RECORDING BOOTH WEIRDNESS
Each narrator’s journey is different and interesting, and many remarkable adventures happen in our quest for pristine recording environments. I recently went to social media to ask my audiobook narrator colleagues to share with me their stories from the booth. I hope you find these as enjoyable as I do!
RECORDING ENVIRONMENTS EVOLVE: COMING “OUT OF THE CLOSET”
Many narrators these days start out narrating in a closet, surrounded by clothing. This is a perfectly viable “recording space” provided no sounds from the surrounding house bleed through into the recording. However, it comes with inherent challenges. I recorded my first handful of books in our walk-in closet, and performed a variety of steps before each session to ensure my recordings sounded consistent from session to session. Because I had to move my equipment out at the end of each session and set it up again the next day, I learned a LOT about my equipment and mic technique. Step one was to make sure my mic stand was in the exact same spot as the day before. Black electrical tape on the floor marked where the feet of the mic stand went. Step two was to make sure my chair was in the exact same position, again using electrical tape to mark the floor. Third was to make sure my mouth was in the same proximity to the mic as always. I had a Sennheiser “shotgun” mic, which has a very specific pickup pattern that minimizes background noise. But what I discovered was that if I was even slightly off in proximity or angle when I began to read, the sound was noticeably different. Now, this is going to sound silly, but I was just starting out and my intuitive, discerning listening skills had not developed enough for me to hear where I should be. What a noob! So I unbent a wire hanger (plenty of those in the closet!), wrapped one end around the mic, attached a little bit of sponge to the other end, and positioned it so that it barely touched my cheek when I was in the proper recording position. This way, if the sponge was touching my cheek, I knew I was good to go.
Fast forward a year or two, and my loving husband had built me a booth in the upstairs hallway. Being the meticulous engineer he is, he researched everything exhaustively and I was able to “come out of the closet” and move into my very own, beautiful, sound-deadened 3’ by 5’ recording booth, replete with Auralex foam and a pass-through for the cords to connect with my laptop outside the booth. I was in absolute heaven, and still am; just this week I wrapped up recording my 200th audiobook.
GETTING (and surviving) A RECORDING BOOTH
The importance of a silent, dedicated recording environment cannot be emphasized enough, and as can be expected, it’s a blessed event when a narrator finally gets one. The delivery of a dedicated recording booth such as a “Whisper Room”, “Studio Bricks” or a custom-built, can be an event in itself, as Jack de Golia relayed: “My booth arrived midday last summer, when it was ‘only’ 108 degrees. The delivery guy managed to get the 1200 lb. crate onto his lift gate, nearly falling off of it, got it to the ground and we pushed (sweated) it into my garage. Then 5 VO friends arrived with tools and in 3 hours we had it set up. Whew. It was a family barn raising, led by Dustin Ebaugh.” (a fellow voiceover artist).
Receiving a new booth can even qualify as a near-miracle, just ask Stacy Gonzalez: “I just received my booth today, in the middle of a Shelter in Place order during a pandemic.”
Once you get your booth, it can still be difficult, sometimes dangerous, using it. Amy Rubinate described how she ended up in a boot: “I recorded barefoot and was always so happy to be freed from the padded room that I would sort of hop out onto the same spot every time. I broke the 5th metatarsal in my foot…ended up in a boot.”
Another friend, Amy Farris-Stojsavljevic, was in her booth, happily recording away, “…when my overhead light fell down on my head. Fortunately, it was (at the time) a long, fluorescent tube in a plastic housing, so it didn’t hurt too bad. And yes, I saved the audio.”
Andrea Emmes Cenna recounted: “It was a hot summer day, you know, the key time for barely wearing anything in the booth, loaded with ice packs and frozen bras to stay cool and I was home alone. I was about to head out of the booth when the door knob fell off from the inside and I was stuck inside. Thankfully, I had an allen wrench in the booth for some reason and was able to MacGyver my way out.”
IT’S LIKE BEING IN A WOMB…
Not all challenges in the booth involve annoying noises that halt recording or need to be edited out. Sometimes the hurdles we face in our silent, almost air-tight booths is something that has plagued the best of us. The soothing, warm, quiet place is like a womb, and if one is narrating more sedate or calm material, or operating on a lack of sleep….zzzzzz….zzzzzzzz….
Clayton Laurence Cheek was working on a tourism project for an international client a few years ago: “I had worked steadily through the day and wanted to finish because of two social events scheduled for the weekend. It was late Friday evening and I was making mistakes. I paused and thought, ‘Okay. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Then get back to it.’ When I awakened, I had recorded seventeen minutes of breathing. I went to bed, arose in the morning and finished in about an hour. I don’t record sitting down these days.” Been there, done that, Clayton!
