The world of audiobook narration has changed immensely even over the past three or four years - and a recent email from a colleague highlighted something I hadn't previously considered. There are an increasing number of established professional narrators who record audiobooks remotely - so despite having a significant number of reads to their credit, plus Earphone awards, Audie nominations and awards - and other significant gongs, there are many who have only ever recorded remotely. Being invited to record in a professional recording studio for the first time is pretty daunting - but perhaps even more so if you are used to flying solo. I know it was for me!
The first audiobooks I narrated were recorded in a pro studio in the early 1980s! Technology has brought about huge changes in recent years, so I feel that a thirty-year-old experience barely counts. Of the fifty plus audiobooks that I have recorded in recent years, only three have been recorded in a professional studio with another person on the other side of the glass - and frankly, I was a bag of nerves on each and every occasion.
Why? Why is it so daunting to work in a pro studio for the first time - even when you have a shed load of audiobook experience? What did I learn from the experience? What is good etiquette in a pro studio?
My first trip into a pro studio in recent years was in 2016 to read a complex historical novel about Queen Anne. It was long - the total running time was estimated at 12.5 hours. The studio was booked for three and a half days, so although I now realise that is quite a generous allowance, at the time I felt considerable time-related pressure. Working on my own in my own space, as long as I meet the deadline, I can take breaks when I want. If it's not flowing, I can pause, do something different, get my act together and start again an hour later. I can dictate a pace for myself - so I would probably spread a 12.5 hour book over a couple of weeks rather than three days; sometimes recording late at night or early in the morning, working when the mood takes me. Alongside concerns that I would not finish on time, I was also concerned that my voice would run out of steam when recording for seven hours a day for more than three consecutive days.
Anyone who knows me knows that I can talk for England. so why was I worried? After all, when I was working in theatre, I was used to rehearsing for six or seven hours a day, then doing an evening performance - but that is a long time ago - and I was really not sure how stable my voice would be forty years on. And of course being nervous isn't great for the voice; things tighten up and that can really put a strain of the vocal chords. Would my energy levels drop? Would I start sounding tired and husky? Would I be able to concentrate for that long at a stretch. These were real worries for me - and for a few days before I started, I really was having 'narrator nightmares'.
An added pressure was that it was very dense novel with lots of characters - and all were real people; there were lots of facts to absorb that would have an effect on the performance, this King had a stammer; this Prince had a thick German accent - and so on. Added to this, the two princesses, Anne and her sister Mary were children at the beginning of the novel - and aged throughout. The book also contained excerpts from Anne's diary and many of her letters - written in the style of the period - and printed in italics - so it wasn't the easiest of reads. It was obvious that thorough preparation was even more important than usual.
I always read any MS at least twice before I start narrating, but things do crop up during a read that need double checking, and I knew that it would hold everything up if I had to go searching for things online as I went along. So my prep was very thorough and I made a lot of notes. I was very lucky in that I was able to contact the producer in advance and we exchanged several emails and chatted about the style of the book and how various characters developed and might sound ... how much of a stammer - how much of a German accent and so on.
I was also concerned that I would be reading from a print copy of the MS. Normally I would be reading a digital version from my tablet - which would be annotated and marked up as needed. I don't actually highlight different characters in different colours which I know some narrators do, as I find it distracting, but I do make little notes about voices and accents on my tablet as I prep. But reading from a hard copy unwieldy in comparison and I was concerned about paper rustles, awkward page breaks and so on.
Once I had got over the first day, and met the required number of finished hours without any difficulty - and without my voice or energy levels disappearing or noticeably changing, I felt a lot happier and more confident going into the second day - and I am happy to say that I finished narrating an hour ahead of time and it all went very smoothly thanks to lovely folk at White House Sound in Leicestershire.
So what did I learn along the way ... and what are my tips for anyone heading into a studio for the first time?
In the days before going to the studio
- Proper preparation prevents a poor performance! I really can't emphasise enough how important preparation is for every read ... but it's even more important that you go into a pro studio with a thorough knowledge of the entire book; with any strange names, unfamiliar words and pronunciations, particularly any foreign words firmly researched and ready for use when needed.
