I've produced and narrated many audiobooks for other authors and publishers.
I had a cassette recorder when I was a kid, and when I had a blank tape I liked to record myself narrating what was going on around me, and occasionally singing pop song lyrics or doing impressions of TV voices.
When I was 19, I got some free studio time at a local community college by being a friend's "class project" for an audio engineering class. I selected what I thought was my best collection of surrealist poems, and turned it into a spoken word album ala Jim Morrison's posthumously-released An American Prayer record. We even mixed in some instrumental music from movie and game soundtracks, which I definitely did not have licenses to use, but I figured it would be alright because it was just for me and a few close friends. If anyone still has that disc (the title was, I think: Rise of the Falcon), then I feel like they should win some kind of prize or award.
In the late 1990s and early/mid-2000s, I performed for some local and regional (northeast US) radio and TV commercials, and I played both Young Scrooge and Nephew Fred in a live radio show production of A Christmas Carol in Syracuse, NY.
Then I took corporate writing jobs, and didn't do any real acting until 2015 when I challenged myself to produce an audiobook for my most recent (at the time) novel, The Hero (Second Edition). As I was learning and experimenting with that, I took a quick look at the auditions on ACX.com to see what was available if I wanted to do more recording work. I sent in some auditions, all of them came back with offers, and for the next three years I set aside most of my writing projects so that I could produce audiobooks full-time.
I've always been more of a writer than an actor, and I started to resent doing so much work on other authors' books instead of mine, so I took a break in 2018, and never really went back to it. In the following four years I produced only two audiobooks while I worked on multiple simultaneous book projects for myself and for ghostwriting clients.
My audiobook aesthetic is simple in concept, but incredibly labor-intensive in execution: make it sound like a movie. I don't do foley sound effects like a radio show; I'm not opposed to them, but I think it's annoyingly redundant when the narrative says "There was a knock at the door," and then there's a door-knocking effect. If listeners need to be told that this is the sound of someone knocking on the door, then what's the point of the sound effect? Someday I might write a radio show that doesn't do this. Anyway, my production principles are:
- All noise must be intentional. That means a noise floor that is so low, you need a ladder to climb down and hear it. It also means that there are no superfluous breath noises, mouth clicks, or vocal artifacts. I will do affectations and emotives (laughing, crying, talking through cigarette smoke, sighing, eating), but there should never be an audible breath noise for the narrator. You don't hear breaths in movie voiceovers, so you shouldn't hear them in audiobook narration.
- It must sound like it's being actively imagined. When I read a book, the characters have distinct voices, and if the narrative is really good, the words are invisible. A great book should play like a movie in the reader's mind. To achieve this level of immersion and involvement, the tone of the narration should align with the book's style; the narrator is a character in the story.
- Set the pacing by hand. Since narrative breath noises are removed, I have to add silence to allow listeners to absorb and comprehend each separate thought. When you're in the booth, any amount of silence feels like an eternity, so I tend not to leave enough room between sentences and paragraphs; this is all fixed in the editing process.
- Voices must reflect the environment and context. If someone's talking on the phone, the other character must sound like they're talking on the phone; if someone's trapped in a closet, their voice should be muffled; if a character is a robot or ghost or faerie, it should sound like that. I've developed many interesting vocal effects over the years, though I rarely use anything beyond the "telephone" effect anymore because I haven't done science-fiction or high-fantasy productions in a long time.
- Beware "accurate" accents. In real life no one ever has a perfect vocal accent, and accents can vary substantially in the same city depending on which elementary school someone attended. Accents reflect education and social class more than nationality; the less of an accent someone has, the more educated they tend to be. Accents and slang are inseparable, so if there's no specific direction from the author or publisher, then I'll try to make the accent match the dialogue as-written. This is also why the characters in Try Catch Finally have specific linguistic idiosyncrasies; it wasn't just an effort to write good dialogue, it also enabled me to perform the intended accent for each of them.
- Record raw audio in the highest quality with as little EQ as possible. If you record clean, unmodified audio in super-high studio quality, you can do anything with it later; if you cut corners and do the bare minimum, you permanently limit your options. For instance, The Drew Carey Show will never be on a streaming platform because the audio engineers mixed the music and the dialogue into one track, and didn't save the multi-track source audio; the music cannot be affordably licensed for video streaming, nor can it be removed, therefore a really great TV show is permanently warehoused. Most (all?) audiobook studios prefer to record and mix in lower-quality formats because the finished audio is usually compressed and downsampled. As a result, if something has to be re-recorded later (a narrator flub, or a revised manuscript), it sounds ridiculously out of place because there's so little headroom to work with. And as time goes on, the quality of all media gets higher, so I proactively record and edit in Blu-Ray quality (there actually is a Blu-Ray audiobook standard, but last I checked it was privately licensed, and I don't want to mess with that), then I export to the highest-quality compressed format that the distributor allows. If I need to export to a higher-quality format in the future, I can do that (well, not for some older projects). Audible in specific has increased quality quite a bit over the past few years. If you compare the Audible samples for, say, Key West Luck (2016) and Nacho Unleashed (2019), you'll hear a big difference.
The downside to adhering to these principles is that production takes a lot longer than normal. In a typical audiobook project, it takes around four or five hours to produce one hour of finished audio. That includes reading and script markup, recording, editing, and mixing. My best velocity is 6:1, and if I have to develop a new character voice then it's more like 8:1. Unfortunately when I spend twice the amount of time, I don't get paid twice as much, nor does the audiobook sell twice as well. From a strict business standpoint, it's more profitable to just plow through as many projects as quickly as possible. I'm a terrible businessman, though, and I feel a tremendous amount of stress and resentment when my name is on something that is less than my best effort.
Some listeners don't like what I do, and that's fine. If you're listening at 1.5x speed, then I expect you'll find character work to be annoying. I've also discovered that some people process language -- written or spoken -- in a completely different, more objective way than I do, and they prefer minimal inflection and no character voices.
Audiobooks Narrated by Jem
The grid below contains the most popular audiobooks I've narrated. There is a more comprehensive list of my productions on Audible (minus things I've done under pseudonyms).