We’re currently in the golden age of audiobooks. And I was lucky to get my start when I did – in the days before apps like Audible took the game to a whole new level of popularity. Back when Fed Ex would overnight hard-copy scripts to my front door. Yes, the Dark Ages, kids. But other than the ubiquity of media delivery systems for both consumers and artists, not much has changed. The craft remains the same. So, in an effort to temper novice’s intimidation at the prospect of stepping into the recording booth in a field awash with great artists, here are some tips on how to up your game to become a serious professional! And let’s start simple…
Listen to some audiobooks!
I know, obvious, right? So, go and do it. And notice how every narrator finds their own quality and technique. Some may go crazy with the voices. Some are subtler. I enjoy listening to either, as long as the voice of the character rings true. You may notice that some narrators come off better than others. Why? Are they more connected to the material? Is it the tone of their voice? Are they taking their time, not rushing through important moments of the book? With that in mind, your job is to give the most honest and truthful performance you possibly can, within the style that works best for you. You don’t have to be Mel Blanc! You just have to be bonded with the text.
A home studio
More than likely, unless you live in Los Angeles, New York, or a town with an audiobook production house, you’ll need a home studio or a really, really nice friend that will let you use theirs. There are many resources for DIY home studio construction out there, especially on YouTube. However, I recommend starting at ACX, aka the Audiobook Creation Exchange, which was launched by none other than Audible. ACX has everything you need to know, from setting up an in-home studio to fees and rates. ACX is also the only place that I know of where you can actually submit auditions for audiobooks currently seeking narrators. It’s an excellent place to brush up your chops and/or get started right away.
Create an audiobook sample
I recommend creating a short audiobook demo for yourself. Anywhere from 1.5 – 3 minutes is plenty. Remember to choose material with both character voices and descriptive narrative to really show off your skills. I took clips from several books and edited them together. And there are always tons of samples on Voicebank. Be sure to record your demo in a studio, so the quality is professional!
Submit, submit, submit
Now that you have done your research, have a recording studio, and demo, it’s time to submit! Here are some production houses that I found in just one basic google search: Mosaic, Deyan, Edge Studio. Do some digging and reach out. And most importantly, find out if there’s an audio book engineer or production house in the area you live in. As with anything, personal relationship always bear the most fruit.
The audiobook industry is it’s own animal. They move slowly and methodically. It took me almost a year before I was offered an audition at Random House. And it was with several tries that Deyan Audio offered me a book. So don’t give up! Make a list of who gets back to you and follow up in a month or two, and then a month or two after that. Let them know you are a professional who is serious about getting the work.
Take a class
A lot of voiceover teachers offer audiobook classes on-line, which is great. I recommend Deyan Audio’s Institute since they are mainly an audiobook production house. It’s an excellent opportunity to get on their radar and learn from one of the top audiobook producers of all time.
SO YOU’VE BOOKED A BOOK!!
What to expect
You’ll most likely receive a PDF version in an email along with a list of instructions on delivery and studio set-up (which of course you already know about because of all your research on ACX!) iPad’s are most commonly used these days, and save paper! So If you decide to go the eco-friendly route and use your iPad, I highly recommend downloading iAnnotate, a free app for adding notes and highlighting your script. If you decide to print out your script be sure to grab a handful of sharpened colored pencils.
How to prep
Provided there’s enough time, I always speed-read the entire book to myself (in other words, not out loud). I think it’s important to save your voice. So try not to overwork it during preparation. If you are reading a piece of fiction, take brief notes on the characters. Highlight things like: “he spoke in a deep, gruff voice”. If you handwrite notes like I do, remember to write the page number next to each note in case you need to go back and reference. Circle words that you’ve never heard before or are not 100% certain of the exact pronunciation. (I will get more into pronunciations shortly. So hold tight.)
Next, I read the book out loud to discover the pacing and tone of the book. And then make character choices! Choose a color for each character and highlight their lines accordingly. Find variations with the characters if it suits you. Does the father speak slow and meticulously? Does the secretary have a high-pitched squeal to her voice, or is it low and sultry? Does the tech guy have a nerdy and nasal quality? (I know, these are all stereotypes. But I’m just using them to indicate qualities of characters you may encounter). And the final touch, my additional secret – I create physical characteristics for most of the characters. Ex: This guy scrunches his nose when he talks; this girl purses her lips; this lady is such a know-it-all that she juts her chin slightly when speaking. Oh, and if a character has an accent, do the accent! My point is, don’t be afraid. What sounds funny and over-the-top in your head is minor compared to what we actually hear on tape. So don’t be shy.
As for the main character, I choose a simple solution. He/she is just you. Good ole “YOU”. Your own voice. A speaking tone rather than a narration tone, of course, so the listener can really hear the difference from when you’re the main character talking and then when you are the narrator narrating.
- Every single word must be heard and pronounced. Properly. And that does not mean OVER-articulate. It just means if you miss a word, or pronounce a word incorrectly or inarticulately you will have to redo it until it is right.
