Today I thought it would be interesting to do a what-are-the-duck’s-legs-doing-underneath style post about audiobooks. Obviously, I know jiff all about audiobooks or producing them so the best place to start is with someone who does; Gareth, The Voice Of K’Barth Davies. This means I also get to post some of the extensive interview he did, which is going to be delivered in several parts to audiobook listeners on my mailing list. Also, because after pestering him with that many questions, frankly, I think the least I can do is share his answers with as many people as possible.
Most of you know how it all started, I’m sure, but for those who don’t, I got an email, out of the blue, in July 2019 from Gareth, with a link to Unlucky Dip recorded on audio. Obviously the email was funny so he had me at ‘hello’ – although it was actually ‘greetings and salutations’ if I remember correctly – but the recording was brilliant as well. Bonus! I had no clue who he was so I had a look at his website.
He was, indeed, an actor and acted for a living, without doing anything else. This, I suspected, made him impressively bloody minded and, if he could earn enough not to die of starvation, probably quite good at acting.
It looked like he had a sense of humour (always a bonus) a bit of a line in pantomime villains (well, he was going to be reading Lord Vernon, wasn’t he?) and it seems he can also jump very high in the air.
In subsequent conversations, I discovered that he is a even bigger sci-fi nerd than I am, which takes a bit of doing.
One of the jolly side effects of this project has been that meeting of the spuds aspect! Put it like this, he kept rabbits at one point and one of them was called Wicket – after the Ewok, naturally. He was a children’s entertainer for many years and you need something to pull out of the … well … I think it was a house rather than a hat but you get the picture.
He can do funny, which is fairly essential for reading my stuff and he is very modest about his achievements. I suspect he’s a lot more distinguished than he makes out.
Having decided the project was go, both of us were feeling our way a bit at the beginning. He hadn’t done a commissioned book before and I … well audio was definitely on my radar but I’d looked at the prices and chalked it up as something to do in my dreams for now. So I hadn’t read up on it or anything and consequently, I hadn’t a fucking clue what I was doing (now I have read up on it I still haven’t a fucking clue but that’s by-the-by). Gareth made relatively few actual mistakes, even on these first books most of the errors I picked up were my own typos. Sheesh.
We were both quite nervous, after recording the first novel, Gareth sent the link to me with the rider, ‘Basically, I’m just hoping for any reaction other than “what the hell have you done!?!”‘
There was also something that went slightly skew whiff with the set up on the third and fourth books because he was experimenting with the sound set up. He did explain it, I think it was called ‘sound gate’ if I recall. Then it was my turn to be nervous, principally, about the weird nature of the feedback I was giving him.
Since my only experience of audiobooks was still restricted to Radio 4s A Book At Bedtime it did feel weird marking up a document going, ‘8 minutes 10 seconds you breathed in a weird way there and I heard it!’ I was a bit unsure as to whether I was helpfully pointing out things or being an anally retentive wanker. As someone who is not at all comfortable with the notion of overt wankerdom, I did keep asking, to check. It was probably quite annoying, but Gareth cheerfully continued to reassure me … quite a lot … that it was the former, not the latter!
He has now recorded a lot more audio, including seven of my books, I get the impression that he has definitely evolved a working process that suits him. Clearly, no two people are the same but I hope you will get a general feel for what the process involves and what a narrator does.
As I understand it, Gareth proofs all his own stuff. Some narrators don’t though, so they have to pay someone else to do that for them, usually at an hourly rate. That’s how the costs of audio end up sounding very high. The minute you start to unravel what goes into producing a book you (general ‘you’ here, clearly) start to change your view. Narrating an audio book is way, way more complicated than just sitting (or standing) in front of a microphone and reading stuff aloud as Gareth’s answers show.
Anyway, enough wittering on already. Here he is answering my questions about audio book production.
Gareth on producing audiobooks…
Right oh. First question. You warned me you’d take a while to produce the K’Barthan books but actually I thought you worked impressively fast. How long can you read at a stretch before you lose the will to live have to give your voice a rest?
I work a bit differently now than I did when reading the K’Barth series (I have learned!) For those, I read the whole book through, sent it to you for notes, then rerecorded, edited and mastered the finished piece. That meant that I would just be reading for as much of the day as I had quiet. Which meant, on days where the house was completely empty – if everyone was away for a few days – I could record for many hours. We were up against a very hard deadline to finish the initial reading of the last book because I was leaving the country on tour. I recorded maybe 12 hours each day over a long weekend and I finished reading that at around midnight on Sunday! That’s probably the closest I’ve come to losing the will to live …
Now, I record, edit and master a section each day – that gives the author more manageable chunks to listen to and, on the off-chance a chapter has no notes then it’s finished. Generally speaking, for each hour of finished material, it takes at least two hours to record it, slightly less to edit. So I currently aim to get around 1.5-2 hours done each day, which is roughly 3-4 hours recording and maybe 3 editing. When recording, I tend to work by chapter. So, unless it’s a very short chapter, I’ll take a break; walk around a bit, sit in my comfy chair and – always – go to the loo: you are constantly drinking water when recording.
