Making Survival First: Part 8 - Recording the Audiobook
Break a Leg! is the common "good luck" trope for performers.
I did NOT break my leg.
I did however, by consequence of a perfectly comedic storm of random circumstances, sprain the shit out of my ankle on the way to New York City.
Let it be said that I suffer for my art.
With my meat-loafed foot I crutch from my AirBnB in Jersey City to the recording studio steps away from Times Square.
Counter to the image in my mind’s eye, the recording studio wasn’t rock-starry. Rather, it felt like a mid 2000’s technology office with lime green walls, a welcome desk, a few cubicles, and a bagel topped kitchenette.
Towards the back was a master recording studio with an array of fancy recording tools. On the sides were smaller recording studios. Each studio had a larger techy room for the director/sound engineer, and a tiny shoebox sized booth for the “talent” - me in this case.
I meet Danielle for the first time in person. She’s as kind and wonderful and she was on Zoom. We meet and greet the employees and settle into our station. Danielle mounts her dual monitored techy computer station and I hobble into my foam-walled sound-insulated shoebox with the microphone I’ll be speaking into and the iPad I’ll be reading from.
This would be our home for the next four days. Sophia, my producer, explained that professional narrators typically need two hours of recording for every hour of the audiobook, where new narrators like me typically need around three hours of recording per hour of final audio. Since my book would be around 7.3 hours, we booked 22 hours of studio time.
I sit down on the edge of my chair (you know, for good airflow) and run through the series of warm up exercises Danielle taught me. I stretch, hum, flutter, get the imaginary peanut butter out of my mouth, and belly-breathe until I’m ready for action.
Danielle explains the Punch and Roll recording method we’re going to use. She’ll “punch me in” and I’ll “roll” through the reading until I stumble on something. When I stumble, Danielle will go back to a few second before I messed up, punch me back in, and I’ll roll through with corrected audio.
We did this a lot. Danielle explains it’s always better to send clean audio to the production team so we don’t have to go back and fix a ton of mistakes later.
It’s time to begin. I’m nervous, but not sweating-through-my-shirt-nervous. I feel I’m as prepared as I could be. Recording starts off slow. I forget my training and stumble from sentence to sentence. Danielle patiently lets me settle in as I search for my groove.
Even though I read my manuscript out loud a few days ago I found a lot of surprising snags. It turns out there’s a huge difference between talking to someone, reading out loud, and recording professional audio. Quirks and kinks inaudible in ordinary speech stick out awkwardly in professional audio.
The letter A turned out to be a consistent problem. I would pronounce A like "ay", whereas Danielle wanted me to pronounce it as the "ugly American 'uh'" sound. For example: inside UH box instead of inside AY box. Messing this up went from annoying to frustrating to eventually funny.
Some letter patterns were a problem. I would routinely garble the final 'ls' sound in words like "deals" and undervalue the R sound in words like "deliberate" and “brewery”.
I would put too much "ch" sound on words like "two" and "too". Something like twenty-two would sound like twenty-chew. We’d call this “chewing the two” This isn't obvious when you vocalize it in person, but it's a huge difference in audio. I had to learn a new speech pattern on the fly to fix it.
Danielle handles mistakes with grace and makes sure to award me confidence-boosting praise when my performance warrants. Sometimes I would find a strong groove. My left hand would manage my belly’s airflow like a bagpipe while my right would guide me through sentences like a conductor leading an orchestra of one. When I’m hot I gracefully glide through sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes even entire pages at a time.
Nothing reveals imperfections like narrating. Sometimes I would embarrassingly find typos that somehow went unnoticed in countless passthroughs. We would take note, make the necessary modifications and move on.
We recorded on a 3-break-3 pace, which meant three hours of recording followed by lunch, and another 3 hour of recording. Even the best narrators I’m told have trouble sustaining focus for much longer.
At the end of the first day we knock out 90 pages. (A quick note on pages, manuscript pages doesn't directly translate to final book pages. The manuscript is about 320 pages, but the final book will be somewhere in the mid 200's. When I refer to page count, I'll refer to manuscript pages here.)
We send the audio to the production team back home and go home. At this pace I thought we might be done in three, rather than the four days we allocated.
The second day started with edits. Written-editing can be done asynchronously since everyone can easily access and modify word documents. However audio-editing is best done concurrently since we had limited access to the tools required to make proper audio. Everything had to be recorded and edited then and there.
