Your Well-Read Life

 

 

 



Your Well-Read Life

 

 

 

 

Your Well-Read Life

 

 

 

Your Well-Read Life

 

 

 

 

Your Well-Read Life

 

 





Steve during his visit to the
Recorded Books' Studios


Behind the Scenes at
Recorded Books' Studios:

How an Audiobook Is Made



I have come to this modest maze of rooms on the ninth floor of 140 West 22nd Street in Manhattan to learn the art of creating an audiobook. My teacher is Claudia Howard, the founder of America's premier audiobooks recording studio: Recorded Books.

As she introduced me to her research director, Paul Topping, she explained to me that the first step in turning print into audio is to put the book into research.

Professional narrators are like studio musicians—they command top dollar by being able to come in, sit down, and perform for the recording without rehearsal, thus saving loads of expensive studio time.

Paul's narrow office is all windows on one side and all reference books on the other. He will comb through the book to be recorded looking for any words with questionable pronunciation. He'll consult his foreign-language dictionaries and sometimes call experts in the field to make sure he's got the right way of saying an Indonesian village or a French cooking ingredient. He'll make up a pronunciation list to guide the narrator and director.

While this is going on, Claudia will cast the book—that is, choose the narrator. She'll review in her mind the hundred-some narrators in her repertory company, choosing the one who can do the main character's voice with authority while still being able to change ever so slightly to handle the other characters.

Certain obvious things narrow down the choice of narrator. If the book is a memoir of an Italian woman, the narrator should be a woman and a native Italian speaker, or at least someone who can do the Italian with grace. Beyond these criteria, there is artistic judgment involved in picking just the right voice, since the voice becomes the voice of the author.

It's normal to spend two or more hours in the recording booth for every one hour of finished audio.

How hard it is to be a member of Claudia's company? Each year she auditions approximately 600 actors. Of these, she selects two to four to add to her talent pool. The ability to narrate superbly is, she said, "a very rare and special thing."

"What a proper narrator does is a kind of magical transference of thoughts of one human being into the brain of another. It's a gift. Over the course of years I've auditioned young actors who have been at their craft five or six years and are just brilliant, as well as seasoned actors who have worked 20 or 30 years. It's not something that you can build over time. There is a good deal of natural talent involved."

"You'll see a performer who on stage is absolutely wonderful, but this medium is different," she explained. "You have to be spontaneous and have ready access to your imagination."

Narrators read the book beforehand but when they come to the studio there's no time for rehearsal. They get in the booth and go. "Narrators have to do the dialects improvisationally and need to master the language and come to terms with a character so they can create works of art without rehearsal," Claudia explained.

In this respect, professional narrators are like studio musicians—they command top dollar by being able to come in, sit down, and perform for the recording without rehearsal, thus saving loads of expensive studio time.

Before a narrator begins, there is the subtle but necessary rewriting that makes print ready for speech. Quotations followed by attribution work in print, but in audio the speaker has to be identified first. It's "Father Paul said, 'Bless you.'" Not "'Bless you,' said Father Paul." The longer the quotation, the more important this is.

Contractions need to be used in most cases where they can be. "It is" works in print but in speech "it is" usually sounds more formal than the author intended. The ear prefers "It's."

The work is intense for actor and director, which is why sessions normally last only two hours. Most people can't go much longer, Claudia told me, or the quality starts to slip.

Despite all this preparation, and even with experienced narrators who have recorded hundreds of books, it's normal to spend two or more hours in the recording booth for every one hour of finished audio.

With seven recording rooms running in two-hour shifts, lots of people come and go all day long in the Recorded Books studio.

Claudia took me into a booth and had me sit quietly behind Trudy Corrieri as she directed Richard Poe reading Underworld by Don Delillo. Richard sat inside a metal sound box, which had an air-conditioning duct going into its top and a thick glass window through which he and Trudy could see each other. The small desk space in front of Richard was covered with fabric and he read from photocopied, two-page spreads to avoid the sound of turning pages. He wore headphones and glasses, had a screw-capped bottle of juice at hand and sat in front of an imposing black microphone.

Trudy held a copy of Underworld in her hands while monitoring a computer screen that displayed the undulating



Claudia Howard, founder of Recorded Books Studios, was Steve's director

sound waves of Richard's voice. A large digital clock ticked off the time in hundredths of seconds.

Richard is a 15-year veteran of audiobook narration and his voice is velvety and full of life (audio sample below). While I stood wondering how a voice could sound so good—almost hypnotic—I was snapped out of this reverie by a metallic click and Trudy's voice.

