A Christmas Memory

For a good number of Christmases I have thought about getting these thoughts down in writing. I’ve made some less than successful attempts in the past, but this year I gave it another try. This version seems about as close as I will get to expressing why I think we need one particular Christmas song to be the song it was when it first appeared, and not the version that is most commonly heard today. 

I was 24 years old and a captain in the Army. It was 1968, and I was home on leave after finishing Vietnamese language school in Texas. When my leave ended, I would fly to San Francisco and board a military transport to Saigon.

I would arrive in that sad country about 10 days before Christmas. With luck, I would return a year hence, also at Christmas.

I was ambivalent about heading for the war zone. I would be in a relatively safe job. I would be doing something related to radio broadcasting, which I had pulled some strings to make happen when it became evident when I was in Germany that my number was coming up for reassignment to Vietnam soon.

Of course the prospect of going to Vietnam did come with at least a modicum of anxiety, but I had known many military colleagues who had come and gone without serious repercussions, so I was pretty much taking it all in stride.

And what I expected to happen there turned out to be pretty much the case. It wasn’t without unpleasantness, but as with my colleagues, my life as a “Saigon Warrior” was not particularly dangerous, and all of us assigned this duty realized that there were many others in country who were having far worse experiences than we were. We were grateful for our relative comfort and safety while constantly mindful of the greater sacrifice others were making nearby.

Interestingly my most lasting memory of that long-ago time relates to the time just before I left for Vietnam. It was just before Christmas 1968.

I wasn’t fearful or particularly stressed out, but I was experiencing a kind of ennui, a vague discontent at the prospect of going to war, not really knowing what would be entailed.

And there were some things that gnawed at me. I never expressed openly any misgivings about our nation’s involvement in the war in Southeast Asia, but if asked, I would have registered disagreement with our presence there in a general sort of way. And I felt like my compatriots who had not been corralled into military service were getting a jump on me in beginning their adult lives and careers. All things being equal, I’d have just as soon been doing almost anything else.

That was more or less my state of mind as I waited out the time before I was to leave. Still unmarried and unattached, I was spared the intense pain of pending separation from wife and children that some of my friends had to endure. To pass the days I decided I would join in pre-Christmas festivities until I left. There were parties to attend, decorating to do, and Christmas shopping to do.

Amid this low-key holiday hubbub before departing for Saigon, one simple, at-random little experience has stayed with me, and I think about it without fail every year at this time. I treasure this experience even though at the time it amplified my misgivings about going off to the war zone.

I was driving home from a nearby mall after doing some shopping when I began to pay attention to the lyrics of one version of a particular Christmas song that was playing on the car radio. It was Judy Garland’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

It was she who introduced the song in the film “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

I had never noticed that the lyrics as sung in the film and in the familiar recording I was listening to conveyed such a melancholy sentiment:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas; Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Next year? Troubles?

Then the lines:

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.”

“Someday?” “If?” How tentative that sounds.

“Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

“Muddle through?”

The words bring to mind the “stiff upper lip” mentality displayed by the British at Christmas as German bombs rained on them during the build-up to World War II.

I am about to go off to war, and it’s Christmas. I guess I’ll be “muddling through somehow” until next year when those “troubles will be far away.”

I sat for some time reflecting on those seemingly prescient lyrics that somehow seemed to fit my circumstances. I thought about how many others were in far worse circumstances than I faced. Most were younger than even my tender age. Would they be able to muddle through?

What did the songwriter have in mind when he chose to express this particular set of emotions in this particular song? It was easy to guess given the sense of the scene in the film where the song appears. It’s about dislocation, and Judy Garland’s character is singing it to comfort her little sister, Tutti. (Rent the film; it’s worth seeing.)

Every year since then I listen for this gentle little song during the annual heavy radio play of Christmas music. Strangely, somewhere along the line since the Garland version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” first became a Christmas standard in 1943, the lyrics were changed. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to know. But if you listen to nearly any modern version of the song you will notice the difference. It’s not plaintive; the longing is gone. It’s happy and sometimes bouncy. I hate that, but so be it. You can still find the original lyrics in a handful of versions if you look, and I hope you will.

