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Are Home Studios Ruining Audiobooks?

In early August 2010, the Audio Publishers Association held its first mixer for West Coast audiobook pros at a Hollywood night spot billed as "set in the atmosphere of a surreal high-class [Japanese] brothel." Too few geishas popped their heads in, surreal or not, but the room was otherwise packed with narrators, studio owners, a few publishers, some fans and miscellaneous riff-raff such as myself. At one point in the evening, a fellow reviewer buttonholed me to express a concern of, she insisted, vital potential importance to audiobook listeners everywhere.

"I’m really upset," cried she above the din, "over this trend for home studios. It seems like more and more narrators are installing their own recording facilities in their basements, spare rooms and garages."

"Or closets," I shouted. "Lorna [Raver, the superb actor/narrator who lives with me] works in the bedroom clothes closet."

"Is it a walk-in?" the lady asked.

"No."

"Oh dear, I hope she’s not claustrophobic."

"But what bothers you about these home studios?" I said. "They’re a god-send to the artists. They can record any time of the day or night that suits them. They don’t have to travel or even get dressed. They can operate the gizmos by themselves and, without leaving the room, send the sound files to their far-flung publishers via the Internet. Nothing else comes close to this level of convenience."

"That’s just the trouble," my interlocutor insisted. "It’s too convenient! Where’s the engineer? Where’s the producer? No one monitors the performance, no one directs the narrator. Where’s the quality control? Can you actually match at home the sound quality of a professional facility?"

"It’s certainly possible. One publisher, Tantor, invented a unique computer-based recording system that their performers use mostly in their homes"

"What about the artistic end?" she wanted to know. "You cannot DIRECT yourself, can you?"

"Many do."

"As well as a REAL director on the other side of the glass? I think not! I fear that home studios can degrade — and are degrading — the quality of audiobooks."

"Holy expletive deleted! I hope not." I thought back to the early-1990s when I first entered the audiobook world from public radio — how primitive it seemed back then what with everything on cheap below par cassette tape, and amateurs who could barely read vying successfully against proficient, seasoned artists. How greatly has quality improved and standards risen! Could home studios drag us down to a return of those dreadful times? The lady clearly thought so.

But did I? For, I’m not only a reviewer, but a producer, director and infrequent narrator. I have insider knowledge that could assuage my colleague’s anxiety or exacerbate it. Maybe it was to spare her sensibilities, or maybe to avoid shouting myself horse in the noisy room, I murmured some tsk-tsks and kept uncustomarily silent.

I believe her apprehension is based on the misconception that some rigorous give and take between well-prepared narrator, producer and engineer hones an audio performance the way fire, hammer and anvil refine metal. Truth to tell, such interchange is rare. It takes too much time; after all, the studio and the personnel in it, are paid by the hour. The faster the work gets done and the more accurately – so as to obviate lots of editing – the larger the profit. Some otherwise mediocre narrators do quite well just because they can zoom through a project.

If we made these things properly, we’d rehearse and lay down multiple takes. Most often, the narrator starts recording immediately, stopping only to correct glitches or get lunch. Rehearsal? A director giving notes? A waste of expensive studio time; so saith the boys that pay the bills. Besides, some publishers feel, with some justification, that their listeners wouldn’t know the difference between a performance that only skims the surface of a text and one that dives deep into it.

Hence, if the narrator understands what he/she is reading, the producer usually does little more than correct errors, if he/she can stay awake during a six or seven hour wall of talk. And a lot of excellent narrators prefer to work without a director. Actors gripe to me that they’ve gone in with certain producers who haven’t read the book before the session, who haven’t the foggiest idea what it’s about. Some of the larger publishers have for years been trimming production costs by eliminating producers entirely. Mistakes will be caught by the ’QC’ (quality control) department. And, as a general rule, no director is better than a bad director.

So, when I work with narrators the caliber of an Ed Herrmann or a Barbara Rosenblatt, I like to think I’ve added some nice touches, but know darn well they’d have done just fine had I stayed home. When you hear a performance that possesses resonance and subtext and style and panache, rest assured the result came from a close relationship between the reader and the text, no matter who or what else was in the room with them.


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