by Janis Patterson
On one of my writers’ eloops there has been a lively discussion about audio books. Some like them, some hate them, some are just glad to have another outlet to sell books and some want to know how to do them. Oh, has that brought back memories!
Having been an actress at one time (The Husband says I still am, even though I haven’t been near a stage or microphone for years…) I’ve narrated a couple of audio books. Believe me, it is a discipline all in itself and one of the most difficult in the entire entertainment industry. There are no facial expressions, no body language, no costume or make-up, nothing to convey emotion or character – nothing save your voice. It is potentially the hardest form of acting ever devised, and yet in the eyes of the general public it is one of the least respected.
To make a decent audio book you need (1) a good book – duh – (2) a good voice actor, or, depending on the book, several of them and (3) a good studio with good technicians. Sometimes the last is the hardest to find.
When I did my first audio book it was many years ago and the industry was still in the toddler stage. I don’t even know if Audible.com and other suppliers existed. I certainly didn’t know about them. The producer of the audio book was also the author, and she had very definite ideas of how it should be done. Some were actually workable. Some were not.
We did our first recording all in one room – the author/producer, the male voice talent, the technician and I – all huddled around a commercial version of a cassette recorder. The studio was small and old and unhappily located under an elevated freeway. A very busy elevated freeway. The tech was the only one with earphones, and we’d have to stop and re-record every few minutes because of traffic noise. Needless to day, the quality was terrible – so bad that the author, who had been trying to save pennies by using the bargain service, decided to re-record the whole thing.
This time we moved into a more professional studio complex. There were three rooms in a row, each solid black and about the size of a small walk-in closet – one for the male talent, one in the center for the tech, the equipment and the author/producer, and one for me. The only trouble was, all three rooms were sealed. Mine had one solid door and no windows at all. Our only contact with the outside world was through our headphones. I am somewhat claustrophobic, but made myself rise above it for the good of my art. (Big, sarcastic grin. It was more about the money.)
All well and good, but this was summer in
Texas and the temperature was brutal. To
make things worse, the noise of the air conditioner invariably picked up on the
tape. Because of contractual and other complications, we couldn’t record at
night, when the temperature was marginally cooler. No, not cooler. Less hot. So
– we would take breaks and run the a/c, drink lots of water and in my case try
not to freak out at being enclosed in a small room completely painted black.
Then, when the temperature was bearable, we’d turn off the a/c and start
recording. After a while we’d repeat the process. The 100,000 word plus book
took about five days to record. Five very long days.
Well, that helped, but not enough. After about the first hour of recording, I stripped off my shorts and shirt and recorded in my bra, panties and headphones. I even stripped off my jewelry, and those of you who know me realize what a drastic step that was!
In each of the talent’s rooms there was a tall and very uncomfortable stool, an adjustable black (of course) metal music stand and a set of earphones on a long cord that snaked away to a plug in the wall. That was it. Our scripts were a stack of individual sheets and as one page was finished we would just drop it to the floor. White papers spread like random snow over a black floor in a black room only added to the surreal quality of the session.
The funniest part was that the book concerned a very wealthy man who wanted to do nothing but pamper this beautiful woman, to the extent of building her a fabulous house in the mountains. Most of the actions took place during snow season, so there was lots of talk about fabulous jewels and mounds of furs and even a passionate rendezvous while on a skiing run. Yes, I performed all that, becoming that wealthy woman swathed in furs in a cold climate, all the while sitting on an uncomfortable stool in a sweltering black room while sweat dripped from my nose and my chin and from almost every portion of my anatomy, including my toes.
The audio book sold rather well, even though now I feet the writing could have been stronger. I ran across my cassettes (yes, it was that long ago!) not too long ago and played a little. In one of the snow sequences there had been a wind background lightly laid in, and it was great – I could honestly feel the cold and shivery nature of the scene, even though I knew how miserably hot the taping session had been.
Another crisis of our miniscule budget was that it was one track – ie, recorded straight through, without doing separate tracks for each character even when two women or two men were speaking to each other. That made for some very sophisticated – and scary – vocal gymnastics.
I felt I earned my spurs as a voice actress from one scene alone, a scene where the heroine and the villainess and the wise old woman get into a rip-roaring fight, all screaming at each other. Each had their own voice, their own intonation and accent – and, of course, each was me. That scene gave ‘talking to yourself’ an entirely new dimension.
I listened to that sequence again too, and for its time and genesis, it wasn’t too bad. They used the second take, even though I think the first was better – at least what there was of it. In an effort to make my performance as energetic as possible, I was swinging my arms and putting a lot of physical energy into the fight scene – so much so that I tipped over the stool and went crash on the painted concrete floor. The noise – especially through headphones – must have been horrendous, for before I could raise my somewhat bewildered head everyone, including the male talent, the tech, the author and several employees of the studio, came charging in. Of course, I was sprawled full out, surrounded by a snowstorm of script pages, more than a little dazed and wearing nothing but a sweat-saturated bra and panties.
Needless to say, that was the end of the day’s session. I regard it as a tribute to my professionalism (to say nothing of courage) that I actually came back and re-recorded the entire scene.
After that I recorded two more audio books, both in much better studios and there was absolutely nothing memorable about either session.
All three books are out of print now, and probably should be, as the industry has moved so far forward in the intervening years. Still, though, I cannot forget that early session, try though I might. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of the glamour of show business!