How Do You Become an Audiobook Narrator?
Greetings and salutations friends, family, and fans alike. As you know I have been doing a couple of audiobook narrations and I have to say it is something I am definitely enjoying thoroughly. I can’t help but get exhilarated every time I listen to a sample of my newest work and compare it to where I started only months ago and realize the vast improvements I have made since I started this long forgotten childhood dream of mine. So the question I hear a lot is how does one do this. How can you go from a computer Technician to someone who does voice over work, mainly audiobook narration but I can see that expanding as time progresses. I thought I would outline my personal story and hopefully you may find the inspiration and drive needed to go out and do something you thought wasn’t possible.
I guess for me it all started years ago, when I was just a young wide eyed impressionable child barely able to talk for himself because I had an older brother who talked for me. See Brian was always a very creative individual and was inspired at a young age to be an actor. He made me watch the taped off of PBS copy of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods starring Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien, and Joanna Gleason and we watched it over and over and over again. Being the younger brother I of course looked up to my brother greatly and so I too found a love of this musical over time and I do believe it was the gateway that started me down the path of life I am currently journeying on. My brother was super passionate about this sort of thing and forced me to perform a version of Into the Woods with us and our cousins that was documented on film and as far as I know still exists somewhere. Don’t get me wrong I was barely performing in it, I just pretended to milk my cousin Samantha who was playing the cow I didn’t really act, perform, or sing, it was just a thing to do. My brother however wore his best Bernadette Peters cape and performed the last midnight fairly well for a 6 year old boy.
Flash forward and I am now in 5th grade and Appleby Elementary School is putting on a performance of The Wizard of Oz. I am sure just like myself, so many kids our age grew up watching this classic movie and I loved the Tin Man. Following my brother’s example I decided to audition for the part. Of course I was young, naive, and this was my first experience at an actual audition, but in my mind I had to get the part of the Tin Man because I had sat there for hours in front of that TV practicing the Tin Man dance and song, which was also filmed by my parents of course, so there was no doubt in my mind I was prepared to crush the opposition and that my brother would get the part of Dorthy, since he was so good at singing The Jitterbug from the special features that were available on our VHS tape after the movie. I didn’t know that boys couldn’t play girls, or that every other kid in that room also spent hours in front of the TV learning the Tin Man song and dance on their equally warn out VHS tape. Needless to say I didn’t get the part I wanted and I was all set to quit. My brother tried to talk me out of it, of course I saw red being that he had the audacity to be cast as the Tin Man knowing full well how much I wanted it.
I mean did he not see me covering a plastic funnel in duct tape and placing it on my hide while decking myself out in cardboard tubes also clad in duct tape for Halloween only a few short years prior? Brian gave me an important lesson, he told me that there are going to be other people auditioning for the parts I want, and there is always a high chance I will lose to one of them, but that doesn’t mean I should give up. What I should do is take whatever part I was given and really own it, make it my own, prove to them I am better than all of them and have a much larger range then any of those other probably-got-the-parts-because-their-parents-were-on-the-board-of-education students. I took it in stride. I would take whatever part they gave me and own the crap out of it. So naturally I was cast as Nikko, the head of the Flying Monkey’s. But by God, did I act the crap out of that part, I studied books about monkey’s, watched videos on nature programs to learn their mannerisms, and I was the closest thing to a monkey as I could possibly be. Perhaps the similar DNA helped tremendously but I did this, and I was only 10 years old. I got a lot of praise at how realistic my portrayal was, and any scene I was in you know for damn sure I was overacting and even potentially stealing scenes from the background and played him to perfect comedic effect, and I didn’t even have any lines, just monkey noises. From that point on I would always throw myself 100% into the role no matter what it was.
The next year, when I was in 6th grade we were doing a performance of Annie. Though I really wanted to be Rooster, I didn’t get that part, but I will tell you what parts I did get, tons of other parts. Fred the head bum of Hooverville, Jimmy Johnson, Radio’s only masked announcer, Judge Brandis, Harold Ickes of the presidential cabinet, and many other extras in other scenes. So this time I was given all these different roles and found my true calling, I wasn’t really leading man material. I was a character actor, I loved playing over the top characters, even downright cartoony. I would play the crap out of those parts, and every portrayal was different from the last I had four very different and very distinctive characters all with different voices and personalities and I got a lot of praise for my ability to do this while I was only the age of 11.
To make a long story short I kept acting and with every new show I got bigger and better parts and every time I threw myself into them, really became the characters, got in their heads, understood their motivations. While I was studying to be a computer technician I also pursued acting and singing in my spare time and that is where I learned a lot about acting which is a very important aspect of audiobook narration. See as a voice actor it is even harder because we do not have our facial expressions and gestures to help convey how we feel or sound, we have to do it all in the voice. Without some kind of practical experience, whether it be years of theatre like me, or actually studying and majoring in theatre in college, like my brother did, you are going to need to be able to convey those subtle emotions with just your voice, your cadence, your personalities. This is where years of me being a character actor really paid off as I have learned how to adjust my voice to convey everything I need to.
