That Time When I Did an Audiobook (Part 2)

Continuing my previous post about doing an audiobook: To prepare for actually recording the audiobook of Race for Paradise, I did…pretty much nothing, to be perfectly honest. I did a little reading around on the web, where I found, for example, this and this of some use, but mostly I went in cold. I pretty much just assumed I’d be standing in front of a mic or sitting on a stool reading from my book or something. I’d do one bit of text one day, go home, and pick up where I left off.  How hard could it be, right?

I had a lot to learn. And it wasn’t until I showed up at Audible HQ that I really learned the ropes. Perhaps that’s an important lesson right there: for would-be narrators or voice actors, I think a good bit of the training happens “on the job”.

It's probably here that I should mention that Audible’s offices, I have to say, made me pause. I’m an academic, so I have practically no exposure to architectural trends in the corporate world, but this place seemed like a display-model of early 21st century “open” offices, in which variously recognizable types of Creatives™ lounged about on über-mod furniture with tablets doing…I’m not sure what. Creating? Sharing, no doubt. Or else they were engaged in constructive meetings in glass-lined conference rooms, everyone so meticulously dressed down it must have taken them hours longer than it does to dress up. Was this real, or was it a set from some millennial sit-com? Mostly I was just jealous.

Audible, Inc. HQ in Newark. I'm not making this up.

Audible, Inc. HQ in Newark. I'm not making this up.

After a brief check-in, I was led up to a sort of mezzanine, plied with beverages, and told to wait on a rather too comfortable red sofa. Mercifully, before me was a bank of good, solid, old-fashioned frayed and cluttered cubicles, with everyone (most of them producers of one kind or another, I found out) looking harried and distracted as was good and proper. I immediately felt relieved. Real work happens here. Soon enough, my (or just a) producer introduced herself and explained the routine—and then introduced me to my sound engineer. I later corresponded with my producer once or twice and waved as I passed each day that I visited, but I did not, I don’t think, speak with her again. This is another important lesson: you are not the center of the world, and these people are super-busy working on various aspects of many, many other projects. Just leave them alone, and be nice.

My true anchor in the process was my sound engineer (and I hope that is the right title; I mean the person in the booth recording with you). In fact, I worked with two over the course of my visits. These, in fact, are the people that matter the most in the process, as I hope you’ll see. A good sound engineer is key, and thankfully I had two really great ones. Naturally, because I’m an ass, I have absolutely no record of their names. And that’s another lesson: remember these names; write them down. These people are your heroes. They work really closely with you. They are, in fact, the only ones putting in the same long hours as you, longer, in fact, and so they deserve your thanks. Don’t be the guy—like I was—that forgets their names when you blog about them. Sorry guys!

The sound engineers that worked with me were both consummate professionals and also funny and interesting people in their own right. After Day One, I wanted to drive up to Newark to work with these people, even if they never shared space with me. For those of you not familiar with it, the lay-out of a sound-booth is like you might have seen on TV or in a film—you sit in a close, dark room in a not especially comfy chair (some narrators, I was told, prefer to stand). In front of you is a big microphone with a large circular pop filter intervening between you and it. Beyond the mike is a glass window, and on the other side of that window is the sound engineer in the sound booth, full of all the arcane sound equipment with sliders and dials and so on that you would expect.

A slightly idealized view of the studio experience. From Audible.com's website.

A slightly idealized view of the studio experience. From Audible.com's website.

The actual process of narrating was pretty straight-forward.  Although I brought along a copy of my book just in case, I was handed a tablet with the PDF of my book downloaded onto it, and it was from that text that I read, scrolling as I went: tablets make much less noise than books, and I could mark where I left off on any given day at the very word. Likewise, the engineer can easily flag any passages they may wish to revisit later. And so, at a signal from the engineer, you simply begin reading.

But, if you think about it for a second, reading is never simple. Do an experiment right now: read out loud a paragraph from something—this blog if you like. I’ll wait.

OK, how many times did you slur or stumble? At least once or twice, I’d imagine.  Look, I had written my book and read it numerous times backwards and forwards in the final stages of publishing the damn thing, and even then I was tongue-tripping and eliding my way through every page. Well fortunately, one of the jobs of the engineer is to spot these slurs or to react when you signal them and then without wasting time they allow you to re-narrate the problematic phrase, recording over the existing glitch. To do so, they rewind the tape (or rather the digital file) to the most recent pause and play it back in your headphones, allowing you to pick up the new narration and carry on as before. This was explained to me in person ahead of time, and I have to admit I didn’t really understand. Blah-blah technical blah-blah. My engineer saw my vacant look and said, “It's OK. You’ll see,” and she was right. It became instinctual to the point that I often never even had to look up at my engineer. On the best days, we recorded as two little symbiotes. Glitch, rewind, record; glitch, rewind, record. Your progress in a given day is largely determined by the number of corrections that your reading requires. Another lesson then: You will, I assure you, always make mistakes. You will also get better at it as you go. For the record, I finished one day earlier than estimated, as the number of glitches I made declined.

The sound engineer is also like the older kid at camp—they’ve been through it all before and have seen everything. So they are valuable sources of information and wisdom about how to do a good job. As I mentioned in Part One, my time narrating Race for Paradise was pretty limited, but I did pick up a few tips along the way. In my next and final installment on this subject, I’ll share the practical things I learned and reflect on the final results of this process.

We’ll also have lunch in the Audible cafeteria.