Saul Reichlin is an actor with extensive experience of reading for audio books. In this fascinating interview, he lifts the curtain on the recording process and generously gives away a few trade secrets.
At a party given by an actress friend of mine a few years ago, I bumped into an old drama school pal I hadn’t seen for ages. We did the usual thing of exchanging tales of our respective work (or lack of it). He told me he was narrating audiobooks, and he must have seen in my eyes the same expression I have since seen many times in the eyes of others, namely: ‘How difficult can it be to read a book aloud? I wouldn’t mind some of that work. I can read!’ Hmmm. Anyway, he was generous enough to give me a few pointers, but I would still have to depend on my voice agent to get me the job – you can’t approach the companies directly, unless, of course, you’re a star.
My agent said ‘Well they won’t give you an audiobook unless you’ve done one before’. I said ‘Ok, let’s get past the Catch 22 thing. How do I start?’ She said I needed a niche. Well, the niche finally came when they needed a narrator for a book by the South African writer, Deon Meyer. I’m an ex-South African, and well acquainted with all the character types.
I spent three weeks studying the book, Dead At Daybreak, every day until I could just about recite it! I was actually in Cape Town during this preparation, at a favourite café overlooking the sea. One of the main characters in the book was a black man with a rather long name. I was looking up from the page, wondering who I should ask about pronunciation, when a waiter came over and asked me if I would like anything. Thinking quickly (he was black) I said, ‘Yes, can you tell me how to pronounce this name?’ He looked at me suspiciously, then looked at the word, and his face beamed a huge smile. He gave me the pronunciation, and after that almost every time he brought me a coffee there was another word or two for him. It did his tips no harm at all. Thank goodness the book went well.
I can’t say that waiters have been much help to me since, although for my Italian words I go to La Gaffe, an Italian restaurant in Hampstead. The owner is a playwright I’ve known for years, and he is happy to help me with Italian pronunciation for the price of a Spaghetti Siciliana and a bottle of house red. My kind of price.
After my second Deon Meyer book, the company entrusted the wonderful Rome series by David Hewson to me, and my first Best Audiobook Award followed with The Seventh Sacrament. Later, good fortune brought me my most popular audiobooks, the Stieg Larsson trilogy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, one of the highlights of my association with Whole Story Audiobooks and White House Sound Studios.
What kind of preparation do you do before a recording?
To get away from all the distractions of my flat: phone, fridge, telly, computer, postman etc I do most of my preparation in cafes. Plenty of coffee and food (and someone to make it and bring it). I am known as the mad guy who sits in the corner talking to himself. This is because I start my preparation with a careful, slow reading, aloud (but softly) to myself. This allows me to pick up rhythms, timing, speed, characterisations and the general tone of the book, and also identify and practice any longwinded, awkward sentences, and of course, the tongue twisters. It is now that I mark all the words or phrases that have to be researched for meaning or pronunciation. Next comes a second reading, slightly more fluently, but rehearsing dialogue and refining characters and their voices. All this will have taken about 10 days at 5 hours a day. Finally, a skim-read the night before of all the next day’s narration brings to the story a familiarity that makes recording comfortable and gives a sense of an actor’s work well realised.
For the Stieg Larsson books I had to learn the pronunciation of 1400 Swedish people’s, place and street names. This took about 5 hours of tutorials with a Swedish speaker, followed by hours of listening to the recordings I’d made, and saying the words over and over to get them right. I am considered quite good with pronunciation, but it is really just a lot of hard work, and having a reasonable ear for accents.
Can you describe a typical recording studio?
Recording studios are dotted all over the country, and it often means a long drive or train journey, and then being put up in a hotel, B&B, or a flat, usually for 3 or 4 days. I actually like this, because recording in London, where I live, means rush hour public transport, whereas an out of town studio means a paid taxi to and from work, and a subsidised restaurant evening meal.
Sometimes a recording booth is small and cramped, but most are reasonably sized and comfortable, with the walls covered in foam egg-box or other sound-proofing. An aeroplane flying overhead or a siren or road works will always stop the recording, however. The producer and engineer sit in another room with banks of screens and buttons. There is a monitor or internal window to give visual contact, if needed. All verbal communication is through the headphones.