There was a long stretch at the start of book three where the male MC has a sore throat and Gareth read that with a croaky voice, which was genius. One of the most fun parts of the process is that, if I leave him room to work, this is the kind of thing he does. He did confess to being very relieved when he got to the point where the sore throat is mentioned as having gone. Likewise, I do give some guidance on the voices I want, but mainly because he can do a lot more accents than he thinks he can – and with a gentle (I hope it’s gentle) prompt he can produce a very varied cast of characters, often with just the tiniest tweaks on the same basic set of vocal parameters.
On a side note, that’s also wise advice about the weeing, we know what Billy Connolly said about never passing up the opportunity to use the loo.
Next question …
Do you do voice training and if so, how much? Do you have to do the voice equivalent of warm up stretches before you start reading. Or any other special measures (!) like … I dunno … standing up to read? (that sounds weird but I do it all the time on the phone when I want to make a complaint, or a business call, or pretend I’m a grown up … and I can’t speak and think sitting down sorry. Tangent.). Are there some days where you know your voice is just not going to play ball? Says Mary attempting to break the record for the longest question ever asked.
Oh, there’s a lot there and I feel I might end up giving you an even longer answer than the last one! Yes, I definitely do some vocal warm ups. For starters, I always want to have at least two hours between getting up and starting to record (which isn’t hard cos I’m not a morning person and it takes me ages to get going, anyway). Then, when I’ve got the laptop and mic and everything set up I start warming the voice with some humming, then soft vowel sounds then moving on to phrases I learned 20 years ago at drama school! This isn’t a long process, we’re talking a few minutes rather than half an hour or something, but it’s just until I feel things are fairly loose and I’m not pushing or straining. Then I run through a series of tongue twisters – because tripping over consonants when you’re in mid-flow is deeply irritating and annoyingly frequent!
There are days when you realise your voice isn’t really with it, but you only really know for sure when you’ve started. I’ve had maybe two days where, maybe half an hour in to recording, I’ve stopped and packed it in for the day.
But it’s odd that you mention standing up. I have read everything so far sitting down, but in a session with my singing teacher recently (over zoom, naturally) we found that my system is actually more relaxed and my voice more open when I’m standing, so I’ll be trying that out next – though whether it’s something listeners would be able to pick up on or whether its just for my own benefit remains to be seen…
Gareth’s first standing up book – I think – is Nothing To See Here which we signed off yesterday, as I type this. 🙂
Does your voice change over the course of the day and how do you deal with that when you’re reading audio to a deadline?
Yes, it does change, but maybe not in the way you might expect. Rather than the sound of the voice changing it tends to be more the mental shifting that gets reflected in the way you read. The clearest example of what I mean is that I noticed (to my embarrassment) that chapters I’d recorded first in the day tended to be slightly slower paced than those recorded later – hopefully not in an obvious ‘that’s weird’ way but certainly enough that I started to hear when editing. When you become aware of something like that, you can try to counter it.
In general, I suppose one of the benefits of both voice training and the practical experience I’ve had over the years is that I have a kind of ‘work mode’ so that no matter where or when or what’s going on I do default to that which keeps the voice pretty consistent.
In the 70 or so hours of recorded material Gareth has produced about K’Barth there’s only been two occasions when his voice didn’t play ball, one time he was ill. He was busy being The Fat Controller at Thomas World – a job description that still causes me an unreasonable amount of mirth – sorry Gareth. He was working through the run up to Christmas 2019. The weather was vile; cold and rainy. I should imagine that working outdoors, in the freezing rain, in a soggy fat suit, is a fairly good way to catch pneumonia. I think he felt quite rough for a week. One other occasion, his voice was just tired and not playing ball the exact way he described in the previous answer, so he had to wait until the next day. All in all he’s very consistent, which is handy. Next question …
How do you keep track of what voice you are doing for whom, do they slide a bit from time to time … or do you have an ‘are you nervous son’* for everyone!
* – Gareth told me that to do the accent for Big Merv he would always do one particular line out of Unlucky Dip when BM slaps a giant hand on The Pan’s shoulder and goes, ‘Are you nervous son?’
When I started The Wrong Stuff (book 2) I set up a separate tab on my recording programme. I transferred clips from book one onto it and then added recordings of new characters as they came in. That way I had a quick reference point to go to if I got confused – this was a lifesaver when it came to books 3 and 4. There are several chapters there with eight or more characters in, including many new ones; so I’d think ‘Damn! Which resistance officer is which?’, go and have a listen and then carry on.
