Audio Narration is Hard

Hard-learned Tips.

  • Speak slowly but also naturally.
  • Speak clearly.
  • Start over again on every mispronunciation, stumble, fumble, tumble.
  • “Punch and roll” is the way to go.
  • “Audacity” (open source recording and sound management app) is relatively easy to use, at least for my purposes, and is free.
  • Don’t worry about unique voices for each character.
  • Do add inflection.
  • Send the dogs to their grandfather for the day. (Barking is not a good soundtrack for an audiobook.)
  • Turn the air conditioner off (it sounds like an aircraft carrier on the recording).
  • Cover hard surfaces in a small, quiet room with blankets and towels to create a “recording studio”. (Placing a clothes drying rack, draped in blankets and a duvet, behind me helps dampen reverb.)
  • Setup your “studio” and leave it setup for the whole recording process, even though recording will take several days.

Recently, I participated in a survey hosted by researchers at McGill University exploring various Canadian dialects. I didn’t even realize there were more than three Canadian dialects: the Maritime accent, epitomized by Newfoundlanders’ speech, the recently-discovered middle Ontario dialect, courtesy of the sitcom Letterkenny (I need the subtitles and still don’t understand half of what they’re saying), and the one spoken by the rest of us. 

So, imagine my surprise when I completed the survey and discovered we Canadians have a variety of amusing pronunciations, beyond “about” and “eh”,  for words such as lever, new, student, schedule, vase, semi, bury.  

So, why do I share this survey? Beyond the obvious — an intriguing look into different accents and dialects? 

Well, the long answer is that I’ve decided to narrate the audiobook version of my novel, A Mercy of Widows. I made this decision for several reasons. I personally love audiobooks for their versatility, and listen to several dozen every year. For fiction, audiobooks remain my preferred form of reading. Plus, I have an amateur/hobbyist sound engineer who promised, repeatedly, that he would produce a quality recording for me. All I had to do was narrate my 99K word novel somewhat fluently. Ha. 

I settled into my task in my usual manner: I learned from the experts, people who’ve made their living as audiobook narrators. I read books, watched youtube videos, ran through a Udemy course, and gathered lots of advice. 

Applying that advice was another matter.  

Audio narration is a performance art. Voices and accents are good ways to distinguish the various characters, especially when the author (mea culpa) spurned dialogue tags in the text. But I never could do different voices and accents— especially with a microphone held up to my head. I was relieved to discover the (perfectly legitimate!) “straight read” form of audiobook narration, and decided that would be my style. 

Speed of reading was also an issue.  Have you ever listened to an audiobook on “1X”. I hadn’t. I found it too plodding. But try narrating a book at that speed. I stumbled over words, slurred, lisped, grumbled and growled in frustration. And, my inflections? Oh boy. Boh-ring. But if I sped up too fast, I encountered other challenges requiring too many retakes and stress management techniques. After some trial and much error, I found a goldlilocks narration speed where I and my sound engineer suffer less.

My sound engineer and I tried ways to “mark” my numerous errors. We tried clapping — that blew out his speakers. We tried dog clickers; I have a considerable collection, and so experimented with them all. Those sounds did not show up well enough on his equipment to be useful. Then we tried pause…no…pause…no…pause…no…pause.  That didn’t work for me, as I got out of the rhythm of my reading, my frustration would mount, and I peppered my no’s with expletives.  

He’d go back to delete the bad bits and preserve the rare good bits. The result was a number of coherent sentences strung together—with loud inhalations at the start of each sentence, making it sound like I was running a marathon. 

Then I discovered “punch and roll” with an open source software application called Audacity. Now I say something, flub it, repeat the words, go back and delete flub, and move on. My relatively coherent story still contains long pauses, too many sibilants (like I’m recording alongside a slither of snakes), etc.  But this technique is less frustrating and will likely result in a competent recording once my sound engineer works his magic. 

So how does the survey of Canadian dialects come into play? My sound engineer has been enjoying all my Canadianisms.  All I can say is … good thing it’s a Canadian story, as my dialect will fit right in. 

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