I always pause for a brief moment of wistful reflection when I hear the Garland version of this song at holiday time. Perhaps there is a small element of maudlin false self-pity in this—probably so—but I know that there is also a sense of my connection to our common humanity.

Through the years since I first noticed the words to this poignant little song I have come to learn that there will always be circumstances that spread around more than enough negative experience to give everyone her or his own version of what it feels like to know disruption and separation from “faithful friends that are dear to us.” For a host of possible reasons, they won’t always be with us at this time of year when we especially value their presence. Other “troubles” will loom from time to time as well.

And so we need that little reminder each year that “Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore” there is the hope that “we all will be together”—perhaps next year. Hearing this song each year awakens that assurance in me, just as it did long ago when it seemingly was speaking directly to me.

All we have to do is “muddle through somehow” until that time comes.

So we must have hope for better times despite whatever comes our way. That hope is seemingly more available to all of us at Christmas.

So “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Now.”


Vocal Characterization

In the world of audiobook production, narrating a work of fiction entails skills that differ from those required to narrate nonfiction. Good narrators may be excellent readers of fiction and pretty much just as good at interpreting nonfiction. It is less common, however, that that a competent narrator of nonfiction is also adept at fiction.

The reasons for the failure of very good nonfiction narrators to be adept in the fiction genre can be several. It may be that a voice that works well for history or  philosophy—the kind that might be associated with movie trailers, for example—draws too much attention to itself to work in fiction, where the narrator’s presence must give way to multi-faceted characters of various ages, genders, personalities, and dispositions.

Another reason may be that the fiction narrator always needs to make use of at least a modicum of acting skills. These are not easy to acquire and develop.

There is a distinction though between being a good stage actor where characters are fully drawn personae, and a book in which characters are more often suggested using subtle clues to differentiate one from another. And the narration must successfully blend the tasks of providing explication of action and setting one minute, and then making a segue to portraying an Indian warrior brandishing a tomahawk the next. The term storyteller may be a more appropriate designation for audiobook narrators than actor per se.

After working on non-fiction projects for three or four months, I decided that I’d like see if I could also get fiction projects. My first auditions were not successful. One author, whose book was told in the first person by the main character, told me that she liked my voice, but that it did not fit her visualization of the character she had created. Other rights holders just passed me over without comment.

I kept auditioning, however, and finally received an offer to narrate a western. There were two by the same author, and the rights holder said he thought my voice and reading style would suit both of them. (It is fairly common for authors with a series of books to try to get the same narrator for all of the books in a series.)

As I undertook the projects one at a time, I found the task of being a storyteller to be somewhat challenging. Listening to other westerns, I noticed that a rich baritone is often the vocal choice for westerns, so at least I had that going for me. Learning how to “suggest” the characters, was a steeper learning curve.

I sought advice from my fellow narrator, Carl Hausman, who had in fact done some westerns, and went to Audible to find westerns by seasoned narrators to see if I could discern their techniques.

I got some ideas, but putting them into practice goes beyond just understanding what others were doing.

Two things, in my opinion, make the process of defining characters particularly difficult: doing the voices of women and children, and differentiating characters of the same gender one from the other, especially in scenes where two or more characters engage in dialogue.

I had the most difficulty with women. (Not a new thing with me, by the way.) I had to suggest feminine vocal patterns and intonations (if there is any such thing) without resorting to the falsetto used by Eric Idle, for example, while wearing a dress in classic Monty Python skits. That doesn’t work when Indians are kidnapping the young wife of a pioneer settler.

I played around until I came up with a style that simply lightens the speech in an overall sense without overdoing the increase in pitch. Overall the baritone remains, though ideally the reader is not overly aware of it.