- Get character's clear before you start and make a short audio clip of each character's voice in advance. When I am working remotely, I normally record a short MP3 clip characters as I go along so that if a character disappears for several chapters - or in the case of a series for several books - I can easily find them again. Collecting character clips as you go is not usually an option in a pro studio, so you need to make decisions before you start recording and keep your own audio memos of those voices. I recorded a short sample of all of the main characters onto my tablet - so that I could refer to them if the need arose during the recording.
- If a page break falls at an awkward point on a print copy, write out the first line of the following page at the bottom of the previous one. I found this a huge help. It means you can break to turn the page at a sensible point rather than mid phrase.
- Try to keep as much as possible as familiar as possible. We all prepare or mark up our texts in different ways - and I wouldn't advise changing your normal way of doing it just because you're in a pro studio. You don't want to suddenly be distracted by a whole load of new hieroglyphs on your text that you're not familiar with. Keeping everything as 'normal' as possible will lessen your feeling of being a stranger in a strange land.
- Hydrate - and for a few days in advance, not just when in the studio. You need to start your hydration a couple of days before you start recording. It's no good grabbing a glass or two of water an hour before you sit down at the mic. Because I am recording almost every day, my hydration levels are normally pretty good - and I usually drink 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day. I find that room temperature water is best. Cold water tightens the vocal folds too much and changes my voice.
- Rest your voice and your body. You really can't burn the candle at both ends when you're working. A good sleep pattern over the few days before you head to the studio will ensure that you and your voice are not tired. Avoid crowded spaces where you have to shout - do some gentle vocal exercises and relaxation exercises as well as tension is a vocal killer.
- Think about what you eat. I find that dairy products make my voice sound muffled and a bit claggy - chocolate is lethal - and I find that too much carbohydrate makes me feel a bit sluggish, curry and spicy food can irritate your vocal folds, so I try and keep off all these when I am working. And of course alcohol and talking too much in crowded bars is lethal. So - take it easy and lay off any food that could alter your sound. Your voice needs to be in tip-top condition - treat it with care.
- Go shopping for your lunch/es and plan ahead. Speaking of food - what you eat while at the studio is also important and planning ahead is key to ensuring you're not faced with limited choice. Having to go shopping during your lunch break is probably not a great idea - and a local corner shop or garage may have very little choice. Going to a busy cafe or restaurant is likely to take up rather a lot of time. Personally I prefer to try and stay focused, so the last thing I want to do is to head into a cafe or to a supermarket queue.
In the studio
- Don't forget the script - your notes, a notepad and pencil. Your tablet (i-pad) PLUS CHARGER. Sounds obvious I know - and remember to pop your tablet on charge during the lunch break.
- Because pro studios punch in edits - you have to wear headphones. The way punch and roll / rock and roll works is that the engineer / producer / director, who is following the text while listening to you, will stop you if you make an error, or if anything sounds odd - or when in London, if a jumbo-jet flies over. They then scroll back in the recording to a point a few seconds before the bit that is going to be over recorded. They arm the audio, you then hear those few seconds playing through your headphones and then you start speaking - picking up from where you were at the point where you stop hearing the audio coming through your headphones; you're therefore recording over the original audio and over the error - giving a seamless read. It's obviously vital that you use the same vocal level, tone, pitch, energy level, dynamic and so on, which is why you pick up having listened to the previous few seconds. Most professional narrators who work remotely do so using punch and roll / rock and roll for themselves in their home studio and will be familiar with this process.
- Take your own headphones! Studio headphones are invariably too big for me and flop around and are generally uncomfortable - they can also be pretty tatty - so I always take my own. I am also familiar with how I sound through my own cans - and a different sound through a different make of headphones can be distracting.
- Remember to keep hydrated. You'll need a supply of water (room temperature works best for me; plus any juice or squash that you like to add). Try to take a sip whenever you stop recording which is more effective than downing a half pint at a time. I also drink tea (Black Earl Grey with honey when I am recording as I find milk alters my voice), and find coconut water good for hydration and stopping mouth noise. I think it's slight oiliness helps keep everything running smoothly.
- Get to the studio at least half an before you're due to start recording. This will give you time to introduce yourself properly to the team you're working with. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Then give yourself some quiet time before you begin. Do some relaxation exercises - and a vocal warm up to prepare your vocal folds and get everything feeling aligned and comfortable.
