Guidelines for Making a Sound Design Demo Reel

Kyle Vande Slunt: Sound Design Demo Reel (2009) from kylevandeslunt | sound designer on Vimeo.

So I finally did something I should have done years ago: make a sound design demo reel. I’ve always had my work available online to view, but never as a collage of all my best work. I was naive to think that potential employers and clients would take the time to view multiple examples of my work. I’d be lucky if they viewed just ONE video in full. So as I set out to make my reel, I decided to do some research first. As expected, I only found guidelines for visual/graphic demo reels. While there are certain tips that apply to all demo reels, audio reels obviously need their own criteria. So I watched as many sound design reels as my ears could handle and came up with a list of helpful guidelines. My hope is that other sound designers will read this article and add their own guidelines to the comments. From there we can compile a master list and make it available to everyone on Audio Cook Book.

The first thing that I discovered was that making a sound design demo reel sucks. Sucks hard. I think its much more difficult to make an audio reel than a visual one. You can’t demonstrate your skills with quick edits of 5 second clips being backed up by a song by your favorite artist. You have to make more considerations in your edits because you’re dealing with audio as well. You also have to show longer clips to let the sound design develop and be heard in context. In my research I noticed a lot of similarities and tried to implement the ideas I liked into mine. Here are some simple guidelines to consider for your sound design demo reel:

1. Start off with your best work.
It would be a small victory if a potential employer or client actually viewed your demo reel. Don’t waste any time. Hook them right away. If you start off with a bang, they’ll feel more inclined to keep watching. This doesn’t mean you should put your worst work last. You should still end with something that will stand out in their ears. In my case, my first and last clips are different sections of the same piece of work.

2. Keep it short.
The first edit of my reel was over 7 minutes long. The second edit was 5 and half minutes. My final edit came in just under 4 and half minutes. I’m a sound designer myself and even I was getting bored watching other reels that went over 3 minutes. Imagine what it must be like for an employer who has to sit through hundreds. Don’t waste your time making it any longer than 4 and half minutes. You want as much of your reel to get viewed as possible. If you wanted, you could make a longer version which you can reference at the end of your shorter reel. I was going to do that, but let me tell you how sick I was of working on this thing after the short version was done.

Note: Animation geniuses PIXAR have their own guidelines for aspiring employees. One of them demands that their demo reels not exceed 4 mins. Oddly enough, they turn down the volume and do not listen to ANY audio.

3. Don’t worry about content.
Some sound designers who are just getting started might not have a large collection of work. Don’t sweat it. Use what you have. If your demo reel consists of three 1 minute clips…so be it. It still displays what you’re capable of. Don’t let your lack of content prevent you from making a reel. If you’re worried about not having enough, you can always take a scene from a favorite movie or download a silent film from the internet archive and redo the sound design. A lot of people do this. It’s great for keeping your chops up as well.

4. Label Everything.
One thing I noticed in almost all the reels I watched…every clip was labeled with the designer’s responsibilities. You want to make what you did very clear. You don’t want to be associated for something you haven’t done and you don’t want to look like you’re intentionally being misleading. Labeling everything eliminates all confusion and highlights your abilities.

5. You are more than just a Sound Designer.
If you’re a sound designer you’re almost always an audio editor as well. There is a good chance you’re doing everything sound related on some of your work. Make sure to label things like Foley Artist, Recording Engineer, VO record, ADR, mixing engineer, music editor, and music supervisor to your responsibilities list. These are legit credits…you’ve earned them.

6. Think about Order.
Take a look at all your work that could be included in your reel. How do you want to be viewed? In my case, I have a lot of sound design experience with animation, but I don’t necessarily want to be pigeon-holed as such. Take notice of the feel and flow of your work, you’ll be surprised what shapes you can make by playing around with the order you present them in.

7. Use Transitions to your advantage.
If you’re tasked with editing together your own demo reel, use this as an opportunity to show off your audio editing abilities by creating interesting and creative transitions between clips on your reel. Use long reverb tails, pitch audio up/down and overlap it with the next clip’s key, stretch/speed up the ends of clips to transition into the next clip’s tempo or bring audio from the next clip in early and then cut the video at an appropriate time that coincides with the soundtrack. This also creates a more cohesive viewing experience.

8. Give Credit.
Make sure to list any affiliations, agencies, directors, or producers that helped make the material on your reel. This is just the courteous thing to do and you’d be surprised at the negative response that can occur if someone was not given credit or the credits were manipulated to mislead. If you worked on something at another company or production house, make sure to label this as well. I know it might not seem important since you’re showcasing YOUR work, but it looks good and shows potential employers that you’ve worked with a wide range of companies, clients, and directors.

9. Check your Levels (ah duuuuur)
This one is pretty obvious, but unfortunately I’ve seen some pretty bad demo reels. Treat your reel like a project. Check all your levels, mix everything together, and master accordingly. Don’t leave out any details. The sound professionals looking at your reel have been in the business longer than you and they’ve been working with audio longer than you. They’ll be able to hear everything.

10. Get Feedback
This one I’m really glad I did. Your reel will probably contain work that’s been with you for years. You might even be sick of some of it and can’t decipher if what you’re doing is any good. Get a fresh perspective by showing your reel to friends, family, and other audio colleagues before you publish it. Ask them about the content in the reel, the order of the content, the length, feel, etc. You’d be amazed what you’ll find out. I showed my rough cut to my girlfriend and after viewing came up with an entirely different order for the clips. I ended up borrowing almost all of her suggestions and it made for a much better reel. Thanks Lady!

11. Render.
Do your research and figure out the best way to encode your videos for quality and online streaming. I exported my videos to uncompressed, widescreen avis in Sony Vegas (using a project size of 1280 x 720 and a pixel aspect ratio of 1.000) I then opened my avis in Quicktime and exported to 1280 x 720 HD H.264 quicktime videos. The H.264 codec comes highly recommended by Vimeo and allows you to have great looking HD videos optimized for streaming. The audio was Linear PCM at 48l/24bit. DO NOT render your audio as anything less than full quality because that would be stupid.

12. Move it
Upload your reel and start posting the hell out of it. Post it to online job profile sites, your social network sites, emails to production companies, prospective employers, artists whose work you appreciate, etc. Do not sit and wait because nobody is coming. You need to take the initiative and get your reel out there.

Well, that’s about all I have. I hope this was informative. I’ve included my demo reel here so you can see these tactics in action. Like I said, I’m really curious to hear how other sound designs went about making their reels. Please leave a comment with your tips and tricks and we can keep improving on this list.

55 thoughts on “Guidelines for Making a Sound Design Demo Reel

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