Mainstream Studio 1st Timers

The world of audiobook narration has changed immensely and a recent email from a colleague highlighted something I hadn’t previously considered.

There are an increasing number of established professional narrators who record audiobooks remotely – so despite having a significant number of reads to their credit, plus Earphone Awards, Audie nominations or other significant gongs, there is an increasing number of narrators who have only ever recorded remotely.

Being invited to record in a professional recording studio for the first time is daunting – but perhaps even more so if you are used to flying solo. I know it was for me!

The first audiobooks I narrated were recorded in a pro studio in the early 1980s! The technology has undergone so many changes since then, that that experience, for more than thirty years ago barely counts. What I do now bears no relation to what happened in that studio all those years ago. Of the two hundred or so audiobooks that I have narrated in more recent years, only five have been recorded in a mainstream studio with a producer on the other side of the glass. And I was incredibly nervous every single time. I have no idea why it felt so daunting to be in a pro studio despite having a significant body of work behind me. What did I learn from the experience? How was it different from working alone, and what is good etiquette in a pro studio?

My first trip in recent years into a pro studio, was to read a rather complex historical novel about Queen Anne. It was long – the total running time was estimated at 12.5 hours, so the studio was booked for three and a half days. The first pressure I was under was time related. Working on my own in my own space, I work at my own pace, take breaks when I want. If I’m not in the mood and the words are not flowing, I take a break, get my act together and start again an hour later. I can pace myself – so I would probably spread a 12.5 hour book over perhaps three weeks rather than three days: when working remotely, the timing is unimportant, as long as the schedule is adhered to and the deadline is met.

Alongside concerns that I would miss the target altogether and not finish on time, I was also concerned that my voice – or my brain – would run out of steam. I was not used to recording for seven hours a day for more than three consecutive days. Would I be able to sustain my concentration and deliver consistent quality and energy levels?

Anyone who knows me knows that I can talk for England – and when I was acting, I used to rehearse for six or seven hours a day, then do an evening performance so my pipes were always performance fit – but that was a long time ago – and after all this time, I wasn’t sure whether I still had the stamina or the concentration. And of course, being nervous isn’t great for the voice – everything tightens up and that can put a strain of the vocal cords. Would my energy levels drop? Would I start sounding tired and husky? Would I be able to concentrate? And what about tummy rumbles? These were real worries for me – and for a few days before I started, I had serious ‘narrator nightmares’.

An added pressure was that it was very dense novel with lots of characters – all real people. There were lots of facts to absorb that would have an effect on the performance, this King had a stammer; this Prince had a thick German accent – and so on. Added to this, the two princesses, Anne and her sister Mary were children in the early chapters, ageing throughout the novel. The book also contained excerpts from Anne’s diary and many of her letters – written in the style of the period – and printed in italics – so it wasn’t the easiest of reads. 

It was obvious that thorough and meaningful preparation was vital. I always read a book at least twice before I start narrating, but things do crop up during a read that need double checking, and I knew that it would hold everything up if I had to go searching for things online as I went along. I was very lucky in that I was able to contact the producer I would be working with in advance and we exchanged several emails and chatted about the style of the book and how various characters developed and might sound … how much of a stammer – how much of a German accent and so on. 

I was also concerned that I would be reading from a print copy of the MS. Normally narrators get a digital version of the manuscript to which they can add notes and references as required. Although I never highlight different character voices with different colours as some narrators do as I find the colours distracting, but I do make little notes about voices and accents and add pronunciation links to a digital text. Reading from a hard copy is unwieldy by comparison and I was concerned about paper rustles, awkward page breaks and so on. 

Once I had got over the first day, and met the required number of finished hours without any difficulty – and without my voice or energy levels disappearing or noticeably changing, I felt a lot happier and more confident going into the second day – and I am happy to say that I finished narrating thirty minutes ahead of time and it all went very smoothly thanks to lovely folk at White House Sound in Leicestershire.

So what did I learn along the way?

… and what are my tips for anyone heading into a studio for the first time?

