Audiobook Performance 2


In my view Audiobook narration is one of the biggest challenges any actor will face … you’re reading a story and at the same time creating and playing every single character in the book … page after page, chapter after chapter. Each voice has to be totally believable and unique – and your interpretation must remain true to the author’s intent. A challenge indeed!

Performing Audiobooks is a whole different ball game from doing any other kind of voice work – and you might think that ‘performing’ is an odd word to use. Most people use narration or reading – but to my mind – audiobook narrators are performers in exactly the same way as actors, dancers and singers are performers. There is so much more to reading an audiobook than just reading aloud. 

‘Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning’. 
Maya Angelou – Author & Poet

There is absolutely no doubt that performing an audiobook is a huge challenge – and it is little wonder that so many voice over artists balk at the idea of being shut in a padded room for days on end for such small reward – for there is absolutely no doubt that financially at least, audiobook narration is the poor relation. A thirty second network commercial shown across all networks at peak time for a major brand can command a higher fee than a ten hour audiobook … and the work will be completed in hours rather than days. People do make money in audiobooks – but we generally don’t make very much – and we certainly don’t make it quickly – and we earn every penny. ​

In this article, I am going to look at what’s involved in creating an audiobook from scratch from the performer’s point of view.

So … what makes audiobook narration so complicated – and so rewarding?

The narrator must create not only an intimate and approachable story ‘voice of the story teller’ that entices the listener in and makes them want to hear more – but must also create every character within each book so that each person in the book lives vividly in every listeners’ imagination as a believable and unique person with a separate and clearly identifiable sound that must not only fits their character as described by others, but also their motivation, feelings and emotions and their role within the story. 

Add to this the potential for numerous unfamiliar words and pronunciations, sometimes passages written in a foreign language, and even, in fantasy novels especially, places and people with totally made up names for which there is no reference – and in non-fiction there is the challenge of sometimes dry and academic writing that doesn’t lend itself very well to being read aloud. (I’ll be looking at non-fiction reads in more detail in an upcoming article by the way).

Fiction has its own problems … we’re sometimes faced with repetitive and stilted writing, purple prose and a collection of platitudes and clichés inhabited by cardboard cutout characters who have no personality and who speak rubbish. There are books where every spoken phrase is followed by an attribution (‘said Emily’) – AND an adverb (‘said Emily crossly’) AND even an adjective or a whole series of them (‘said Emily crossly through clenched teeth while raising her eyebrows and shaking her long luxuriant curls in a provocative manner as she pulled herself out of his arms with her bosom heaving!) I exaggerate but you get the picture!

Alongside the badly written (or overwritten book) you sometimes find that a book, even one that you’re reading for a major publisher is full of typographical and grammatical errors as well as the occasional factual error – and narrators and producers have to negotiate their way through that minefield, talking to authors and publishers about what (if anything) should be corrected.

Every narrator finds their own way to deal with these challenges, but I suspect if you were to ask twenty narrators twenty questions about how they prepare before recording, how they create character voices, how they tell the story – let alone how they actually do the recording and editing of an audiobook, that you’d probably get twenty different answers – and every one of them would be right. We each have to find our own way of working; 

However, I think that there are some universal audiobook narration truths that 99% of narrators will observe – and that seems a pretty good place to visit next.

I firmly believe that every single professional audiobook narrator does some preparation before stepping into the studio to record. Exactly what they do and how they do it will no doubt vary – but I am 99% sure that not one single professional audiobook narrator steps into a recording studio without having spent some time on research and preparation – or without having paid someone to do some research for them.

Almost all narrators ‘read’ the book they’re about to narrate at least once – though how concentrated and detailed their read is may vary – there is skim reading and concentrated reading and I know that narrators who are very familiar with a particular genre or a particular author’s way of writing, or narrators of non-fiction who are very experienced in narration in a particular style or of a particular genre of non fiction who give a fantastic performance having only done a skim read. However, this is really not an option for most people – because for most reads, there are choices to be made and you can only make an informed choice if you know the whole story before you start narration. .

This is particularly true if you’re narrating a work of fiction where there is are character choices.

