Writing Excuses 15.43: Audiobook Narration, with Bruce D. Richardson
Key Points: How do you get started in audiobook narration? Minor in theater and speech, puppetry, radio theater. You should do voiceovers. Good narrators interpret the words that are on the page. But you want a natural authentic voice, not performance. How does an audiobook narrator decide which meaning is best? Immediate textual clues, and the context of the whole piece. What tips would you give someone starting out? See Accenthelp.com. Get familiar with the mic. When you are starting out, you may have to treat your own recordings. Take a look at short story markets. Figure out how to handle mistakes while recording. Watch out for background sound, the noise floor or threshold.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 43.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Audiobook Narration.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we have no business in front of a microphone. I’m so sorry, my voice is terrible.
[Brandon] Oh, your voice is really charming.
[Dan] [garbled] like that, Howard.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’ve been sick for a month. I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest, Bruce Richardson.
[Bruce] I’m Bruce.
[Brandon] Also, you’re branded as BDR as an audiobook narrator.
[Bruce] Yup. BDR or BD Richardson. You can find me online pretty much anywhere that way.
[Brandon] So, this is a podcast you, our listeners, demanded. How to do audiobook narration? So I’m just going to be pitching questions at these two, and we’re going to learn from them, how did you get into narrating audiobooks?
[Mary Robinette] Well, I’ll go first. Even though I think a lot of people have heard my story, which is that I started in puppetry. Actually, before the puppetry took off, I took a… I was… Minored in radio and speech, or theater and speech in college, so took some radio specific classes that dealt with character voices. I also trained, as part of the [forensics?] team, speech, debate, and interpretive reading, so was taught to read aloud and competed in it. Then, went on to the puppetry career. Then did radio theater. And then realized that audiobooks were like puppetry, but without the pain, and made the transition as rapidly as I could.
[Bruce] People said, “You have a great voice, you should be into voiceovers.” I didn’t know what that meant, so I finally decided to do it one day. I got lessons and figured out how to have… Do voiceovers. Found out that it’s basically acting. I always thought it would be fun to be an actor, but my wife discouraged it. So…
[Howard] Okay. True story, Bruce. When you walked into Cosmere House today, and Dan introduced you, said, “This is Bruce. He’s an audiobook narrator.” I leaned forward in my seat a little bit and said to myself, “Say something.”
[Howard] Then you spoke, and I was like, “Oh, yeah. There is.”
[Bruce] You can cut this. I don’t know how you guys feel about something like this, but my wife had all the women in the house when she was entertaining her friends and they said, “Well, say something. Say something.” That’s what people say all the time. I could not think of anything to say, and then it came to me. I’m like, “I wonder if I should say that.” “In a world where you need someone to talk dirty to you…”
[Bruce] I could see them all just flutter a little bit.
[Howard] We’re keeping that, my friend. We’re keeping that.
[Dan] That’s my new ring tone.
[Mary Robinette] But one of the things that we actually have the ability to do as narrators, and this is why getting a professional narrator is so important, is that we can twist the meaning of the words on the page based on our interpretation. One of the party tricks that I trot out sometimes is that I can make any piece of text you hand me sound like phone sex. It doesn’t actually matter what’s on the page, you can do that.
[Bruce] Press one.
[Mary Robinette] Right. It’s so… It’s a very easy thing. But you can also make it sound inappropriately cheerful, you can make it sound inappropriately sad. So one of the things that you’re getting from that narrator is an interpretation of the words that are on the page. So you have to… I think that in order to be a good narrator, you have to be someone who enjoys reading for the pleasure of it. Not the act of speaking, that obviously helps, but that you actually have to enjoy an interaction with fiction and stories and audience. Because you can change things.
[Bruce] Well, it’s interesting. Anytime anybody gets in front of a mic, I heard all of you do it, except you maybe…
[Bruce] You are performing for the mic. “We’re rolling. Oh, I’m going to perform.”
