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
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
musiciansthey 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
While this is going on, Claudia will cast the
bookthat 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.
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
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
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,"
In this respect, professional narrators are
like studio musiciansthey 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.
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
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
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
Trudy held a copy of Underworld in her hands
while monitoring a computer screen that displayed the undulating
sound waves of Richard's voice. A large digital clock ticked off the
time in hundredths of seconds.
Claudia Howard, founder of Recorded Books Studios, was Steve's director
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
goodalmost hypnoticI 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.
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.
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
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 mistakesa 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
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.
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
sectionbut 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
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
one of the hardest things I've ever done.
Claudia listens while Steve reads his book. "Her sharp ears didn't miss a thing."
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 againand again and againI 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 timeand 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 happenedwith 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
themnow more than ever!
I hope you'll enjoy these audio samples
from some of Recorded Books' most acclaimedand
East of Eden narrated
by Richard Poe (1.17
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.