For male characters in dialog, I had two basic voices. One was what I called the Gabby Hayes effect, which is a toned down version of the grizzled 50s TV host for reruns of Hollywood B-level western films. The other was a standard male character with no obvious vocal quirks, but a kind of Lone Ranger type of authority that exudes common sense and a logical approach to problem solving.

Emotions are rendered as variations on some of these techniques. Anger is increased volume and some raising of pitch. Love is softer and often lowered pitch. Exasperation is rapid fire delivery in a lowered pitch, which is also a component of anger.

All this has to be toned down enough so as not to become caricature. And there are variations. For children, for example, I often add a bit of a plaintive tone that suggests innocence and vulnerability.

I don’t try to create foreign accents. For a French trapper, for example, I use a deep pitched bellicose baritone delivered with high energy and volume rather than ending up with a hackneyed version of a poorly rendered dialect.

In practice, developing and maintaining characters takes more prep time than nonfiction. It’s pretty hard to get through even short passages with out substantial rehearsal. Another problem arises when a character drops out of the action for a while and then reappears several chapters later. Now did I use Gabby Hayes for this guy? Was the young pioneer wife soft spoken and fragile, or was she a take-charge, no nonsense mother bear?

So how did my initial attempt at western fiction turn out? Not too bad, I’d have to say. After granting approval to put it up for sale, the publisher sent me a note to say he liked it very much and offered me four more projects. That’s a much better result than I expected.

Much obliged for the kind words, pardner. Reckon I’ll keep at it a mite longer.

Anatomy of an Audiobook Project

Often when I finish a particularly difficult audiobook project, I resolve to give myself a break before taking on another project. Invariably, however, I become restless and feel like I want to have something in the pipeline so I can keep the process alive and ongoing.

This sends me to the listing of books seeking a narrator on the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) website. There are always numerous projects to take a look at. They could involve anything from sci-fi, mystery, romance novels, and contemporary fiction and non-fiction to exotic self-help books, treatises on crackpot theories and even explicit X-rated fiction. (That last one is often offered in the guise of non-fiction.)

In my short career as an audiobook narrator, I have landed and completed projects that ranged from very complicated explorations of decrypted ancient systems of knowledge to advice on how keep your pastor from fleeing due to impossibly demanding parishioners. I had also recorded treatises on the connections between drug kingpins and celebrities, and read sophisticated philosophical treatises on the nature of human existence.

Because I often drift toward more scholarly works, I decided this time to look for something in the area of history.

My search led me to a book that was described as scholarly in approach, but accessible to a general audience as well. An outfit called University Press Audiobooks held the rights to the audiobook rendition of the book, an examination of the French and Indian War from the perspective of the French government under King Louis XV.

Just what I was looking for. I recorded and submitted the audition.

I was offered the project last spring, and worked on it through the summer and fall of this year., . I completed it in early October and it is now on sale through Audible.

The finished project runs for a total of 17 hours 9 minutes and 11 seconds.

The time allotted for production was substantial, so I reckoned I would have no problem reading through the Introduction and 13 chapters that lay ahead of me back on June 17 when I got underway.

Despite a summer of steady work on the project, I would still miss the September 30 deadline by a day. Fortunately this was not a problem for the rights holder.

When I began I recalled the rights holder’s caution about pronunciation. Be sure you get them right; don’t guess.

I knew there were websites where I could look up pronunciations, so I wasn’t particularly daunted by this warning, and I launched into the narration without trepidation.

I quickly became intimately familiar with these websites as I found myself wandering through cyberspace looking for the sites that would best recognize the name, the place or title that I need to pronounce as though I had been familiar with it all of my life.

Here’s a sample of one of the less lengthy passages that sent me to the pronunciation websites:

“Accompanying Montcalm were Colonels Gaston, duc de Lèvis, and Françios Charles de Bourlemaque, the second and third in command, respectively with the general’s aide, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, and engineers Captain Jean Claude Henri Lombard de Combles and his assistant Jean Nicolas Desandrounins. In addition around 1200 troops of the second battalions of the Royal Roussillon and La Sarre Regiments crammed into the ships.”