In the days before going to the studio

  1. Proper preparation prevents a poor performance! I really can’t emphasise enough how important preparation is for every read … but it’s even more important that you go into a pro studio with a thorough knowledge of the entire book; with any strange names, unfamiliar words, and pronunciations, particularly any foreign words firmly researched and ready for use when needed.
  2. Get the character voices clear before you start and make a short audio clip of each voice in advance. I normally record a short MP3 clip of every character as I go along when I am working remotely so that if I forget what someone sounds like, especially if they disappear for several chapters, I can easily find them again without having the search through the master recording. Collecting character voice clips as you go is not an option in a pro studio, so you need to make decisions before you start recording and keep your own record of those voices. I recorded a short sample of all the main characters onto my tablet – so that I could refer to them if the need arose during the recording.
  3. If a page break falls at an awkward point on a print copy, write out the first line of the following page at the bottom of the previous one. I found this a huge help. It means you can break to turn the page at a sensible point rather than mid phrase.
  4. Try to keep as much as possible as familiar as possible. We all prepare or mark up our texts in different ways – and I wouldn’t advise changing your normal way of doing it just because you’re in a pro studio. You don’t want to suddenly be distracted by a whole load of new hieroglyphs on your text that you’re not familiar with. Keeping everything as ‘normal’ as possible will lessen your feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. 
  5. Hydrate – and for a few days in advance, not just when in the studio. You need to start your hydration a couple of days before you start recording. It’s no good grabbing a glass or two of water an hour before you sit down at the mic. Because I am recording almost every day, my hydration levels are normally pretty good – and I usually drink 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day and numerous cups of black tea and juice on top of that. I find that room temperature water is best. Cold water tightens the vocal folds too much and changes my voice. Steaming is also good for relaxing your throat.
  6. Get enough sleep. You really can’t burn the candle at both ends when you’re working. A good sleep pattern over the few days before you head to the studio will ensure you and your voice are not tired. 
  7. Go shopping for your lunch/es and plan ahead. You may not want to go out during your lunch break and there may not be anywhere you want to eat. Personally I prefer to stay focused, so the last thing I want to do is to head into a cafe or to a supermarket queue. 

