DAW.

The Showreel

It is common to cast actors for audio projects from reels of their screen work. After all, it’s all the same skillset, it’s just the process that changes. 

If you have a screen showreel and intend to pitch yourself regularly for fiction podcast work, I would consider supplementing it with one of the above options. However, you are not necessarily out of the running if you don’t have a voice reel, especially if you make it clear that you have a good home setup for remote recording (though at that point, why not have at least a Voice Clip up there just to put everybody’s mind at rest?).

Where can I get one made?

If you are looking for an outside studio, head to Google and search for  “voice reels / demos [your home city]”. If none show up, or you can’t find one you like, search for studios in bigger markets – London, New York, Los Angeles… Many of them offer a remote recording service which uses your home setup.

What should be on it?

Every voice is different and we are only at the start of understanding what is useful for fiction podcasts. Therefore, I can’t prescribe a list of must-have characters. Instead, take advice from people who know you as a performer and listen critically to other actors’ reels and make a note of what works. Think of it as an exercise in teaching clients how to cast you. 

The following things are true:

  • Start in your natural speaking voice or close to it.
  • Adding music and foley to make each clip sound culled from a larger production is normal.
  • Variety holds attention.
  • Focus on the acting.

It is generally true that each clip on a reel is short, maybe five to ten seconds. However, that old reel I have on a bunch of CDs in a shoebox is seven minutes long and that is based on the advice of the BBC Soundstart guide to making reels (I recommend reading this in full) which focuses on full text, not just snippets. If you intend to apply for the BBC Radio Drama Workshops, I suggest you follow their guidance. 

I would be cautious using a seven minute reel in fiction podcasting, since many potential clients came to the medium from ones that obey other norms. As far as I can tell with where we are at the minute, a one or two minute reel will work for your main reel. If you want a longer one as well, I’d add it a little further down your website with a clear label.

Once you’ve picked your materials, work them as you would any other text. Session recording times vary but it’s unlikely to be more than half a day, more likely one or two hours. You want to get in the booth ready to go. I would make a note of anything that involves vocal strain and ask to reserve those for the end of the recording. Hopefully, you’ll have warmed up thoroughly beforehand, drank nothing but water the night and morning before, and your vocal folds will breeze through. But accidents happen. You don’t want to spend the majority of your session with a damaged voice or be forced to reschedule.

Do you need one?

Can you get cast without one? Yes. Would having one increase the chance of you getting work in fiction podcasts? Possibly, probably more so in the future. Do you need one? Depends. 

If you intend to work across different parts of the acting and VOA world, I would strongly advise getting a full studio made reel. If you are only interested in fiction podcasts, ask yourself whether you think the cost will be worth the work you bring in.

There’s one more argument in favour of the fiction podcast reel that I can think of. Industries evolve and eventually settle on standards. As the medium grows and brings more money into it, I expect fiction podcasts to borrow standards from similar media. If that’s true, a voice reel is an exercise in futureproofing.

You don’t need a shoebox, though.