audiobook narration...it's far more than 'reading aloud'

or, how not to wilt in the sun like a lovely, lovely book-reading flower

I started a blog post...that kinda turned into a monster, er, article! Article! And it’s an article I’ve wanted to write for years – I hope it’s an enjoyable and interesting one :)


 

Thesis: Audiobook narration is far far more than ‘reading aloud.’

Lets do this!

 

There are literally dozens of aspects of professional audiobook narration that can drive any new audiobook narrator to distraction. You see, most people launch into an audiobook career because they don't just read a book, they perform a book!   Indeed, that's why we do this thing! performing is awesome!  
But here’s the thing:  nothing about performing gives you the other skillsets you also need which are absolutely vital to creating an audiobook.

Why isn’t it enough to simply sit in front of microphones and read awesomely?? Why couldn’t every parent who reads engagingly to their kids, do this work? I mean, I love hearing books read aloud and my spouse and my kids are all delightful readers (the kids grew up listening to me read at least 4 hours per day, it had to come out somewhere!)...but none of them could be audiobook narrators. Because not only do you need to narrate & act well, you also need to acquire and enjoy alllll these other skills. Performance is a fantastic high, but these other skills will be the bulk of your time spent on the book, and if you aren’t excellent at them or don’t enjoy them, you’ll wilt away like a flower in the sun. A lovely lovely book-reading flower.

Lets start with,

Recording Hardware Expert

This may seem an odd place to start - but shockingly, you can't purchase mic, recorder, peripherals like compressor and desser, and editing software in one neat box with "Audiobook Narration Package!" on the side.  Oh my dear giddy aunt the amount of research, trial and error, and, over time, upgrading my equipment as technology & software became better (or indeed available at all) and prices came down to the point that I could afford better stuff...a lot of time. A lot a lot of time. And not an insubstantial amount of money.

Whatever hardware/software you come up with will be tailored to your voice - so there's no tidy 'buy these things & you're set' list; for example, my set-up wouldn’t work for very many other people: I had my mics specially altered to account for my truly spectacular S’s; I chose hardware that had built-in analog stuff my perfectionism required (digital artifacts drive me nuts...I got into this gig largely because my ear is ridiculous, but sometimes it’s a pain!) that most people wouldn’t bother with (or shell out the extra $ for!); I use editing software that most people consider amateur and ancient simply because I like it and don’t need anything more complicated...but use post processing software that is only barely affordable to consumer-spenders (insert ridiculous ear again). Basically everything I have is tailored to my voice, my performance styles, and the sound of the final production that best compliments it all. It hopefully also goes without saying that there are A LOT OF SETTINGS to learn on your hardware, and that takes time.

I think it took me, hmm, 8 years to trial-and-error my way to this current combo of stuff? And this is the first point in time that my recordings have met the raw-audio & post-production standards I have always wanted.


 

Acting!
(feel free to insert Patrick Stewart voice there)
also: Listening!
(because your ear is god in this business - if you can't discern it, you can't fix it)

This is usually pretty obvious to folks - narrators act the characters.    What's less obvious, is how involved this process is.  

  • creating a voice for each character includes things like:

    • pitch - how high or low the voice will be

    • timbre - refering to the quality of sound; is it gravely? smooth? whiny? whispery?

    • accent - sometimes genuine and painstaking and sometimes played for laughs

      • incidentally learning accents is both fun and ridiculous amounts of work :)

    • specific speech pacing - not all characters speak at the same speed, and all dialog changes tempo all over the place...which is not how we usually read aloud

    • their own kinds of reaction pauses - sounds strange, but every character stops and thinks (or not) in their own way, and it's a great way to differentiate between characters for the listener

    • their speech patterns in resonance with other characters - we all sound different when we speak with different people, so therefore book characters can do the same.  It really brings character relationships to life to play with this

  • once you have created these voices, you then must know them (hear them as you perform) consistently through 50,000 - 100,000 words of book

I usually take a week or so to go through the character voices - come up with specifics that the prose gives both explicitly and implicitly, play with vocal variety and fun stuff that's more extreme, like exaggerated speech patterns. I also take time at this stage to talk with the author about how they imagine the character voices when they write.  Once I'm working on the book, I am my own director, but it is very important to me to work with the author at the outset to learn how they see their characters, prose, the book as a whole.  While there is no way for a narrator to create an audiobook that is exactly what the author hears in their head - and actually a huge amount of the fun for authors can be hearing their book in a way that gives them a sense of experiencing for the first time - it's important that I'm recording a book in the same imaginative space the author inhabits when they think about it.