In the studio

  1. Don’t forget the script – your notes, a notepad and pencil. Your digital device, PLUS CHARGER. Pop your tablet on charge during the lunch break.
  2. Because pro studios punch in when you make an error, you must wear headphones. The person on the other side of the glass, be that an engineer / producer / director, follows the text while listening to you and will stop you if you make an error, or if anything sounds odd – or when if a jumbo jet flies over. They then scroll back through the recording to a point a few seconds before the error or noise. The audio is ‘armed’ then you hear the previous few seconds played through your headphones – and you begin reading again at the point that the playback stops, this is recorded over the original error or noise making a seamless edit. It’s important that you use the same tone, pitch, energy level and so on, which is why you need to hear the previous few seconds. Anyone using punch and roll / rock and roll for themselves in their remote studio will be familiar with this process. 
  3. Take your own headphones! Studio headphones are invariably too big for me and flop around and are generally uncomfortable – they can also be pretty tatty – so I always take my own. I am also familiar with how I sound through my own cans – and a different sound through a different make of headphones can be distracting.
  4. Remember to keep hydrated. You’ll need a supply of water (room temperature works best for me – ice cold tightens the vocal chords). Try to take a sip whenever you stop recording which is more effective than downing a half pint at a time. I also drink tea (Black Earl Grey with honey when I am recording as I find milk alters my voice) and find coconut water good for hydration and stopping mouth noise. I think it’s slight oiliness helps keep everything running smoothly. 
  5. Get to the studio at least half an before you’re due to start recording. This will give you time to introduce yourself properly to the team you’re working with. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Then give yourself some quiet time before you begin. Do some relaxation exercises – and a vocal warm up – nothing too strenuous, just enough to warm up your vocal folds and get everything feeling aligned and comfortable. 
  6. Wear comfortable clothes, and wear layers so you can adjust as your warm up. Quiet clothing is also a necessity. Nothing shiny or rustling. Natural fibres are best, and loose unstructured clothing is more comfortable. Take a wrap or cardigan with you. I don’t like working in an overheated studio personally. I prefer to feel slightly cold, so will turn off radiators and lower the temperature slightly. However, I do find that when sitting still (and sitting still is a necessity) my back gets cold and can stiffen up – so a shawl or cardigan draped over my shoulders and the back of my neck helps.
  7. The studio set up. For long form narration and long studio days, most narrators sit. So once you’re settled, the studio engineer will adjust the mic position. Once that is set up it’s important that you don’t move the mic or move the chair – ask for a bit of tape to mark where the front legs are, so that you can be sure to put it back in the same position if you move it for whatever reason. Whether you’re reading from a tablet or paper, there is normally a sloping surface for you to rest the MS on – and its position in relation to the mic and your chair and you needs to be comfortable so that you can read without having to hold your head at an awkward angle or turn away from the mic. The engineer will then do a sound check and ask you to read a passage from the book so that the mixer / interface is set up for your unique sound rather than anyone else’s. The expectation is that your read will be within certain levels – and that you will have sufficient mic technique to be able to shout without shouting – whisper without vocally disappearing – and to move your mouth closer and further from the mic if required. Ideally your read will not have too great a dynamic range. If you know that there are likely to be some loud bits … now is a good time to mention it! You will also be able to hear yourself through your headphones during the set up – so if you sound too loud, or too soft during playback, but if you know your speaking levels are as they should be, then ask for the volume to be adjusted on your headphones.
  8. Don’t touch the mic! You may be used to tweaking everything when you’re working solo – but in a studio it is not your job! The engineer / director will set everything up for you and you really mustn’t change things. Your relationship to the mic must be constant and consistent – so if at any point you get up and move around try to do it without moving anything. If you accidentally knock or move the mic then tell the engineer / director – and they will come and re-set everything.
  9. To avoid tummy rumbles have some high protein, high energy snacks with you.  I am a terrible tummy-rumbler. I rumble when I am hungry and again after I have eaten if I leave too long a gap between nibbles. I always have a high protein snack in the booth which I nibble at regular intervals to prevent rumbles – and I also take a tub of chopped celery in with me as it helps keep the juices flowing and avoids a sticky mouth.
  10. Lip balm is essential. Along with hydration, celery – or green apples – lip balm is an absolute must. Vaseline works best for me – it’s not too gloopy and slithery but is very effective at preventing lip smacks.
  11. Give a warning if you’re going to clear your throat or blow your nose. The person on the other side of the glass from you will be listening through headphones at a high level – and if you need to clear your throat or blow your nose, do warn them. Think about it … do they really want to hear that at high volume in their ears. Yuk!
  12. Don’t wear too much scent / aftershave and never spray yourself with perfume in the booth. There will be someone else using that studio after you, and they may have allergies – or just not like your favourite pong. Perfume can really irritate the throat, so even if the next narrator in the booth loves ‘Eau de Voix’, your scent may have a detrimental effect on their voice.
  13. Remember you’re hired to read the book – that’s it! You’re part of the team for sure and your contribution is valued – but you’re not there to argue the point – particularly about anything technical. Be sensible though. If you’re not happy with how you read a particular sentence, if the phrasing or accent doesn’t sound quite right, then speak up! Use your instincts – they’re probably right. When a director or producer gives you direction or a note, they’re not being critical … they’re doing their job! Listen, act on their direction, and move on. If you don’t quite understand what they mean – ask. There is nothing to be gained by trying to second guess at this stage. Good communication is important from everyone involved. Talk to the people you’re working with – if possible, introduce yourself to them via email, or make a quick phone call before you actually get into the studio. Get to know them, discuss the options with them in advance. But when in the studio keep the chatter and your opinions to the minimum. Studio time is expensive. 
  14. If you’re not happy about something … don’t suffer in silence. If the volume level coming through your headphones isn’t comfortable, if you’re too hot, too cold, need to go to the loo, need to cough, need to stretch then say so. If you need to step away for a minute to gather yourself after a difficult section, that is OK too.
  15. Be professional and behave professionally. You want to be invited back don’t you? Be friendly but not overly familiar – and definitely don’t spend the lunch break bragging or bitching.
  16. Relax – Everyone is on your side wants to create the best audiobook possible.  
  17. If you want to use a photo of yourself in the studio, ask permission. And ask permission about tagging the author, the title or anything else. Many titles have a non-disclosure agreement associated with them – so make sure you’re not breaking any confidentiality rules before you brag.