Such passages would recur with regularity throughout the 411 pages of the manuscript. To make it through such passages, I estimate that it would typically take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more to determine how to render the reading in an acceptable manner that sounded natural to the listener.

I also came to realize that the author of the book was a meticulous historian. He had a penchant for leaving no detail out of his accounts of events depicted in the book. His obsession with detail took the form of exhaustive listings like this one:

“’We captured also, 7 vessels of war; one of 18 guns, one of 14, one of 10, one of 8, three mounted with swivels, 200 barges or bateaux, 7 pieces of bronze, 48 of iron, 14 mortars, 5 howitzers, 47 swivels, a quantity of shot, bombs, balls, powder and a considerable pile of provisions. ‘ When those supplies were tallied, the French had taken 28,000 pounds of powder, 8,000 pounds of lead and balls; 2,950 shot of various caliber; 150 shells of 9 inches and 300 of 6; 1,416 grenades; 730 muskets; 340 grapeshot; 704 barrels of biscuits; 1386 barrels of pork; 712 barrels of flour; 11 barrels of rice; 1 garret full of vegetables; 32 live oxen; 11 hogs; and 3 chests of specie.“

It was my job to vocally interpret these recurring lists in a manner that somehow kept the reader from fleeing to the nearest mindless romance novel for relief. So I varied the pacing, the pitch of my voice, and the rhythm of my speech to break the monotony that otherwise would characterize the performance. And if I accidentally said there were 152 9-inch shells instead of the actual 150 as indicated in the manuscript, I rerecorded, inserting the correct figure, even though I surmised that the slip-up would never be noticed, let alone seriously affect the veracity of the account.

I gradually became more adept at getting through such passages with a degree of appropriate vocal interpretation and in a not unreasonable amount of time.

Each chapter in an audiobook project is a separate digital file, with a limit of 120 minutes for each file you eventually post to the site for uploading by the production team. Each file must be edited to close gaps where edits are made and to vanquish mouth sounds or other extraneous noise that finds its way into the brief pauses in the narration. The editing process can take as much as two or three times longer than recording the material in the first place.

Once you have a “clean” recording, it has to be proofed for accuracy, which means that someone has to listen straight through the entire chapter and note any problems on the manuscript, indicating the time marker in the recording where the error occurred so the passage can be located in the recording and fixed.

Unlike most of the manuscripts narrators work from, this one was not available as a Word file or pdf.; I worked from the physical printed pages of the actual book.

This was easier to do using separate pages, which meant using a box cutter to slice the individual pages out of the bound book one at a time.

Turns out that reading from pages that have two sides is somewhat problematic. The mic picks up even the slightest crackle of a bending book page, so I had to learn how to deftly flip the page, let it gently come to rest on the table top settling gently as a feather. While the page was airborne, I would utter the three or four words at the top of page two which I had previously memorized while my eyes searched frantically for the point in the text where the unmemorized portion began.

I got so that I could do this successfully roughly 80 percent of the time, reading smoothly through the flip without missing a beat or audibly flicking the page. Sometimes the page I so adroitly (and silently) flipped would take flight and flutter to the floor, or land too far away on the table top for me to read it without drifting seriously off mic.

While you are doing all this paper shuffling and taking care to locate the text you need to find quickly, you must continue to sound like your attention is focused entirely on the subject matter.

Some version of this process goes on day after day, week after week until you finally emerge from your dark little “booth” one day and discover that you have finally produced an edited, proofed, and processed, “clean” recording which now comprises an audiobook that is ready to go out into the world and face the marketplace.

Next step is to find the screen on ACX where you will upload those completed files containing the chapters and other elements of the audiobook. When you have uploaded everything, you locate a button that says simply “I’m done.” When you click on it, your work of many months is delivered to a digital location where only the rights holder can access it.

There’s nothing else for you to do now, but wait and see what the client thinks about the work you’ve done

The rights holder will usually do a spot check of the recording, listening for problems like mispronunciations, poor edits, extraneous noise, or misreads.

