Crossover Corner : Making A Self-Tape

New to self-tapes? Get ideas for how to make your first or how to improve your setup.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and universities across the country turned to online classes for much of the spring and summer terms. In the musical theatre world, this meant that students were now not only making self-tapes for auditions but for many of their class assignments as well. I polled some university students and faculty to find out what makes a good self-tape submission. Whether you are submitting for a professional audition, competition, or a class assignment, here are some tips to help you show your best self.

  Equipment

Today most phones and tablets have pretty good sound equipment, so you may already have the equipment that you need. As a career investment, however, you may want to consider investing in a microphone and a speaker. An external microphone can help eliminate distortion on high or loud pitches and create a more accurate portrayal of the intimate moments. An external speaker will offer better sound quality to your accompaniment track and allow for more subtle adjustments when working on the balance of accompaniment and voice.

You could also consider some editing software where you would have more control over the sound balance post-filming. Sound and film editing are careers in themselves, however, and it is not necessary to become an expert in either of those to create a successful self-tape.

If you are experiencing distortion when recording with a phone or tablet, you can try a couple of things. First, try standing farther away from the recording device. Second, check the audio settings to see if the device has an input volume. Turning the input volume down should help eliminate sound distortion.

Have the device playing your accompaniment behind you and the recording device in front of you. If the accompaniment is too close to the recording device, it may be too loud. One student recommended putting the device/speaker on the floor near your feet (if they aren’t showing in the video) or to the side out of the video frame. You may have to do a few sound checks to make sure that where you are placing your accompaniment device/speaker is not too loud or too quiet in relationship to the voice.

Location

Where you film your self-tape is also an important consideration. You should do your filming in front of a plain solid background. It is best if the background is neutral and not the same color as what you are wearing.

A few students suggested hanging a sheet, blanket, or piece of wallpaper to create a recording studio look. Avoid patterns on the wall and avoid recording where there is a lot of furniture or wall hangings. You should be the most prominent and eye-catching part of your self-tape.

Lighting

There is no one way to get good lighting. In the end, we want to see you without shadows or looking washed out. Many recommended natural light during the daytime hours, but there were a few who recommended filming at the “golden hour” and using the golden light of sunset which is the perfect balance of warm and cool tones. You would need to do some testing as natural light will be different in every setting. Some homes or apartments may get more natural light than others and some may not have access to good “golden hour” light depending on the location of the windows.

Many also recommended getting a ring light since you may not always be able to record during daylight hours. Ring lights are inexpensive and often come in combination with a tripod stand and a cell phone holder, allowing you to adjust the light to your height and then secure your cell phone at that same height. One person suggested that in a pinch, if you don’t have a ring light, you can try turning a lamp on its side with the bulb facing you. There are many options when it comes to lighting, so try a few out and choose the one that flatters you best.

Getting the Right Angle

Always check the instructions for the audition or class assignment, but everyone seems to agree that it is best to record in the horizontal camera orientation and to show at least half of your body in the self-tape. Some poll responses were more specific in stating that for ballads you could record to show from the waist up, and for more up-tempo songs you could frame your video to show your hips or knees. This gives you more space to move, if needed. You should feel free to move—just make sure that you know where the limits are so that you always stay in the camera frame.

Dress for Success

Dressing for a self-tape is essentially the same as dressing for an audition. You should look like you took time to groom yourself. Those who answered the survey advised that you should look “first or second date cute.” Wear something comfortable that you don’t need to touch or adjust all the time and avoid distracting jewelry and small-print fabric.

Don’t worry about dressing like the character, but what you wear for a golden age musical or a pop/rock musical may be very different. One person recommended that you look like yourself but mostly be relaxed and comfortable, because the camera will pick up any tension and nervousness.

Performing for the Camera

Performing on a stage for an audience may feel very different to performing in a small space for a camera. You may be wondering if you should alter your performance to fit your space or to make it more cinematic. There was an overwhelming agreement that you may have to adjust some of your movements so that you stay in the camera frame but, without argument, you should be energized, truthful, and emotionally engaged in your storytelling. Most recommended that you perform the same way for the camera as you would in the audition or classroom.

When asked for any final advice, experienced self-tape makers recommended that you give yourself time to experiment with the setting, lighting, and sound options and find something that you can easily re-create over and over. It is a good idea to create your setup before you have a pressing deadline for submission. Most recommended that you do no more than two or three takes with chances being that usually the first or second take is the best.

Try doing a different acting approach with each take as well. Don’t seek for perfection or you run the risk of seeming unnatural, inauthentic, or overrehearsed. A fabulous performance does not have to be perfect.

Regardless of how education continues, self-tapes in the musical theatre world were already frequently used by casting directors and are likely here to stay for a while. With a little time and experimentation, you can find the equipment and setup that will help you create a beautiful self-tape.

Christy Turnbow

  Christy Turnbow is currently teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has taught at Montclair State University, Penn State University, and Brigham Young University. She earned an MFA in musical theater voice teaching from Penn State University and a BM from Brigham Young University in vocal performance and pedagogy. She has been seen in leading roles in regional music theatre productions and national tours.