1. Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Go to school? Work?
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest but have lived in the Midwest for the last 20 years or so. I was lucky enough to study drama in Los Angeles, London, Japan, and Seattle and have worked on many tiny stages as an actor and director. I also worked for years as a graphic designer and creative director.
2. How did you get interested in audiobook narration?
Back in the day, audiobooks were “books on tape” and if you wanted to get into voiceover work of any kind it required being near a professional studio. I remember cutting a CD and mailing it to agents. Nowadays, you can build a home recording studio and much of the hiring and workflow is done online. It’s a new world, so when I quit my design job I decided to see if I could take the plunge.
3. Do you prefer to listen to audiobooks or read books?
I love reading books. And I love good acting. Great audiobooks combine the two! Audiobooks lose points for not having that delicious musty paper smell, but it’s such an amazing chance to hear a good actor flex their muscles up close. Audiobooks are so intimate, and they require such breadth from their narrators. Great ones are a joy to experience.
4. What do you like most about narrating audiobooks?
I get to play so many characters I would never get to play on the stage. Davia Glenn is a blonde, twenty-something badass who drives fast cars and shoots things. I am a brunette, middle-aged couch potato who quotes Shakespeare and Star Trek. In any other context, I would be laughed out of the room if I showed up to audition for Davia. But this format is really liberating in that the narrator plays all the characters, sort of acts as the voice of the author, and is in charge of telling the whole story. It’s like bedtime stories for grown-ups.
5. How do you decide what books to audition for?
I’m new to the industry, so am still finding my groove there, but with indie authors, mostly I read what I can – the audition script, reviews online, kindle previews – and if I think it’s well-written and in my wheelhouse I give it a shot. Of course, we have to audition for many more books than we actually get cast in, so we’re auditioning fast and furiously. There’s not usually time to read the whole book, for example, but you can get a decent idea from what you can find quickly. There are folks who specialize in genres or character types, but I’m still trying to do a bit of everything and see what works best for me.
6. Where do you record? What equipment is necessary to do the job?
I have a home studio which is essentially a blanket fort inside my bedroom closet. The biggest requirements for a recording space are sound isolation and absorption. In-home studios range from quiet rooms treated with sound-absorbing and isolating materials to closets clothed in acoustic blankets, to purpose-built, double-walled, custom booths with floating floors and special ventilation systems. In addition to a proper space, you need a good microphone, an audio interface, good headphones, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation software), and a computer.
7. In addition to having a great voice, where did you learn the technical aspects of the job?
The fundamentals of acting I learned while getting my theatre degree (and for many years after) but I am very much still learning how to translate my knowledge to audiobooks. In some ways, voice acting is the opposite of theatre acting. I’m learning by doing, and I also have had some great coaches so far in acting for audio, voice/speech and dialects, and navigating the industry.
8. Tell us about your recording process. How do you prepare? What do you do once you receive the manuscript from the author? Do you have a process to keep the characters straight?
The great thing about working directly with authors is you can make them do some of the work for you! I have a questionnaire that I ask authors to complete for major characters that give me insight into how the author sees them and how the characters might progress in the series. They often reveal things (“he’s from New Jersey”) that exist only in the author’s head and not explicitly in the text, but are essential to creating the character’s voice. I design select voices with the author if I can – testing out tone, dialect, and other character choices. And then I keep a file of character descriptions and tips for how I’m voicing them, as well as audio clips so I can refer back easily. Sometimes characters have a key phrase that I say to myself to help me get their voice back if I haven’t spoken them in a few chapters. Adair’s was, “I’m Adair, and I’m dead sexy and really comfortable in my own skin,” which not only reminded me of certain vocal traits, but some signature dialect sounds as well.
9. How often do you have to re-record something?
Most narrators record using a method called “punch and roll” which means they stop when they make a mistake, back up the recording, and then pick it up again and keep going. The idea is to make a mostly error-free file (usually a single chapter) that someone can then go back and clean up and master, without having to do a lot of editing. So inherent in that process is a lot of re-recording on the fly. Depending on how much time the narrator has they may also go back and listen to those recordings and make further adjustments. I then send my files off to an engineer to proof them (make sure it matches word for word with the text), edit them (get rid of weirdo sounds and pops and strange breaths), and master them (work some geek magic to make them sound amazing and conform to industry specs for audiobooks). As part of that process, they will send “pickups” which are errors that need fixing – sometimes because I read something wrong, sometimes because the garbage truck started backing up in the alley and I didn’t notice but it’s on the recording. Then, of course, the files are ultimately also reviewed by the author (or rights holder), and they are also entitled to request corrections or changes. Laura mostly asked me to change how I pronounced the names of certain vegetables. (You may call her Grocery Cop.)