  • the other thing that needs to be acted is the narrative voice, and that can be oddly subtle!
    • is the narrative voice self-aware?
    • is the narrative voice that of a reliable narrator?  (super fun to read the unreliable narrator!)
    • is the narrative voice tapping at the 4th wall?
      • if so, is it having fun with the audience? on their side? bringing them in on the joke/tragedy? teasing them?  tormenting them? enjoying spinning a yarn?
    • is the narrative voice genre-savvy?
    • is the narrative voice character-driven?
      • if so, am I going to change the narrative voice per each character's point of view?
        • if if so, I'm going to have to craft a narrative voice individual to each character (just as with the character voices, distinct narrative voices are a lovely way to bring  life to an audio telling of the book)
      • are these character narrative voice shifts based on chapter or paragraph or scene?
  • Retakes while recording (as opposed to going back into the studio later):

    • The book-long process of acting each character doesn't come in the form of 'read each character voice as you go along,' oh no no no.  Unless it's a series I've already done work with, I spend a fair amount of time in the first 10k words doing retakes.  For example, give a line of dialog, decide it's not quite what I'm looking for, give it again, decide it's not flowing from the previous character's dialog, go back and read the conversation from the last exchange, or from the top of the page, or the entire chapter (this process is much much more streamlined than it sounds...but it used to be every bit as arduous and repetitive as it sounds!).  Of course as the characters become more familiar to me, this changes and multi-character dialog exchanges happen in real time - and this is huge fun, when you're whipping back and forth between male and female, shy and boisterous, 3 different accents...that's some of my favorite time spent in the studio.

      • as a side note, many books do not benefit from full on character voice development and need someting much more subtle.  Too much voicing overwhelms the prose for one reason or another, so you have to tailor the extent of performance to the nuances of the writing.  Which kind of book is which?  It's not always easy to tell - but you gotta figure it out fast before you spend a month recording!

    • and lastly, there are books for which voicing/acting is not called for at all.  Non-fiction, is almost always read in a steady narrative voice; but when people think of audiobooks! fiction! - especially genre fiction - they are usually thinking of books with some element of acting that brings words to life! so to speak.

So yes - acting, that's a thing people do imagine narrators do.  Usually.  You'd be amazed how often people I speak to, do not understand that this is so!  


 

Directing

Directing yourself is an Escher drawing level of complexity made up of an excellent ear, precise discernment, and a willingness to change course without getting hung up on your previous performance decisions. You have to evaluate your work, as you’re doing it, from both inside the performance, and from outside of it. And if you can’t evaluate your performance, in real time, for every facet of quality with a capital Q, you might as well hang up your microphone right now.

  • how do you know if your performance is riveting or wildly off base?

  • how do you know if the character voices grip the audience’s attention?

  • how do you know when to delete a performance, a voice, an inter-character dynamic, a narrative style and start over?

    • (this can be very hard to do – I mean, you can spend between hours and months on something and then realize it’s just not working with how the rest of the book has evolved...and then have to delete it all. Writers can relate!)

  • how can you tell the difference between what feels good to do in front of the mic, and what actually makes that particular book sound good?

  • and how the heck do you know if you’re just having an off day and should run out of the studio and come back tomorrow?

  • the holy grail you're trying to reach, is a lovely elusive quality of immersion in the prose. It sets up a resonance with the eventual listener; you are riveted and fully invested in the narration, and because you are, they are.  It's kind of hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it...you just have to learn what you're listening for :)

Directing is all of that kind of thing. And you have to both be precise and demanding...and yet not destroy your own self esteem, or you won’t improve – you’ll just wither.


 

Microphone Technique

I almost stuck this under 'acting,' but it's seriously a whole different skill.  I think I recorded about 100k words before I even began to see the scope and refinement of it.  Microphone technique is technique, a learned set of skills, but you have to learn them so completely that you never have to think about them while narrating.

  • some obvious ones:

    • don’t get to close to the mic! ...also don’t get too far!

    • but don’t forget to move closer or farther depending on how loud/sharp/sibilant your performance is!

    • pop shields are your friend. In fact they’re required.

less obviously:

  • to save yourself endless time in editing, learn to breathe only where you want to keep an inhale/exhale in the final audio. ...what, you need air? Too bad! Learn to breathe better!
    • /Good Omens reference
    • learn what constitutes a breath that adds to the emotional impact of the performance, vs. one that just sounds unedited or distracting. Because that’s a natural thing you normally think about when you speak...pfffff ;)

  • does your way of talking usually produce lots of mouth sounds? Like clicks or slurps or smacks? Dear deities, learn not to narrate that way – there’s only so much even really good software can help you salvage.

  • same goes for s’s, th’s, ch’s, p’s, t’s...quite a few sounds actually. You’ll need to retrain yourself to make them gentle enough for the mic, without sounding like you’re slurring, and without affecting whatever voicing fun you’ve come up with for that character.

You need to be so fluent in modifying your speech to all these new standards, that you don’t have to think about them while you perform – over thinking how you use your voice is the number one way to make your audio sound stilted, wooden, and lifeless. And often unlistenably uncanny valley.

Learn to speak completely differently! Really well.

Retakes are their own mic-technique subheading, and what an enormous pain they are!

  • oh no, among the 5 retakes on that line in the original recording, you don’t have a take that actually works? Or you mis-read a word? Or you left out a sentence? Or you didn’t know a particular pronunciation? Or it’s the rare occasion when the author had something reeally specific in mind and asks you to re-record that bit?

  • well, set up whatever system you use for retakes...

    • go back into the studio armed with the original recording so that you can match your new performance with the initial one

    • retake the line a handful of times so you have options

    • stomp out of the studio, back to you rcomputer, and go back to editing.  you may growl if you like.