- ‘The’ (thee) vs. (thuh). One rule. When ‘the’ comes before a vowel sound, pronounce it as a long ‘the’ (‘thee’) otherwise it’s pronounced (thuh). On my very first book I had to circle every long ‘the’ that came before a vowel just to make certain. Otherwise the word gets lost AND you won’t sound like a true pro.
- Neither ((n)ee-ther) vs. Neither ((n)-aye-ther) and Either (ee-ther) vs. Either (aye-ther). Pick one and stick with it! I think it depends on the book personally. If the book is based on a character from the Midwest I might say either (aye-ther). However I’ve worked with a director who says no matter what either (ee-ther) is ALWAYS the way to go.
- People, places and things. If you can’t find it online check with the client. If they don’t know the correct pronunciation, then go ahead and make a choice and stick with it. It must be pronounced every time the same way throughout.
- What if there are multiple ways to pronounce a word? Easy… always use the FIRST pronunciation that’s in the dictionary.
The night before
Around bedtime, I re-read the first chapter out loud. I always find the first few hours of the very first day on a book the most difficult. Performance anxiety on top of blindly feeling your way through the words of someone else’s voice is not the norm and can feel awkward. But if your muscles are exercised enough, it is so much easier to find your pacing and momentum from the get-go.
Your first day on the job
Easy. Warm-up. Eat a healthy breakfast. Get some good tongue twisters in during your shower. And make sure you have plenty of water and snacks. My stomach growls. A lot. So I always have peanut butter handy at all times which is an excellent cure. And just a personal note: I’m a big tea drinker. But for some reason, when I drink tea, my mouth makes a lot of noise during narration. However, coffee seems to be fine. Weird. Either way, I definitely need caffeine! My point is, if you notice anything hindering your performance, I would take note and see if you can find an alternative.
Don’t forget to always have just a slight smile on your face no matter what the material. For an entire book I made the mistake of carrying a dismal tone. It was a depressing story line so I thought I was making the right choice. In hindsight it made the book sound even more depressing. It would have been so much better if I kept it matter of fact and hopeful.
Lastly, your job as a narrator is to make someone else’s words come alive. So take a load off and think about the author’s intention, which is a nice way to relieve the pressure from yourself!
Setting up your session
If you are recording yourself from a home studio, you will need to know how to set up your session. Unless the client says otherwise, your sessions need to be set at Bit Depth: 16 Bit and Sample Rate: 44.1 kHz. Next, you’ll want to set up punch record. I cannot recommend punch record enough. It sounds like a pain but it’ll save you hours and hours of editing time. I have an audiobook template saved to my computer so it’s all ready to go each day! And here’s how I like to keep my tracks:
- Audio Track 1 – Record
- Audio Track 2 – Roomtone
- Audio Track 3 – Consolidated transfer file for client
Start the day with 30 seconds of room tone. I always think I’m going to get the roomtone at the end of the day but often forget. So it’s a good habit to get into from the very start. Record roomtone FIRST!
And remember to SAVE your work every few minutes throughout the day! I always have my session saved to my hard drive just to be on the safe side.
Before I send my file over to the client, I do two things. First, I clean up my punch record. (I use ProTools. If you are using different software, it may be similar but you may need to do some research) With your ‘tab’ key you can ‘tab’ to each break on your audio file and take out any extra air or unwanted space. I make sure my transitions sound smooth and clean and double-check to make sure none of my words were cut off during punch record. (I’ve made that mistake once. Once.) If any words were cut off during punch record you’ll either have to re-record or piece together audio which is a total pain after a long day’s work.
Now the last thing you need to do! I highlight my days work on Audio Track 1 and duplicate (If you are using ProTools just hold option and drag the entire highlighted audio) onto Audio Track 3. Next highlight all the audio on Audio Track 3 and go to ‘Edit’ > ‘Consolidate’. Now you have one big audio file, double click on it and rename it. Go to your ‘Cliplist’, the file should still be highlighted since you just renamed it, and on the top right hand corner in your ‘Cliplist’ click the arrow and ‘export clips as files’ to your desktop. Now do the same for your roomtone. Double click the roomtone audio, rename it ‘roomtone’, and from the arrow in the top right corner of your ‘Cliplist’ click ‘export clips as files’ and follow instructions to your desktop. Now you have two WAV files on your desktop to send to your client. Most clients will have an FTP server but you can always use Dropbox or Wetransfer it all depends on what the client prefers.
After you’ve completed the book, the client will certainly have pick-ups for you. And please don’t feel discouraged if you have a ton of them. That’s perfectly normal. If you are doing pick-ups from your home studio, it takes some time. (As opposed to recording them with your director at the production house, which takes minutes usually.) So I would suggest putting aside some time. Pick-ups can be tricky, with levels and vocal tones, so I always listen back to make sure it’s as close as I can get to my original delivery.
Get your money! I always give the client 30 days for payment. So if it’s taking forever, be sure to reach out and ask.
So that’s it. I know I’ve thrown a lot of information at you, but one step at a time… and I encourage you to…