While this process unfolds—a matter of a week or two—doubts inevitably begin to creep into your mind. Will they reject it out of hand because I just didn’t get the pronunciations right? Or perhaps they’ll compile a long list of corrections that have to be made before the work is approved. Or maybe they’re thinking that they made a terrible decision when they picked you in the first place.

The worst is highly unlikely to happen. If there are small corrections to attend to, you get a list from the rights holder and set about recording the necessary passages and editing the new material into the original recording. These are usually few in number and relatively easily fixed.

When it is determined that all is as it should be, the final event is a message saying the project is approved and will soon be available for sale on Audible. ACX will check the audio standards of the project, and if it checks out, you’ll get word in about ten days to two weeks that the project is now “Available for Retail.”

Only then will you relax, grab a scotch, and swear never to put yourself through that particular version hell again. Until, that is, you one day wander back to the list of available projects…because you just can’t seem to feel comfortable or productive unless you’re working on an audio project of some kind.

As General George Patton once put it when talking about the experience of doing battle, God help me, I do love it so.

Your Home Audio Studio: Workspace or Padded Room?

A vital consideration for audiobook producer/narrators is the physical space where the activity unfolds, namely the audio studio that serves as your environment while working through your projects.

If you don’t get this part of the process right, you won’t have a professional product when you finish your audiobook and put it out there for the pubic.

Your studio must do a number of things: (1) it must reduce the incidence of unwanted sound finding its way into your recording, (2) it should optimize the quality of the sound you do want, namely your voice, and (3) it has to provide a comfortable work space for you, the narrator, that can also accommodate the necessary hardware. For a large number of audiobook narrators, all this must be provided for within the setting of the place you live.

Consider the challenges of that scenario.

When you set out to record an audiobook at home, you quickly become aware that what you regard as a sanctuary apart from the world at large, is in reality a chamber of noise. The cacophony creeps into every corner of the house and invariably finds its way onto that pristine audio track you are trying to create.

Your neighbor is trying to start his vintage motorcycle in his driveway, revving all 900 cc’s to keep it from coughing to a stop. The air conditioning compressor is just below the window where your studio is located. The clock chimes in the living room, the doorbell rings, the telephone jangles, the rain hits the metal light fixture on your neighbor’s house like a drummer tapping a stick on his high hat. And until now you had no idea that your house is on the glide path for nearly every aircraft flying within a 200-mile radius.

You must find some way to isolate yourself and your mic from all that sound so it doesn’t show up on the waveforms you lay down on your recording software.

If you have unlimited funds, a great option is a professionally built “portable” sound studio that can be assembled fairly easily and set up in a relatively small space. These ventilated soundproof rooms do the trick nicely, but they can also set you back $6000 – $12000. Add that to the investment you need to make in mics, audio interfaces, headsets and the like, and you’re talking some heavy hits on the bank account.

A better solution is a homemade studio. And you don’t need a degree in acoustics and construction expertise to make a very serviceable studio that will produce high quality recordings and fit into your living space.

To construct the studio I use, I initially found some old moving blankets that were left behind after one of my many relocations. I screwed two of them to the adjacent walls in a corner of my attic. I arranged my recording equipment against one of the now padded walls and did a test.

It seemed to be working fine until the first of five aircraft that day buzzed over my roof. I had reduced the room echo, but obviously I needed more isolation from the sonorous environment that is my home.

After a lot of experimenting and lot of failure, I ended up with what you might call a small hut (cell?) in the corner of the guest room. I got more moving blankets, and hung them from four sides of a framework of PVC pipe that I purchased at Lowes.

To make the frame, I simply cut the lengths of PVC with a hacksaw and joined them together to form a 4 x 6 foot cubicle using the appropriate connectors.

The booth rests on the wall-to-wall carpeting and has room for a table, a chair and my audio gear. I found that an inexpensive mattress topper from Target fit nicely over the top of my booth like a roof, while providing sound deadening and pretty good sound insulation with its foam construction. I attached everything to the PVC with inexpensive plastic cable ties.

