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Posts Tagged how to produce an audiobook
Right now, my voice actor Sandy is in her recording booth, speaking like a bod. Lifeform Three, my second novel, is currently in production as an audiobook, so this week I went to an event in London hosted by ACX and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Audible president Jason Ojalvo and author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn were speaking, and they had some interesting points on the business of choosing and working with a voice actor. (For an introduction to how to work with ACX, including auditioning actors, look at this post.)
Male or female
So a female author or a male main character must need a certain gender of voice actor, right? (And if you’re crossing the gender divide, how do you choose?)
Actually, it’s less of a cut-and-dried rule than you’d think. Jason said he’d often had authors who’d specified they wanted a female voice, then when a male actor had auditioned it had been the perfect match – even in genres like romance, whose readership are very definite in their expectations.
Jason made the point that the book – or the author’s work in audio – might have a voice that’s independent of the voice of the author or the character; it is its own identity. We’ll come back to this.
When I originally looked for a voice actor, I specified a British accent, but as many of you probably know, the narrator I chose is from the US. Initially I got a lot of US actors auditioning because I was one of the guinea-pig authors when ACX launched in the UK – they hadn’t yet got a bank of UK actors to choose from. So I heard a smorgasbord of attempts to ‘do British’, some convincing and some not. But I soon realised it didn’t matter after a few minutes anyway. The accent was irrelevant. The interpretation of the book went deeper than a voice’s characteristic twang, or lack of it. What was actually important was the voice actor’s understanding of the work.
And Sandy, regardless of the flavour of her English, was the most in tune with the novel. She also liked a lot of books that I liked. I picked her.
Same voice for all your books?
Jason said if you have a series, listeners expect the same voice throughout or it breaks the story world. Authors of standalone books, obviously, might search for new narrators each time. I’m happy with Sandy for both my novels even though they are different in tone – because she works well with my style and outlook.
Joanna has two series, so she cast a narrator for each. Funnily enough, we might have ended up with the same one, as the narrator for her dark crime series was one of the auditioners for My Memories of a Future Life! Small world.
Hunting for narrators
You’re not limited to only the voice actors who approach you – and indeed, many authors don’t find an ideal match that way. Jason encouraged authors to hunt around the ACX narrator profiles, listen to their samples and invite them to audition for yours. Or some authors do what I did – if you know a voice actor who’d be perfect, introduce them to the system.
Working with unfamiliar accents
Joanna, like me, is British, and ended up working with an American narrator. Once into the recording process she found there were pronunciations that were alien to her Brit-tuned ears but natural to the US narrator. What to do about them? Tomayto or tomahhto?
Before recordings start, you need to discuss this, and also tricky pronunciations such as character or place names. Sandy and I talked about it. I suspected there would be many more variations than I’d have be able to think of. If I’d decided ‘leisure’ couldn’t be ‘leesure’, I’d have then, for the sake of consistency, had to pull her up on words I never dreamed had a US difference until I heard them.
And the difference goes further than isolated words – sentence emphasis is also radically different. US English stresses the adjective in a phrase like ‘lying on a sticky mat’. UK English stresses the noun (UK: ‘on a sticky mat’, US: ‘on a sticky mat’).
I didn’t want to stilt my narrator with unnecessary strictures so I asked her to pronounce her usual way. I’m glad, because there were hundreds of differences. Hundreds. It would have been madness. In any case, that didn’t matter. So long as the interpretation of the line was true, the emotion understood, the accent was irrelevant.
Joanna had also come to this conclusion, saying there’s a lot we need to leave to the narrator’s judgement and style. She intervened in place name pronunciations, but allowed everything else to go with the actor’s natural style and emphasis.
Having said that, an audiobook is a creative relationship. The voice actor is expecting you to guide them on interpretation. Sandy and I spent several emails discussing how the bod characters in Lifeform Three should sound and what their individual characteristics were. I sent her short recordings of how they seemed in my own head as I wrote them, which she turned into polished performances. It was quite a feat for her – sometimes she had four or five characters in one scene and had to inhabit all those minds, as well as switching to thoughtful narration. For me it was easy because I wrote them. For her, it was mind-and-tongue gymnastics.
You can probably see why questions of ‘leesure’ versus ‘lezzure’ cease to be important. Forget them.
Don’t expect a drama performance
Jason pointed out that the audiobook isn’t a stage or film performance. It’s a reading – a quieter, more subtle business. Characters’ accents don’t need to be full-on impersonations, they are a hint. Passages of emotion don’t have to be performed, merely rendered so they bring to life what is already in the prose.
In prose, the writer has already done the job on the page. The voice actor is converting that into sound. It’s intimate; it’s not slaughtering the back row. It’s murmuring in your ears.
The voice that is the best conduit for your work
Ultimately, the best narrator is the right person to inhabit the book and bring it alive, from its lightest moments to its darkest corners. If you’re weighing up possible narrators, be prepared to revise what you imagined. If you thought the narrator should be British or male, but the more true interpretation, the one that gives you goosebumps, is US and female, that actor is the one to choose. The differences will vanish as soon as the listener gets into the story. After a minute or two, they won’t notice.
Since I released My Memories of a Future Life, some people have asked me why I chose an American, and indeed have mentioned it in reviews. Then they report that they got immersed. Your best narrator is the person who can inhabit the book, who can become its voice in the reader’s head and make them forget everything else.
