The NAB Blog

Recording for the Dustbin

By Nicolas Soames

1 August 2008

The other day, we ditched two new recordings before they even got to the CD pressing plant, and got different actors in to read them afresh. It is an expensive business to do that, but they were both part of a new box-set scheduled for next year, and to have two average-to-poor CDs in a 6 CD box was simply unacceptable.

I am not sure how often this happens in other audiobook companies. We have found it necessary to do this from time to time over the fourteen years since we started, but I use a simple yardstick: if I can’t bear to listen to it, why should anyone else? And, frankly, I don’t have to buy it!

But it is a problem with the way the audiobook world works. We decide on the book to be recorded, and consider the ideal voice or voices: young, old, fresh, mature, light, substantial, classic or contemporary. Do we want someone with a chameleon of characters at their disposal like Rupert Degas, or do we want someone who just touches the character yet conveys 3D – like Juliet Stevenson?

There are many good audiobook readers in the firmament, yet when you look down the Naxos AudioBooks list of actors you will see (and our loyal fans know) we go back again and again to particular voices: Juliet, Anton Lesser, David Timson, Neville Jason, Sean Barrett, Emma Fielding for the classics; Garrick Hagon, Liza Ross for Transatlantic texts; Teresa Gallagher for the junior range (and adult classics also); Jim Norton for literature from the Emerald Isle.

Although there is the danger of over-familiarity, the bottom line is that they have remarkable talent. But we can’t use them all the time. And we want to discover new readers – new talent that is pouring out of the drama schools and interested in reading despite the allure of TV and film. I have particularly enjoyed Glen McCready’s recent recordings for us, including The Lost World, which I thought tremendous fun. Clare Willie did something rather special with Cranford, and I am glad to say she is back in the studio next month.

So what happens when it goes wrong? It varies. Choices can be made, often on recommendations or because actors have been seen on stage or screen. Yet when they sit in that booth in front of the single microphone, the magic is not there. Or they simply can’t read. Or they can read narrative but not dialogue, or the other way round.

Sometimes, it is our mistake: we put a hundred-metre runner in a 5,000-metre race. We were wrong to ask. Sometimes, the actor should have declined… but work is work!

Generally, actor and producer don’t meet before the day of recording. There is no long rehearsal period as there is for the stage, and you can’t have a read-through as for TV and even film. Actor and producer may speak beforehand and arrive at some common view on the book.

But the business begins at 10 a.m. when the green light goes on. And only then do you know! Adjustments can be made – and often are – in that first crucial hour, when tone and pace are set. Occasionally, the reading seems just okay, and we have to give it time to settle. If necessary, we can come back to the beginning at the end.

With the recent examples where we had to rerecord, we had decided, at first, to try new voices. It was rather hard work in the studio – very far short of electrifying – but the producer decided to soldier on. It was only some time later, when the editing process had virtually finished, and I listened as a fresh ear on the proceedings, that a halt was called. Can we really release this? There was simply no life. The words were all there in the right order, but no sparkle came out of the speakers.

And as this set is designed to represent one of the major American writers who celebrates an anniversary next year, back we went to the studio – with John Chancer and Kerry Shale, two very experienced readers – to do them again. The difference was dramatic.

We do this kind of thing with caution for obvious economic reasons. But it is done from time to time. Naxos Audiobooks comes from a classical music background, so we have always felt (and especially as we do literary classics) that we have to justify every recording we make on a performance basis. Is it really a lively, faithful representation of a classic? Does it bring something new to the view of a book? Will the performance hold the listener’s attention, not just provide words in the ear? These are the criteria used in Naxos classical recordings – not least because often a new CD of Mozart will be judged against existing recordings!

So… sometimes a recording does go into the dustbin. And so it should!

Nicolas Soames

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