As I have used this little room within a room, I have added refinements—a piece of sound deadening foam here and there to reduce echo even further, a towel on the surface of my table, a very small table for the mic bracket because of the bass thump that my hand produces when I hit the larger table, no matter how gentle that tap seems to be, a quieter chair that doesn’t squeak when I shift my weight.

Overall the set-up works quite well. I can record hours of nicely deadened sound in relative comfort with minimal intrusion of extraneous sound. (Some sounds will invariably get through, but I can stop and rerecord small segments when that happens.)

There is one significant downside, however, to even the best constructed home studio. It can be hazardous to your health—your mental health, that is.

When you have been sitting for several hours in a dark, sensory-deprived space reading to your microphone, you can loose touch with reality.

As a case in point, there was a time in the middle of a particularly lengthy and challenging recording when I suddenly had the distinct sense that I was about to “wig out.” My voice assumed an unnaturally high pitch, I began to sweat, I got claustrophobic, my ears were ringing. I had to get out of there.

As I staggered through the moving blankets and out into the surrounding room I must have looked like the colonel played by Alec Guinness in the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai after he was released from the small iron sweatbox the Japanese had confined him in as punishment for his lack of cooperation as a World War II POW.

I recovered quickly, but I also gained respect for of the potential consequences of staying confined too long in a small padded room talking to myself.

Oh, Oh! Here Comes a Cold!

I have just begun two new audiobook projects. Having been intrigued with the idea of branching out from non-fiction after finishing the grueling, 411-page French and Indian War narration, I took a look on the ACX site for some promising fiction titles. My friend, Carl Hausman, has had success in narrating several books in the western genre, so I went looking for something in that vein.

I found several, and downloaded the auditions for a couple of them that seemed like something I might have a shot at, so to speak.

I recorded the two audition scripts and submitted them for consideration by the rights holders.

The first one I submitted was for a book by a talented writer named Darrel Sparkman titled Spirit Trail. I liked the story, and the writing was lively and engaging. A day or two later I was offered the project. And the rights holder asked if I would be interested in producing a second book by the same author titled Osage Dawn. I was.

I’ve made a good beginning on the two books, which I find more entertaining to narrate than some of the more erudite material I’ve done recently. And I get to be an actor playing all the parts.

Just as my momentum was beginning to establish itself, however, I had to pause for a few days due to a hazard faced by all of us who do this stuff, namely I got a head cold.

I get one every fall after I go back to teaching. It could be from my students, or from my grandchildren, who find the latest and greatest rhinovirus within a few weeks of beginning school. I studiously avoided contact with the girls when they came down with colds a couple weeks ago, so I suspect mine was delivered via some errant contact with the artifacts of academic activities generated by my Millersville University students.

Whatever the source, the colds I get have the diabolical trait of invariably settling in my throat. My voice becomes a resonant but sick-sounding basso profondo for a couple of days and then just goes a way completely for a few more days. A week or so later, it returns to its usual baritone, subject occasionally to the disruption of a rumbling cough erupting from my chest.

There is no chance of recording narration for a book project in the voice -deepened phase of this process. In fact one project I recently did included strict written guidelines that specifically forbade submitting anything done under the influence of cold symptoms of any type.

If this enforced hiatus had to occur, now is probably as good a time as any. If I were on a deadline to submit a project, I’d miss it, throwing off not only the expectations of my client, but possibly necessitating some heroic juggling of commitments and plans that would be disruptive if not ruinous on some levels.

I do have a submission deadline for a sample of the second western quite soon. It’s a very short recording, though, and my cold appears to be in retreat, so I’ll probably make it alright, though it will be tight.

Because I foolishly believe that cosmic justice dictates that I’m only required to acquire one cold per season I’m confident that I’ve now put my brush with infection behind me for now.

So I’ll soon head back into my cozy dark studio, sit before the mic, my western books displayed on the computer screen and my voice emanating vibrations in its normal register.

Wish me luck, Pardner.

