Have you ever recorded an audiobook before? Producer Paul Fegan shares his experience working with a narrator on their first audiobook at Bitsixteen, Fegan’s professional recording studio in Dublin, Ireland. Learn about what worked and also what Paul would have done differently! This is a must listen for anyone who wants to narrate or produce audiobooks.
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Paul Fegan is a sound engineer based in Dublin, Ireland and has been recording and directing voiceover audio since the late ’90s. Having spent 10 years as Audio Manager in an eLearning company where he set up their two in-house studios, Paul has recorded, directed and post-produced voiceover audio for a multitude of clients both in English and in a variety of languages for the localisation market. In 2009, Paul established his own studio, bitsixteen, in Dublin and has been working as a sole-trader ever since, producing voiceover and other audio for various sectors such as eLearning, advertising, IVR systems, audio books, musicians and mobile apps.
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Hello everyone. My name is Paul Fegan and I’m a Sound Engineer in Dublin, Ireland. I’ve been recording voice over audio for over 15 years and in 2009 I set up my own business bit16.com, and I have my own studio here in Dublin. So this podcast is really just about recording audio books, and it’s about my first experience recording an audio book last year, for an English author who had written a fantasy fiction novel. I had never recorded an audio book, as I said, and I knew that every discipline, recording for every sector is different, whether you’re recording for eLearning, advertisements, RVI systems or whatever it is, everything is different. Everything demands its own tone and its own special read. Even here in Ireland, for instance, television news reading sounds different to the way radio news reading is read. A subtle difference between them, and if you’re trying to emulate one or the other, I think it’s important to listen to them and identify what the differences are and what make them unique, and the same was the case with audio books.
Because I’d never done it, I was fascinated to know what the read was like and what I’d discover in doing one. So when I started out I sought the advice of some people on LinkedIn, there’s some great groups on there. There’s an audio books group, and I asked for a few pointers just to begin with, but like all advice, you know, you take some of it and you shelve all the bits of advice, and it might be because, I don’t know, something takes time and you don’t have the time because you’re up against a deadline. In our case we were quite eager to start this, because we had absolutely no idea how long it was going to take. We didn’t know how many re-takes would be involved, how long it would take for us to nail the tone of the book. So one of the pieces of advice I was given was to read the book. Now we read the first few chapters before we began, and then we were eager to get on with the book, get on recording it, but I have to say, I do recommend that you read the book at least once, twice if you can, and just become familiar with the tone, the mood of the book, because you’ll obviously get a much better impression by reading the whole thing, than if you just read the first few chapters, because the first thing we had to do, at the very beginning, was set the tone.
Now the author had, even though his main protagonist was male, he had chosen a US female voice over, which actually worked out great. She’s in my pool of voice overs. Her name is Lisa and she’s from Florida, and I’d worked with her many, many times before, and she’s fantastic to work with. There’s always a sense of trepidation, I think, in starting something new, because you’re just worried about nailing the right tone. SO the first thing we wanted to nail was the narrator’s voice. Arguably it’s going to be the one that takes up the most text in the book, so you want to be sure what the narrator’s voice is, and obviously the narrator’s voice may change over time, depending on what’s happening in a particular scene, but you just want to get an overall feel for how this narrator sounds. So we did that, and I have to say I think Lisa nailed it. The first few lines we might have done a couple of re-takes just for flow, but she really nailed the tone, and I started, at that point, to get excited about recording the rest of this book.
The next thing was to find the voice of the main protagonist. It needs to be a voice, I think, that you’re comfortable with. He could be a character who maybe lends himself more to, I don’t know, a raspy voice or whatever it is, but it still has to be something you’re comfortable with. You don’t want to spend 150 pages tearing your vocal cords out and end up having to see a specialist after it, you know. You really want something that is comfortable for you to voice, and you’re going to have to express emotions as well, throughout, with that voice. So you really need to be comfortable with it, I think, but don’t forget, after all, you are a storyteller, and this was one of the things we discovered. It’s not like you’re trying to pretend that you’re a whole host of characters, like you use a unique voice over for each character. You’re just one voice over and you’re telling a story. So you do the best you can with the characters to make them distinct, but you’re not, again, pretending to be different voice overs.