Every book has a dramatic arc – i.e. a beginning, a middle and an end – as does each character within it, having at every moment a motivation (a reason for doing what they do – which will colour how they speak) and an emotional response to what is happening around them. Each one is on a journey – their own personal ’emotional arc’. Each of them has a ‘personality’ – a temperament if you prefer and a back history – where they have come from? Why are they where they are, what do they want to achieve and how do they feel? It is very easy to create the wrong energy for a character, leaving them either with too far to travel – or no where to go if you start too high. Then there is the accent minefield! 

There are numerous stories (mostly apocryphal I dare say) about narrators who didn’t bother to read a book before starting to record and who subsequently made the wrong accent choice and created a character from, say Ireland – only to find on page three hundred and something that he or she actually hailed from Kazakhstan! 

Joking apart – as well as finding out about the story and the characters that populate the work, there is so much other valuable information to be gleaned from reading a book before you begin recording that leaving this vital step out of your work schedule will almost certainly result in you not reaching your potential and as every actor knows – you’re only as good as your last job; but unlike a stage performance where you can start over again the next night and no-one other than last night’s audience will know you were under par last night, in the recorded media that is an audiobook, your less than wonderful performances live on to haunt you, so you really do owe it to yourself to be the best you can be.

Reading before you start recording will reveal descriptions of how a character sounds; physical descriptions can also help you to find a character’s voice; thin people tend to have a different vocal quality to voluptuous people for example. You’ll also find out numerous other things that affect your vocal choices – how old people are; who is related to whom; where people come from; what their attitudes are to life and to each other and how they deal with their situation – are they optimistic or pessimistic? What is their temperament? You’ll also find out how characters relate to each other, how they feel about each other and how each person fits within the story and will thus allow the listener to follow each person’s emotional journey as the book moves forward.

How much preparation you do is up to you – but generally speaking the more thorough your preparation, the easier the read will eventually be when you come to record. 

Some narrators create complicated spreadsheets with detailed character references and notes, cross referencing family members, making notes on accents, ages and relationships. Some make copious notes in the margins of the MS itself. Some mark up the script with all kinds of hieroglyphics to denote pauses, inflections and phrasing. Some narrators prefer working from a print copy of a MS, others use a digital reader such as an Android tablet, i-pad or Kindle to read from, and use a built in app to make notes and annotate their script. Some have two full sized computer screens in their recording space, one for their recording software the other for the MS. Many use coloured highlighters to mark each character’s speech with a different coloured marker pen or use a digital reader that gives them the option to annotate and highlight their text.

Each narrator finds the way that suits them best and what works best for them, but I think most good narrators will agree that preparation is what makes the difference between a good read and a not so good read – and perhaps even between a good read and a great read that gets awards and wonderful reviews. So unless you’re an exceptionally good sight reader and are gifted with second sight to boot, don’t even think about going into a recording space without having done some prep.

I know I’ve been in a position where deadlines have been tight and I’ve had to rush through the preparation for a book. I am a good sight reader and generally my instincts lead me in the right direction regarding character choices and the narrative voice, but I feel sure that when I’ve skimped on preparation time the read is never been as good as it might have been. Something is missing.

I think we all have a safe ‘easy option’ – an unprepared or under rehearsed actor quite often gives a very adequate performance, but there is a sense that they’re playing it safe, being lazy, taking the easy way out. It may be that there is a lack of vocal variety; a general sameness of vocal tone and dynamics, a lack of character clarity and that is because when you’re not sure what is going to happen next, or if you don’t have a character and their motivation clear in your mind, then the default action is always to play safe – and if you’re playing safe, then you won’t ever deliver your best performance. 

I usually have a couple of books on the go at the same time – one, sometimes two in preparation, and one in recording, so I need to keep notes especially if I’m working on a couple of titles in a similar genre. I have even had a situation where two books and several similarly named characters! You’d be surprised how many times the same names crop up repeatedly in certain genres and especially in period pieces where a particular name was in fashion during a certain period – and if I don’t make notes I can get seriously confused about who is who … and though it hasn’t happened yet, I could only too easily imagine the wrong ‘Gladys’ popping into a book where she doesn’t belong in. 

I prep carefully: I do a skim read first – my bedtime reading is often the next book that I’m going to narrate – this way I can plan ahead, and if I am recording remotely, I can plan my schedule and get some idea of how long it is going to take me to complete the recording. I also get some idea of the complexity of the read, where it’s set, whether there is any particular research that I need to do. 