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Bruce] There’s a voice that… A natural, authentic voice that is sought after when you’re narrating. People fight against performing for the mic. It’s an interesting thing.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s a very, very true thing. The thing that I hear happen to authors when they get up to read in front of an audience is that they think about the shape of the words and saying them correctly. They forget that our job is to tell a story. And that we have natural rhythms to our voice, we have natural rises and falls, and that the listener, you, our dear listeners, have been trained your entire life to derive meaning from that. If we are delivering the wrong thing, if what I’m saying, the important thing about this is that I have said it correctly, that’s boring. But if I think about the story, then that’s something that is giving you this additional information through the power of the speech, the sounds.
[Bruce] Not to mention character, too.
[Mary Robinette] Correct.
[Bruce] I mean, this guy might. Be. Just. A. Little. Bit… Weird.
[Mary Robinette] [Mhm…]
[Howard] Coming back to the telephone touchpad…
[Mary Robinette, baby voice] Tell me about it. I’m listening, Howard. What is it… Why?
[Howard] Coming back to the telephone touchpad…
[Mary Robinette, baby voice] Why?
[Howard] Press 1 versus…
[Mary Robinette, baby voice] Why?
[Howard] Press one.
[Mary Robinette, baby voice] Why?
[Howard] Press 1 is push the button…
[Mary Robinette, baby voice] Press one?
[Howard] Press one is go ahead and pick. Go ahead and choose one of those. Those are two completely different meanings, and you, as the narrator, get to pick that. A friend of mine online… I forget his real name, on twitter he’s Shecky is an editor, and has a sentence, “I never said she was the one who stole my money.” Or “I never said she stole my money.” Depending on which word you emphasize, there’s seven different sentences there. I never said she stole my money. I never said she stole my money.
[Bruce] I never said she stole my money.
[Mary Robinette] I never said she stole my money. Yeah. This is…
[Howard] It’s huge fun. Once you learn that, when you’re reading out loud, you look at a sentence and realize, “Oh, it’s actually ambiguous.” The contexts that have been provided with… By the author does not tell me which of those meanings is best. Which one do I want?
[Brandon] How do you decide, as the audiobook narrator?
[Mary Robinette] So what I look for are the immediate textual clues. Some of… Most of it is… It comes naturally, if the narrat… If the author has done their job, it’s not ambiguous. But what I’m looking for are where they’re placing their punctuation. If they are using italics, that does actually tell me which word they want emphasized. But punctuation exists who tell us where to pause. That’s a way of encoding something that we do naturally.
[Bruce] If they’re well edited.
[Mary Robinette] So… If they’re well edited, yes. Also, really, seriously, the difference between narrating a book that is well written and narrating one that is not… You literally stumble over words when it is not well written. So when you’re trying to make a decision about, like, what emphasis do I look for, you’re not taking the sentence in isolation. You’re looking at it in context of the whole piece. In much the same way you make those decisions when you’re reading a book to yourself, that the author has provided contextual clues, but there’s a consistency to the character, and you get a sense for them. At the same time, it’s very easy for narrators to get things completely wrong, because the author has something in their head that’s not on the page.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is Dragon Planet.
[Dan] Oh, I hear that’s a really good one.
[Mary Robinette] It is really good.
[Mary Robinette] So, this guy Dan Wells wrote this thing for Audible Originals. It’s actually book two. I loved Zero G very much. But Dragon Planet is the sequel. And I actually am pitching this because I love it.
[Mary Robinette] So, basically, it’s kids on a planet and the atmosphere of the planet is such… And Dan has actually done the science on it… So that you can fly, you can float. Everything is… The atmosphere is very dense, and the gravity is low. It’s one sixth of Earth’s. So, it’s so cool. It’s a great exploration of a planet. It’s a wonderful little coming-of-age. But mostly it’s an adventure romp with dragons and flying and pirates. I mean…
[Mary Robinette] It’s a lot of fun. Because it’s created specifically for audio, it also has both a narrator as well as a full cast and then sound effects. So you’re getting this really richly… I was going to say visualized world, but realized world.
[Howard] It’s like a radio play.
[Mary Robinette] It’s like a radio play. So that’s… It’s Dragon Planet by Dan Wells.
