Remote recording audiobooks 1


In my last post ‘Muse from The Booth no 17, I discussed audiobook narrators recording for the first time in a Pro Studio. Today, the opposite – remote recording an audiobook from your own personal studio.

Remote recording is the norm when recording audiobooks for the majority of publishers on the US – though not yet in the UK. However, as more British audiobook publishers can clearly hear the quality of the audiobooks that remote narrators are recording from home studios, they’re becoming more flexible.

​What is expected of the narrator recording remotely – and what do we need to do to ensure quality and production values don’t fall? 

I have been recording audiobooks remotely from my personal professional recording space since 2013. I have remotely recorded titles for Audible Studios, Harper Audio, Penguin Random House and Blackstone Publishing in the US and for Audible Studios, Lamplight Audio, Quercus, Whole Story Audiobooks, Wave Sound Audio, Rosa, Author’s Republic and Ukemi Audiobooks in the UK. I have also recorded eight titles via ACX: four working remotely with US producers (Push Play Audio and Crossroads Press) and four as an independent producer and narrator. 

​Of the more than fifty titles that I have recorded since 2013, three have been recorded in a mainstream recording studio.

While remote recording is regarded by almost all US publishers and production companies as being on an equal footing with recording in a mainstream studio, this is not the case in the UK though things are changing slowly. Publishers are slowly recognising the quality that narrators are able to deliver when working remotely and appreciate the added flexibility that remote recording brings. Thankfully, an increasing number of major publishers are beginning to explore the possibility of remote recording.

Remote recording is not going to lead the Audiobook industry into the jaws of hell! 

​So what is expected of the narrator recording remotely – and how do those of us who regularly work remotely safeguard technical quality and high production values – how do we ensure that our performances match what we deliver when recording in a mainstream recording studio?

The majority of Audiobook narrators in the US regularly record in a personal recording studio; and, although audiobooks are created in mainstream recording studios, particularly in NYC, there are numerous best-selling audiobooks (including many Audie-winning titles) that have been recorded remotely. And many UK based narrators are recording for US publishers as well – from their own facilities here in the UK.
I defy anyone to be able to tell which award-winning titles recorded by Simon Vance, Johnny Heller, Scott Brick, Peter Noble, Matthew Lloyd Davies, Billie Fullford Brown, Peter Wickham, Andi Arndt or Karen Cass were recorded remotely and which were recorded in a mainstream studio. 

There is still considerable debate (and some disagreement) about the quality that can be achieved in a ‘home studio’ – in itself is a pejorative term. Not all ‘home studios are equal! And yes – there are folk recording audiobooks from under a duvet with a USB mic who call themselves ‘audiobook narrators’ just as there are those who appear in the village hall panto every Christmas who call themselves ‘actors’.

I have heard so many disparaging comments about remote recording! I have been told that it just can’t be done successfully; that it’s impossible to produce audiobooks that meet the standard required – either technically or artistically when working solo. Remote recording is also blamed for the lowering of rates, presumably because it is seen as offering encouragement to too many beginners and welcoming into the business, people who are prepared to work for either very low fees or nothing at all up front – as in the case of Royalty Share. However, in truth, remote recording often attracts a higher PFH rate than studio recording – and though RS is seen as the thin end of the wedge, in the US particularly where many more people buy audiobooks – an RS deal can be far extremely lucrative for both author and narrator.

The newspapers are full of articles about how audiobooks are saving the publishing industry. Is it any wonder that more and more people want a slice of the pie? Technological advances have allowed many more people to access basic recording software and an entry level microphone – and there are a lot of people finding their feet in the industry by creating a profile on ACX and recording titles for self-published and unrepresented authors, giving them access to the audiobook market. Many US narrators report that the success of an audiobook produced independently on ACX or one of the other Indie platforms, has directly lead to the author being approched by a major publisher for their subsequent work – and they often take the narrator with them. Surely a win win situation? 

It is not a level playing field and not all remote recording is equal!

​I, and many other full-time professional audiobook readers put considerable time, effort and money into the creation of a personal studio that is of professional quality, in most cases we work in a fully isolated, acoustically treated and well equipped recording space. We have professional recording and editing software which we know how to use effectively and efficiently. We may be working solo, but our studios are carefully assessed by audio engineers every time we’re cast by a publisher or producer with whom we haven’t worked before. Many of us are also producers – creating original work for publishers such as Findaway and Spoken Realms as well as being Audible Approved Producers on ACX. We are not a collection of ‘hobbyists’ recording with a USB mic and free software while buried under a duvet or two. 

Not all home studios are equal! ​Neither are all narrators! ​

Another pair of ears on the other side of the glass is lovely and it’s a treat to record with a director or producer who really knows their stuff – but equally, I love the independence of calling the shots for myself and working to my own timetable. I also know that some of my best work has been recorded remotely.
Which brings me to the other major bone of contention – ‘self directing’! 

Many traditional narrators scream in horror at the very idea of it. Their perspective is that a narrator working solo without a producer. director or engineer on the other side of the other side of the glass can’t possibly give a good performance or deliver a quality audiobook.

