Audiobooks – Part 4

I had three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks:

  1.   a soundproofed workspace;
  2.   differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3.   learning how to edit and master.

In Part 3, I talked about the workspace and how I had set up a ‘recording studio’ (such a grand title doesn’t fit the reality) in my younger daughter’s bedroom at the back of the house, away from the main road. Nothing’s changed there—this is the best I can do.

Time to talk about the second of my concerns. As anticipated, it turned out that my difficulties would amount to more than merely trying to differentiate between characters, so I’m going to look at the process of narration as a whole.

There are various aspects to consider before starting to record, such as the positioning of the microphone, and the time of day when your recording environment is likely to be quietest and your voice at its optimum.

Here’s something I learned the hard way: it’s vital to ensure your recording software is set to record using the correct microphone. Since my professional microphone ‘lives’ in the recording studio, I can only change the default setting once I’m all set up and it’s connected to my laptop.

One evening I recorded four short stories, one after another, while ‘in the zone’—my pronunciation and enunciation were top drawer, my pacing felt spot-on, I barely made a mistake. When I was back downstairs ready to start editing, that something was wrong became evident as soon as I opened the first recording. The wave pattern was peculiar: all spikes and no flat lines, not even on the silences. The sound coming through my headphones confirmed what my eyes had already told me: my voice sounded distant and tinny, overlaid by crackles and hums and weird popping noises. All four recordings were the same—worthless.

It took me a while to work out what had gone wrong: I had forgotten to set Audacity to record through the USB microphone. The stories had been recorded through the laptop’s inbuilt microphone, which I hadn’t been speaking directly into and which, in any case, is unsuited to capturing sound to the standard required. Live and learn—I haven’t made the same mistake since.

Another time I sat down to edit a new recording, only to find my voice overlaid by a distant humming noise that I hadn’t noticed while recording and which rendered another lengthy effort useless.

It again took me a while to work out what had gone wrong. One of my daughters had been charging her electric toothbrush in the bathroom next door to my recording studio. We live in a modern house where the internal walls are slightly thicker than cardboard and the microphone had picked up the electrical hum. Again, it’s now something I make sure to check before starting to record.

Onto the recording process itself and my physical limitations.

Over thirty years ago, when in my early twenties, two of my teeth—one of the front incisors and the tooth next to it—were snapped at the roots. My dentist was able to straighten them, but warned that I was likely to lose them one day. ‘One day’ turned out to be around eighteen months ago; since then I’ve had to wear a denture that affixes to the roof of my mouth. It was only when sitting down to attempt narrating for the first time that I realised the effect the denture has upon my speech.

Where the fake teeth butt up to my real teeth, there’s a gap which occasionally, especially on words with a pronounced ‘ess’ sound, causes me to whistle. My tongue sometimes slaps against the plastic denture plate. The denture causes me to slur or mumble certain words. (I’ve tried narrating without wearing the denture, but that’s worse—without it, I struggle on ‘th’ and ‘ff’ sounds; I can’t say fairer than that, boom boom.)

It’s a disadvantage for audio work. When I realise I’ve whistled or mumbled during recording, it’s fine because I simply re-record that part, knowing I can remove the bungled section during editing. It makes the recording (and editing) process longer, but it’s something I accept I have to put up with until I can get implants to replace the denture. It’s more problematic when I whistle/mumble but don’t realise at the time—more on that when I come to talk about editing in a future instalment.

As for my inability to perform accents, I’ve tried and failed, and concluded that it’s not something I can learn to do, except perhaps by having professional voice acting lessons, and probably not even then. I can do an identifiably Irish or Scottish or Australian accent for the odd stereotypical phrase or two (“G’day, cobber!”), but it lasts as long as the average sneeze before deteriorating into some weird intonation that sounds like a cross between Welsh and, I don’t know, Martian, or something off-planet.

How, then, to differentiate between characters holding a conversation, especially when there are only two speaking and so there may not be many dialogue tags in the source material? I experimented with having one character speak deeper and/or quicker than the other, but found it difficult to be consistent, and the finished recording usually sounded ludicrous and amateur. After many, and I mean many, hours of trial and error, I settled on not trying to differentiate between them at all and relying on the listener to know who’s speaking from context. Now and again, I might throw in an extra dialogue tag during recording if I think the listener needs an additional cue.

Then there’s lack of knowledge about pronunciation. I’ve blogged about The Avid Reader’s Curse, where a reader might only have encountered a word through reading and so has no idea how to pronounce it. There are a surprising number of them.

And there are words I know how to pronounce, but that nevertheless keep tripping me up. ‘Anemone’, for instance, and ‘algae’ (I keep wanting to pronounce it to rhyme with ‘guy’, instead of the correct ‘ghee’). Or ‘pasty complexion’; I know that ‘pasty’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘tasty’, but my traitorous brain insists on making me pronounce it during recording as the meat-filled parcel of pastry.Some word combinations I stumble over for no apparent reason. ‘Smoky oakiness’ is one. ‘Or harpist’s’ is another. There’s a story in Pond Life with a character named Jake; at one point of the story, I kept calling him Jack, usually without noticing. Fortunately, it was during the practice phase and the recording would be deleted anyway. By the time I came to record the final version, I knew what to look out for.