Elizabeth Holmes shared: “A few years ago, my partner Fred Campbell and I offered audio engineering services to others. One of our clients was a hypnotherapist who needed a series of CDs mastered for distribution. Fred took on the job of cleaning up her raw audio. A couple days into the project, I asked Fred how things were going, and he said, “She’s good! When I worked on her ‘Restful Sleep’ series, I was out cold in no time.”
Shannon Elizabeth Parks: “Here’s one- I was in tech rehearsals for Macbeth- tough show, crazy fabulous role playing lady M and on a vicious book deadline… getting home late from the theatre, narrating 6 am to noon before rehearsal, and one morning, I actually fell asleep while recording but had continued narrating while almost dead asleep… several pages!!! Talk about boring yourself to sleep with your work!!!!
I’ve done that while reading my boys bedtime stories, but I got nudged and jostled to wake up; I’m pretty sure I sounded like a drunken sailor.
Amy Rubinate commiserates with Shannon: “I did that once on right deadline late at night! Listened back and apparently had kept reading for 20 min but with the wrong character voices!”
Andrea Emmes Cenna described her own encounter with narrating in altered states: ”I have a pain disorder, CRPS, and most of the time my medication helps stave off the pain flares and doesn’t interrupt my life too much, but during this one time, it was just unbearable and it was affecting my work. My husband suggested that I try eating an edible, explaining that since I don’t smoke, there are many other options that I could take to help assuage the pain. I said sure. He bought me a chocolate bar and I broke off a small section to eat and then went into the booth and began recording. Hours later, I woke up, face smushed against the wall, drooling, still recording. I don’t even remember feeling groggy or anything. Just BAM, nap time! Gotta say though, I wasn’t in pain! 🙂
Another aspect of recording in a womb, is….oh, the HEAT!!! Think about this: Once you get your fancy-schmancy sound-treated recording booth, it will keep your voice in, and the noises out. And the cool air out. And the oxygen out. When temps soar past 100 degrees in the summer, and narrators keep forced-air conditioning off so that the noise doesn’t infiltrate the narration, it’s a constant struggle to stay cool. Narrators are known to bring ice packs for groin and armpits, frozen bandannas for the neck, and I’ve made use of my son’s frozen gel shoulder-wrap from his baseball pitching days. We need to endure, persevere, and meet our deadlines. But it’s often not pretty.
“ I was recording a book in which a teenager starts suffering from overheating in a space suit, as well as shortness of breath due to his oxygen running out.” said Mark Turetsky. “I thought I was just really getting into it, but in fact I had not turned on the booth’s ventilation system. It turned out really great!”
ODD NOISES EXPLAINED BUT STILL WEIRD
Even with a luxurious booth, unexpected, and sometimes unexplained things can still happen. Here are some incidents of odd things that have caused anomalies in recording.
Jim Seybert wasn’t sure his experience qualified as “weird” but shared it anyway. We’ll file it under the category of “odd noises to edit out”: “In 7th or 8th grade, I broke my ankle riding a toboggan that slammed into a tree. It still has a “click” when I move it a certain way and at least once in every book an editor will ask for a pickup because of a “background click.”
Another odd noise that is surprisingly more common than I would’ve thought, is the presence of other items in the booth: Again, Jim Seybert, with the odd noises: “…just recently I started to hear this unusual echo-y sound. Discovered the nearly empty plastic water bottle was resonating perfectly to the sound of my voice.” And Amy Rubinate, owner of Mosaic Audio, a busy audiobook production company with several recording booths, agreed: “We get that with peoples’ metal water bottles”. But something truly odd, is Melissa Kay Benson’s experience: “When I first got my booth, I was working and I kept hearing “fwiht, fwiht”. After investigating all possibilities, I realized it was my eyelashes brushing the inside of my reading glasses.” Think your mic might’ve been a tad hot, Melissa?
Amy Rubinate shared another favorite: “Before I owned Mosaic, way back when it was a one booth operation in a third-floor apartment in K-Town, we used to pick up a pirated Mexican radio station. You could hear them announcing the soccer games and yelling, GOOOOOOOOAL! We worked around it and finally fixed it, but it drove us all mad.