- For long form narration and long studio days, most narrators sit. So once you're settled, the studio engineer will adjust the mic position. Once that is set up it's important that you don't move the mic or move the chair - ask for a bit of tape to mark where the front legs are, so that I can when you have to move - you can be sure to put it back in the same position. Whether you're reading from a tablet or paper, there is normally a sloping surface for you to rest the MS on - and its position in relation to the mic and your chair and you needs to be comfortable so that you can read without having to hold your head at an awkward angle or turn away from the mic.
- The engineer will then do a sound check and ask you to read a passage from the book so that the mixer / interface is set up for your unique sound rather than any one else's. The expectation is that your read will be within certain levels - and that you will have sufficient mic technique to be able to shout without shouting - whisper without vocally disappearing - and to move your mouth closer and further from the mic if required.
- If you know that there are likely to be some loud bits ... or very quiet bits, now is a good time to mention it! You will also be able to hear yourself through your headphones during the set up - so if you sound too loud, or too soft during playback, then ask for the volume to be adjusted.
- Don't touch the mic! You may be used to tweaking everything when you're working solo - but in a studio it is not your job! The engineer / director will set everything up for you and you really mustn't change things. Your relationship to the mic must be constant and consistent - so if at any point you get up and move around try to do it without moving anything. If you accidentally knock or move the mic then tell the engineer / director - and they will come and re-set everything.
- Take a wrap or cardigan with you. I don't like working in an overheated studio personally. I prefer to feel slightly cold, so will turn off radiators and lower the temperature slightly. However, I do find that when sitting still (and sitting still is a necessity) my back gets cold and can stiffen up - so a shawl or cardigan draped over my shoulders and the back of my neck helps.
- To avoid tummy rumbles have some high protein, high energy snacks with you. I am a terrible tummy-rumbler. I rumble when I am hungry and again after I have eaten if I leave too long a gap between nibbles. I always have a high protein snack in the booth which I nibble at regular intervals to prevent rumbles - and I also take a tub of chopped celery in with me as it helps keep the juices flowing and avoids a sticky mouth.
- Lip balm is an essential. Speaking of mouth noise, alongside hydration, celery - and a lot of people swear by green apples for mouth noise, lip balm is an absolute must. Vaseline works best for me - it's not too gloopy and slithery but is very effective at preventing lip smacks.
- Give a warning if you're going to clear your throat or blow your nose. The person on the other side of the glass from you will be listening through headphones at a fairly high level - and if you need to clear your throat or blow your nose, do warn them. Think about it ... do they really want to hear that at high volume in their ears. Yuk!
- Don't wear too much scent / aftershave and never spray yourself with perfume in the booth. There will be someone else using that studio after you ... and they may have allergies - or just not like your favourite pong. Perfume can really irritate the throat, so even if the next narrator in the booth loves 'Eau de Voix' your scent it might have a detrimental effect on their voice.
- Remember you're hired to read the book - that's it! You're part of the team for sure and your contribution is valued - but you're not there to argue the point - particularly about anything technical. Be sensible - If you're not happy with how you read a particular sentence, if the phrasing or accent doesn't sound quite right to your ears, then speak up! Use your instincts - they're probably right.
- Remember that when a director or producer gives you direction or a note, they're not being critical ... they're doing their job! Listen, act on their direction and move on. If you don't quite understand what they mean - ask. There is nothing to be gained by trying to second guess anything at this stage.
- Good communication is very important from everyone involved. Talk to the people you're working with - if possible introduce yourself to them via email, or make a quick phone call before you actually get into the studio. Get to know them, discuss the options with them, by all means, but when in the studio keep the chatter and your opinions to the minimum. Studio time is expensive.
- If you're not happy about something ... don't suffer in silence. If the volume level coming through your headphones isn't comfortable, if you're too hot, too cold, need to go to the loo, need to cough, need to stretch - then say so. If you need to step away for a minute to gather yourself after a difficult section, that is OK too.
- Be professional and behave professionally. You want to be invited back don't you? Be friendly but not overly familiar - and definitely don't spend the lunch break bragging or bitching.
- Relax - Everyone is on your side wants to create the best audiobook possible.
Good luck - and have fun!