I’m delighted to welcome Jan Cramer to my blog today. I’ve been working with Jan on several audio books over the last few months including The Secret of You, Christmas at the Cove and A Dog Called Hope, and I thought it would be interesting to find out exactly what goes into making one.
Jan trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and has worked mainly in the theatre, but finds herself nowadays in and out of studios doing voice overs and reading books. All of which she loves doing.
What job description do you give to yourself: voice-over artist, narrator…?
I’m an actress who does voice overs and narrates audiobooks.
Are there genres you most enjoy narrating and are there any that you’d sooner avoid?
I’ve found that narrating books that I don’t usually read become the more interesting ones, as they’ll take me on a journey that I wouldn’t normally go on. For example, I read a lot of fiction. I don’t really read non-fiction. But narrating a journalist’s memoir of her travels in Indonesia was fascinating.
Describe a typical working day.
I’m quite disciplined when recording a book. I’m very aware of diet as it really affects the way you sound. We are working with very sensitive (very expensive) microphones that pick up everything. And I mean every lip smack, every tummy rumble, every breath…..so to try and minimise this, a lot of voice artists will eat a Granny Smiths apple first thing. The pectin helps reduce mouth noise. Coffee and tea are out as they dry the mouth. Water is best. No yoghurt for breakfast either.
I often walk before a recording. If I’m in London, I have a pair of walking shoes and get to the studio on foot and out of breath. It clears all your sinuses and gets you breathing. If I’m nearer home, I have the Sussex Downs on my doorstep and will walk at a terrifying pace (according to my husband) before recording.
I stand (rather than sit) in my vocal booth when reading, as it helps the vocal energy. (that’s a personal choice not everyone does) and I take breaks so that I’m not rooted to the spot for hours on end. My vocal booth is connected to the main studio and is a completely insulated, isolated environment, built as a room within a room, to let in no sound whatsoever.
I do a lot of preparation for each book. I would have read it a few times before recording. I also check pronunciation constantly when it comes to names, places, etc. I have a few pronunciation dictionaries at my fingertips and check them all the time.
What are the most common misconceptions about what you do or how you work?
Everyone likes to read out loud, and lots of people are used to reading to their children. But try reading a complete novel out loud and it’s a different story. Literally. And lots of people are told they have lovely voices, which they do. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to use them.
You have to be very aware of what’s going on technically. For example: if a character is required to shout or scream, you can’t actually do that (if you do, your engineer will have words in no uncertain terms) but you have to be able to convey the drama of the situation without hurting the listeners’ ears. The same applies to whispering and quiet intimate moments – you can’t have the listener suddenly wanting to turn the volume up.
All acting disciplines have their technical requirements whether its theatre, film television, radio. Narration is no different and you learn your craft.
How can an author make life easier for you?
The Secret of You is the first time that I’ve worked directly with an author. I know that my voice has been asked for by authors via their publishers, but I know that they don’t listen until it’s a fait accompli.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it’s been a joy to work with Victoria, as she has gently nudged or suggested slight changes in perhaps the nuance of a line, or the thought process of a character, just as a director would do in the theatre.
I think an author needs to give the narrator a bit of artistic licence with the characters and rein them in gently when we get too carried away.
I love the variety of voices you’ve conveyed in The Secret of You from young Toby to old Meg. How do you go about finding the right voice for a character and is this a long process?
I see an audio book as a radio play where I get to play all the characters. But one has to be careful not to confuse the listener with too many accents or voices. It can sound messy. The age of a character can be portrayed by the timbre of the voice (an older voice slightly lower in the register) and also by the pace of the voice and, of course, an accent or dialect. So each character can be identified easily with subtleties. I usually have a visual image of each character too.
If the author is precise about a particular dialect then I do the research to be as accurate as possible.
When I read my first science fiction book, I gave all the aliens (and there were lots of them) different voices and accents. This was a big mistake as I had to keep referring to the voices that I already recorded to make sure I was accurate. It slowed me down and taught me to be more nuanced with my characters in future.
The finished time of The Secret of You is just over eight hours but I’m sure the audio book took you much longer to produce. Just take us through what the job entailed.
If a chapter is 30 minutes in length it will probably take an hour to record. However fluent you are, you stop occasionally to make sure it makes sense, to check on the pronunciation of a name, to think about the character relationships as they progress. Then the engineer will “clean up” the chapter. Which means going through the recording and taking out all the mouth noises, large breaths, tummy rumbles, extra long pauses, in fact anything that shouldn’t be there. That’s another hour. Then the chapter is produced, which entails a whole sequence of technical feats to make sure it adheres to the very precise technical specifications for Audible and that the sound is a pleasing one for the listener. That’s another half hour.
So our 30 minute chapter has taken 2 and half hours. Translate that into an 8 hour book and you have about 40 hours work.
I would always recommend working with a professional actor as a narrator and one that uses a professional studio. The experience of a sound engineer who knows how to work with the voice as well as produce the technical quality required, is something that can’t be replicated with a laptop and a simple microphone.
Thanks so much, Jan! I really enjoy working on my audio books with you and can highly recommend the process to other authors keen to produce their own.
You can get in touch with Jan here.