The Rural Juror

Once more.
Try it again, slower.
Okay, now you’re dropping out.
Take your time.
Ignore the punctuation.
Pay attention to the punctuation.
Relax. Make it more natural.
Pick it up. A little more force.
You’re dropping out again.
You’re off mic.
Slurring a bit. Take it from the second line.
From the top of the paragraph.
You’re off mic again.
Dropped a plural. Try it again.
You lost the “and.” Make it clearer.
Lost the “the.”
Break the narrator’s voice from the dialogue.
Let’s do that curtain line again.
A little faster.
Don’t rush it.
A little sharper on your enunciation.
One more time.

I spent almost a decade doing group software training and trade show demos. I read the dialogue for both The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria out loud a dozen times during the course of rewriting both. I did a score of readings and interviews for the Handbook from 2002-2003, a solid six-week tour for Dermaphoria in 2005, and five or six readings with Peter Maravelis and the other authors of San Francisco Noir 2. Then there’s LitQuake and numerous panel discussions and I can’t remember. The transition from speaking to an audience about software to reading my own (very personal) work was rough. It took a long time to lose the shakes, and even longer for the feeling of being so… exposed, to fade away. But fade it did, and when I finally read the opening chapters of Dermaphoria on KQED, and then The Numbers Game for Seth Harwood’s podcast (which I did at the tail end of a righteous chest cold, I might add), I was confident. I heard compliments on my voice (which I’d always imagined sounding like Wallace Shawn impersonating Bob Goldthwait), which encouraged me to study more about vocal technique. I learned about “placement,” about relaxing (which I don’t do well) and opening up airways to create resonance. I developed my pre-game ritual before a reading: Play some Johnny Cash on my iPod while I reviewed my text; finish with a shot of bourbon. I’ve been able to call myself a novelist for about eight years now, so when I met Andrew Barnes of Blackstone Audio at the Medford airport recently, I felt like a pro.

Andrew, the director on my audiobook recording of Dermaphoria, is a seasoned, professional recording engineer and all-round, bona fide rivethead—he’s built several recording studios himself and drives a vintage Mustang he’s been slowly restoring. Andrew is a voracious reader and an even more voracious listener. He’s a stickler for pronunciation, knows the nuances of certain regional accents and can discuss their evolution at length. Andrew and I had books, beer and rock-and-roll in common.

My kind of dude, I thought. This is going to be fun.

And it was fun, don’t get me wrong. It was a blast. But Andrew is also a perfectionist, a reputation which precedes him. I met several voice actors throughout that week, actors who had scores of audiobooks under their belt, who’d won numerous awards or had ongoing roles in Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival.

“Oh. You’re working with Andrew,” they’d say. Emphasis on ‘Andrew.’

“Yeah. He’s cool. You ever work with him?”

Some said ‘yes,’ some said ‘no.’ But they all said, “He’s a perfectionist. Hardcore.”

They spoke the truth. My Monday morning in the studio obliterated all my certainty that I knew what the bloody heck I was doing.

Ever meet a copyeditor? I mean a real pro, the kind who can spot a rogue double-space a mile away? The kind who can discuss at length the difference between an em-dash, an en-dash and a hypen? Or knows an apostrophe masquerading as a single quotation mark? The kind who can read the same manuscript, over and over, and ferret out those devil-in-the-details errors without ever tiring? Imagine somebody like that who deals with the spoken word instead of the written.

“I’m catching some movement,” Andrew spoke into my headphones.

“What do you mean?”

“I can hear you moving.”

“Right,” I said. “Let me readjust, get comfortable. See if that helps.”

“It’s your shirt.”

Not my shirt, please. It had been a gift and was a favorite. Gunmetal grey, flared collar and barrel cuffs from Thomas Pink. Trust me, it’s awesome.

“Your shirt’s too stiff. The mic keeps picking up the fabric.”

“I’ll keep still.”

“You have another one?”

“Of course.”

“Softer fabric?”

“Yeah. Want me to change when we take lunch?”

“Yes. Let’s take lunch now.”

