Getting into the flow
There's no doubt, embarking on any audiobook narration is a daunting task. There are so many factors in play. First and foremost, there's the technical skill needed to capture a clean, dry but intimate vocal sound. Of course, you could fiddle about with things in post-production, using your parametric equaliser or other filters. Then there's your own voice. I use a range of warm-up techniques to get my vocal chords warmed up, but the area I work on most is my diction. There are certain sounds that can catch me out. There are two videos I'd recommend to minimise these issues.
The first is by Gary Terzza - who has probably one of the most familiar voices in the UK through his continuity work on Channel 4 TV. His videos are a brilliant resource, and I regularly recommend them to my colleagues who are starting out in broadcasting - especially around the tricky area of developing your own style - with light and shade in the voice. This though is a great run through a warm-up exercise I swear by.
There's no question that the physical side of voice over and narration can be overlooked easily. My first full-time jobs in broadcasting were as a newsreader both in independent radio and the BBC. Bosses loved my voice, but became frustrated at my performance in front of the microphone. I used to 'fluff' as we called it, with annoying regularity. One boss warmed me that if I did it once more that morning, I would have to go. I survived on that occasion, but I continued to struggle with my fluency. Even now, decades later, I reflect on what I could have done to improve the issues I was having. One thing I realise now is, that apart from nerves, which used to make me tighten up, I SHOULD have warmed up properly. Vocal chords, tongue, mouth muscles. The lot.
I used to chuckle at my mates who took Theatre Studies at my Cambridge Sixth Form College when they warmed up extravagantly before performances. All the strange convulsions, vocal sounds and writhing. To my cynical teenage eye it all looked so ludicrously over-the-top. But now I respect what they were doing and why they were doing it, and I've found myself developing my own routine before heading into the studio. Here's another brilliant tutorial from the National Theatre on the warm-ups all their actors do before hitting the stage.
It's part of a series of videos from the NT exploring all aspects of performance, not least breathing, another underrated part of vocal performance.
In the past, when I was younger and gung ho - we all used to leave hitting the studio as late as we could and show off how we could sound composed and slick on air with the minimum of warm-up or preparation. I shudder now thinking about it. It nearly cost me my first job in the Guildford newsroom of BBC Southern Counties radio. Now I wouldn't dream of facing the microphone cold.
But getting the voice ready to go for a marathon narration session is only one part of the job. The other key thing is to quickly find the voice of the author whose work you are bringing to listeners. What's the cadence that suits the work? The tone? The humour? What do the character's sound like? Do you try to mimic the voices of well-known public figures if you're narrating a biography?
These are all questions you need to answer to find, what I call, the 'flow'. That's the glorious feeling when whole paragraphs fly by in one take - no need for pick ups or overlaps. I find the 'flow' can be a difficult thing to predict. You can go page after page with smooth and accurate delivery, and then one sentence might halt you and it might take ten takes to get the intonation or diction right. That can be so frustrating. I try not to think about the edit to come. Instead I try to imagine my own voiceover Master Yoda in my ear, urging me to let the script flow through me again.
Chasing the flow will only keep it at arm's length.
Relax. Sip some water. Stretch. Take a break if necessary.
And may the flow be with you, always.