I think of it the way you might read a story to a child, you might be plenty of drama into it and you might impersonate the different characters. One of them might be gruff and have a low bellowing voice, and another one might have a high squeaky voice, or whatever it is, so there’s a nice distinction there, but you’re not trying to pretend to the listener that you’ve suddenly walked out of the booth and another VO’s come in. It’s just you telling a story. So I wouldn’t feel under too much pressure. You may come across 60 characters in a novel, some of whom might only have a line or two, so I wouldn’t stress too much on trying to make them sound different. So you may even come across sections in the book where two characters are speaking who have a similar voice. Look, don’t worry about it too much. The he saids, the she saids, if all of that is written well, there will be a distinction between them. Besides, they’ll probably have different emotions, and I think the listener will be able to discern who’s speaking at any given time.
So the other thing we found useful was to keep track of your characters. For instance, you know, a character named John may have appeared in chapter two, but he might not appear again until chapter ten. So, in the meantime, between two and ten, you may have voiced tens of other characters, and by the time you get to ten you’ll be scratching your head and thinking well, what did John sound like again? So rather than have to maybe trawl back through hours of unedited audio, trying to find John’s lines and hear what he sounded like, just edit a small little snippet of his voice at the time, or after the session, and place it in that folder, and then when John does reappear again, you can just go to that folder, play his MP3 or wav or whatever it is, and have a listen to how he sounded, and it’s straight back to you, and it just saves you a bit of time. It’s just much more convenient. I think one thing as well, this goes for eLearning as well, and a lot of other disciplines, but be mindful of your tone, whether you’re opening a new chapter or a new section of a chapter.
So if it’s the beginning of something new, change your tone. Maybe lighten your tone a little bit, so that the listener knows we’re starting with something new. You’ll either have paused before going into it, sufficiently, that it sounds separate from the previous section, or the editor, whoever’s editing it, will make sure there’s a sufficient pause in there, so that the listener knows okay, we’ve finished a scene and we’re now into a new one. So you use a nice opening tone when you’re opening something new, and the same goes for the ending actually. Use a nice resolve at the ending of a section and, as I say, it might not just be a chapter. It could be just a section or even a paragraph, depending on what’s happening in the story. Once you’re leaving a scene and going to another one there’s a distinct break that you can mark with your voice by resolving the end of one and having a nice opening light tone at the start of a new section.
Obviously if the last line of a section is a battle cry or something like that, obviously you’re not going to resolve that too much, but you’ll know, by the text, when it’s appropriate to use a resolve, and most of the time it is. So just a note on timing, timing is everything and, as I wrote in a blog recently, comedians live or die on timing, and I think drama deserves that same respect. So if you have an action sequence that’s … you know, maybe a fight scene or something like that, keep the narration and the dialogue punchy. Keep it snappy, keep it moving. Maybe your tone will be a little bit heavier on those pieces as well, where if its maybe a suspenseful scene, or maybe a sad scene, or something like that, you know, lower your tone and watch your timing again, and just take your time over those words and take your time with the pauses, because don’t worry if the pauses are too long, in retrospect, because they can be shortened in post-production, so that’s not an issue, but the timing will just help the pace of whatever is going on in the book at the time, and it will help the listener get a sense of the action.
