MUS­INGS TO OUR EARS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Once a niche mar­ket for pub­lish­ers, au­dio­books are fly­ing off vir­tual book­shelves and into our head­phones — with help from celebrity nar­ra­tors, writes

Af­ter years on pub­lish­ing’s pe­riph­ery, talk­ing books are now speak­ing vol­umes. And the big­gest names in en­ter­tain­ment are lin­ing up to lend their voices to the cause. Mu­sic fans can en­joy Johnny Depp read­ing Keith Richards’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy or lis­ten to artists such as Bruce Spring­steen nar­rate their own mem­oirs. High-pro­file stars in­creas­ingly are pro­vid­ing au­dio as well as text — who bet­ter than Patti Smith to tell us in her own voice the story of her ex­tra­or­di­nary life?

Mean­while, lit­er­ary-minded lis­ten­ers can, with­out lay­ing an eye on a sin­gle word, in­dulge in clas­sic and con­tem­po­rary fic­tion voiced by ac­tors of the stature of Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Kate Winslet, Maggie Gyl­len­haal, Wil­liam McInnes and Rachel McA­dams.

Once a niche mar­ket cater­ing mainly for readers with visual im­pair­ment, talk­ing books — now more widely known as au­dio­books — are very much part of the con­sumer main­stream. Ac­cord­ing to the news site Good eReader, last year 43,000 au­dio­books were re­leased world­wide, up from 36,000 the pre­vi­ous year and 20,000 in 2013.

The ex­pan­sion in the range and in­creased avail­abil­ity of au­dio­books in the dig­i­tal era has cre­ated new op­por­tu­ni­ties in the arts sec­tor, for writ­ers and voice artists through to pub­lish­ers, pro­duc­ers, sound en­gi­neers and aca­demics.

The surge in au­dio­books, lib­er­ated from the prac­ti­cal con­straints of phys­i­cal me­dia, is be­ing felt as much in Aus­tralia as any­where else. It is two years since the well-es­tab­lished lo­cal divi­sion of Au­di­ble, the world’s largest pub­lisher of au­dio­books, com­menced op­er­a­tions here.

Au­di­ble Aus­tralia uses the Risk Sound/ Sound­firm stu­dio com­plex in Mel­bourne, along with an im­pres­sive fa­cil­ity in Sydney. When Re­view vis­its, the stu­dio is a hive of ac­tiv­ity and Fiona Macleod is stand­ing, head­phones on, poised at the mi­cro­phone, ready to bring the printed word to life. The ac­tress reads from a sheet of bull­dog-clipped pa­per cov­ered in en­larged print. She has been en­gaged for 70 hours to record three “foodie fic­tion” nov­els by Bris­bane-based au­thor Josephine Moon: The Tea Chest, The Choco­late Prom­ise and The Bee­keeper’s Se­cret.

The Au­di­ble stu­dio op­er­ates seven days a week, partly due to the strong de­mand for new con­tent, and also be­cause the record­ing of an unabridged au­dio­book takes con­sid­er­able time to com­plete. Even with the ben­e­fit of mod­ern dig­i­tal record­ing tech­nol­ogy, which en­ables in­stant seam­less edit­ing of in­di­vid­ual words and sounds, mak­ing an au­dio­book is a time-con­sum­ing process. Ac­cord­ing to Maryanne Plazzer, a producer at Risk Sound, the av­er­age record­ing is done on a 1:2 ra­tio so that one hour of fin­ished au­dio takes about two hours to record. There are about 9200 words spo­ken in one hour of au­dio.

Plazzer be­lieves “the key to mak­ing a good au­dio­book is for the nar­ra­tor to have a re­lat­able voice that con­nects with the story, matched with good tech­ni­cal read­ing skills and enun­ci­a­tion. When this process is ex­e­cuted well then the magic hap­pens, and the story comes alive.”

Some­times the au­thor may turn out to be the best per­son to read their own book aloud. Among the most pop­u­lar Aus- tralian ti­tles are books read by their own non­ac­tor au­thors such as David Hunt, Lee Lin Chin and Cle­men­tine Ford, along with record­ings made by sea­soned pro­fes­sion­als such as Magda Szuban­ski and David Tredin­nick. Plazzer says big-name screen ac­tors of­ten sought out for pro­mo­tional rea­sons aren’t al­ways the best fit for au­dio­books. “Not all ac­tors have the time to fine-tune their nar­ra­tion skills, nor are they ac­cus­tomed to read­ing aloud for long pe­ri­ods of time. Some are so used to ad lib­bing that they find it hard to stick to the words on the page.” In ad­di­tion to cast­ing nar­ra­tors, Plazzer gets in­volved in pro­nun­ci­a­tion re­search, mak­ing calls to town halls and po­lice sta­tions to check place names. Ac­cu­racy as well as pre­ci­sion is vi­tal — the sub­con­scious sub­sti­tu­tion of a dif­fer­ent word to the one used by the au­thor must be corrected even though it might have been a bet­ter edi­to­rial choice. Nar­ra­tors are some­times cho­sen in part be­cause they can do con­vinc­ing ac­cents needed for char­ac­ters in the book. A par­ent jug­gling young chil­dren with a full-time ca­reer, Macleod sees au­dio­books from the per­spec­tive of a con­sumer as well as that of a cre­ator. “In the midst of a busy life, I find au­dio­books and pod­casts are great for en­gag­ing my brain at times, rather than lis­ten­ing to mu­sic all of the time,” she says. “I do love hav­ing the lux­ury of sit­ting down and read­ing a book as part of my work.”

To ob­serve Macleod at work in the stu­dio read­ing Moon’s fic­tion is to see an ac­com­plished voice ac­tress in her el­e­ment. Her eyes dance across the page, and her face runs the full gamut of emo­tion. Due to the sheer num­ber of words that need to be spo­ken and with limited time to re­hearse, Macleod says that the per­for­mance largely has to be given in the mo­ment, based on sight read­ing.

“As a voice artist, you have to trust that the au­thor is good. It is great to be able to bring their world to life. As the sto­ries are re­vealed to me I re­ally en­joy an­i­mat­ing them.”

Macleod says Moon has a warm and en­gag­ing ap­proach to sto­ry­telling that suits “a voice with a smile in it”. She aims to ren­der the prose ac­cu­rately in a tone that re­flects the mood of the chap­ter, while also reg­is­ter­ing var­i­ous char­ac­ters in pas­sages of di­a­logue, pay­ing at­ten­tion to age, gen­der and na­tion­al­ity.

Macleod in­sists her read­ing of a book should not be seen as the uni­ver­sal one. “I think peo­ple can still use their imag­i­na­tions even when they’re lis­ten­ing. They are still not see­ing.”

With­out warn­ing, Re­view is in­vited to say a few words into the mi­cro­phone. Hear­ing one’s voice as oth­ers will hear it, in real time, is an ex­act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Im­me­di­ately one be­comes aware of the need to con­cen­trate and think ahead, as well as tech­ni­cal is­sues in both writ­ing and speak­ing such as punc­tu­a­tion, pac­ing and breath­ing. An au­dio ren­der­ing of the writ­ten word brings out colours and in­flec­tions in the text that the reader’s eyes may glide over

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