Remote Narration & Audiobooks - the Pros and Cons
The majority of American audiobook narrators regularly record in their personal recording studios and although, particularly in New York and Los Angeles audiobooks are created in pro studios, there are numerous best selling audiobooks (including many Audie winning titles) that have been recorded remotely. I know of several extremely well- respected American narrators with well over 500 titles to their credit, who haven't recorded a single book in a pro studio. Although the number of remotely recorded audiobooks in the UK is far smaller, more and more top notch UK based narrators are dipping their toes into remote recording and are winning awards and rave reviews for our home studio work.
There is still considerable debate (and some disagreement) about the quality that can be achieved in a 'home studio'. I have heard so many disparaging comments about remote recording! I have been told that it can't be done successfully; that it's impossible to produce audiobooks that meet the standard required - either technically or artistically when working solo. Remote recording is also blamed for the lowering of rates presumably because it is seen as offering encouragement to too many beginners and welcoming into the business, people who are prepared to work for either very low fees or nothing at all up front - as in the case of Royalty Share. It is true that it is an overcrowded industry - it is also widely reported as a boom industry. The newspapers are full of articles about how audiobooks are saving the publishing industry. Is it any wonder that more and more people want a slice of the pie?
Technological advances have allowed many more people to access basic recording software and an entry level microphone - and there are a lot of people finding their feet in the industry by creating a profile on ACX and recording titles for self-published and unrepresented authors, giving them access to the audiobook market.
It is not a level playing field and not all remote recording is equal ... and neither are all narrators!
I, and many other full-time professional audiobook readers record remotely from our own broadcast quality personal studios. We narrate for major US publishers and production companies; Harper Audio, Tantor, Blackstone Publishing, Brilliance, Audible US, Dreamscape, Deyan Audio and many more - and sometimes for UK based publishers; though this method of working is still not the norm in the UK. We put considerable time, effort and money into the creation of a personal studio that is of professional quality, that is a fully isolated, acoustically treated and well equipped recording space. We have professional recording and editing software which we know how to use effectively and efficiently. We learn the technical side of recording and editing and our studios and our recording and editing is always carefully assessed by audio engineers every time we're cast by a publisher with whom we haven't worked before. Many of us are also producers - creating original work for publishers like Findaway and Spoken Realms as well as being Audible Approved Producers on ACX. We are not a collection of 'hobbyists' recording with a USB mic and free software while buried under a duvet or two.
Not all home studios are equal!
Now to the other major bone of contention - 'self directing'! Many of the more traditional narrators scream in horror at the very idea of it. Their perspective is that a narrator working solo without a producer on the other side of the other side of the glass can't possibly give a good performance or deliver a quality audiobook. I beg to differ - and I know that some of my best work has been recorded remotely.
Most of us welcome the opportunity to work with a director: another pair of ears on the other side of the glass is lovely. But just as not all home studios are equal, neither are those 'other ears'. As studio budgets are constantly under pressure, those ears may belong to someone who has had no sight of the MS before recording begins, they may have never read the book - and therefore have no idea of the tone, the setting, the characters, the emotional arc of the story, the author's intention, what its target audience is, its style - or even what genre it is. They may have read a short resume, but essentially they are working blind - and when that is the case, how can they possibly direct or guide the narrator in any way. How can they be expected to contribute anything to the performance? How can they discuss the work with the narrator - who most definitely WILL have read the book before starting recording; will have researched pronunciations, place names, character voices and so on. There is often no continuity of 'ears' - the 'producer' may change half way through the recording, especially if its a series that is being recorded. Given that scenario, which though not applicable to every pro studio is certainly the situation in some, the narrator is to all intents and purposes 'self directing' even when working in a pro studio: the only things we're not doing in a pro studio is setting up the mic and pushing the buttons to stop and start recording.
When it comes to judging the quality of a performance, that is always subjective. There is no real consensus as to what makes one narrator 'better' than another. We all have our favourite narrators and those we dislike - and may not be able to pin down what exactly what it is that makes us prefer one rather than another. It may be the tone of someone's voice, their inflection, their accent or their pacing that will either endear us to a particular narrator or put us off them completely, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are either 'better' or 'worse'.
With regard to self-directing - I think actors (and in the UK at least, the majority of audiobook narrators have a background in acting) have an innate awareness of what they are doing. The finest theatre actors are always aware of what is gong on around them both on the stage and in the audience. They never tread on a laugh or talk through a pause or break the atmosphere created by another actor. They are always aware and are also self-aware, and though 'in the moment' are always in control - the best actors and narrators have this skill, and the solo narrator develops this skill more finely. We develop the ability to be fully connected to the read while at the same time having a third ear which is listening in, keeping technical tabs on things if you like. Personally, having working in a pro studio as well as remotely, I don't think I am working very differently in either space. I am always aware of errors, or when something just doesn't sound right. A good narrator uses his or her instinct no matter where they're recording. The direction of travel is always there within the text itself! We know when to change the pace, when to pause, how to use timing to get a laugh or to make someone cry, where the emphasis should be - and we know how to use our voices. We also have trained our ears ... we listen to ourselves critically as well as creatively - and because we know there is no one else listening in as we record, believe me we are absolute perfectionists. We're super picky ... because we have the luxury of recording when we want - and rarely have to complete a eleven hour and twenty minute book in three days - as I did for one studio produced audiobook I did recently.
And when the recording is done? What then?
We hand the audio over to a professional audio-proofer, who listens to our recordings while reading the MS at the same time, marking any corrections or pick ups. When the corrections are noted by the proofer, we record pick ups as required, and hand the whole thing over to an editor to edit in the corrections, to fine edit and to master. Exactly the same process as what happens in a pro studio. A few things are different: errors that have slipped through (assuming we're all punching in corrections as we go) are recorded and edited in after the initial recording is completed. We're working in our own space at our own pace, and are making some decisions about how the book should be read - just as in a pro studio. We often have direct contact with the author - or can contact the author via the publisher and get character notes and direction notes from the author. Surely a good thing? The only major difference is that we are pressing the record button!
Punch and Roll (Rock and Roll) recording our normal way of working - and we use professional audio software. Audio-proofing and editing is not part of the package - that's done in house by the publisher. What's not to like?
If we are work independently as producer, we hire the proofer and audio editor ourselves - and this is the other thing which makes the biggest difference to quality - and is why Royalty Share is not a viable option for most of us - though in the US where sales are much higher, there are narrators making a very nice living from Royalty Share deals. Of course technical quality varies as much as performance quality; and if you listen to a selection of clips on Audible (and more particularly on ACX) you will hear just how much variation there is - but believe me, there are some excellent narrators self producing work via ACX which is indistinguishable from work recorded in a pro studio for a major publisher or production house.
So - things are changing - and will continue to do so!
I've gleaned quite a lot of knowledge over the years, knowledge that might be of interest to others, especially authors, actors and voice actors. Because I read so much, for pleasure and professionally, I also occasionally write reviews of what I read - so they're here too.
All opinions and views are my own!