In a similar vein, one thing we discovered, whilst recording the audio book, was that it’s a nice effect if the narrator is with the characters. So if the characters are creeping into a fortress at night, maybe have the narrator’s voice whisper along with them, or speak quietly, as if almost they’re an embedded journalist that’s in there with them, you know, speaking to the camera. We found that this was very effective, and it was something that the author said he liked, once we delivered the final product. So it’s likely you’re going to be using a compressor when recording. For people who don’t know, a compressor is a piece of equipment that evens out the levels, so that if the actor needs to raise their voice, the audio won’t redline the meters but, at the same time, there may be sections, depending on the book, where the actor is required to shout. Now you might be tempted to do a, kind of, half-shout. If you’re reading a book again, gone back to the analogy of reading the book to a child, there’s a section in it where somebody’s shouting or screaming.
You’re not going to shout and scream in the room just before they’re going to sleep. You’re going to impersonate a shout, so I tended not to want to do that. I felt that because of the type of book this was, and the scenes that were in it, if there was shouting I felt it was important that we at least do some sort of convincing shout. Now your compressor is going to handle a lot of the peaks of a normal recording, and it’s going to keep them down and keep your levels good, however even a compressor might handle shouts very well. So use a little bit of mic technique. If there are scenes where somebody is shouting or screaming, pull back from the mike sufficiently and do a few takes until you get it right so that the listener hears that you really are shouting or screaming, but you can look at the levels and see that the compressor is still able to do its work and keep those levels down, because I just think it’s a much more immersive and convincing experience for the listener if those shouts are real.
Other oral noises I think are important, and you’ll see them in the dialogue. Somebody might gasp or somebody might sigh or whatever it is, and I think even though the text will tell the listener that somebody sighed or gasped, I think it’s nice to include that wherever it appears in the dialogue, and the same is with laughter. Sometimes you get a line and it ends with she laughed or whatever it is, and I think it’s a good idea just … this sounds crazy, but try it out. I think it’s good to just get yourself laughing before the take, and then go into it and just see how it sounds. Maybe they’re not supposed to laugh until halfway through the line, depending on what’s been said, or whatever it is, and I think getting that right is important and it just, again, makes it all more convincing, and at the editing stage, if somebody is laughing in response to something somebody else has said, I think it’s a good idea to edit it so that the laugh overlaps at the right point, and that it doesn’t come in too early or too late.
Again, you can experiment with this in post-production, but even though you’re just using [worn 0:14:03] voice over, I think it’s a good idea to have overlaps there. Again, they just make the whole thing more immersive for the listener, and they forget it’s just one person telling us the story, and it just feels like they’re in there with the drama and with these characters, and also let the tone of your voice reflect what the character is doing. For instance, if somebody’s about to loose an arrow, they might have pulled back on the string and they might be holding it there, and if they say something through that, if you just speak in your normal character voice for that person, for that character, it’s not as convincing as if you put strain in your voice and hold your diaphragm, as if they’re holding that drawstring back, and then read the line. Again, I just think it adds to the emersion for the listener in the story. With regard to re-takes, don’t be afraid to re-do something. I mean, even if it’s fairly long.
A re-take can be anything from half a sentence to an entire chapter, but I think that because it’s a piece of drama, and you’re putting your all into it, it’s important that you’re happy at the end of recording, any given section or chapter, and that the director is happy. So if you find that after you’ve read a section, however long it is, and you feel, do you know what? It would have been great if we did this, or whatever it is, and you’re just not happy with it. You know if you’re not happy at that point it’s probably just going to nag you until you change it. So the best thing, I think, to do is use the experience you’ve just had, immediately, and go back and re-record the section. You’ll feel so much better if you do this. When myself and Lisa discovered that it was good that the narrator would whisper along with the characters if they creeping into the fortress or whatever, and the example I used earlier. When we discovered this we were halfway through a chapter and we just knew it was going to be a much better read and a much better experience for the listener if we went back and we did that, and we felt much better when we did.