I then go through it again with more care and this is the point where I mark up my script and make character notes – things like physical descriptions, what other characters say about each other, whose related to whom, what age people are and so on. If I’m lucky, I then have time to digest it all; to live with the people, to imagine them clearly, to improvise even, to try out different voices. I think about my characters constantly, I even dream about them sometimes. I imagine their clothes, their look, their life. Sometimes I cast another actor in the role so that Maggie Smith, Anita Dobson, Anthony Hopkins or John Hurt may crop up every now and then – not that I attempt to impersonate them or copy what I think they would do, I just imagine them in the role and this helps me to pin my performance down. Once I get going on the recording I keep a short MP3 clip of every character’s voice – because they might pop out for a cup of tea and then pop back again three hundred or so pages later, by which time I’ve forgotten how they sound. There is also the possibility that there might be a sequel somewhere down the line. 

I don’t normally highlight different voices. I know who is speaking and by the time I come to record, have a thorough knowlege of who fits where within the story, what their character is and how they sound. I find that having coloured highlights on the MS actually distracts me and gets in the way of the flow and my read becomes stilted as if I am seeing the highlights rather than what is beneath them. I do however add notes and phonetic pronunciation guides for any strange or unfamiliar words (adding links so that my research can be shared with my proofer). I always use the OED in preference to any other dictionary as it usually gives UK and US pronunciation and they’re clearly differentiated. A lot of online audio references either give only the American pronunciation – or give completely wrong pronunciations, particularly of classical references. Beware YouTube … it’s full of mispronunciations, though it is very useful for genuine archive material – great for biographies and other history based material.

Once the prep is done it’s time to start recording. Each hour of finished audio will more than an hour to record. Most pro studios estimate that it takes two hours of recording for produce an hour of finished audio – and expect a narrator to complete around three to three and a half hours of finished audio per working day (normally a working studio day is eight hours with a break mid morning and mid afternoon and a lunch break). When recording remotely in a personal studio, it will take considerably more time than it will in a pro studio working with a producer.

Recording in a pro studio:

Let’s look first at how things are done when a narrator visits a studio to record for a publisher or production house:

The advantage of working in a pro studio is that there is someone else listening to your read from the other side of the glass. The person you’re working with will have a copy of the script that they will follow as they listen to you reading and will stop you whenever you make a mistake or when something doesn’t sound right or if there is an unwanted noise. When this happens, they will then stop the recording roll it back to an appropriate point, normally to the end of the sentence in which the error or fluff occurs. They will then arm the recording and you will hear the previous few seconds through your headphones then recording will start again, recording over the error you made earlier. This is punch and roll (or rock and roll as it is also known as in the UK – from a time when the engineer would rock the tape spool back a few inches before rolling to record). 

The amount of input you’ll get from the person on the other side of the glass will vary from studio to studio. Sometimes that person is an engineer and is listening mainly from a technical point of view – sometimes there is a producer or director, who will have also read the book before recording starts, and will therefore ‘direct’ the narrator, giving guidance regarding characters, accents and the emotional flow of the story. The producer will also be able to contact publishers and authors on your behalf and will sometimes give you character notes and guidance on how to deal with errors. 

If you’re not familiar with working in a pro studio – then there are some golden rules that you need to be aware of.

Pro Studio Etiquette

  • Never ever touch the mic once it has been set up. If you do accidentally knock it, tell the producer, director, engineer and allow them to re set it. Don’t try to do it yourself.
  • If you feel a cough or sneeze coming on, turn away from the mic. The poor person sitting behind the glass will be listening through headphones and will be deafened if you start hacking into the mic – also you want to protect the sensitive mic from bodily fluids.
  • Similarly, if you need to clear your throat, give the person listening the chance to take off their headphones, or turn away from the mic and use a handkerchief to muffle the sound.
  • Don’t wear too much aftershave or perfume – particularly strong lingering scents. You’re only in the studio for a few days, but someone else will be in there after you and may not like your particular pong – or may be allergic to strong perfume.
  • Remember to take water, sweets, juice, tissues, your script (of course) a notepad and pencil into the booth with you … and remember to turn off your mobile phone and turn the internet off on your tablet or i-pad if that’s what you’re reading from. 
  • One the engineer has set everything up and adjusted the mic to your position, try to remember where you are in relation to it. You may need to get up and stretch – and you will be taking comfort breaks and breaking for refreshment, so being spatially aware will help you return to the same position when you come back from a break. 
  • Make yourself comfortable – you’re going to be in there for up to eight hours a day – take a cardigan or a wrap of some kind in with you. You don’t want the studio to be overheated or you’ll get a headache and feel drowsy and de-hydrated, but you don’t want to feel cold as you’re sitting still for a long period. Having something snuggly around your shoulders can help to stop you feeling a chill on your back.
  • Remember that the people you’re working with are there to help you. They’re working with you to help you give the best read you possibly can – listen to their advice and direction and act on it. If you can’t take direction then you’re not going to get hired again. 