How does it work once you are in the studio? Do you record in long stretches that are edited later, or do you stop and start every time there is a stumble or glitch?
I like to read for an hour at a time followed by a 10-15 minute break for a cuppa, usually fruit or peppermint tea. I save the caffeine for after lunch. Others read for longer stretches, and I could too, but I like these shortish sessions as I get tired in the mid to late afternoon otherwise, and this leads to mistakes. We still get 6-7 hours recording a day, which is about regulation. Some studios stop every time there is a mistake or a glitch, and go back, while other studios work without an engineer at the recording, and the editing is done later. It’s possible to work with both systems quite easily.
At the studio, they laugh at the state of my desk, with all my paraphernalia. I have water bottle, mug of tea, fruit (bananas and oranges), honey, Rennies, tissues, pencils, eraser, pages of pronunciation notes, phone (switched off), wrist watch, loose change, eye drops, my fruit teabags, chocolate, and I don’t know what else. Well, I’m there for days on end. I don’t know how some people manage to be minimalist. With some narrators, if it weren’t for the pages on the lectern at the mike, you wouldn’t know anyone was working there. My desk looks like a refugee’s emergency supplies!
Can you describe the roles of the producer and the sound engineer? Is there anyone else involved in the process?
Some producers leave it mostly to you, while others are quite controlling. I don’t like a lot of interference, but good guidance is very helpful sometimes. A positive working relationship with the producer is vital. With the Stieg Larsson trilogy this was going to be critical, with about 130 hours studio time to record the 65 hours of listening, coming after hundreds of hours of preparation. I was lucky to have Gus Gresham, one of the best producers, expert, patient and easy to work with, and he made it a real pleasure. We worked very hard, for longer hours than usual, but we had fun doing it, and we remain friends today.
In my experience the sound engineers that the studios use are lovely guys, laid back and highly skilled, even if some of them have trouble getting to work on time!
How do you go about finding the right voice for a character? Is it totally your decision, or do you have someone who functions as director might in a stage performance?
Although suggestions are welcome, I like it when decisions regarding performance and voices are left to me. A producer with a good ear might point out anomalies in what you’re doing, though, for example if your accent is starting to drift. One of my rare non-fiction books is Playing The Enemy, by John Carlin, later made by Clint Eastwood into the film Invictus. I think this is one of my best audiobooks, and actually more exciting than the film. Half way through the recording, the producer, Carolyn Oldershaw, with whom I’ve worked many times, and who has an excellent ear, told me that my voice for Nelson Mandela was starting to sound like a Chinese waiter! After I finished laughing, I managed to ‘get him back’.
In my vocal ‘store’, I have a few favourite people that have stood me in good stead, especially when I need a voice for a baddy. One of these is the art critic Brian Sewell. He has a wonderfully superior, patronising tone and delivery. He crops up benignly in The Seventh Sacrament and later, in all his pompous glory, in The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest.
A fabulous opportunity came my way in the book The Fatal Touch by Conor Fitzgerald. As I was rehearsing the dialogue, the voice and speech patterns of one of the characters started to sound familiar. ‘Who does that sound like?’ I said to myself. ‘Ooh, I think it’s a bit like Sydney Greenstreet!’ It was, indeed, my version of the marvellous Sydney Greenstreet in his performance as Ferrari, the sleazy owner of The Blue Parrot cafe in the film Casablanca. Even though he’d probably deny it, I’m absolutely sure the author based the character in the book on Greenstreet - his expressions seemed to come right out of that great film. After listening to me ‘do’ him for a while, the studio producer (Carolyn again) smiled and said ‘You know who you sound like? That fat man in Casablanca!’ I was a bit afraid that she would object, but she said it was fine. And I loved doing it, so I went all the way with it. It remains one of my most enjoyable characters to do, even though he was an evil sod in the book.
Don’t want to give too many secrets away now, but Richard Burton has made the odd appearance!