"Where the paved roads end," she corrected.

Richard had said road, not roads. Without a word of discussion, he reread the line and continued.

A few minutes later he stopped himself, questioning his pronunciation of psychotomimetic. He tried it a few different ways with a question in his voice while Trudy flopped an unabridged dictionary into her lap and read him the pronunciation. Richard reread the sentence and continued.

A bit later he stopped again over kriegspielish. It turned out that Trudy, despite her surname, is a native German speaker. She pronounced it effortlessly and explained that it meant "king's war." Richard mimicked her pronunciation in his marvelous voice and they moved on.

 The work is intense for actor and director, which is why sessions normally last only two hours. Most people can't go much longer, Claudia told me, or the quality

After this tour I thought I knew something about making audiobooks, but my education was just beginning. My true appreciation for the art form happened after I began recording my own book.

starts to slip.

The log sheets for Underworld show that Richard began recording it on February 4, while my visit was on May 13. They still had half of the 800-page book left to record.

Once a book is complete, Claudia explained, at least two independent reviewers carefully listen while reading the text, marking questions or obvious mistakes—a longer pause is needed here, or this word is wrong. A whole line sometimes inadvertently gets left out. The narrator is called back in to fix whatever needs fixing. Finally,when the recording is as perfect as possible, it's burned onto a CD for mastering to tapes, CDs, and digital downloads. Audiobooks are packaged differently for libraries, bookstores and rental customers.

My recording of Well-Read Life

After this tour I thought I knew something about making audiobooks but, as it turned out, my education was just beginning. My true appreciation for the art form happened after I began recording my own book.

I had already reported in The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life that authors rarely do as good a job as professional narrators, so I owed a bit of explanation to my listeners. I explained in a footnote in the audio version that there is a defensible trend of authors reading their own works if they are biographical or memoirs, and especially if they are short. (Even President Clinton, a professional voice to be sure, read only the abridged version of his book.)

I asked Claudia if she would take an amateur under her wing and she consented. She asked me to practice and send her a recording, after which we spoke on the phone.

"Practice some more," she advised, "and listen to yourself. Your pace is okay but slow down to let the listener know when you're coming to an end of a section—but keep up the volume when you slow. Also, make sure you pick out the right words to emphasize." I nodded to this advice and tried to understand.

I'd start stumbling over words like particularly, or make the slightest hesitation between words, or emphasize the wrong word in a sentence.

When the recording day actually arrived and I was the one sitting inside that uncannily quiet recording box, looking out at Claudia, I was upbeat and smiling. How hard could this be?

After an hour and a half of sweating and drinking cup after cup of water, I knew how hard. I looked down and saw we were onů page five. I was shaking slightly and thinking to myself, "I am the weakest link." Although she didn't say so, I believe Claudia was thinking the same thing. Recording this book was



Claudia listens while Steve reads his book. "Her sharp ears didn't miss a thing."

one of the hardest things I've ever done.

I know it sounds easy to just read out loud from a book, especially if you've written that book yourself. But I'd start stumbling over words like particularly, or make the slightest hesitation between words, or emphasize the wrong word in a sentence. Claudia's sharp ears didn't miss a thing.

As I messed up and she would patiently back up a sentence or two for me to try again—and again and again—I began to lose confidence and started to screw up simple things. In that atmosphere, we ended our first day. Claudia tried to assure me that the next day would go better. I was embarrassed for wasting so much of her time—and utterly worn out.

She was partly right: the next day was somewhat better and we went a little farther, but we had not finished the short book on schedule. A pro would have, but this amateur didn't. I had to schedule another session for a few weeks later and finish. That third session happened—with some mutual celebration that it was finally over. Or so we thought. I had to come back again to fix 12 errors that checkers had caught. In all, it took me 12 hours of studio time to net the 3.75 hours of audio. I pledged never to do another audiobook book. But boy, do I appreciate listening to them—now more than ever!

I hope you'll enjoy these audio samples from some of Recorded Books' most acclaimed—and professional—narrators.

East of Eden narrated by Richard Poe  (1.17 mb)
The Memory of Running narrated by Ron McLarty (2.0 mb)
Confessions of a Shopaholic 
narrated by Emily Gray  (857 kb)
The Dying Ground 
narrated by JD Jackson  (1.3 mb)
John Adams 
narrated by Nelson Runger  (730 kb)

Audio clips copyrighted by Recorded Books LLC, used by permission.