You’re Finally Done Recording, But…

Well I just finished narrating a 411-page book about the French and Indian War. The completed recording is nearly 18 hours long from start to finish. I began the project in mid June and completed it at the end of September, working, not full time, but steadily the entire time. This was a particularly challenging project, not only because of the seemingly endless hours of recording, and the fact that I had to cut the printed book apart to record it rather than using a PDF or Word file on a screen; I also had to look up hundreds of pronunciations of French names, titles and places.

As if that were not enough to tax one’s endurance, creating a credible vocal performance of a book is by no means the end of the story. The producer is still responsible for creating a “clean” recording with no omissions, extraneous sounds (stomach growls are picked up and rendered with uncanny accuracy, for example), audible editing clicks, air conditioning hum, street noise, long pauses, mouth sounds, barking dogs and roaring motorcycles out on the street, to name a few of the sources of objectionable noises that can creep into a recording.

There are also a number of technical processes to execute that will enable you to meet the exacting audio parameters specified by the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), which vets the project and clears it for posting to Audible. Using special software, the recording is run through several steps that apply adjustments to the equalization, normalization, compression and limiting processes of said recording. (I just do it; I don’t know what they mean, really.)

And, oh yes! There is still the small matter of listening to the entire recorded book, manuscript in hand, to make sure that it is a completely faithful rendition of the printed text. (Or, as in my case, asking my wife to take on this tedious assignment.)

In other words the narrator also functions as editor, sound engineer, producer, proofer, and quality assurance coordinator.

Once the recording undergoes this lengthy regimen of processing, it is converted to an MP3 file and uploaded to the project’s ACX web page. The ball is now in the court of the rights holder. He or she, or sometimes they, will check the recording and either approve it as submitted, or enumerate changes that need to be made by the producer before it is officially accepted and made available to the public for release.

This approval process for a short book—say two to three finished hours—may consist of the rights holder listening to the recording in its entirety. For longer projects, like my 17-plus-hour project, it is far more likely that there will be a thorough spot check of the recording with an assumption that the consistency of the producer will kick in to render a product that can safely be put up for sale on Amazon, iTunes, and elsewhere.

The technical aspects of audiobook production are not that difficult to master with perhaps a little help from someone with a modicum of technical background to guide you through the weeds here and there. But there is a lot of time involved in completing these and other post-production activities, all of which take place after the heavy lifting of recording is finished.

Only when the rights holder has pronounced the project acceptable can the producer/narrator breathe a sigh of relief, turn out the lights in the announce booth and take a much needed break.

Getting Good Audiobook Projects

There are two main ways that I obtain offers to do the audiobooks I narrate. They both work through a website called the Audiobook Creation Exchange or ACX, which exists to connect book authors or publishers with narrators and vice versa. With one exception, the books I have done so far were the result of auditioning for the opportunity to produce a specific book that has caught my attention. Another of the first books I did came as the result of an author finding me using the narrator profile that I posted on ACX.

The profile is a brief presentation that summarizes my work and hosts brief audio samples of work that I believe reflects my strengths as a narrator. Some samples are from books that I have narrated that are currently for sale on Audible, and others may be excerpts from other works that show how I handle various genres.

To use the audition process I go to the ACX site and find the listing of books posted by rights holders (usually either publishers or authors) seeking narrators. At any given time, there may be hundreds of titles to select from.

For each book there is an excerpt that can be downloaded to my computer. If the script looks like something I might like to perform, I record the audition and submit it as an MP3 file to the rights holder via the ACX site. The rights holder considers all the auditions submitted and selects one narrator to do the project. An offer is made to the narrator and terms of payment are agreed upon. This is either a payment based on a rate per finished hour of the project, or, more frequently for relative newcomers like me, a share of the royalties from sales of the finished audiobook.

After doing a number of projects, I have learned to be somewhat discriminating about the projects I seek or accept. There is a plethora of self-published books out there that are sold on Amazon and some of them can be real clunkers. Too often the author skips the step of having an editor check for and correct errors. I’ve run across published books that are for sale on Amazon that include incomplete sentences, words that don’t exist, incomprehensible sentences and paragraphs, and whacko ideas from the lunatic fringe.