Have you had characters that have been particularly hard to get right? Or ones that have 'come right' unexpectedly?
Sometimes at the first time in front of the mic, the character’s voice comes out just right, as if by itself, but if someone is just too difficult, it’s best to do a suggestion of something, and hope the listener will be tolerant.
If you are doing a reading that requires multiple voices, how do you ensure they stay consistent through a long reading?
Occasionally I have to think back to get the sound and rhythm of someone back in my head, especially if there’s been a long gap since their last appearance, perhaps in an earlier book of a series. If it’s ‘gone’, the engineer will sometimes play back a bit of the last time that character spoke to remind you. I’m happiest when there is an identifiably different quality to people. Then it’s lovely playing a scene with a few characters, especially if the writing is entertaining.
What are some of the biggest audio pitfalls to avoid?
Make as few noises as possible. Every breath or swallow or start of speech can make a sound that has to be deleted later, and this makes editing laborious. Keeping still is vital too, as moving about in the chair makes sounds, and even the ticking of a watch can be picked up by the mike, and cause a break in recording. Once or twice I’ve made the table lamp vibrate with a particular vocal pitch, and it’s possible to imagine how some singers can make glass shatter.
A slightly weird problem arose once when a producer (yes, it was Carolyn) stopped the recording and said, ‘Saul, your nose is whistling’. I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel insulted. It was like being called an old codger who couldn’t control his nose! I’ve tried, but I still don’t know how to whistle through my nose.
An unexpected danger is in not having the right breakfast! If you’ve eaten too little or too fast, tummy rumbles will cause stoppages because the microphones are very unforgiving, and pick up absolutely everything. Hence the Rennies that are always close by, in case, and a banana for elevenses.
For me, going into a recording session under-prepared is the most awful danger, especially in a long book. Thankfully, this has only happened once or twice, and it wasn’t deliberate. Either I didn’t realise what still needed to be done, or because of other commitments it wasn’t possible to devote the amount of preparation time to the book that I usually do.
With software now offering authors the opportunity to record their own audiobooks, or at least to record extracts for podcasts on their websites, what advice would you offer them before they tackle such a project?
Most authors are happy to leave it to a competent professional, but some insist on doing it themselves. Some authors sound ok, but others change their minds after listening to themselves.
Technology is making it possible for narrators to equip themselves at home now, and this might be the future. It’s catching on with audiobooks in America, and more and more voice work is being done this way in the UK too, but home recording can never match studio quality for audiobooks, I don’t think.
An unexpected pleasure has been in participating, on behalf of Whole Story Audiobooks, in talks held at libraries about the making of audiobooks. These talks include reading extracts from some of the books I have narrated. Recently, on one such occasion, on World Book Night, the bestselling crime writer, Donna Leon, was there as ‘the main event’. After my talk, I had the honour of interviewing her at the invitation of High Wycombe Library, who put on a superbly conceived and presented affair, and the 200 strong audience were most positive in their appreciation. Beats sitting in a soundproof studio!
Gradually replacing CDs and cassettes, downloads are making audiobooks quick, easy and cheap to buy, or borrow from the library. In their reviews, so many people say they have become avid audiobook listeners, whether in the car on the daily commute, on the bus or train, or walking the dog. They tell of their car journeys across America or Australia, when they could not wait to start the next leg of the journey to continue the book. A long distance lorry driver emailed me to tell me his days were completely different now that he listened to audiobooks. This is most gratifying, because it is a corner of an actor’s working life when he is never in the same room as his audience, and can’t know how he is being received. After all, applause and laughter are what sustains a performer, and on a cold night it can warm the heart when someone somewhere has been moved to write to say how their life has been affected by your work.
I know. All together: Ahhh!
Saul Reichlin a South African born actor, trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He is the winner of the 2010 and 2008 ‘Sounds of Crime’ Best Unabridged Audiobook Awards for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and The Seventh Sacrament by David Hewson, and 2009 Best Audiobook Of the Year Award for The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson. Saul is the narrator of over 50 TV documentaries.