Audio in extremis

Once upon a time, round about the start of the year, there was a settled order in the audiobook recording world.  A relatively small number of voice artists had at-home recording setups – often a booth, built in a spare room or the garden shed, which gave the experienced narrator greater flexibility in their work.  But the vast majority of recordings took place at specialist audiobook studios. 

 Overseen from the control room by an experienced engineer, recordings would be made in a professionally fitted and kitted booth. The studio’s post-production team would then take those raw recordings and carry out all the editing and quality checks necessary to turn them into finished audiobooks. 

This was exactly the tried-and-tested method that we were going to use for recording an important new release for HarperCollins, Adam Buxton’s Ramble Book.  We had dates booked in a London studio in March, beautifully timed to coincide with the coronavirus lockdown.

With Buxton, we were extraordinarily lucky; he just happens to be a successful podcaster with an excellent home studio setup, so it was feasible to record him at home, with remote direction and editing.  This had its challenges, especially with such a complicated production (music, jingles, editing that wouldn’t stomp all over the comic timing), but we pulled it off.

And this has largely been the case across the board: I have been hugely impressed with the audiobook industry’s ability to pivot during the lockdown, in conditions that make an already complex job so much more difficult. 

Those original at-home recording artists are now enormously in demand, while studios such as ID Audio, Whitehouse Sound and Chatterbox have been flat out in recent weeks in advising other voice talent on how to magic up their own recording setup, fast.  This scaling up of at-home recordings is sorely needed: all publishers still need to be able to access a huge range in our casting so we can get specific and authentic voices that do the text justice – whether it's so a sensitive memoir can be voiced by the book’s author, or to get on tape that particular acting unicorn who can do justice to a given novel’s Peruvian and Lebanese settings.

Studio technicians have been crucial in keeping recordings going, ferrying equipment to narrators wherever they may be and talking them through setting it up properly.  These same studio people then have had to get systems up and running within their teams to deal with the vastly more time-consuming post-production process required for an in-the-wild recording, rather than the tidier product of a professional studio.

In publishing generally, we’ve all talked about how this crisis will change the way we work – so has it demonstrated that, in fact, studios are surplus to requirements?  No. 

While there are certainly lessons to be learnt from this experience, when lockdown eases I foresee a joyful return to the professional booth for much of the industry.  Remote recordings have pushed a lot of extra stress on to our narrators – both actors and authors – who, beyond worrying about their performance and pronunciations, are now having to troubleshoot technical issues.  Progress can be glacial when working around the rumble of a nearby train line, noisy neighbours or pent-up kids.  Authors, generally unused to performing in quite this way, benefit from not just the technical support but the camaraderie of recording in person in a studio – and, with the best will in the world, that is hard to replace via Skype.  Meanwhile the teams at studios are battling vastly increased workloads and reduced margins, while publishers are not seeing any reduction in costs.

But, for now, it’s been made to work – and this flexibility matters to us as publishers.  Firstly, we’ve seen that consumers are turning to audio in droves to educate, entertain and escape the current moment, and we need to meet that demand.  Further, our ability to keep delivering new content gives us a distinct point of difference at a time when so many other entertainment pipelines, especially filming for TV and movie projects, will be severely disrupted for some time to come.

Audio has been celebrated for delivering astonishing growth in recent years, and with lockdown audio sales helping to buoy publishers’ balance sheets in this turbulent time, this crisis has really confirmed how integral audio is to publishing in the twenty-first century.