The audio version of Ocean City Lowdown has just been published, and I have to say, it was quite a learning experience for someone who hadn't a clue about the nuts and bolts of creating an audiobook. People who know as little about the process as I did have asked me, "Why didn't you do it yourself?" Oh, no no! Now I have observed the preparation, the voice training, the acting skill, the equipment, and the post-production work that goes into creating a professional-quality audiobook, and I understand that such an undertaking requires much more than a voice recorder and some good intentions. Fortunately, I was working with voiceover expert (and longtime Marylander) Izolda Trakhtenberg. We had an interesting conversation about her work:
Kim: You do a lot of research before and even during the recording. For example, didn't you consult with the Ocean City Board of Tourism? What other kinds of interesting or oddball things have you had to research, for this project or others?
Izolda: I called the Ocean Board of Tourism to ask about pronunciations of geographic locations like Assawoman Bay. If a character says the name and she or he is supposed to know the place, then I'd better have the pronunciation right. I also like getting the feel of places and locations where the stories take place. As part of the research for Ocean City Lowdown, I went to Essex and Dundalk and hung out in the local Starbucks and a couple of diners. I wanted to soak up the accents and the cadences of how people talked and related to one another.
As part of a movie project I did for NASA on Earth's biomes, I spent time researching the plants and animals of those places so I could describe them with feeling. One of the most unusual items I researched was the Rafflesia flower in Indonesia. It smells like rotting meat. When I narrated that movie, I wanted to convey that sense of what rotting meat would smell like in the jungle. I endeavor to bring a sense of immediacy to every narration. I want the listeners to feel like they are right there, in the moment, like the action they are hearing is happening right now and they are participants in it rather than just witnesses to it. Research helps me get into the story so I can then try to communicate that immediacy to the audience.
K: How do you study the accents that are needed for your work? What was your process with Ocean City Lowdown? Who/what were your sources for that unique Maryland sound?
I: I have a few sources for accents, including Evangeline Machlin's work on speech for the stage and performance. I also use Paul Meier's books and terrific website. His Accents and Dialects for Stage and Screen has been a great help. For Ocean City Lowdown, I went to the source as much as possible. I asked friends for recommendations on where to go and people I could listen to. I then got in touch with these friends of friends and asked if I could record them speaking to get a feel for how they say what they say. I also went to the Dundalk Public Library and hung out at the tables and listened to people interact. I stopped a couple of young women who sounded like they might be around Jamie's age and asked if I could record them speaking. While the accent of a place is important, I find that cadence, the lilt of how people from a certain area speak, is equally important in conveying a sense of place. If the cadence, the musical ups and downs of speech patterns, don't ring true, the rest of the characterization will not ring true either. The same can be said about characters' ages. Younger people sound different than older people. Voices change as we grow older and those differences in vocal tone, quality, and timbre have to be imparted to the audience.
K: Do you listen to music, eat specific foods, or do any other stuff to get yourself into the mood for whatever you’re reading?
I: If the work I'm narrating contains music references, I will listen to those. Otherwise, I prepare to record by doing a comprehensive set of physical and vocal warm-ups. I do a lot of tongue twisters and sing and speak at the outermost reaches of my vocal range. Since the characters in any reading will have a wide range of vocal styles, I need to have facility in speaking up high or down low, quickly, slowly, softly, loudly, etc., with whatever the work requires.
I eat no dairy before recording because it will clog my throat. I also gargle with warm salt water before and after a recording session. Otherwise, to get in the mood to record, I open the chapter I will be reading and spend a little time reading the book. I like to get a little lost in the story before I voice it so that I can bring as much of it as possible to life vocally.
K: You went to Ocean City for the very first time while you were in the middle of recording Ocean City Lowdown. How did the real Ocean City compare with your impression of it from the story?
I: I loved both. The biggest difference between the book and the actual place was that I was there in May and everything felt warm and nothing was frozen. The book takes place in the cold of winter so that was a striking difference. It was great fun to see the places you describe in the book. I didn't get to go into Seacrets, but it looked like a great time. I saw South Moon Under and Piezanos and a good number of other places described in the book. My favorite part of any place near the water is the water. I'm hoping Jamie's next adventure takes place when she can be on the ocean more.
K: You’ve done fiction voiceovers as well as educational audios. What’s your favorite kind of voiceover project? Or, what are aspects you enjoy about these very different kinds of projects?
I: I love them all, but if I have to choose, audio books are my favorite kind of voiceover project. I enjoy commercial narrations and educational voiceovers, but I love the creativity that I employ to bring characters to life with my voice. I love developing the characterization and personalities of the people who populate a book. Their voices, cadence, and vocal mannerisms have to convey their whole lives since there are no visual cues in an audio book to give the reader any clue as to who these people are. Voice acting excites me because it allows me to flex my acting and theater muscles. Theater was my first love and audio book recording is a bright, big window into that world.
When I narrate movies, I am an accompanist to the main event. The visual aspects of a movie tend to be what most seeing audiences focus on. The narration accompanies what is happening on screen. In order to narrate those projects effectively, I have to change my focus to one of supporting what else is happening instead of being the primary conveyor of information, education, or entertainment. Again, that type of narration flexes a different but just as fun set of muscles.
K: Your work is creative, but it's also technical. What are some of your favorite things about each side of this coin?
One of my favorite aspects of narrating a book is the opportunity to get into the minds of the characters in the book. The book describes their motivations and their actions. And I have to bring those to life vocally. I prepare for voicing each character like I would prepare and develop a character for a stage play. I study each character's desires, motivations, and relationships. Then, I communicate those using only my voice. The difference between a stage play and an audio book narration is that a stage play will have many actors playing the various roles. As the narrator of an audiobook, I have to play every role and do it in such a way that the listener feels like she or he is listening to many people who live in the world of the book. Granted, I do not create radically different voices for each character, but I do attempt to give each person in the story an inner life that is imparted to the listener as the story unfolds.
I need to capture what they want and how they ask for what they want without any of the visual cues that would be conveyed in a movie or television show. Audio book narration is also different from the old radio plays in that there are no sound effects. The voice has to bring all of the drama and action of a story to life without any additional sound.
In addition to doing the actual voiceover/narration work, I am also my own production team. I am the engineer, the director, and what they call, "the talent." So, while I am recording, I have to remain cognizant of any slips that I make in wording, pronunciation, recording quality, or slips of the tongue. So, while part of me remains involved in doing the creative part of actual narration, another part of me is listening for a word I misspoke, or a sentence I read slightly differently than I might want to have read it. I then have to stop everything, cue up the correct point in the recording and start over. Often, I will have to do take after take until I get a sentence or a word just right. Often, authors are really good at writing for speech. In other words, the writing is easy to read out loud. It lends itself well to narration. Sometimes, the phrasing is challenging or sentences are long and that makes narrating as if the action of the story is unfolding in the moment much more challenging. So, I have to practice some sentences many times to get them so I can say them as if they are happening right in the moment.
My own personal bane are the words, "rear wheel." If I ever have to say them in a narration, I will be in trouble. For some reason, these two words together give me a challenging mental block. I have to say them over and over until I get out of the groove of saying "real wheel."