Some advice for budding voice actors: Wear soft fabric. Much better. Can’t hear a thing. Keep still, though. Avoid dairy if you get congested easily. There’s some tissue next to the music stand. Drink water. If you drink anything else, don’t make it too sweet. I’m getting smacking noises, gummy sounds. Rinse your mouth out. Don’t eat anything too spicy at lunch. There’s a pillow behind you. Hold it over your stomach. Breathe, relax, keep some antacids in your pocket and abandon all modesty about making, um, certain noises— the kind you make in the morning when you’re hungover and hope nobody can hear.

It took almost four hours that first day to record the first three chapters. Before lunch, Andrew introduced me to Grover Gardner, also a man whose reputation precedes him. Grover gave me some pointers on my reading, how to preserve the intimate tone of the narrator’s voice I’d created in my head, while at the same time projecting and inflecting more than I was used to.

“I think of his voice as drug-fueled pillow talk,” I said. “The book is really a prolonged love letter.”
“Yes, but people don’t always listen to audiobooks in ‘pillow talk’ conditions. They’re in traffic or on subways.”

“I understand. I’m having a hard time making the leap. Would you mind doing a page or two? I’d like to hear your take on it.”

“Oh, I’d rather not,” Grover said. “If the writer is reading his own work, it’s something unique and I don’t like to tamper with the writer’s voice.” Weighty words from the man who used to record for the Library of Congress.

“I appreciate that, but Andrew speaks highly of you and I would love to hear a professional’s take on my work.”

Grover indulged me. He stepped into the booth and read the opening pages, his voice smooth and mellifluous, the higher tones resonating from his skull blended with the lower tones from his chest for that spooky, intimate sound I had in mind, but without the muffled monotone I always used. And he didn’t slip up once. Not a short breath, stammer or misfire of any kind on the same pages I’d spent all morning trying to record, pages I’d written myself.

Then I heard it. Grover was leaning on the same parts of the sentence in his speech that one leans on in writing: the nouns and verbs, the subject and key action of each line. Not a hard-and-fast rule (and Andrew stressed this), but he was very subtly stressing the important words of each sentence to create a cadence that engaged the listener without losing the mood of story.

“You want to fade into the background,” Grover said. “You want the listener to hear the story, not your voice.” Just like writing.

He joined us again the next day, when Andrew and I were in the thick of the dialogue and I was struggling to distinguish between characters, especially reading Desiree’s lines. Again, Grover lifted the fog.

Andrew and I spent five days in the studio recording a novel I’d written but hadn’t laid eyes on in as many years. The word play, alliteration and assonance that were so critical in conveying the narrator’s disjointed memory and acute synesthesia became minor regrets, bits of verbal pyrotechnics that seemed to detract from the story because they were such a distraction to read aloud:

“I can scarcely imagine the electric insect invective it’s hurling at me from its dying, foul bug mouth.”
“…white wire of light…”
“…a furious, spastic blast of water…”

While I read, Andrew tapped the keyboard to mark segments of the recording for reference points and possible glitches, simultaneously annotating his copy of the manuscript. He would edit on the fly, stopping me mid-sentence for a correction which I would re-take and he would drop into the recording. At the end of each chapter, he had a single, contiguous reading that he delivered with his notes to a crew of engineers who took it through a round of proofing while we moved on to the next chapter. The re-takes grew fewer and fewer, the amount of text I could read without slipping up grew longer and longer. I stopped at one point to get more water and, for the first time, heard my voice through the speakers outside the booth.

That’s me? I sound like that?”

“Yup. That’s you.”

“What kind of post-processing are you doing to my vocals?”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Come on, you’re lowering the pitch, putting some bass in there.”

“Nope, that’s all you. It’s just an incredibly sensitive microphone. When you’re in position, it’s catching all of your low tones along with the rest.”

“Uh, any way I can have that microphone with me all the time? Plant it in my chest or something?” A man can dream.

We finished Thursday afternoon. Grover interviewed me for a future podcast. Friday morning, Andrew and I re-recorded the first four chapters over again in just over an hour, the same chapters which had taken half a day at the beginning of the week. I read the closing paragraph, that manic and plaintive run-on sentence full of heartache and regret, then stopped and waited for word on a re-take.

“And that’s it. Nice job. How do you feel?”

“Not bad, after five solid days of reading out loud.” I was done. Finally.

“Cool. Let’s grab a bite while we wait for a list of corrections from the engineers.”


*Recommended Reading: Um…: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, by Michael Erard
**Recommended Listening: Joe Frank and Steven Jesse Bernstein

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