The practice phase. Yeah, that lasted weeks. Hour upon hour of recording the same material, experimenting with distance from and angle to the microphone, voice tone, pacing, breathing. I kept at it until I could no longer stand reading the same stuff aloud knowing it would be deleted. It was time to start recording in earnest and get to grips with editing.

Editing, hmm. More on this in Part 5. Till then…

The Avid Reader’s Curse

Despite having more than half a million published words of fiction to my name, I still consider myself to be more a reader than a writer. Since I learned to read beyond ‘see the dog run’ at the age of four or five, I’ve read pretty much constantly. If I had to give up all sources of entertainment except one, books are what I’d keep. I’d miss watching films and sport, and listening to music, but I’d miss books more. Yeah, you get the point.

Like other avid readers, I probably have a more extensive vocabulary than someone who doesn’t read for pleasure. But that can bring its own problems and thus the title of this piece. (‘Curse’ is probably putting it too strongly but, you know, snappy titles.) There are words I have encountered in reading whose meaning I know, either from context or from looking them up, but that I have absolutely no clue how to pronounce.

I couldn’t have been more than six when I first encountered this problem. In school, writing a story, I wanted to say that the protagonist was so tired he collapsed from ‘exhaustion’. I knew the word, but not how to spell it. Even less, as it turned out, how to pronounce it. Try as I might, I could not make the teacher understand what word I wanted him to spell for me and in the end I gave up in embarrassment.

When I was around ten or eleven, I read a series of Westerns, passed down to me from my grandfather, in which one character frequently called another a ‘sonova bitch’. I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, mainly because I was pronouncing ‘sonova’ incorrectly in my head as ‘sonne-over’. In the end, I settled for it meaning a not-very-nice person from an even-less-nice place called Sonova, which the author had forgotten to capitalise. It took a good while for the penny to eventually drop, bless me.

Years later, when I had started working for a living, I encountered for the first time in writing the name Siobhan. In my head and, to my great discomfort on meeting the lady of that name, I pronounced it as something sounding very similar to autobahn. Thankfully, she found it amusing and corrected me with a twinkle in her eye, though I suspect she secretly wondered how I had spent all those years in college.

Then there were the Harry Potter books, which my elder daughter read as they were published and which I read after her. I’d never come across the name Hermione before. In my head, for the first three or four books, she was ‘Herm-ee-own’, that sounding marginally better to me than the alternative ‘Herm-ee-won’—my brain insisted on adding ‘Kenobe’ to that version. It wasn’t until I overheard my daughter telling her younger sister about the books that I heard the correctly pronounced name of Hermione for the first time. How they mocked when I confessed my ignorance, while I laughed outwardly and cried a little inside.

There are many place names in the States which I read about long before I heard them spoken. There are two that immediately spring to mind: Arkansas and Yosemite. I don’t remember hearing the state being spoken about much before Clinton’s rise to prominence and, yep, I used to pronounce it in my head as ‘Ar-kansas’, not the correct ‘Ar-ken-saw’. As for Yosemite, I failed to realise the link with the name of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. So I pronounced it ‘Yosser-might’, which makes it seem more like a cousin of that vile-sounding Australian spread vegemite than a national park.

Here are some more, though this list is by no means exhaustive; I tend to come across new ones every few months or so:

Hyperbole—I mention this one because I’ve often heard others mispronouncing it, usually to make it sound like a super-duper version of the USA’s Superbowl.

Paradigm—never sure about this one: is it ‘para-dim’ or ‘para-dime’? It’s the sort of word where knowing the correct pronunciation won’t help me because it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever use it in conversation and so the next time I see it in print I’ll have forgotten the correct pronunciation and will make it sound in my head like whichever version first pops into it.

Preface—this comes at the beginning of a book so it made perfect sense, to me, to pronounce this ‘pree-face’. It came as a surprise to learn that it’s properly pronounced with a short first e, like in ‘pretzel’.

Segue—yep, this was pronounced like ‘vague’ in my book (that’s the autobiographical Sam Kates book of being an ignoramus). I knew there was also a word out there to do with transitions in music which sounded as if it was spelt something like ‘segway’, but the connection between the two, i.e. that they are the same word, didn’t occur until recently.

Victuals—an oft-read word, especially when younger when I used to read books about explorers and expeditions, and one I pronounced phonetically, enunciating the c and the ua combination as you would in the word ‘actual’. Who’d have thought (not me, certainly) that it’s pronounced like its archaic spelling ‘vittles’, to rhyme with ‘skittles’?

There is an upside to this problem: many of these words are rarely, if ever, going to be dropped into casual conversation—not unless you’re an expeditionary or a musician or you’re trying to sound pompous—and, really, nobody cares how we pronounce these things in the private space of our own head. Just as well, eh, or every time we came to have to pronounce one out loud, we’d all be in an ague.