  • not only do retakes take time to set up, and time in front of the mic, they take a surprising amount of fiddlyness in editing. They cost tons of time and frustration, and I’ve sharpened up my accuracy in recording hugely to avoid as many as possible. I’ve also upgraded my software to simplify the process, but you're always going to make some mistake somewhere!

    • retakes are still the fastest way to go from ‘I’m earning minimum wage’ to ‘I’m now earning starveling waif circa 1890’ wage...


 

Editing

The fascinating thing about editing, is that it's far more than 'pick the right take' - it's actually a chance to perform the book all over again.  And you'd best take it, because if you’re a savvy editor you can seriously upgrade what you did in front of the mic.

  • So! First things first – if you repeated a line a few times (or had to record retakes, heaven help you), pick the take of the line you like the best.

  • ...oh no wait. First-first space the line the distance from the previous line in such a way that the previous line gets to breathe or land or flow, and the line you’re working on follows up naturally, or abruptly, or with punch, or with a hair-pin change of tone.

    • yes, spacing between lines does all that. SPACE. It’s seriously underrated in audio.

  • Okay NOW pick the take you liked the best.

    • but it’s gotta be congruent with everything about the conversation up to that point, and everything about the conversation from that point forward. So, you know, you might have to bin the take you liked the best and go with the one that weaves into the prose the best.

      • yeah, this isn’t easy to figure out. you’ll spend a few years re-listening to entire conversations from the top over and over, in order to choose the next line and then the next-next line.

        • Don’t worry! It gets easier!

  • I’ll spare you further amazing amount of detail that then goes into editing, whether it’s ‘creating an entire new performance from recorded parts you have a great new idea about right then,’ or 'salvaging a word you didn't pluralize by grabbing an 's' from another word,' or ‘shining up a perfect performance you managed in front of the mic with perfectly timed pauses, the right inhales left in/taken out’ – I think you get the idea :)

  • Similarly, using your editing software down to thousandths-of-a-second precision is just how it goes. So you must become an expert in wielding that software, however you do that.

    • I do it with keyboard commands, two mouses, and a foot pedal programmed with a few other keyboard commands. Because along with precision, you need speed. You can’t edit this book forever!


 

Post-production

This is the step that makes your audio sound professional. It drove me absolutely bonkers that there was no software available that I could afford that really did this, until 2 years ago or so. (insert grumbling about my ear again...which is why I’m any good at this, but argh!)

What does post-production do?

  • well, the most obvious thing to the usual listener, is that it removes background hiss – even digital recording has it’s version of ‘tape hiss.’ Crappy software removes hiss and leaves your words sounding like they’ve been put through a cheap guitar phaser – gah! Good software barely touches your words, your inhales, the works, and leaves your performance floating in perfect silence. God I love my new software! (iZotope RX 7 + Neutron)

  • the next most obvious thing is removing sibilance or sharp attacks on t’s, ch’s etc. - sounds that create a spike in frequencies that make you wince when they come through headphones.  Again, software needs to do this without touching the rest of the sound.

  • there are about 4 other sound-tidying bits I use, but they’re so subtle the usual listener wouldn’t pick them out of the recording except as ‘this sounds better than that...not sure why!’

  • software settings are not automatic. So you gotta learn those!

    • software comes with presets...but you will almost certainly tune each setting to your voice, the voice of your characters, the volume you had to employ among your various characters in that particular chapter etc.

    • there are great resources online to help you general settings for things like compression, as well as using your specific software, but it will still take a lot of trial and error and listening till your ears ache, to discern what sounds best for what you’ve recorded.

    • annnnd you can’t just apply each of these modifications in any ol’ order. They have to come in the right order, or you’ll end up with some very odd sounding audio!

As a side note...can I tell you how much I wish I could re-post-process everything I’ve ever done, to the standard I’ve always wanted, now that I have the software to do that??????? IT BURNS. IT BURNSSSSS.

*cough*

it's okay, i'm okay!

Time & Money

How long does all of this take? Well, lets just say I’m paid a fraction of minimum wage for what I charge ‘per finished hour.’ And if royalties don’t pay out, that’s all I make. BUT! I want to make it very clear that I throw all this perfectionism & effort at audiobooks for love, not money – and I have the incredible good fortune to be able to build my career that slowly. If you want money out of sitting in front of a microphone, do voice-over work! That’s where money is in audio. Recording audiobooks is not a quick road to putting food on anyone’s table – the only way you make any money at it, is to build up a lot of back-catalogue that’s giving you a constant revenue stream.

Basically this profession is breaking into acting: you have to be good, but commercial success is not about how good you are, it’s about who you know, or incredibly lucky breaks. My fingers are still crossed that one of those circumstances will come my way. It would be fantastic to record high profile books some day!


 

Audiobook narration isn't ‘reading aloud.'   You're a hardware/software expert, an actor, a director, an editor and a producer.  And that's just the book - never forget you're also your own agent, promoter, and author liaison!  

There's a reason I list myself as 'Audiobook Artist' anywhere I go, because by gum this job is so so much more....than simply reading :)