Working with Narrators to Create Show-Stopping Audiobook Experiences

A white line drawing of a person wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone

Are you working with a narrator new to recording audiobooks on an upcoming title?

If so, it’s important to ensure that they’re given advice and guidance on how best to prepare for a performance, so that their experience is as comfortable and enjoyable as possible, and produces a great result for all: narrator, publisher and, of course, the listener.

Here at Offbeat Audio in Edinburgh, we record and produce audio books for many of the UK’s leading book publishers. In this piece, we provide useful hints and tips, and point to some very helpful videos, to help publishers understand the issues when recording narrations – as well as to pass on advice beforehand – to ensure that their narrator is practised and ready to perform at their best.

Send a copy of the script in advance

Always encourage the narrator to study the script – you can’t wing it with an audiobook. Unless they’re the author, it’s very important that they prepare and read the book thoroughly beforehand and check out any tricky pronunciations, as well as conduct any character studies thoroughly in advance. 

Build in time for warm-ups

All the best singers warm up before an important recording session and audiobook narrators should be no different. It’s not just the voice they need to warm up but the body, too! Invite your narrator into the recording session with plenty of time for vocal warm-ups and to allow them time to become comfortable and feel prepared before getting started. 

Here’s an excellent video on vocal warm-ups by VO guru Peter Baker.

Set the pace – and help them keep it

The speed of the read is crucial to the listeners’ experience of the content, and a common problem is to narrate too fast. When starting at Chapter 1 of a long book, it can be very tempting for a narrator to start rushing when they realise just how much they’ve got to get through. It’s important to provide guidance to help them to resist this tendency and consciously pace themselves – otherwise the listener may be forced to rewind to keep up with the story. This should also prevent any tripping up or stumbling throughout the read.

Work with your narrator (and/or production team) to determine a suitable pace for the narration. Encourage your narrator to practise speaking much slower than they think they need to. Suggest they leave short gaps when you think it’s especially important for the listener to absorb what’s just been said. Ask them to focus on their enunciation and pronunciation, as this will also help them to pace the read and reduce mouth issues (more on this later). It can also enhance the listener’s experience if they can vary the speed a little where appropriate, to avoid sounding too monotonous.

Here are some great tips from Patrick Fraley on breathing and controlling the speed of your narration.

Advise they listen back to their voice

Many people don’t like to hear their own voice, but narrators have to make it their business to listen back to practice performances so that they know exactly what the listener is experiencing. Recording and listening back (on a smart phone or device) promotes instant learning, and by practising in advance of the scheduled sessions they can be their own judge. Emphasise that recording themselves and listening back critically is the best way to build confidence.

Emphasise the importance of sight reading

Sight reading is another very important skill for narrators, and is one which also needs to be practised. Reading ahead gives more context to the narration and allows it to flow much better. Again, this is best achieved by recording and listening back – and then being critical. 

This useful video includes a helpful ‘reading ahead’ exercise which involves narrating the beginning of a sentence and taking your eyes off the screen to complete it.

Minimise wet and dry mouth issues

Many new narrators aren’t aware of ‘mouth noise’, which can include lip smacking, tongue sounds and mouth clicks – basically, any unwanted noises that are picked up during the read.

A dry mouth can cause some of these issues, so it’s important for your narrator to stay hydrated. Advise that they drink some water from around one hour before the session and to keep taking sips throughout. Ask them to avoid drinking coffee or caffeinated drinks, or too much green tea during a session.  Recommend drinks with lemon, ginger or honey, all of which are great for keeping the throat in good condition. Food intake should be moderated just before and during recording, however eating a green apple can provide a boost of acidity that can have beneficial effects on reducing mouth noise.

On the other side of the spectrum, a wet mouth can cause your narrator to swallow a lot, but can be easily remedied by eating salted nuts to absorb some of the moisture. 

Make sure that your narrator is able to take frequent breaks, and is able to take a drink if their mouth has become too dry. To help combat a dry mouth even further, it can be a good idea for them to chew some sugar-free gum (also a good technique for warming up the mouth and jaw), or try swirling around a bit of virgin olive oil in their mouth to lubricate the pipes.

Help them to keep the listener front-of-mind

It’s important that your narrator always keeps the listener in mind while reading. When they’re in the studio with lots of technology and a producer/engineer listening in, it can be easy to forget that they are, in fact, engaged in a performance, and need to sound engaging to the listener. 

A helpful tip to give your narrators can be imagining that the person they are telling the story to is sitting across from them. Smiling when narrating, depending on the context of the book in question, can also help to give the content more energy and emotion.

When developing character voices for their first audiobook, reassure your narrator that they needn’t stray too far from their own speaking voice. Often, a subtle change in pitch can be enough to distinguish characters, and can help to produce a less artificial performance and end result. Work with your narrator to conceptualise character voices based on the content, but keeping their natural voice range in mind. Find more great advice in this video.

Ultimately, it’s crucial to make sure your narrator knows they’re training for a marathon not a sprint. 

It’s important they practise narrating long passages prior to the recording session, so that they’re match-fit and can maintain consistency throughout the sessions. Encourage them to go through all the steps above in the practice stage as much as possible in advance, especially in the week leading up to the recording sessions. Then, when they get to the studio they can feel confident that they’ve practised and addressed all those pesky technical issues, and can focus solely on what’s really important – the performance!

Want more tips? Join us in Edinburgh on 6th September, or grab a ticket to access the video recording, for an in-depth panel event all about creating show-stopping audio content.

Iain McKinna founded Offbeat Studios in central Edinburgh in 1994. Since 2015, the Offbeat Audio division has been recording, producing and directing professional audiobooks for major publishers such as Canongate Books, BBC, Saraband, Penguin Random House, DK Audio, Hatchette, Bonnier Books UK, Profile Books, Saga Egmont and HarperCollins.

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