Sliding? Yes! Two pairing especially come to mind. The Pan and Ruth, as our central pair, are both more neutral voices so sometimes their dialogue could blend too closely. Also the first few chapters between Deirdre and Snoofle – I kept giving them each other’s accent! But some characters did develop their own reference to help out! Aside from Big Merv’s ‘You nervous son?’, the best is Gladys; whose voice is accompanied by a forward and back shaky right hand! Every single line!
So now I’m wondering whether the hand moves faster if Gladys is talking quickly! I should have asked him.
How do you make up for the lack of audience to keep the buzz and energy in your performance when you record?
That’s not really something I’ve particularly thought about. Obviously for live theatre or concerts or street shows, the audience is a major factor. But there’s also plenty of acting work that happens without one, even in my career which has been predominantly theatre. Even in rehearsals for live shows you’re working for performance level so working without an audience, or rather, working as if there’s an audience is fairly common. It’s mostly just about staying focused on what you’re doing, which is obviously tiring in itself and one reason for frequent breaks!
When I’m recording books, my focus tends to be on the microphone, and the audience I’m thinking about is myself (will I accept that when I’m editing? If not, let’s redo it now) and the author (am I delivering something close to what they had in mind?).
The audio thing … it looks like it takes a hell of a long time to learn; making the booth, learning the tech, choosing the mic, editing out the trains (Gareth lives near a railway line) and mastering the … well … mastering … How long did it take you to achieve book readiness, so to speak?
This is one of those things where, to get to an acceptable level is not too hard, but then you keep learning and making improvements. My booth is basically a corner of my room with a spare mattress behind me (with a very nice Star Wars Lego cover on (next to a Lego Han Solo it says ‘Han shot first), towels on the various surfaces around me and sheets draped in front. I’ve now upgraded so I can remove the sheets.
I am not remotely tech savvy so that was definitely the thing that slowed me down at first. I followed a guide (specifically for audiobooks) in setting up and using the software I bought. Even now, I barely scratch the surface of all the things that program does and I’m probably ignorant about 95% of it – but I mostly know how to do the things I need it for.
It probably took me two or three months to get comfortable with it, and much of that time was spent playing around recording Unlucky Dip, the short story, and getting that right. Certainly by the time I’d finished the first full book in the K’Barthan Series I felt pretty confident – though I was still referring back to my notes for the mastering process.
Since then I’ve invested in a better microphone and some very clever editing software that makes that process much, much easier! But there are still things I want to learn more about so I can keep improving.
That bit about learning what you need to know to get started completely resonates with me. I’m like that with Facebook ads, I bought a brilliant course a few years ago, learned enough to get them to work and now that’s what I do. There is so much more I could do, and a lot more I want to do, but there’s only so much time and those things come under the other 95%. Mwahahahargh! Sorry, next question.
How many actual hours do you reckon you work for a finished hour of audio?
Oops, I should have read ahead! I half answered this question above. In actual practical terms, for recording and editing, I’d say I’m currently at around 3-4 hours per finished hour. The usual estimate for audiobooks is around 3 hours, so I still have some room for improvement.
That does not, however, include the preparation time. I like to read the book once through just to read it, get the overall story and tone. Then read it through a second time making notes. Technical notes like the start and end page numbers for each chapter and which new characters are introduced when. And performance notes about the characters and any particular points I might need to be aware of when reading. And any questions I have for the author; such as checking pronunciations (we learned that the hard way when I went back and rerecorded every instance of ‘Blurpon’ in Few are Chosen…) their thoughts on character voices and – knowing that typos tend to slip through the tightest knot – even questioning bits of text if I think there might be an error.
Then there’s figuring out the voices. For some books it can be a simple thing of pitch or intonation. Then, there are books like the K’Barthan Series ………..
(Obviously, I loved it. Even when I was desperately running out of ideas towards the end!)
OMG the Blurpon thing! We were both so green at the start. I still feel a bit kind of … wandering in the dark sometimes but Gareth definitely has a process now. Not that he was ever anything other than a consummate professional. He has always come over as efficient and unflappable – and if anything did go wrong, like the Fat Controller flu episode – he kept me updated on progress. But I digress, next question.
Is there anything we authors can do when speccing up the audio job, that would be helpful – apart from the really obvious things like, remembering to tell you how all the made up words are pronounced (doh! Although you got them all right bar one anyway).
There’s that Blurpon again! (I really should read ahead…)
Accents is one (though, having just read ahead (finally) I’ll save that for the last question). But overall, I suppose knowing how much of an input you want, and being aware that there’s a limit to how close to your perfect reading any reader can get.