It is obvious why narrators enjoy working in this way. However, there are many Audie award winners and nominees who record major titles for major publishers working remotely and self directing from their personal studios

Remote recording from your personal studio

There are very few production houses and publishers in the UK at the moment, who will accept remote recordings from personal studios. However, this situation is changing slowly and I regularly work remotely for several UK audiobook imprints. 

If you’re hoping to work remotely from your own studio, then your personal studio must meet certain requirements and you must be able to deliver audio that is comparable in quality to that recorded in a professional studio. You will need some isolation from external noise and an acoustically treated recording space that has no echo or low frequency rumbles, no hiss from inferior mics or interfaces and you must have good mic technique. I will add that your space needs to be comfortable. Though some narrators stand to read, if you’re recording for several hours a day then sitting is something you will want to experiment with. I have a high draughtsman’s chair, and it is set to a height so that I am at the same height if I stand, sit or perch … thus I can ring the changes. I find I like to stand for some characters and sit for others – because my height is constant whether sitting or standing, I don’t have to move my mic – I just roll the chair back if I want to stand. 

I always use punch and roll recording so that the audio I submit for proofing and editing has (in theory at least) no errors, repeats or fluffs. However, I am working solo, so I am to all intents and purposes, directing myself. This means that I have what I think of as my ‘director’s ear’ listening as I read. I don’t find this particularly difficult to do. It is what I used do do when acting. The reality you’re working within is actually totally artificial – there is a fourth wall in theatre on the other side of which is the audience and you have to be aware of them and their reactions, otherwise you’ll give exactly the same performance night after night no matter what the audience reaction may be. You’ll tread on laughs – over play the tragedy and generally just be off the mark. That is what is so amazing about live theatre … it’s a communication between actors and audience and the actor ignores the audience at their peril. I also spent several years as a television presenter doing live television, so wore an earpiece and was used to hearing another conversation going on in one ear while I was talking about something completely different. A bizarre set of skills, but invaluable I believe to a narrator. 

If you’re working remotely for a production house or publisher, then almost always the audio is professionally proofed and you’re sent a list of corrections. However, this isn’t an excuse to making lots of errors. Narrators are expected to deliver cean and accurate audio with no fluffs, errors, repeats and without extraneous noise. – mechanical or human – so intrusive mouth clicks and intrusive or loud breaths need to be removed and you need to be aware and stop recording if there is a passing aeroplane, car or barking dog. The expectation is that you’ll submit audio that is clean, has no mouse clicks or cut off breaths, mismatched edits, and no extremes of dynamic within a read.

How such high quality audio is achieved (and the amount of time it takes to achieve it) varies enormously and will depend on the way a narrator is working; whether they are punching in re-takes over errors as they go along (punch and roll) or are marking errors using a dog clicker or a similar visible and audible marker and then going back and self editing their material section by section.

Working remotely in your personal studio is challenging, particularly for long form narration and where there is no background music or sound effects masking any background noise. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in your studio, so you need to ensure that it’s as comfortable as it can be. 

It also needs to come up to scratch technically. Depending on where you live and where in your house your studio is located, you may get away without full soundproofing, but you do need a quiet and acoustically treated dedicated recording space, with no echo, reverberation or sound bounce and you need to be familiar enough with your equipment and how it is set up, to be able to reproduce the same sound, at the same level day after day week after week. Sometimes with a gap of several weeks between recordings.

Working in audiobook narration is a huge commitment and is pretty time consuming. There are usually deadlines to meet and these can sometimes be very tight. This is a not something that can easily be fitted in after coming home from a day job and it is difficult to do successfully as a hobby. You need stamina as well as talent and imagination to record for hours on end and to maintain consistency of performance and audio quality day after day for perhaps a twenty hour book – or even more challenging, for a series of books.