"Talking books" have been available since the 1930s and "audiobooks" gained a mass audience with the advent of portable cassette and CD players in the '70s and '80s. But the medium truly came into its own with the rise of the Internet and the introduction of the iPod in 2001 and the iPhone in 2007. Audiobook publishing is now a $3.5 billion-dollar industry, with more than 10,000 new titles released each year. Citing a better than 20% per annum growth rate, a 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal called audiobooks "the fastest-growing format in the book business today."
Audiobook recording was a natural fit for Baker Sound. Some of our earliest projects were medical dictionaries and other reference books for physicians and med students, but by 2009 we were handling popular fiction and non-fiction titles for a variety of publishers including Blackstone, Brilliance, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House. We've recorded everything from classics like White Fang, to science fiction like The Andromeda Strain, to breakthrough non-fiction hits like Chicken Soup for the Soul, and worked with well known narrators such as Ed Herrmann and David Morse as well as bestselling authors like Michael Port, John Wesley Harding, and Lisa Scottoline.
We recently had an opportunity to talk audiobook production with award-winning narrator Laural Merlington and Baker staff producer/engineer Jeff King as they took a break from recording the new Fern Michaels thriller Need to Know.
Laural, you've recorded over 400 audiobooks in your career. How did you get started?
LM: I was working in the theater as an actor in Michigan, and there was another actor in the show sitting in the hall with this stack of pages. So I said, "What in the world are you doing?" and he said, "I'm prepping a book to narrate. You've got to get into this business." So I did.
I know you've done commercial announcing as well. Is audiobook narration different?
LM: Of course the material is different, and with audiobook narration you're in the studio for many hours. But in reading fiction, for example, maintaining character voices and maintaining accents and keeping them consistent throughout is way different from doing a sixty-second spot.
So you can't just have a great voice; acting ability is essential.
LM: In fact I know several narrators who started out as announcers, and they sound like announcers. They try to break out of that and do characters, but their narrator voice particularly sounds like an announcer.
When you're recording a book, how much are you acting versus just reading the text?
LM: With a non-fiction book there's no acting whatsoever. My job is to read the material accurately, but also to keep the listener engaged. So I've got to find a way to make the text interesting. With a fiction book I pretty much always do characterizations, so there can be a lot of acting. But it depends on the nature of the fiction. And if it's a really well written piece of literature I don't have to be as broad with my characterizations.
I assume that you do a fair amount of prep work.
LM: I absolutely read the book beforehand. And if I'm prepping a new book and the main character is from some specific region I definitely think about that. Mostly I just read the book and look for what's happening, how many characters there are, and any words I don't know how to pronounce. But the real work starts when I sit behind the mic and start talking.
Are some books more difficult to record than others?
LM: Absolutely! Jeff and I did one a few weeks ago that was very theoretical, and we suspected that the author had invented some of the terminology. Then right after that we did a book that was full of medical terminology, which is always tough.
Do you reach out to the author when you're not sure about a word?
LM: I do when I can. One publisher I work for is very good about giving me author contact info. Another publisher I work for doesn't want me to communicate with their authors; they would rather do that. I generally try to figure things out on my own, but if there's something I absolutely can't find I'll go back to the publisher and ask, "How do I say this?"
You don't normally have a producer here when you're recording. Is that because publishers know your work and are comfortable allowing you to self-produce?
LM: Basically. Sometimes I work with a producer, but once I've worked with a publisher and they're comfortable with my voice and the sound of the recording they let me do my thing. I don't usually get any notes about characters—publishers pretty much take what I've given—though we certainly go back and do pickups if we make any mistakes.
You've recorded a number of books here at Baker Sound. What makes this a good environment for audiobook work?
LM: Well, I like working with Jeff. He is excellent at this; he makes the process really fast—and time is money. He's also great when I say, "Can you look up that word?" He's right on it. And he does all of the post-production work, so I don't have to do anything once we're done recording.
Jeff, are there any special technical requirements for audiobook recording?