10. Have you made a funny error while narrating? Do you keep a blooper reel?
Laura found a good one in Dior or Die that neither I nor my engineer caught. Davia was supposed to run for the “closest toilet” but I said “closet toilet.” (Apparently, I’m obsessed with closets.) Mostly, though, my blooper reel would consist of my stomach growling, me saying words that are not real, or my neighbor’s dog barking.
11. How long can you record before you need to give your voice a rest?
It varies from person to person. I top out at about four hours currently. Most narrators I know can push it to five or six if they have to. It’s a lot of talking and it takes a surprising amount of endurance.
12. Are men’s voices difficult to do? Does it put a strain on your voice?
They shouldn’t put a strain on women’s voices if done properly, but I do still find them a bit tricky, yes. Happily, it’s not just lowered pitch that signals maleness in voices, so we can use other things like pitch variation and emphasis, changes in how our tongue and lips are used to imitate the sound of a longer vocal tract, and even body posture to skew sounds and rhythms male.
13. Do you like listening to your narrations?
I’m surprised to say that I do. I listen very intently as I’m recording. It provides a lot of useful feedback. And I am still learning a lot by listening back to the session and finding moments when I did something that would’ve worked on stage but sounds horrible on the mic (and then re-recording that bit). I don’t need to listen to the whole book again, mind you. But I don’t cringe away from clips and such (except when they suck).
14. What’s something people would be surprised to learn about the narration process or audiobook narration in general?
I think just how involved the process is. A reasonable estimate is that six person-hours go into every single hour of a finished audiobook – and that is just for recording, proofing, editing, and mastering. It doesn’t include any kind of preparation, like reading the book, designing voices, creating characters, or learning dialects.
15. Is there a genre or type of book you would prefer to narrate?
I’m still exploring them all! But I really like nifty prose, so literary fiction is my jam. I’m also a little bit of a sci-fi and science nerd, so I’d love to do more speculative fiction or straight-up scientific non-fiction.
16. Are there scenes that are more difficult to narrate?
Scenes with five different people in a conversation can be tricky. Dialogues between two characters who have dialects that are not your own are always fun. Battles, chases, and fights are some of those reverse-acting things where your instinct is to speed up and get loud, but really you need to slow down and get quiet (like The Matrix) so listeners don’t miss anything.
17. When you aren’t doing narration, what do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies?
I love to cook and bake, and I also act and direct for wee theatres.
18. Do you have any audiobook narrators you admire?
Robin Miles. Hugh Grant has a lovely Christmas Carol.
19. What’s the biggest challenge about narration?
This is not about narration, per se, but about how production works. In the indie market, there is very little feedback during the creative process. If I’m designing a logo for a client, I’m going through several rounds of iterations, collecting reactions from peers and stakeholders all along the way. If I’m rehearsing a play, I’m in the hands of a director, who is guiding me through creative processes and letting me know how what I’m doing is fitting into the overall artistic vision. But author-funded audiobooks don’t usually spring for directors. The narrator is making most of the artistic decisions about the audiobook production, and after a fifteen-minute recorded check-in, they record 8-12 hours of material – days of work – without anyone else’s input. When it gets sent to the author for review, it’s a bit of a gamble, and I’ve been asked to go back and change a character’s voice, for example. There’s the potential to spend a lot of extra time in corrections that, in a different type of creative production process, would have been addressed earlier on.
20. What advice would you give to someone interested in audiobook narration?
Don’t quit your day job right away. It takes time and money to get equipped and established and gain expertise and experience. If you are someone who needs a lot of feedback in your creative process or who feeds off of spending time with other people, this might not be your thing. But if you love books and acting, you’re a good sight-reader, and you are up for a challenge, surround yourself with experienced folks to guide you (audiobook narrators are a startlingly collegial and generous community of people) and jump in. It’s a fast-growing industry and narrating is a fabulously creative challenge.
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