A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments and often have guest bloggers. All our authors can be contacted separately, too, using their own social media links.

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Julie Moffet . Cathy Perkins . Jean Harrington . Daryl Anderson . Nico Rosso . Maureen A Miller . Sandy Parks . Lisa Q Mathews . Sharon Calvin . Lynne Connolly . Janis Patterson . Vanessa Keir . Tonya Kappes . Julie Rowe . Joni M Fisher . Leslie Langtry

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Audio Books, Tall Stools and the Glamour of Show Business, or my adventures as a recording artist

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 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, 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 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 all 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 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 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 first session, try though I might. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of the glamour of show business!


Terry Spear said...

That is just hilarious! Thanks for sharing, Susan!!!

Jean Harrington said...

Susan, Thanks for the insider's look at audiobooks. My two mysteries, Designed for Death and The Monet Murders have been recorded by Audible. The narrator is Gayle Hendrix. She does a great job, and I was happy to be able to tell her so. That said, and this is unavoidable, I think, some of her inflexions and emphases are different from the ones in my head when I was writing that particular word or scene. Still, hearing your book read aloud is a kick.

Fran McNabb said...

Enjoyed your blog! Most of us know nothing about the process of doing an audio book, and your first-hand experience was great to read. Thanks.

Shirley Wells said...

What a fascinating post. Funny too. :)

I struggle to listen to my audiobooks. The inflections are all wrong, the voices aren't the same in my head ... oh, I hate it. I am very grateful that they've been recorded though. At the moment, they're lulling my new puppy to sleep at night. :)

Susan Lyons/Fox said...

Did anyone take pictures? If not, they lost out on a great opportunity for blackmail. LOL. Seriously, what an interesting and funny story. The things we go through for our art (or for money!).

I don't listen to many audio books because I'm one of those people who dozes off when someone's speaking (radio, lectures, though not TV), but I have heard a few on very long flights when my eyes are too tired for reading. It's interesting when the author reads her/his own work. If she/he is a good reader, at least you know the emphasis and inflection are the way the author intended.

It does seem there are two very different methods. One's to have one voice, like the author, read the entire book. The other is like your experience, which ups the "performance" level in my mind, where there are different voice actors doing different voices. It's all very interesting!

Sally Felt said...

You took off your jewelry? Yikes.

I love that you've been on both sides of the mic. Closest I've come is recording textbooks for the blind and directing pro talent back when I wrote radio ads.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I think it's very exciting that you've recorded novels on audio books! My husband and I listen to audio books when we travel. They are wonderful for passing the time.

Melissa Mayhue said...

I love audio books. Back in the day when I had an hour's commute to work, I'd pop a cassette in and the drive would seem to go so much more quickly. As for your experience... you know the commercials with the Most Interesting Man in the World? If we were to pick a female version, I'd have to nominate you!! :-)

~ Melissa

Cynthia D'Alba said...

So interesting! I love audio boooks and have a great respect for the narrators. The good ones can really suck me into the story. The bad ones (and I've listened to more than one!) make it almost impossible for me to continue.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Oh, Susan, that was too funny! And yes, you are a pro to have returned the next day to re-record the scene!

JB Lynn said...

What adventures!

Shelley Munro said...

I'm fairly new to audio books and love them. A good narrator makes such a difference. I'm in awe of the different voices they do. I bet working conditions have improved!

Wynter Daniels said...

Good post - thanks for sharing your experience.

Janis Patterson said...

Thanks for all your kind comments. The industry has changed since those early efforts - and thankfully so! Still, those three books were great fun and I'm glad I had the opportunity. Not sure I'd want to do it again, though. One never knows... Anyway, again - thanks. (And Melissa, if you're thinking I'm anywhere close to the Most Interesting of Anything, you must lead a very sedate life!

Denice said...

This was great to read! I'm an audiobook narrator, and I love my work ... but I know it's not for every actor or story teller ...

All you writers ... check out ACX ... a great way to get your books on audio!
Denice Stradling

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