Facing this landscape, an experienced narrator will do a bit of investigation before auditioning for or accepting a project. There is a link on the ACX site to the Amazon listing for available projects. There you can find out more about the author, read reviews, and read a bit further into the book than might be available from a short excerpt that constitutes the audition script. You can also look up authors on their websites, find other works by the author, and determine publishing connections.

I must admit that the books I have produced have not always been literary masterpieces, and I have become a bit more discriminating about projects I’ll try for or accept. After all, my name does appear on the Amazon listing for the audiobook, and a search of my name will bring them up as books associated with me, so a bit of discrimination is warranted in this process of finding projects.

As one accumulates a body of work in audiobook narration, it becomes clearer where your strengths lie, and you can find better projects to try for in those genres. So don’t look for me in the sci-fi or romance genres. I tend toward the non-fiction, philosophy, and academic areas. Even these kinds of works can sometimes be poorly written and inappropriate, however, so caution is always a good idea before jumping headlong into a project that might be problematic in some way.

I also commit to spending many hours reading these books and then listening to what have I recorded. So if only to retain my sanity, doing a bit of research on potential projects can be a worthwhile part of this fascinating process.

Pronunciation: The Narrator’s Albatross

As an audiobook narrator you are expected to deliver a performance that is free of distracting or incorrect elements. Something as simple as a stomach rumble that is picked up by your very sensitive mic or a motorcycle passing by whose engine noise penetrates even the most carefully padded audio booth make you stop and redo the copy that was intruded upon.

That kind of thing is easily remedied, but the bugaboo of many of us who sit before the mic in the lonely booth is pronunciation. I am currently narrating a history book about the French and Indian War. In some 411 pages, the author explores the actions of the people and the impact of the policies of the French government that ultimately led to their defeat.

Here is a fairly typical passage from Chapter 2

Jean-Baptise de Machault d’Arnouville served until February 1757, when he lost the same fight with Pompadour that had toppled Argenson. He was replaced by Françios Marie Peyrenc de Moras, who was succeeded in May 1778 by Claude Louis d’Espinchal, marquis de Massac. In October of that year, Massac was replaced bu Nicholas René Berryer, who clung to power until October 1758…

I’m sure a French language scholar would breeze through that list of names and titles, but though I have a French name, I am no Maurice Chevalier when it comes to sounding like an exemplar of my heritage.

The solution is to fly to the Internet. There are numerous sites that can help, but some are limited in the range of names they will help you pronounce. YouTube can be a resource, but the selection of videos devoted to Claude-Louis d’Espinchal, marquise de Massac are far fewer in number than the numerous postings featuring cats falling into bathtubs.

One site that works well for me is How to Pronounce, which seems to recognize most anything you enter into the query box, which then takes you to several recorded audio pronunciations in nearly any language you can think of.  But for your narration do you want a French pronunciation of the name or an English pronunciation? It depends on how you want to approach the overall project. My choice is to go with an English pronunciation rather than slipping suddenly into a mellifluous rendition as a native speaker might.

Next step is to practice the pronunciation until its sounds right to your ear. Your job is to interpret the passage in a way that communicates the author’s meaning to listeners. You can’t do that if you suddenly go into a halting recitation of the name and title that just gets the job done. The pronunciation cannot be the focal point of your reading. It has to sound natural.

All this takes a great deal of time if you want to get it right. If you just guess at the pronunciations you don’t intuitively know, you are very likely to get the recording back from the publisher with a request to do them over. You don’t want to have to go back over an 18-hour recording and find and correct every mispronunciation of Machault d’Arnville everywhere it pops up in the 411 pages you just spent weeks recording.

You get better at finding and executing a credible pronunciation as you gain experience, but this is one element of audiobook narration that accounts for the fact that you’ll likely spend three hours or more for every “finished hour” you produce.