At Recorded Books, an audiobook publishing company with seven in-house recording studios in New York City, director Abigail McCue sits at her computer and tells narrator and actor Barbara Rosenblat that her jacket is, ahem, noisy.
Rosenblat, who was named a Golden Voice by AudioFile magazine, has been in the business for 30 years and recorded over 400 audiobooks. She recently wrapped a shoot for the upcoming Netflix original TV series Orange Is the New Black. Today, she and McCue are recording Francine Rivers’s novella about the Virgin Mary, Unafraid.
Rosenblat sits in what McCue calls “the tank,” a beige recording booth smaller than a Manhattan bathroom. The space is spare: a chair for Rosenblat, a neat stack of books, a desk lamp, a bottle of Purell, a little table covered with purple tablecloth, and a microphone. A small window allows Rosenblat to look out into the studio.
Though soundproof walls separate her from McCue, the collaboration could not be more intimate. She and McCue have worked together before on titles, including Lisa Scottoline’s Lady Killer and Nevada Barr’s Winter Study. Rosenblat tells me, “One’s first line of defense is a really good producer. She’s a woman who knows how to listen critically. She’s one of the best.”
McCue says, “Even if I think, ‘This book is weird!’ I think, ‘Let’s do that again!’ because somebody is going to be listening to this, and somebody wants to enjoy it.” On her computer, McCue has cued up the recording software ProTools. She sets her copy of Unafraid on a bookstand so she can read along with Rosenblat and make sure the narration is true to the text.
They go through the matching process—the audiobook narration equivalent of tuning a guitar: Rosenblat briefly picks up where she left off, and McCue compares the new track with the most recent one to make sure the vocals sound consistent. It’s not just an aural judgment; it’s a visual one as well. In the ProTools window, there’s a sound wave ebbing and flowing across the screen.
“Turn my cans down a bit,” Rosenblat says, referring to her headphones. After a minute or so of tinkering, they’re finally ready to record.
They craft the audio track as they go along. When the narrator’s voice falters a bit, McCue pauses the recording and hits a foot pedal to communicate with Rosenblat in the recording booth. “Slam the door?” asks McCue, suggesting that they begin again from that line. “Door,” repeats Rosenblat, and McCue records as they continue through the text.
The narrator sails through a few paragraphs, which makes the director grin and hold up her hands as if she’s about to applaud. There are moments, though, where they have to pause—“I heard that creaky old chair.” McCue deletes a small segment of the sound wave, and they punch in again. But aside from the occasional stray noises or flubs, the audio sounds quite flawless. And hearing Rosenblat’s august voice is atavistically comforting, as if you’re a child being read to at bedtime.
Prepping for the Recording Session
Before stepping into the recording booth, narrators read through the entire manuscript and check off any unfamiliar words or names. In a sports book like Allen Barra’s Mickey and Willie, the names of lesser-known baseball players might be obscure. Or in a history book about World War II, perhaps it’s the names of bygone Belgian villages.
Recorded Books enlists Paul Topping and David Gassaway in its research department to find out the proper way to say these foreign words and phrases. “People believe things that they hear, and people trust publishers to get things right,” says Gassaway.
This differs from some other audiobook publishing houses, where the publisher expects the narrator to do his or her own research.
Gassaway and Topping use resources like Forvo.com (a Wikipedia-like pronunciation guide) and the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. They also speak with experts, such as librarians and museum archivists. The Baseball Hall of Fame helped out with Mickey and Willie, and the New Orleans Public Library assisted with the Hurricane Katrina book, The Great Deluge.
But it’s not just history books that require research; romance novels do, too.
Gassaway says that one of the biggest challenges they face is researching pronunciations of Native American names and phrases. Both he and Howard recall a romance and a western that featured Native American characters. “Even native individuals who are historically [significant] will have five different spellings from contemporary documents,” he says. The lack of scholarship on these cultures makes it tough to uncover a standard pronunciation.
“The cardinal rule is, you just never say, ‘Oh, who’s going to know?’ ” says Howard. “Because too many times in our history we have discovered that these listeners of ours, they really care.”
Gassaway muses, “Sometimes they care, and they’re wrong.”
Now Hear This!
In the 1970s, inspired by his long hours on the road, traveling salesman Henry Trentman wondered whether audiobooks could go beyond being books for the blind. Rather, he thought they might be a good source of entertainment for avid readers who wanted to listen to books as they drove. In 1979, Trentman founded Recorded Books in New York. He focused first on books in the public domain. Then someone suggested that he enlist professional stage actors as his narrators. He partnered with actor Alexander Spencer, and from that moment on, the performer and the performance became the heart of Recorded Books’ products.
When it’s time to head to the studio, the narrator gets paired with a director. Although other audiobook publishers call them engineers, at Recorded Books, the role is not just technical; he or she helps guide the performance as well.
Says Rosenblat of McCue, “When somebody like Abbie actually has your back when you’re doing this, it allows you to focus utterly on the work to get that level of energy going and to make sure all my characters are distinct.”
Usually, they break up their recording schedule in four-hour chunks that start as early as 9 a.m. and end as late as 6:30 p.m. Howard says, “At any one given time, we have maybe 30 or 40 books going in the studios themselves.”
However, the pressure to release the audiobook simultaneously with the print edition means tighter deadlines—and sometimes crash scheduling. She says, “If your materials have arrived too late, then you’re in the position of saying, ‘All right, do we have to record for eight hours straight?’ ”
On average, it requires twice the final length of an audiobook in order to do the recording. But because the director and narrator craft the product as they go along, there’s less post-production work than one might imagine.
Still, the audiobook must go through the proofing process. So what kind of scrutiny goes on at the proofing stage? Howard reads from a printed list with time stamps next to each item: “Slight inhale; I want a pause here; here’s a word that’s left out—stuff like that.”
The audio engineers fix what they can, but ultimately the narrator must return to the studio to re-record a line here or there.
But despite the high cost of the studio’s real estate, the extensive research, the long hours in the booth, and the tight deadlines, Recorded Books continues to thrive—and continues to garner acclaim.
Howard says, “Our librarians come to us all the time and say, ‘You guys have the best performers. Really top notch.’ ”
However, the best praise still comes from folks who, like the company’s founder, listen to audiobooks on the road. McCue says, “[Legendary audiobook narrator] George Guidall gets a lot of fan mail from truckers. He gets letters from them like, ‘Thank you so much, Mr. Guidall. I loved listening to Les Misérables!’ ”
Rosenblat smiles. “When a trucker thinks you’re Elvis, that’s exciting!”