Making an audiobook: Lessons from the studio
Making an audiobook version of my poetry collection Limehaven: Poems for my grandparents would be fun, I decided. After all, poetry is music. And rhythm and rhyme must be spoken before they can be heard. There’s real joy in reading aloud. All those deliciously chewy words to get your chops around. All that silence beckoning like a fresh page, promising so much…
I’m always excited when I start a new project. A vision of boundless potential shimmers before me, unsullied by practicalities. For a glorious moment, anything is possible. (Savour that moment while it lasts!)
I step into the studio, full of enthusiasm. I’ve been listening to Alan Rickman reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet No 130 and I’m feeling inspired. I play the recording to audio engineer Sean Taylor. It’s the first time we’ve met. He’s kind enough not to laugh.
I’m not Alan Rickman and I’m not Shakespeare, but it’s good to aim high! I play Sean other performances too – David Tennant, Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter. They all share a similar quality. Their words sound intimate and natural; their voices resonant but not theatrical.
Reading poetry aloud can be tricky. Poets sometimes default to a curious sing-song voice that robs their work of meaning and authenticity. It’s easy to do, but something to guard against. Ian McKellen notes that, while few poets are good at performing their work, actors often over egg the emotion. Don’t interpret too much, he suggests. Let the words do the work.
Getting to know the microphone
Back in the studio, Sean explains where I need to stand in relation to the microphone to capture that natural, intimate sound. The studio mic is a bit intimidating. It hangs behind its pop shield like a huge silver cockroach.
I enjoy performing live, but the studio presents new challenges. For a start, there’s no audience. A live audience has a palpable presence that buoys you up and energises your performance. Of course, Sean is there beyond the soundproof booth, cheering me on. But the studio is eerily silent.
I put the headphones on. My voice sounds reassuringly resonant through the cans, compared to the dead acoustic of the room. And so we begin.
Learning to love my own voice
Sean proves to be a patient, sharp-eared collaborator. We settle into a routine of recording, listening back, re-recording, editing. I soon learn that if you’re going to self-produce an audiobook, you must learn to love your own voice. You must listen critically, but kindly. Discern when you can do better and let go when you’ve done the best you can.
Self-denigration and self-doubt, it turns out, are luxury items. You simply can’t afford them when you’re paying for studio time. It’s a wonderful lesson. The recording sessions go well whenever I decide to enjoy them — which is most of the time. The occasional descent into paranoia — usually in the half hour before lunch — invariably results in me having do that poem again.
We record the book in several half-day sessions scattered over a period of weeks. This helps keep the process fresh. Listening back, I’m very proud of what we achieved. And I’m happy to have grown comfortable with the sound of my voice. It’s not Alan Rickman, for sure, but me — and none the worse for that.