This is the second of a two-part piece about recording the Spear audiobook for Macmillan Audio. If you’re interested in how I find an accessible studio, preproduction—along with photos of marked up scripts, etc—read Part One here.
When you narrate an audiobook it’s not just you and a microphone. It’s you in a locked, soundproof room before a microphone, with an engineer in the mixing booth behind glass, and a director from New York on Zoom audio—with all three audio feeds mixed into your headphones. It is super weird to hear yourself in high fidelity and at volume right there, in your ears (I always have to get the engineer to turn down my part of the mix in the headphone feed so that I don’t sound any louder than I might to myself in real life).
The engineer for this project was Joel Maddox. He was very relaxed and competent. His job was to make sure I sounded good—to use the right microphone in the right position and hooked into the right interface at the right setting1; to point out and note on his iPad for the editor if he hears any extraneous noise—weird feedback, a belly growl, clicky mouth noise, a faint thud of my hand pounding on my thigh during an emotive moment (oops)—and to note, too, when I stopped an extra long time for a breather, or stumbled on a word and repeated it, or took a pause for a sip of water.
While the engineer makes the narrator sound technically good, it’s the director who makes the narration sound artistically right.
My director was Caitlin Davies. I think I was pretty lucky to get her. She’s not only an award-winning voice actor and narrator herself but also a theatre director and a very experienced audio director—her work has been nominated for and won a variety of awards. I learnt a lot. The book you will eventually hear will be orders of magnitude better than anything I could have done on my own.
The first thing we did was decide on method. There are two basic ways to record narration. One is free roll, where the narrator just reads, stops when they make a mistake, back up to the nearest clean punctuation break—a full stop, a comma—and starts again, all without stopping the recording. The other is punch and roll, which is to actually wind back the recording to the bad word/phrase (doesn’t have to be punctuated) and punch in to record at the right moment. One of the reasons to use punch and roll is that it saves editing time and therefore money. So it is the top choice of all-in-one providers: those narrators with home studios who supply finished audio rather than unedited. One of the reasons not to do that is it chops up the performance and it takes a much more laser focus to stop mid-flow, restart, then go back to where you were. As the money side is, frankly, not my worry, I plumped for free roll: it’s quicker, easier, and much less tiring.
Beginnings are always interesting. I’ve read from the book a few times already, and have the first couple of pages down pat. So on that first Wednesday, I began pretty confidently and we rolled along seamlessly—until Caitlin said, Good, now you’re in it. Let’s go back to the beginning. Give me a storyteller’s voice. I thought I had been. I tried again. Faster, she said. And then *click* there it was: That smooth, warm, lean-in-and-listen note I realised had been missing. And now I was excited! This was going to sound awesome!
We cracked right along. Then we started getting to multiple character voices. I’d spent some time figuring out accents and tones and weights to differentiate people—only it turned out Caitlin thought some of it didn’t work, particularly the women. So I had to go back and work out different voices. It was a bit unsettling; I wasn’t sure these women sounded the way I imagined them. But Caitlin was the director with the vision, so I followed her lead.
The rest of the session went well (really well from my perspective) and Caitlin and Joel both seemed pleased. The only problem was the heat in the studio, or lack of it. By the time we finished—at 1:00 pm, ahead of schedule—I was frozen in place. My hands were purple and my leg muscles utterly spastic. I asked Joel to please, pretty please crank the heat early the next day so it would be warm when we began. (You can’t run heat during the session because of fan noise. Next time I’ll plan ahead and lug along a plug-in oil radiator.) I went home full of energy.
Thursday was hard. The studio was warmer, but every time I read a couple of sentences my voice would crack and scratch and I’d cough. It turned out the heat had kicked up dust and other particles. I’m wicked allergic to dust, also to tree pollen, and February is the start of pollen season. Day Two was sheer bloody stubbornness on my part, and patience and sympathetic-but-hard-task-masterliness on Caitlin’s. Again and again she said, No, go back to the beginning of the paragraph, and I would. Or, Now go back to the beginning of the scene, with more energy. And I did. The last page took fifteen minute because I could hardly manage a phrase without coughing. It was brutal. I can only guess it wasn’t that easy for her to keep making me do it again and again—I certainly would have found it hard to ask that of someone coughing and wheezing so pitifully. But finally we got to 1:00 pm and I was toast; I couldn’t read another sentence.
Because of a conflicting gig on Friday—delivering Opening Remarks for the Annual Historical Fictions Research Network Conference in Salzburg—we had scheduled a 3-day break from recording and planned to return on Monday and finish Tuesday.
Monday I went in wondering how it would go: brilliant, like Wednesday or brutal, like Thursday? It turned out to be brilliant: fast, smooth, easy, and exciting. It felt as though we’d hardly started when *boom* we were done. It was only 12:30. As I blinked and shut down my iPad, Caitlin warned me there might have to be a pick-up session once the editors had worked on it and found those swallowed words or odd noises the three of us in the studio had missed. But, woo hoo, I was done! I was tired but happy.
It was lunch time, a glittery bright day, and Kelley and I decided we felt brave enough to risk going to the pub for a pint—my first pint of Guinness for four months. It tasted wonderful. So I had another. Which was so good I had to have one more. Hey, I deserved it!
A couple of weeks later Joel and I got together for a twenty-minute session to overlay the seven times I had mispronounced ‘The Eingl have taken Deverdoeu,’ the one time there was a belly noise, two missed words, one added word, and two places where the words ran into each other. And then I was really done. The book is now totally out of my hands. It can be in yours on April 19.
We had scheduled studio time for four mornings, 10:00 am – 2:00pm (roughly what we used for So Lucky, even though that was a shorter book), but even with breaks and the pickup session I ended up spending less than 9 hours before the mic. So everyone was pleased: me, Joel, Caitlin, the producer Katie, and no doubt all the Macmillan Audio beancounters.
Projected finished hours for the book is 6 hours and 15 minutes. It doesn’t include the Author’s Note—that was Macmillan’s decision—but a PDF of that will be including with the digital file, and if I get around to it I’ll record it myself at home and put it on my website for those who have a hard time with print. It will be interesting trying to figure out how to read footnotes, and it won’t be nearly the same quality, but it will serve.
At some point I’ll also put together a pronunciation guide for those of you who buy the print or ebook, and also repost the map for those who like that sort of thing. But that for the future.
For now, I want to thank those who made this audio book possible.
- Jack Straw Cultural Center—the studio
- Joel Maddox—engineer
- Katy Robitski—Macmillan Audio producer
- Caitlin Davies—freelance director
- Levi Fuller—Jack Straw administrative coordinator
And for the audio geeks out there, here’s the gear we used:
- Neumann U87 microphone
- Avid HD Omni interface
- HPF @ 70Hz
- Gain +46
At some point there will be an audio sample to listen to and I’ll post a link. Meanwhile, preorder the audiobook wherever books are sold:
1. A Neumann U87 microphone (costs vary but usually over $3,000) with an Avid HD Omni interface, HPF @ 70Hz and Gain +46. It looked like a pretty spiffy pop filter too, but I forgot to make a note of that.