Sometimes you might have natural talent, but even then eventually you are going to want to take some kind of class or have some sessions with a vocal coach. Even I have plans to do that in the very near future myself. But for now the experience I garnered in life is enough to land me jobs and praise from the various author’s who have hired me.
All I am saying, to be completely honest, is if you want to be an audiobook narrator go and be one. A good place to start and see if it is actually something you want to pursue a great site to start out on is Librivox.org. All you have to do is record a 1 minute test clip and let the experts on the site analyze your equipment and setup, and once that is complete all you have to do is navigate the forums, find a book or poem you want to try out and volunteer. It works on a first come first serve basis, so if you volunteer for a part, and you are the first to do it, you get that part. It is as simple as that. Though this will not really get you used to the audition process, it is a good way to practice reading an audiobook to see if you have the patience and stamina to do this. Another good thing about Librivox is that you can volunteer for very small parts of a bigger book to get your feet wet. I do not recommend jumping in and saying you want to record a whole book, take it one small clip at a time and gradually work your way up to the longer clips. I was doing just this for several months before I felt comfortable enough to even attempt a full length book by myself.
The other part that is important to note is that in the independent audiobook industry the majority of us all record and edit things from a studio we have set up at home. What this essentially means though is that not only are you responsible for the performance of the audiobook, but you are also the editor and the sound engineer. This is the hardest part of the process by far, not that it is difficult mind you once you get used to doing it, but it can be quite tedious and frustrating at times. See for every hour of recording they say you have about 4 hours of editing. Those numbers are also if you are used to the process and able to streamline it quickly. In the beginning I sometimes would edit for over an hour for a simple 20 minute recording. You have to really analyze the audio, make sure there is no room noise, then you have to master the audio to make it sound the best it can possibly be which involves playing with EQ settings and compressors. If you don’t know what any of that means, don’t worry, there are so many resources available online to help you better understand this process, but I cannot stress this enough, the best way to learn this is to just do it. No one can tell you how to EQ your own voice, because every voice is different and thus the settings are different. Eventually you will know how to make your voice sound as best as it possibly could be.
I mentioned home studio, if you are seriously considering this as an actual job then you need to have good equipment. I will go over what I have in my studio to give you an idea. When I first started out all I had was a computer and a $100 USB Condenser microphone and a dream.
With that, and a program for audio recording, which Audacity is a very powerful program that is available for free.
Really with those two things you can start recording pretty decent audiobook segments for Librivox.org. They aren’t particular about quality there as some people record with just simple headsets like you would use to skype or talk to your buddies online while you were gaming with them. But if you are like me, as time progresses you will start to cringe at your first attempt at recording and realize how far you have come without even realizing it. Eventually I upgraded my equipment because I wanted it to sound better, so I decided to go for an actual XLR Condenser MIC. In order to get such a MIC to work on your PC though you will need an Audio Interface of some kind. This is essentially a piece of hardware you can buy that allows you to hook up an XLR MIC which then hooks up to your computer via a USB cable.
Because of my podcast though I decided to to go with a Mixing board. The board I have is a Mackie 1202-VLZ3 which runs about $300. It looks like this. It doesn’t hook up with USB so I had to wire it up with analog cables to make it work in my situation, but once the logistics are figured out it runs great.
While you do not in any way need something this complicated, the reason I have this is it allows me to have up to 4 microphones hooked up for my co-host and any guests I might have in the studio. It also allows me to hook up to the computer so I can run musical beds on the fly without stopping the recording, as well as patch people in on skype if location doesn’t allow them to physically come to my studio. If you are just going to have one source of input, meaning one microphone then you’d be fine getting something like the Lexicon Alpha pictured below a very popular option that will currently only cost you $60 on Amazon.
After I got the mixing board thanks to some very generous contributions from my friends and family members pooling it together hoping to help make my dream a reality, I figured I would need a Microphone now. Being that it was still early in my podcast and I hadn’t really gotten serious with the audiobooks I decided to go with a very inexpensive mic in the Behringer C-1 Condenser Mic which is pictured below.