It was well worth it and it set a precedent for the rest of the recording of the audio book. So don’t be afraid to go back and do those re-takes. I mean, it’s okay if you discover something along the way that you didn’t know at the outset, and if you do, brilliant. It means you’re learning, you’re gaining experience, but implement it straightaway, go back and re-do it, and it’ll just be a much, much better read at the end of it, and you’ll be so much more proud of it. Now I was the engineer on this audio book, and I also directed the session, and then I did the post-production, so some of you out there may be editors or some of you may be voice overs who do your own editing, so I’ll just talk a little bit about breath intakes when doing post-production. I have an extensive background in recording voice over for eLearning, and I always remove the breath intakes, unless there’s some dialogue, and I pretty much applied that same rule, if you like, to recording for this audio book.
So I removed all of the breath intakes for the narrator sections, and I left some of the breath intakes in for dialogue. Now, I say some because in some cases a breath intake might sound natural for what’s going on. Somebody might be relaxing in a given scene, but their breath intakes are very sharp, and this is just because the voice over is concentrating on reading and making sure to give a good performance, so they’re making their lungs are full before they read the next part. So sometimes breath intakes can sound a little unnatural, and you might want to take those out, and that’s fine. In other cases you may have, in post-production, changed the gap between two sentences, and now the breath intake doesn’t sound natural anymore. So, in that case, you may want to remove it. I always lowered the volume of breath intakes anyway. I usually lower them by about eight db, and they still sound natural. They don’t sound too quiet, but they just sound pleasantly audible. They’re not too sharp, and it does take some of that sharpness that I was talking about, it takes that away.
The ones to leave in, obviously, are for instance in an action scene, somebody maybe out of breath or tired or whatever, and the breath intakes are really important in telling the listener that this person is exhausted, or they’ve just run a mile or whatever it is, but you’ll know from the text, yourself, when those breath intakes are really important. So just to recap, read the book at least once before you begin, and get a sense how many characters are in it, that you’re going to have to voice. Decide the tone for your narrator and your main character or characters, and as you go along take note of how each of those characters sound, by storing a little clip of audio of their voice in a folder that you can reference whenever you need to. By all means, try to come up with a unique voice for as many characters as you can. It will make it more enjoyable for you, it will make it more enjoyable for the listener but again, at the end of the day, you’re a storyteller and nobody’s expecting you to be anything more than that.
Be mindful of you tone, whether you’re opening or finishing a piece. Remember to have a nice light opening tone, beginning the section, and remember to resolve your lines at the end. Pay attention to your timing. So in an action sequence make your lines nice and snappy and keep your intonation up, keep the pauses short, and in slower sequences, such as suspenseful scenes or whatever, just slow your pace down. You’re in no hurry to read the next line, just take your time. If they pause is too long you can fix it in post anyway. Remember, as a narrator, to stay with the characters and make the listener feel you’re embedded with them, by whispering when you need to be quiet, or being loud when you need to. Almost be heard over the characters. Remember to shout where you need to shout. I think it’s much more convincing. Practice your technique with the mic, just so that you can make sure that the levels aren’t redlining, but I think it’s best that you shout rather than stay at the normal distance from the mike and just, kind of, do a half shout, impersonate the shout.
I think it’s much more effective to pull back and just let rip. Laughs, gasps, other noises that are indicated in the dialogue, or even that you feel because of what’s going on are important to the scene. Include them. They’re just as important as the words and the text sometimes. Again, don’t be afraid to take re-takes wherever necessary. Just make sure that at the end of the recording, or at the end of a session, on any given day, that you are happy with everything you’ve done. Breath intakes, again, this is subjective but for me, what works, is removing all the breath intakes on narration and some of them, depending on the situation, in the dialogue and you’ll know which breath intakes are very important to the dialogue and which ones you can do without. So that’s pretty much it. This is my first podcast ever, so thanks very much for listening, and to some of you who’ve done a lot of audio books, you may have known all of this already, or you may even have your own advice to give.
If so, I’d love to hear it from you. To those who are only getting into this, I hope you find this useful, and it just remains for me to say best of luck with your next recording. Take care now.
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