[Brandon] That’s an Audible Original?
[Dan] Yes, it is!
[Brandon] So, let me ask you this. Let’s say we have audience members out there who are wanting to do their own audiobooks. Or want to get into audiobooks. What tips can you give them, what techniques can you teach them, and what resources can you give them if they want to get better at this?
[Mary Robinette] There’s a lot of stuff online. So, one of the things we have done…
[Bruce] It’s on my website. Accent.com or whatever. Accent.com.
[Mary Robinette] Accenthelp.com, yes. Accenthelp.com is fantastic for learning how to do accents. But the other thing is to become familiar with the mic. Now, when we record these episodes, some of you may have seen pictures of us, that we’re wearing headbands with a lavaliere microphone on our forehead. For this episode, we have brought in a handheld mic, so that Bruce and I can demonstrate some mic techniques for you. So… So what’s about to happen right now for you is that my sound is going to change, because now I’m on a handheld microphone. This is a different sound. One of the things you can do with this is that you can change your relationship to the microphone. I just turned my head away, and now I’m coming back. That’s useful for being loud. You also learn to avoid things like popping your P’s, which is super annoying. But you learn to be able to say things like popping your P’s without blowing air on the mic. Bruce, do you want to show them some stuff with the mic?
[Mary Robinette] That’s okay. Otherwise, it’s just me talking all the time.
[Bruce] So mic’s have a diaphragm in them, so you want to… Most people talk off-mic, like this, so that they can’t pop their P’s… Or pop their P’s. You can hear people do it all the time.
[Brandon] So, what he’s doing is, he’s taking the microphone and setting it up beside his head, rather than in front of his head.
[Bruce] Right. And it’s pointed out my voice, where it’s going to come out. You talked about, sometimes we yell, and you want to get the mic back here because you’re yelling.
[Brandon] So you move the mic away from yourself to get louder.
[Bruce] Usually, my mic’s set, so…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Brandon] So lean back.
[Bruce] Sometimes you go [whisper] I’ve got a secret that I need to tell you. [End whisper]
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Bruce] I’ll get up on it. You’re not… I don’t know if you’re supposed to or not, but…
[Mary Robinette] I do the same thing.
[Bruce] [whisper] But this is really, really important. [End whisper]
[Brandon] So you get [way] in close to the mic for that.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So when you’re narrating, the microphone is on a stand. So it’s at a fixed position, and normally you want to stay completely still, and not change your relationship to the mic so that you have a consistent sound. But there are times when you want to jump on or off… What were you going to say, Joe?
[Bruce] It’s about this far… Put your thumb and your finger apart, and that’s about how far you should be from your mic.
[Mary Robinette] Depending on the microphone. Because I’ve had somewhere they wanted me a lot closer. Like, I have an engineer who likes to record with a shotgun mic. So your farther from the mic at that point. But the key thing is knowing that your relationship to the mic changes. The closer you are to the mic, the more intimate a sound you’re going to have. The farther from the mic, the less intimate of a sound. The reason you back off of a mic when you’re getting loud is so that you avoid like blowing out the diaphragm. So it doesn’t get that over modulated quality.
[Howard] There’s a principle of psycho acoustics here that I learned in audio engineering three decades ago, which I’ve always been fascinated by. Which is that a quiet sound we will lean into him and our brains make it as loud as possible because it’s important. A loud sound, we will lean back from, and our ears dial it back so if you want something to sound loud, step back from the microphone and turn the volume down. But then have that level as hot as you can get it. Our brains will tell us it is way louder than the whisper, even though the way it was recorded, those levels are exactly the same.
[Bruce] Probably the same. Do you have to treat your own audio, or do you have people for that?
[Mary Robinette] That’s a great question. So, for people who are interested in getting into this. When you first start out, you probably do… You have to record your own stuff.
[Bruce] And treat it, and fix it with effects. Make sure it’s level, and all that stuff.
[Mary Robinette] The treating is making sure that your highs and lows are not too spread out.
