How to get into the room: qualifying as an audiobook narrator

a microphone and headphones against a purple brick background

To get into a competition, you have to qualify. Take the example of a track meet – a 50-yard dash in front of an audience, televised, and with rules and judges and prizes. There’s room for eight people in the final event. How do you get to be one of those eight people? Maybe there was a series of preliminary races. Maybe you have to pay a certain entry fee. Maybe you had to be one of the eight fastest people to send in legitimate times with a recording of yourself. The point is that you had to do something to qualify to be in the competition – to get your foot in the door.

As an audiobook narrator, you qualify by having the right characteristics to earn an audition. You can’t book a job without earning an audition! There are “winning” characteristics that will eventually get you the contract, but before you can win, some of the most crucial things to consider are what your qualifying attributes are.

From the narrator’s voice to the producer’s ear

To have a successful audition for a project, generally a narrator has to prove they can perform the reading of a book, record it, and send it in at a quality that suits the nature of the final audience.

The quality of a narrator’s performance is, to some extent, in the ear of the beholder. However, there are some objective qualifying measures within your control.

But! To record the part and send it at a qualifying level, that’s something that should be explicit and well-understood to everyone in the production chain. 

There is an incredible amount of disagreement on this – what to do, how to do it, and why to do it. However, there is not a lot of discussion about who makes the decisions about qualifications required to be a successful narrator and what the qualifications are.

So who does make the qualifying decisions?

In an audiobook project, who makes the decisions about a narrator’s qualifying attributes?? Who is the gatekeeper? Who can yell ‘stop the presses’? This is the person you have to know about if you’re going to audition. Also, if you’re an author or a publisher, this is the person that you put in charge of your project. 

As a narrator, if you don’t understand the project specs, then your performance won’t matter. As a rightsholder, if you pick the wrong person for your production or casting manager, your project will not reach its potential.The person who makes qualifying decisions about an audiobook project should understand distribution specs, should understand the final client and audience, and should understand the minimum technical thresholds for success. If you miss the mark, the book may end up unlistenable. We’ve all heard at least a few productions where no one put up a hand and said, “wait a minute, this doesn’t sound quite right.” Here’s how you can avoid that!

The microphone and interface combination – clarity vs. noise

If a narrator’s voice doesn’t come out of headphones or a speaker system to ensure the speech can be easily understood, then they did not achieve a qualifying pass. The microphone, at the very least, has to import and transmit words and sounds that are clearly delineated from each other, and there should be enough space and accuracy in the recording to allow for dynamics and expressiveness of a voice to tell the story. 

One way to think about this is to consider your favorite narrator or orator. What is the worst possible microphone this person could use to still tell a story for 10 hours? A cellphone microphone won’t work. A lapel mic won’t work. A headset mic won’t work. An SM58 isn’t going to work. What is the minimum viable microphone that provides headroom, resonance, and good-enough sampling accuracy? This is your qualifying microphone.

From my personal experience, an AT2020 USB does the job when it comes to audiobooks. It’s the least expensive way that I know of to sound good enough to get a job. But here’s what’s important – my personal experience does not matter in the job you’re auditioning for! The minimum spec needs to come from the qualifying decision-maker, and only the qualifying decision-maker. This person may or may not understand differences between microphones and interfaces, but they will be able to listen to a few sentences and say “this is good enough” or “this is not good enough.” Qualifying decisions are binary.

Microphones and interfaces will not change your performance, but they will either qualify you for a job or not based on their physical and acoustic characteristics, the way in which you operate them, and the space in which you operate them.

What about the recording space?

Qualifying microphones work in tandem with the space in which they are used. Without going into the technical details, a qualifying space is one in which the sounds of where a narrator is recording don’t get in the way of the storytelling. That’s it. What takes a listener out of a story? 

  • Echos or other reverberation 
  • Traffic 
  • Birds 
  • Lawnmowers and leafblowers 
  • The acoustic feeling of being in a cave, garage, bathroom, or warehouse. 
  • Any sound that interferes with the distance between the storyteller and the listener’s brain. 

How you achieve this has zero importance. The fact that you achieve this is your qualifier.

What about the disqualifiers?

On the other side of the qualifiers are the disqualifiers.

Here are things that will keep you from getting jobs despite being qualified technically:

  • Not following instructions
    • Auditions that are too long or too short
    • Auditions recorded from the wrong text
    • Auditions that require dialogue but don’t contain any in the sample
  • Poor email communication
  • Inability to send the auditions to the right digital address
  • Using the wrong app to submit your work
  • Claiming that you have access to your audition space, but then not having access to it later

So there are two steps to getting jobs.

  • First, be sure that you know how to qualify – and this means understanding the quality that a recording represents, not just the tools to get there.
  • And second, don’t lose your qualifications by not paying attention to the exact specs of the job you are auditioning for.

Why you should think about qualifiers

Creating audiobooks can be a beautiful and amazing experience for authors, publishers, rightsholders, narrators, and technicians. But if everyone isn’t on the same page about how to qualify for the job, or who to choose to make qualifying decisions, then the process and the result can be average or worse. Without a good structure for the audition and selection process, it’s likely that the right person in the right circumstances won’t get the job. 

And if you ever get a chance to hear two narrators read the same passage or chapter of a book, you’ll know that the experience of listening to different people makes a gigantic difference in your interpretation of the story as a listener. Employing the right qualifiers to get the right people auditioning and then winning can make all the difference in the world.

Contribute your stories and experiences

What are your feelings about qualifying for jobs when it comes to audiobook production? Who do you feel is responsible for making qualifying characteristics explicit and transparent? Do you think your network or your past experiences with productions should change what the qualifiers for a job are? Once you’ve established that you’re qualified for a job, should you have to keep proving it in auditions for other jobs? These are interesting questions to consider when the goal is to get the right creatives with the right expectations in each audiobook project.

Ryan Hicks is the Director of Outreach at Pozotron, a software company that focuses on helping narrators and production houses use technology to save time at every step of the audio production process.

Pozotron

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