JK: We record most of our audiobooks in Studio B because it's a very quiet space and you don't hear much of the room. But the most important thing is being aware of the dynamics. For example, if we're recording a fiction book and there's a really animated character or a heated dialog going on I can't be making level changes on the fly. I have to have things set up so that I don't have to make adjustments for the duration of the read. And since some lines may be read in a whisper, I can't have a high noise floor competing with the voice.
So what kind of mic setup are you using to capture as much dynamic range as possible?
JK: When we first started recording audiobooks I used a Brauner Valvet because it has a ton of presence and character for voice. Patti LaBelle loved using that mic when she recorded her book here. But it's a tube mic, and the noise floor was a problem in quieter passages. So for a number of years I've been using a Neumann U87 with a Millennia mic preamp, which is a very quiet signal chain going into Pro Tools.
Do you process the signal as you're recording?
JK: I usually record with light compression and EQ, especially when we're doing multiple days of recording, because it saves a lot of time at the back end of the production.
How do you estimate how much time it will take to record a book?
JK: We can generalize from the page count. It depends on the talent and the material, but a typical 250-300 page book will normally take a couple of days with a professional narrator like Laural.
You've recorded countless announcers and narrators in your career. What makes a good audiobook reader in your opinion?
JK: Well, Laural is certainly one of the best I've worked with, and her stage experience is a big advantage. But one of the biggest things is the ability to establish a relationship with the engineer. If you can do a lot of things without stopping to discuss, you can get into a really good groove and take big chunks of a book down. For example, if Laural stops for some reason I know where she'll want to take it from. Some people need entire paragraphs as a lead in to get back into tempo and character, but Laural can jump in without much playback. Developing that unspoken rhythm really helps.
It sounds like you make an effort to keep the narrator comfortable, on track, and in character. Are you monitoring those kinds of things all the time?
JK: Sure, and especially in recent years when publishers have been less willing to pay for a producer. Years ago there was always someone here, sitting at the producer's desk, who had prepped for the session and was prepared to provide direction. Now I'm often wearing that hat, so I have to be aware of mistakes, and make sure that characters stay in the same voice and don't "evolve" over the course of the recording.
LM: And that's another reason I like working with Jeff. I've got a little setup at my house, but I don't want to work by myself.
JK: That's a lot on your plate, to worry about the creative content as well as the technical aspects of the recording.
Jeff, is there any difference between working with professional narrators and authors who read their own books?
JK: It's incredibly different. Authors are generally harder to work with. They're not narrators for a reason.
So you wouldn't advise authors to read their own books?
JK: Never—unless it's someone who's really capable and has had a lot of speaking experience.
Is there anything you do to help authors who want to read their own books?
JK: I have an introductory briefing with them to go over basic things like how to stay on mic, breathe, swallow, and turn pages.
What kinds of problems do you run into with something as seemingly simple as page turning?
JK: Well, most book readers now use iPads, which is a game changer since we don't have to worry about the sound of the pages being turned. What inexperienced readers don't realize is that the microphone picks up everything and anything, and that extraneous noise can ruin a take, or will have to be edited out later, which extends production time. So if you've got a stack of 300 pages sitting in front of you, and every two minutes or so you're turning a page, that's hundreds of opportunities to mess up the recording. Part of the craft is learning to turn pages silently, and seasoned narrators are able to do this as they approach the bottom of the page so that we don't have to stop recording.
Do you do the final editing once the book is recorded?
JK: It depends on the client. Most of the time I do light post work. During the session I make notes about anything I'll need to go back and clean up, or tighten up, or expand. When the recording leaves Baker Sound there's very little that has to be done—that's what I strive for. Some publishers add music or sound effects, and sometimes they prefer to cut up the chapters themselves, but often the only thing left for them is whatever mastering may be needed to make the final product sound consistent with the rest of their library.
And how is the recording delivered?
JK: It's different for each client. Sometimes I upload the entire, unedited Pro Tools session to our FTP server or the publisher's. Or in some cases I'm uploading edited WAV files, which may or may not be cut into chapters depending on what the publisher wants.
Laural, Jeff, thanks to both of you for a very interesting and informative discussion.
Baker Sound is happy to answer any questions you may have about your next audiobook project. Feel free to contact us online or call 1-800-369-1280 for pricing and additional information.