[Mary Robinette] Getting rid of room noise.
[Bruce] Yeah, because there’s a thing called normalization. So when you listen to the radio, and you have a song that’s really loud or something that’s really soft, you have to adjust your volume. So for audiobooks, they want that to be at a certain steady level. So it’s easy listening, so they don’t have to hike their volume up and down, basically.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Then, the other thing about audiobooks which is different than music is that you actually have to have a room that is completely quiet. The noise floor… Or threshold is what the… Is it noise floor or threshold?
[Howard] Both. Both terms get used.
[Mary Robinette] Okay. But that’s just grave silence.
[Bruce] It’s -60 DB in a professional studio, is what it should be.
[Mary Robinette] Look at these numbers. Thank you, Bruce.
[Mary Robinette] Most of the time, there is just sound going on all the time. There’s…
[Bruce] The heater.
[Mary Robinette] Heat noise, refrigerator, street noise, the sound of your own body.
[Mary Robinette] Cloth…
[Bruce] If you gesticulate, you’re going to make noise in the audio.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Never wear corduroy into the booth.
[Mary Robinette] I’m not making that up. So if you want to get into this, as someone stepping in, one of the easiest ways, and this is how I started, was to go to a short story market. Like an EscapePod, or a Pseudo-Pod, and do things for them. It may not be… You won’t be getting union rates, but it’s a chance to try stuff out. Recording things for your friends is also a good way to do this. What you’ll do is, as you are speaking, you will make a mistake, and then… If you’re recording for yourself, you have a couple of choices. One is that you can mark it and come back and do it later. Or you can pause and immediately backup to a gap and continue forward. Or, if you get really fancy, you can do something that’s called a punch record.
[Bruce] That’s knowing your software and…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Really knowing your software.
[Bruce] The tricks that your software offers.
[Mary Robinette] That’s where you backup the recording in addition to your own place on the page. Start the recording rolling. Then, when you get to a natural pause and it, punch out. And you begin speaking. As if you had never stopped in the first place. Which is what you actually want to be getting to… I mean, that’s the way I do it when I’m in the studio, is that I do punch records. It’s the fastest way to get a fairly clean product. Then you have to do all of the engineering afterward, when you are doing a self record or starting out. If you want to do stuff and have other people do all of that, there are other options. You’ve been… Where are you mostly doing stuff, Bruce. Sorry.
[Bruce] Oh, I do business voiceovers, business trainings. I’ve done a dozen audiobooks. I’ve done two or three dozen kids’ audiobooks.
[Dan] You record mostly in your home studio, is that correct?
[Bruce] Mhm. Yep. That’s the sound booth I made that’s got a -60 dB noise floor. There’s a difference between soundproofing and noise treatment, as well. Acoustic treatment.
[Howard] You’re probably appreciating that treatment that we’ve done here in Cosmere studio. We’ve taken what is essentially a bedroom in a house and mounted some nonparallel panels on the walls, so that we don’t get parallel wall sound reinforcement at certain frequencies.
[Bruce] Correct. That really… I don’t know if this is…
[Bruce] You can still hear the echo. So there’s still quite a bit of reverb that you’re dealing with in here.
[Howard] It’s not a perfect room, by any stretch.
[Brandon] We need stuff on the ceiling, probably, if we wanted to…
[Bruce] That could help considerably. The center wall that’s open could help. But…
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time on this. This was a very different and interesting episode.
[Brandon] Mary Robinette, you have our homework.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. So the homework for you is to experiment with what it’s like to be an audiobook narrator. Everybody who thinks that they want to be an audiobook narrator thinks about reading books to family or just how much they would love to read books aloud. You’re thinking about books, in this case, that you like. As a narrator, you don’t actually get much choice about what you read. So, what I want you to do is to pick a book in a genre you don’t like, and don’t pick a good example of that genre. I want you to read aloud for an hour. Every time you make a mistake, you have to start that sentence again. If you like it, at the end of that hour, maybe… Maybe… Narration is something you might want to try. If you’re like, “Oh, no.” Then you’ve answered your own question.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.