MF 298 : Best practices for doing audiobook narration
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Today, we look at some best practices for voiceover and narration for audiobooks. More at www.bemovingforward.com.
Find the “voice” of the book
Now that we’ve covered the technical and software, let’s turn our attention to the vocals. Your performance as a voiceover narrator is key to bringing a book from the pages to a listener’s ears. However, it’s not as simple as reading words aloud from a page. You have to give a performance or find the “voice” of the book to convey its tone, intent, and if applicable, the emotions within the book.
With Angelo’s book, I Am a Professional Metalhead, I had a unique opportunity to sink my teeth into a book that offered everything from business and career advice to stories related to family to a lifelong love of heavy metal music. That last part also included a technical challenge as I am not a metalhead and the world of metal includes a huge sea of bands, musicians, and songs; all with unique and odd pronunciations. Below are some tips to guide you in the process.
Find the author’s voice (but that doesn’t mean you have to necessarily imitate it)
If you listen to episode 291, you’ll notice that Angelo and I sound nothing alike. We have very different voices. Angelo has a distinct New Jersey accent and I don’t. Yet, we both agreed that the audiobook captures the “voice” of the book. The point of the audiobook is to convey the content, necessarily to imitate the author’s voice. In fact, this is more often the case than not with audiobooks. Voiceover artists are not hired because they sound like an author but rather because they have quality or talent for conveying the material such that it rings true. This is true even in the case of an autobiographical work like I Am a Professional Metalhead.
So how do you capture the “voice” of a book? Below are some tips and best practices to get you started.
Read the book: Start with the material. Read it through cover to cover at least once, if not twice to get a sense of the tone and intent of the book.
Put yourself in the book: For me, I put myself in Angelo’s shoes through his words, trying to imagine what each event in his life felt like. This is where having some acting experience can be extremely helpful but is not necessary in case you don’t have it. You can still find the right tone if you read thoughtfully and put yourself into the situations described in the book. They may be anecdotes from the author or characters in a novel.
If possible work with the author (or publisher or whoever your contact is): If you can, establish a working relationship with the author, speak to him or her and engage them about the book. Ask lots of questions, especially after you read through it and try to get a clear sense of the tone and intent. If you’re doing a VO for hire for a publisher, you may be working with a director or sound engineer. If you’re doing this freelance on your own, try to establish some kind of workflow with the author or publisher to get regular feedback.
Once you have a handle on the voice, focus on making your voiceover crisp and clear. Below are some tips for doing an effective VO. I also recommend you review episodes 297 and 296 on the equipment and software for audiobook narration.
Pause: Start and end each chapter or section with a pause. This will help reset and reframe your mind before you begin. You’ll also need a pause or gap for technical reasons which we’ll cover in a later episode.
Distance: Speak around 3-6 inches away from the mic. This will vary depending on the mic you’re using so you may want to test it out.
Go green to yellow but never red: Most sound recording software will have a meter to visually let you know how loud you are. Green is standard or optimal, yellow is an upper register and red is for lack of a better term, loud. Your range should stay within the green and yellow. As I covered last week, if you’re using Audacity, you can download a plugin to help smooth out your levels but try to keep yourself in the optimal range to ensure your files won’t go out of bounds.
Projection: If you come across a passage or sentence that requires greater volume, lean back a little and/or turn your head slightly. This will allow you to hit an upper register without crossing into the red.
Pronunciation: Certain books will have tricky names or terms of art. This was certainly the case with I Am a Professional Metalhead. Work with the author or publisher to create a workflow or in the absence of that, a good practice is to look up YouTube videos with pronunciation primers. I did this with a lot of the band and song names in Angelo’s book.
Sound effects: This will depend on the author or the publisher, but some sections may require music or sound effects. Work with the content creator to hammer out whether and where to put sound effects, if at all. If you’re working at a publisher’s recording studio, you won’t have to worry about this as the sound engineer or director will take care of this in post-production. If you’re doing this as a freelancer at home, you’ll want to work out those details.
Sound effects / music: make sure you use royalty or copyright-free sound or have the explicit permission of the composer or author of the sound or music. On Mac, GarageBand has a full library of sound and music you can use that’s royalty free.
Protocol: This will vary from book to book but generally, you will need to read each section of the book, including cover, copyright, dedication, foreword (if applicable) and chapters. Within chapters, you will need to read aloud the headers, including part, title, subtitle as well as text. Generally, you will avoid charts, chart notes, footnotes or endnotes but this will depend on the type of book you’re narrating. You may need to work with the author or publisher to determine the extent of the narration. Also be sure to check Audible’s requirements for sound files.
Review, review, review: As you complete each section (chapter), you should review the sound files to make sure it flows, the tone is appropriate and the pacing. Also, check for breathing sounds or other artifacts that you’ll either want to edit out or redo. If possible, have the author or publisher check the sound files and give you feedback.
There’s a lot more that goes into recording an audiobook but these are some of the important aspects that came in play regularly as I recorded Angelo’s book.
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