Some authors (like yourself) have very clear ideas in their heads about how characters sound or how certain phrases should be said, so it’s good to know that going in. Other authors have a more, ‘I’ve written it but you’re reading it, so just let me hear it’ approach. And some are in the middle ground. None is right or wrong, none is better than another. As long as that awareness that its someone else reading it is there. A friend of mine read one audiobook, but the author was so on his case about getting sentences exactly the way she heard them in her head, that he hasn’t done any more!
That’s unbelievably sad about the narrator who was scared off by the micro managing author. I think that, as an author, some of us are micro managing, which is fine. But if an author wants their book exactly the way it is in their head, and will brook no movement from that, the only option is to read it themselves rather than hire someone else. I know a couple of authors who feel this, have accepted it and are, indeed planning to read their own. The rest of us … there needs to be some give. Right at the beginning, Gareth made a point of explaining that, while he would give anything a shot – except a Liverpudlian accent – I needed to understand that all the voicing is being done by one person’s voice and the limits are set by what, exactly, that voice can physically do.
For all the caveat, many characters in the K’Barthan Series sound exactly the way they do in my head; Ada, The Pan of Hamgee, Lord Vernon, Ruth (intonation, tone etc), Big Merv to name the main ones. He also got Sir Robin Get bang on but we used that for Professor N’Aversion because the voice he suggested for for Sir Robin was so much better than the one I specced. In the general narration, he also has exactly the kind of voice I would have looked for had he not approached me. I consider myself extremely lucky in that. I think if The Pan, Ruth, Big Merv and Lord Vernon had been too different, I might have struggled … possibly … I dunno. But there is so much more to this than how the characters sound in inner space.
One of the joys of books is that they are living things in a way no other art form is. Because every other art form is presented to you in its interpreted form by a conductor, producer, director or whatever, but a book is something each reader interprets for themselves. Every single person’s head cinema is different. That’s what makes reading so wonderful, you can imagine it from the author’s cues but that’s just the basic framework; a lot of the rest is up to you, the reader. The way Gareth reads some words is different to the way I do, the intonation on some bits isn’t the same. I love that. It’s like a window into someone else’s thinking; how he sees it and hears it. As a nosey author, that kind of thing intrigues me hugely.
Surely, the overall tone and feel the narrator creates for each book is way more important than the minutiae. Is the way the characters interact true to the original – do their relationships come over, their feelings, their dreams their desires (where applicable) the chemistry between them, or lack of it … For me, there is so much more to it than soundy-likey voices.
Er hem, sorry. Went off on one there. Where was I? Ah yes, last and final question.
Is there anything you would categorically refuse to do as part of an audiobook narration, if asked? Or is it just the Liverpudlian accent? Mwahahahargh!
I can’t think of anything. My standard answer of ‘I won’t do nudity’ isn’t really relevant here.
But accents are where it gets potentially tricky. I’m reasonably good with accents, but I’m not one of those phenomenal accent sponge people. (I made that up, but you know what I mean.) But if there’s an accent required, I’ll do my best. The book I’ve just read had a South African character for a few lines. I did my best as a kind of placeholder while I finished the rest of the book, then went and researched and practised and tried to improve and went back and rerecorded it. It was better but certainly not brilliant. Then I was told that a future book in the series was set in South Africa. So I’m putting in more practise now…
But saying no? While I’m prepared to have a go at most accents, I’m a white European, so if an author came to me with a book set in, say, Asia, with a cast principally made up of Asians, I would suggest they find someone more appropriate to the task!
So there you go … A massive thank you to Gareth for taking the time to answer all my inane questions. I hope his take on doing audio or at least his answers to my questions about it, helps to give you a feel for what’s involved. And if you want to find out more about Gareth, you can visit his website here.
Also, one of the best chapters he did was one in Few Are Chosen, you can listen to that on soundcloud here.
Oh and if you’d like to listen to Gareth’s work, why not try one of my audiobooks? OK not this one because we only signed it off yesterday so it’ll be a month or so before it appears online … and it probably won’t appear on Audible until next year. But anyhoo if you want a listen there are two ways to do so for nothing:
Thing one: If your local library uses Hoopla, Overdrive and Odilo so you should be able to find them on many local library apps – just ask your librarian if they aren’t obvious as some libraries have to buy a copy and you have to borrow it one at a time, others do a thing where multiple people can listen at once and I get paid per check out. The point is, they pay me but you get to listen for free.
Thing two: if you just want to see what it’s like, you can listen to an entire 90 minute story for free if you decide to join my Readers’ Group. A story that isn’t available anywhere else. You also get to listen to Unlucky Dip, the 30 minute short, for free as well.
Alternatively, for a list of my audiobooks, and links to buy from me, direct, or from the main stores, go here.