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Reading (Aloud) Is (Probably Not) My Business
I have long harbored a secret ambition to do voiceover work. For years, I made commercial breaks more enjoyable by hitting the mute button and then reading the closed captioning in my most orotund radio-announcer voice (“After the diaper goes on, the day goes on—the freshness stays!”). I should mention that my wife has the patience of a Zen Buddhist monk combined with an ability to appreciate South Park, which means she not only tolerated this behavior but, frequently, laughed. Her laughter seemed genuine—but perhaps I was too busy doing voiceover to hear the desperation in her voice.
My dreams of actually becoming a voiceover professional, however, remained just that: dreams. I kept them stashed somewhere between my remembered glory as the front man in a succession of bands and my imagined prowess as a Madison Avenue copywriter. (There are times when I think that Mad Men was written specifically for me.) I slogged on, doing the things I’m probably actually best at, like reading, writing, and coaching five-year-olds in soccer.
But when Mary Burkey, the author of Booklist Online’s Audiobooker blog and Booklist’s Voices in My Head column, challenged me to read and record my own writing as a Podiobook, my long-slumbering desire . . . slumbered for another year or so. Hey, I was busy. But when it finally woke, I had questions: Just what is a Podiobook? And how long would it take before someone offered me money to record one?
Podiobooks, as it turns out, is a Web site where people can record their own audiobooks and make them available for free. It’s self-publishing for audiobooks, which means that not only can authors write and print their own novels, free from the interference of those oft-maligned Big Publishing Houses, they can record their own audiobooks, too. All this wonderful technology now allows us to give our art to the world—though, of course, selling it remains as difficult as ever.
Fortunately, I don’t have to sell this to anyone. In fact, I’ll feel fortunate if I don’t have to pay people to listen to it. So, I decided to record my own audio and see what it’s all about.
Source material is important, of course, which is why I decided not to read “The Read,” the postapocalyptic tale of book reviewing that inspired Mary’s challenge in the first place. I did my best to channel Cormac McCarthy’s stunning style—and, frankly, I think I nailed it. But it’s so stripped and spare that I doubted it would showcase the full range of my vocal talents. Similarly, I decided against “A Novel Idea,” my more recent parody (it’s a historically fictitious account of the birth of the novel), thinking that novice narrators, even those as gifted as myself, should probably avoid English accents unless they want to sound like they’re doing Spinal Tap at karaoke.
I chose instead “Reading Is My Business,” my hardboiled metafiction about the brutal business of book reviewing. Conveniently, it’s narrated by a character named Keir Graff. I can sound like myself, I reasoned, and I should be able to pull off a throaty noir rumble for the character Bill Ott.
Technical setup was simple: I downloaded Audacity, which is free, and borrowed an administrator’s password, which allowed me to install it on my computer. For a microphone, I plugged in a cheap Logitech headset that I use for webinars. After a little tinkering with the audio settings on my computer, I was off and running. It was simple to record my voice and play it back.
But, while recording is simple, the difference between professional and amateur (or, for those of a certain generation, live and Memorex) becomes instantly apparent. My headset mic had a pronounced propensity for popping (especially reading words that start with P); I had no music stand on which to set my papers; and, in fact, because my cord wasn’t long, I had to read while seated at my desk, which made it really hard to narrate in the orotund fashion that I favor.
But, I reasoned, my professional demo reel could wait. And, if I didn’t want Bill Ott to fire me in real life (as he threatens to do in the story), I needed to set a strict time limit on the experiment. Telling myself I could always “fix it in post,” I forged ahead. After a couple of false starts, I read through the story from start to finish. I told myself that I would do a better take later, but later never came, mainly because the whole thing took longer than I imagined it would.
I then edited my first take, using Audacity’s easy-to-use controls to eliminate fluffed lines (when I screwed up, I simply paused and then repeated the sentence), heavy breathing, unscripted cursing, and gasps of dismay coming from outside my office door.
Then, because a noir-tinged tale of two-fisted book reviewing demands atmosphere, I added some bumper music, brief samples of Duke Ellington playing “Passion Flower.” Then, because I love radio plays, I added some sound effects: an El train, footsteps, and laughter. I learned editing the hard way, remembering too late that adding space to the main voice track means all the sound effects shift. But, still, after about eight hours of work, I had a possibly passable piece of audio—except for those popping p’s.
Am I the next Morgan Freeman? Nope. And, like so many dreams, actually giving it a try makes you realize just how hard it is to make it look effortless. But I had fun anyway. And who knows, maybe I’ll do it again.
Things I’d Do Differently If I Did It Again
1. Prepare. Had I bothered to rehearse my reading of “Reading Is My Business”—even though I wrote the story—the end result would have been better. If I did it again, I’d use highlighters to mark which voice goes where and good moments to take a breath. I might even use scissors to cut the pages into more natural breaks.
2. Go easy on the funny voices. I love to mimic, but, unless you count high school, I’m no actor. Next time I’ll leave the funny voices to the pros. To distinguish between characters, simply using a higher or lower voice will probably work most of the time.
3. Allow more time than I think I’ll possibly need. Recording a 17-page, 29-minute story took about 8 hours. Granted, I was learning the software and starting from scratch, but I also didn’t end up with a result that was half as good as I wanted. I might have pulled it off in two days.
4. Invest in a good microphone. My headset probably cost about $30—and it sounds like it. Fortunately, you only have to listen to me for half an hour. If I want to be the next Scott Sigler, I’ll have to spend a little money on something better. And get one of those pop filters, too. (The pop filter is cheap but makes the whole enterprise feel more professional.)
5. Get a music stand. And an extension cord. And make sure I’m in a comfortable, quiet place with relaxing lighting. Sitting at my office desk under fluorescent lights would have been perfect if I was recording a how-to manual for the business-to-business crowd. (It would be terrible for my zombie mash-up or erotic poetry.) But, still, with a laptop and a few accessories, I should be able to get solid-sounding results for a couple hundred bucks. Time and effort are a more crucial investment than money here.
6. Relax. I’m guessing that if I had done the whole thing once or twice, then tossed those out and done it a third time on a subsequent day, I would have had more fun, and it would have sounded like it, too.
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