As I say another pair of ears is great – but just as not all home studios are equal, neither are those ‘other ears’. As studio budgets are constantly under pressure, those ears may belong to someone who has had no sight of the MS before recording begins, they may have never read the book – and therefore have no idea of the tone, the setting, the characters, the emotional arc of the story, the author’s intention, what its target audience is, its style – or even what genre it is. Reading only a short resume means that essentially they are working blind – and when that is the case, how can they possibly direct or guide the narrator in any way? How can someone who hasn’t read the text be expected to contribute anything to the performance? How can they discuss anything with the narrator – who most definitely WILL have read the book before starting recording; will have researched pronunciations, place names, character voices and so on. Continuity can also be an issue. There may be no continuity of ‘ears’ – the ‘producer’ may change half way through the recording, especially when a series of books is being recorded. Given that scenario, (which though not applicable to every studio is certainly the situation in some) the narrator is to all intents and purposes ‘self directing’: the only things we’re not doing in a mainstream studio is setting up the mic and pushing the buttons to stop and start recording. 

When it comes to judging the quality of a performance, that is always subjective. There is no real consensus as to what makes one narrator ‘better’ than another. We all have our favourite narrators and those we dislike – and may not be able to pin down what exactly what it is that makes us prefer one rather than another. It may be the tone of someone’s voice, their inflection, their accent or their pacing. There is something indefinable that either endears us to a particular narrator or put us off them completely, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are either ‘better’ or ‘worse’. And we will make those personal judgments of all performances. So we either fall under a particular narrator’s spell or we don’t – the spell depends on the writing of course but also on the narrator’s ability to create the magic. A narrator who creates magic will create it whether or not they’re working remotely or with a full production team.

I think actors (and audiobook narration is all about acting – and in the UK, most narrators have a background in acting) have an innate awareness of what they are doing. The finest actors are always aware of what is going on around them both on the stage and in the audience. They don’t tread on a laugh, talk through a pause or break the atmosphere created by another actor. They are always aware and self-aware, and although ‘in the moment’, they always remain in control. 

The solo narrator develops this skill to another level – we hone the ability to be fully connected to the read while at the same time having a third ear which is listening in, keeping technical tabs on things if you like. Having recorded in a mainstream studio as well as remotely, I don’t think I work very differently in either space, just because there is a producer on the other side of the glass I don’t ‘switch off’ my self-awareness. I always spot any flubs or when something doesn’t sound quite right – I use my instinct no matter where I’m recording.

The direction of travel is always there within the text itself! We know instinctively when to change the pace, when to pause, how to use timing to get a laugh or to make someone cry, where the emphasis should be – and we know how to use our voices. We also have trained our ears … we listen to ourselves critically as well as creatively. When we’re working solo, because we know there is no one else listening in as we record, believe me we are absolute perfectionists. We’re super picky! 

When working remotely we also have the luxury of time. If we mess up, we can go back to square one if need be and do it again. We can record when we want – early mornings, late nights, when the kids are at school, when the family is asleep. We can take a day off when we’re not in the mood. We can do the school run, sports day, lunch with friends, walk the dog and then make up the time at our leisure. 

Working remotely is liberating and flexible and we rarely have to complete a eleven hour and twenty minute book in three days – as I did for one studio produced audiobook I did recently.

Almost all the professional narrators who work remotely, record using punch and roll (rock and roll as it is also known in the UK). So the audio we deliver is clean audio with no repeats and usually very few errors. When we finish recording the entire book, we hand the audio over to a professional audio-proofer before any editing is done. This proofer is part of the production team working for the publisher or production house – or if we’re producing independently, we hire a professional audio-proofer ourselves. It is notoriously difficult to proof your own audio and its not something I would ever consider even trying. The proofer identifies any errors that have slipped through (assuming we’re all punching in corrections as we go) it’s normally contractions – or there may be a mouth noise or tongue click in a particular word. We get a correction sheet – usually in an excel spreadsheet giving chapter, page number and time code as well as the details of the error and what we should have said – when working with US publishers they also provide an audio reference file containing the sections where any problem occurs with several seconds on either side. We record pick ups as required into a separate audio file matching tone, pace, character voices and so on so that there is no discernible difference in vocal quality, and then pass the corrections and the original audio to an editor who inserts the pickups and does a fine edit and masters the audiobook for publication.

The differences are very small!

We’re working in our own space at our own pace, and are making some decisions about how the book should be read – just as in a mainstream studio. We often have direct contact with the author – or can contact the author via the publisher and get character notes and direction notes from the author. Surely a good thing?
We are self operating the recording software so are pressing the record button! 

Punch and Roll (Rock and Roll) recording our normal way of working.

Audio-proofing and editing is not part of the package – that’s done in house by the publisher. To ensure the quality of our work is consistently high, most of us, when working independently as producer, hire an audio-proofer and audio editor, which is why Royalty Share is not a viable option for most of us – though in the US where sales are much higher, there are narrators making a very nice living from Royalty Share deals – far in excess of the fee they would be paid in a PFH deal – even at $400+ per finished hour. 

I know a lot of narrators who work remotely – and I have huge respect for their talent, commitment and professionalism. I know they produce good work – but I also know that if you listen to a selection of samples posted on the ACX website that there is a lot of variation. As I said before – not all narrators are equal – and neither are all personal studios – but as long as the publisher and production houses who hire remote narrators assess the quality of our personal studios and recording equipment – and our capability to self record, then what’s not to like? 

The option to work remotely as well as in a mainstream studio is the best of both worlds.