Back home, the production team used AI to find discrepancies between what I recorded and what I had in the manuscript. This was to pick up small mistakes we missed in the initial recording. Sometimes I would jumble a word, flub a sentence, insert a word that wasn't there, forget to say a word that was or say something different than what the manuscript had.
To fix mistakes we would go back to the part of the audio file where the mistake took place, and I would plaster over the bad audio with corrected audio.
Our first batch had 28 mistakes which sounded about right to Danielle. Editing workflow issues slows us down and extended our total recording time beyond what we originally allotted. After edits we dive back into the script. After another 3-break-3 day we only get 60 pages down, but I’m exhausted. We were towards the end of a chapter when I kept stumbling over the same paragraph. My back was hurting, my jaw was sore, and my brain was fried.
Nope. I'm done. In the middle of a paragraph lines away from the end of the chapter, I tap out.
Danielle, knowing fatigue when she sees it, agrees. I begin to understand why authors describe audiobook recording as a slog. It was hard, but it never felt bad. At no point did I regret doing my own recording.
Danielle was always supportive and made what could have been a grueling experience into a fun and playful one. She brought the energy of somebody who was there to co-create an art project rather than someone there merely for a "job".
We call it a day and come back refreshed the next. The swelling on the meatloaf attached to my leg lightens and I trade my crutches for an awkward limp. Back in the studio we follow the same playbook for day three. After edits we get another 90 pages down.
Throughout the recording I had to do the self-consciousness triggering act of listening to myself talk. I heard parts of my voice I didn't like and issues speech therapy never fully resolved, but overall I was happy. I was coming off clear, consistent and resonant. With Danielle’s help I was able to infuse my words with the flavor I had intended when I wrote them. As long as the team kept approving, I kept approving.
Feedback went like this: "Let's resolve down, so it sounds like you're completing a thought. You mushed up "opportunity", let's fix it. You chewed the two. Let's re-do that A sound. Let's get more flavor on ‘fucking assholes’"
Hilariously, one semi-sentence Trumpet mushroom foie gras tacos - took 10 minutes to nail down as I had to nail down the bastardized American-French of foie gras.
On a quick break Danielle throws me a curveball. In my headset I hear a thick country accent.
I look through the window and see Danielle speaking. All of a sudden the Crystal Clear Narrator Danielle morphed into Twangy Kentucky Danielle.
Oh this? This is my real accent! She goes on to explain the crystal clear voice she typically speaks with is something she learned as an actor. She flexes her range and shifts into an aristocratic Tennessee woman, and then Texas rancher.
What in the actual fuck is going on. I've never seen anybody so fluidly switch accents in front of me like that. If nothing else, I’m reminded that I’m in the hands of a master performer. We wrap up day three and plan the final stretch.
What was supposed to be the shortest day wound up becoming the longest day. We had yesterday’s edits to fix and the final 80 pages to record and edit. This was the last day we had studio access so we had to get it all done.
We start a few hours earlier than usual and get to work. By now I've figured out my form and flow. I'm still stumbling here and there, but I'm rolling through paragraph after paragraph much smoother than before.
We pace ourselves and take whatever breaks we need, but push on knowing our time is limited. By now recording fully feels like a performance. I'm flavoring words and bringing life to the manuscript.
We push through the Part Four, the conclusion, and finally, the afterword. We were done…and not done. We took a break and waited for edits. The production team and hands us our final editing assignment. It’s only a small handful of edits - a testament to how much better I’ve gotten in the past few days. We knock out the edits and send it back to the production team.
After a quick break Sophia’s production team flashes the green light. Looks good. You’re done. You did good.
You did good, Danielle seconds.
After four days and 26 hours of studio time...we were done. Like…done done. I was exhausted and relieved. A small part of me was sad to be done with something so meaningfully difficult.
I recorded an audiobook. I recorded MY OWN audiobook.
I did it. I broke down sobbing. Everyone cries, Danielle tells me. I concur. It's my audiobook and I'll cry if I want to.
I rarely use the word spiritual, but in this case I think it's the appropriate word. Recording my audiobook may the spiritual act of my life. In doing so I didn’t just read words - I gave something I created my soul and spirit. Whoever hears it will understand.
As of this writing it still doesn’t feel real. I still have time before I get the completed file, and two to three months worth of final-final-final steps before it’s officially Go Time.
All I know is that I’m proud. I bet on myself, overcame old limitations, learned something new, did something hard, and made something beautiful.
Well that was fun. Come join the final stretch of this adventure.