Todd Menesses: “I was recording away on a book and making great progress in the booth when I paused for a second because I could hear breathing that wasn’t mine. Granted of course it was a horror book so at first, I thought I was imagining it but then I heard it again as I held my breath to make sure it wasn’t me that was breathing. I knew I was alone in the house this day as my wife went shopping with her sister, it went away and then I heard it again louder this time and raspy and evil sounding. I took my headphones off and turned to open the booth door to get out…and that is when I noticed my little dachshund was curled up by the door snoring. She was the source of the strange breathing. I’ve got two French mastiffs, Todd. The “Darth Vader” breathing outside the booth is real!
Elizabeth Holmes: “I was auditioning for a video game character when my cat strolled under my copy stand and startled me. I was sure I’d locked him out of the room! It caused me to deliver the line in an altered voice that the client loved. I got the job!”
Carla Mercer-Meyer: “This may not qualify, but I was working in the booth. It was around three am and there was a weird sound picking up on my audio that I could see but couldn’t hear. I looked out my tiny booth window to see that my entire family of five was standing outside the booth, kind of looking at me…. at three am!! Which startled the crap out of me. I guess we had just had an earthquake. No clue why I didn’t hear or feel it.”
I would’ve shat, Carla.
Marni Penning Coleman shared that her husband snores SO LOUDLY that she could hear a difference in the room noise through THREE closed doors – including the heavy-duty studio door!
My own experience with odd noises happened when I was recording one day, really in the zone, enjoying the peace and quiet of being alone in the house, when the toilet just down the hall flushed. I froze, the hairs on my arms pricked up, and I sat there petrified for about a minute. Then I ventured out, thinking logically, that my dogs would’ve made some noise if there were someone else in the house with me. I made the rounds, couldn’t find anyone, and then went out to the mailbox to get the mail. On my way back into the house I noticed a doorknob hanger that let us know that the water company was working on pipelines in the neighborhood and it would be affecting our water pressure. I decided that’s what caused the flush.
WHEN THE WEIRDNESS GETS REALLY WEIRD…
It’s surreal, sometimes, how the text can affect how we feel in our booths. Over the summer I narrated a holocaust diary almost entirely at night (kitchen renovation was happening during the day) and I felt eerily like I was up in the girl’s small bedroom at night, while she wrote it. It was truly transcendental. But things can sometimes get a little more…. out there…. and defy normal, logical explanation.
Ray Porter answered my Facebook call and shared this story:
“This is weird. And I’m not really given to paranormal things. I was recording a book about the Iraq War. Just about to start the chapter where a lot of the people we had gotten to know were sadly killed in combat. I felt…odd that whole section. I looked at the file and there were odd looking things in the waveform. So I listened. Over my narration was the sound of a group of men quietly talking and then, clear as a bell, like someone leaned over me and whispered into my mic, “Christ is with you”. I checked every possible technical thing. Eliminated everything it could be. RF bleed over, etc. No explanation for it and nothing like it has ever happened again. Thing is, it was freaky to be sure but it didn’t feel scary. Honestly it felt more like ‘hey thanks’.”
I had something similarly weird happen when I was narrating a Christian book on battling spiritual demons. Things were going along swimmingly, then my throat began to constrict. I chalked it up to seasonal allergies, and I took a break. When I resumed, I began to stutter and stumble over my words with unusual persistence and frequency. So I sipped my Throat Coat tea, took another short break, and came back at it. Soon my vision began to swim, and taking off my glasses, administering Visine eye drops, and closing my eyes for a brief rest did nothing to mitigate the blurriness. Something weird was up. I’ve had all of these things happen independently before, but never all in the same session like this. So I began to consider the subject matter, and then I called my mom. I described my challenges and asked her to say a quick prayer for me. Moms are great, and I know she did as she promised, because within 10 minutes, everything was back to normal. I continued narrating and was a bit shocked when the very next chapter described each of my symptoms just as I’d experienced them. The chapter was on a certain demon the author had encountered.
AND SOMETIMES THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO…
Ever since I’ve been recording in my lovely booth, I have been especially appreciative of the “passthrough” my husband included near the floor in a corner. It’s a small plate the size of an electrical outlet, with simply a small hole in the middle. This allows you to run cords through a wall to the other side. This allows me to keep my MacBookPro outside the booth (along with the noise of its fan), and control it with a mouse, keyboard and monitor inside the booth. One day I was alarmed and frankly, kind of pissed, when I noticed my mouse was all over the place! I watched as the cursor scrolled across my menu bar, then up into the browser, then over my waveforms…. several cusswords later, I stepped out of the booth in utter confusion and found my husband, pranking me, leaning down into the cabinet and playing with my laptop.
We’re still married.