Thanks for the pic Michael Mol
Any tips or questions to add? Have you made an audiobook? If you listen to a lot of audiobooks, do you have any feedback on what makes a good narrator? Let’s discuss!
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A week or so ago I talked about making audio books with ACX, the self-publishing arm of Audible. From the author’s end it’s relatively simple – pitch your book, listen to auditions, guide the narrator and review chapters as they’re posted on ACX. But at the other end of the line, the narrator/producer is spending 4-6 hours on each finished hour you hear. What are they doing? When you listen to the files, what problems should you be alert for? And if you’re narrating and producing your own book, what do you need to know?
I put these questions to my narrator, Sandy Spangler.
Sandy: First I print out the pages of the text. Then I review them to refresh my memory and make notes about pronunciation or content/emphasis. Then I prep the ‘studio’ – which is my closet. I set up the laptop and hook up the mic and headphones.
Each chapter (or chunks if they are long) gets recorded in one go because the laptop needs to be outside of the closet, away from the mic or we can hear the fan. I hit record, then shut myself in with mic, headphones, and a glass of water.
Roz: You need studio-grade equipment to meet the quality standards for an audiobook. Podcasting gear won’t cut it. Equipment notes follow at the end of the piece. Back to Sandy.
Sandy: I monitor the audio as I go via headphones. Any time there is a mistake I do a retake and keep going so I don’t interrupt the flow.
Roz: Watch for these when you’re reviewing the uploaded files. Even with the most meticulous narrator, a repeated phrase or two can slip through. The finished quality is the responsibility of both of you!
Sandy: I usually catch around 98% of the errors. The tough ones are when I read a word incorrectly but it sounds right at the time (like make instead of makes) so I don’t catch it. Sometimes I can fix it while editing but sometimes I have to re-record the word or sentence. That’s a pain because it holds up the workflow.
The only time I come out is when I need to check a pronunciation – Roz has some pretty atypical words! Oedema? Nebulae? Roentgen??
Roz: Sorry about that…
Sandy: I record six or so chapters at a time, until my voice gets tired, then load them onto my main PC for editing. I splice together the chapters if they are in chunks, then compress the audio and equalize so the sound quality is good. Then I listen to each chapter and follow along using the printed manuscript to make sure it is correct. I try to fix any mistakes, and make a note of the ones I can’t. I also adjust the pauses between lines so it flows dramatically.
Roz: See the first post about establishing the perfect pause!
Sandy: I listen for the best takes and remove the bad ones, and cut out extra noises like mouth clicks and breaths. I usually end up listening to each recorded line at least twice, sometimes as many as five or six times. I spend more time on the dramatic passages because those feel important to get right.
Roz: This is like the writing process!
Sandy: Once a chapter is complete I run a range check to make sure it fits within the ACX parameters. I adjust the volume as needed, then export it as an MP3 ready to upload.
Incomplete chapters waiting for pickups get put aside until after my next recording session so I can drop in re-recorded lines. Sometimes the new lines need to be tweaked to get them to match the original recording – different days can sound quite different.
Sandy: Do your research before spending money on equipment. Get the best setup you can afford because when you are recording a solo speaking voice there isn’t much to hide behind, and there is only so much you can do in post-production.
Most audiophiles recommend a high-end microphone with a pre-amp to convert the analogue sound to a digital signal. The pre-amp is almost as important as the mic, so if you go this route you have to spend quite a bit of money to get a good sound. If you are planning on doing professional recording full time this is probably the way to go.
USB microphones have a built-in pre-amp, but traditionally sound tinny and aren’t warm enough for audiobooks. However, they have come a long way recently because of the huge rise in amateur voiceover work for video blogs and podcasts. The mic I bought is a high-end professional brand (Shure PG42) and tuned for voice recording. Since this voice project is a bit of an experiment for me, I wasn’t prepared to buy a full mic/pre-amp system, so I invested in one of the best USB mics.
There are some great resources out there for mic comparisons, such as this one. The other advice I would offer is to give yourself a crash course in post-production – for compression, equalisation and to remove mistakes and odd noises. There is a ton of great info on the web, such as articles like this …and video tutorials like this. ACX also has some very useful tips.
Oh cripes, two names that sound the same!
This really caused a hiccup, and made me rather unpopular with Sandy. Listening to her chapters, I discovered I had a Gene (the main hypnotist character) and a neighbour Jean. On the page, they are perfectly distinct, but in the ears… they sound the same. This gave Sandy some extra rerecording and messed up our schedule.
I talked in my previous post about the pronunciation guide. When you write this, check you don’t have two names that a listener might get confused!
Ooh, knotty word
Less of a problem, and certainly more amusing, was a word that didn’t translate well to a US accent. There’s a line where Gene, the hypnotist, is described as wearing a ‘knotty’ jumper. In Sandy’s voice it came out as ‘naughty’. I imagine comics letterers have the same problem with ‘flick’.
This might not have mattered, except that the knotty jumper occurs again in tense scenes that would be rendered farcical if the listener thought a character was wearing a ‘naughty’ jumper. We decided to stay the right side of serious and replace it with a less troublesome ‘rough-knit’…
In the meantime, do you have any questions or tips on working with audio? Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like or not like about them? Share in the comments!
Stop press! Once your audiobook is finished, you’ll need to market it. Joanna Penn has some great tips in this post.
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