Now I say very inexpensive as at the time it only cost me $60, but you can get it on Amazon currently for just $49.99. I must say this MIC served me so well over the past year, my audio quality might not have been the best but I learned to EQ and Compress it quite well getting it to sound quite good. It is amazing how far I have come considering I have used nothing but this microphone in all of my audiobooks to this day. It is important to note though, that with Condenser Microphones you have to be very careful about how much noise is in the background, because these babies are sometimes powerful enough to pick up sounds you didn’t even know existed. I remember when I first hooked up my Behringer to my Mackie and just raised up the volume to the max and there was this noise I was hearing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was a very familiar sound, but I was drawing a blank. Eventually I came to the realization that living in an apartment complex you have neighbors to contend with. But hang on, my neighbors are damn quiet (for the most part) what is that annoying noise they are making right now? Well it turns out I was listening to the familiar sounds of a metal fork scraping across a glass plate. That’s right, the Mic was powerful enough that I literally heard my upstairs neighbor eating. I knew right then and there that I would definitely need to treat the room somewhat to help eliminate that room reverb and other strange noises. Of course if you are like me and you look online you realize that acoustic and sound proofing treatments are freaking expensive as all heck. I also couldn’t very well nail up acoustic treatments in my apartment, I am sure the landlord would definitely refuse to give me back my security deposit. So I was lucky enough to find this website VocalBoothToGo.com. On this site they have what they call acoustic blankets for sale, which are pictured below.
These were the cheapest and least permenant solutions available to me. Each blanket varies in size depending on how big you want them, but I just went with the standard size which was 72 x 80. They are extremely heavy and are actually quite good at eliminating room reverb and some other noise with it’s 80% noise absorption rating. Each blanket is only $24.99, much better than the thousands of dollars of acoustic and noise treatment available on other sites. In my case I paid a bit extra because if you do that they attach the rivots you see in the above picture, which makes it great to hang on the wall. And to appease my landlord I got those heavy duty 3M damage free hangers and each blanket is supported by 4 of them. In my apartment I have three, one on the wall in front of me, one to the left, and one to the right. My dining room has a little bit of a nook so it actual makes quite a decent recording booth for something that only took me 10 minutes to hang up.
If acoustic blankets and noise treatments are not an option for you, then I recommend you go with a dynamic microphone instead of a condenser. In my case I also have a dynamic mic available to me in the Electro Voice 635A. This little mic is quite a powerful little dude. The difference between the dynamic and condenser models, apart from the fact that condensers are more sensitive to outside noise, is the fact the dynamic mics do not require Phantom Power to operate, making them great mics not just for voice over work, but also for reporting live in the field, which is what I use mine for mainly. I hook this up to a Zoom H2n that way I hold the Zoom H2n while the guest I am interviewing holds the EV 635A which worked quite well actually for recording live at Gen Con 2013. For the condenser mics they usually need additional power in order to operate, which is why most mixers and audio interfaces come equipped with a 48V Phantom Power supply. The EV 635A is pictured below to give you an idea of what it looks like. (And believe me, it is much smaller than it looks)
Like I said though, these mics are great because they pick up less room noise and really only the person who is talking into the mic for the most part which will make your editing and noise reduction process that much easier. The truth of the matter is even if you have a $1000 Condenser mic, if your room has crappy acoustic treatment, your recording is very much going to reflect that. Later in the blog I will provide you with some examples of my earlier work when I had the bare bones needed to record, and my most recent work with my new equipment and acoustic treatments including a brand new sexy microphone!
I finally got to the point of being such an audiophile that I decided it was time to upgrade to the big leagues, especially with 5 books out now and plenty of more on the way. I am at the point now where I need a Studio quality microphone so I went through the process of finding the right one for my voice. This is exactly like the EQ settings. People might be able to recommend certain Microphones over another, but every Mic interacts with every voice very differently, so while one microphone might be great for one person, perhaps it will make another person sound like complete crap. This is why a lot of stores that specialize in buying and selling musical gear usually have floor models that they can hook up so you can actually try out the mic and see how it sounds with your voice. In my case the local Guitar Center helped me a great deal in this process and after going through various different Microphones in my price range I found the right one. For myself I worked out my budget and figured I couldn’t spend more than $400 and still be able to make Rent that month. In the end I found a Mic that was right at the top of my scale which was the AKG C214 Condenser, this beauty is pictured below.
This has found a way to make my voice sound even better. It is amazing at picking up the subtlties of my voice, the frequencies I didn’t even know existed to make me sound very professional. Not saying that I am not professional but for your entertainment purposes below I have links to various recordings I did from Librivox going from my very first recording for them, to my very last one I did just last week with the new Microphone. Apart from the last clip, all of the other ones were recorded by the same person, on the same microphone, it is still me mind you, just a different microphone.
My first Librivox Recording The Labors of Hercules: A Greek Myth
As you can see the first one I recorded almost a year ago, and all the other ones in between then and now, as the last one I recorded just last week. Not only has my performance improved, but my microphone is also way better and makes me sound more professional, which is what I needed. If you are going to pursue this I suggest signing up for Librivox and start volunteering, if you think you have what it takes to move on from that stay tuned I’ll have another blog post about the next step that I myself took. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, hopefully it was both entertaining and informative, but most importantly, inspirational. You can in fact do anything if you really put your heart and mind into it!