With prerecorded music sales essentially stagnant over the past several years, and many music-oriented productions moving from commercial studios to garages or spare bedrooms, professional audio facilities are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities. Many over the past decade have expanded into “sound-for-picture,” raising the profile of these activities within the audio community. But another audio segment that has grown tremendously remains largely ignored by the rest of the business. Perhaps because of its lack of glamour, or its seemingly simple production process, most production for audio books takes place well outside the spotlight. Nonetheless, spoken word is a growing market, with annual revenues at retail reportedly up 10% to $2 billion in 1998-a real opportunity for the publishing-savvy audio facility.
The core of the spoken-word market is the recorded book, which began as a service to the vision-impaired and expanded as commuters sought relief from the tedium of daily automotive incarceration. “Each project is different,” says Robert Kessler of Kessler Media Productions, “but the bulk of the books involve a single reader.” Working for publishing giants such as Random House, Bantam Doubleday Dell, Time Warner and HarperCollins, Kessler’s company has produced over 500 such audio books in the last ten years. Working with engineer Scott Cresswell, Kessler’s production of the Christopher Reeve title Still Me won this year’s Grammy for Best Spoken Word. (He also did the sound for the Oscar-winning short animation feature, Bunny.) Kessler’s home base is a studio in Katonah, N.Y., that features four Pro Tools systems, a Yamaha 02R digital console, API mic preamps and Genelec 1031A monitors.
At the other end of the spectrum are titles rooted in the tradition of radio dramas. Alien Voices, for instance, is a company formed by Star Trek alumni Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock on the original series) and John de Lancie (Q on the Next Generation series) to bring classic science fiction to life in new media. The company has released five titles adapted for a two-hour audio drama format, delivered on both cassettes and CDs. Four of those productions-Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and First Men in the Moon-were engineered by John Chominsky of Waves Sound Recorders in Hollywood, Calif., with post-production supervision by Jeff Howell. Their work on The Invisible Man won a Communicator Award for Best Use of Sound.
In some respects, Kessler’s productions have little in common with the Alien Voices projects, with their ensemble casts, full sound effects and music. But they share the same target playback environment-mainly cars (with their high ambient noise) and headphones-and the primacy of the human voice, with an emphasis on intelligibility that is not always evident in the music biz.
NO PLACE TO HIDE”The hardest thing is a solo person and a microphone, because there is so much that can go wrong,” Kessler says. “It’s totally exposed, so there’s no place to hide.”
With a background in music composing-including films and television documentaries, along with scores for audio books-Kessler is no stranger to full production. “I love it when we do more production,” he says. “From a technical point of view and producer’s point of view, those projects are often more interesting. And in some cases when the book or the performance is less than brilliant, production can save a project. The music can often make something exciting that otherwise would be not so interesting.”
Overall, however, Kessler admits that “there are fewer added production elements going into spoken-word projects now. In many cases the power of the literature itself is what the project is about, not music or sound effects. The bulk of the work is intimate storytelling. Take the unabridged Toni Morrison read we did on Beloved, for instance. You’re not going to produce that up. The whole thing is the intimate quality of her delivery and material, and to do anything more to it would be kind of silly.”
To maintain that intimate quality, Kessler starts with careful microphone selection. “We most often use a Neumann 170R here at our studio. I find that works pretty nicely with a range of people. It can sometimes make women sound a bit sibilant if you’re not careful, but it usually sounds great. It has a certain crispness that I like for spoken word, because a lot of times people are listening in their cars. If a 170R is not available, a Neumann U87 or an AKG 414 also works well.”
Kessler likes to work with the mic close-in on his performers, though that often means extra editing later. “The closer you get in,” he says, “the more mouth noise you pick up, and the more breath. But if you go too distant to get around all that, you don’t have the intimate quality you need. So close miking is very important. If you take out all the breaths, it sounds unnatural. But it is logical to remove them as the reader makes a transition between characters. Also, sometimes when you have some noise that you just can’t edit out, you can get around it by actually mixing in some breath to help mask it. But some readers are so clicky that you end up driving yourself crazy trying to deal with every noise by redrawing the waveform in Pro Tools.”
With titles ranging from three to 16 hours, maintaining consistent energy and delivery throughout the performance can also be a challenge. “One reader all the way through is very demanding for the actor,” Kessler says. “It takes a lot of focus and concentration.” That means that the number of edits required to piece together a single book is often far higher than in typical music production, amounting to hundreds or frequently thousands in a title.
The sheer volume of edits does not normally present a technical challenge, but in the case of the Christopher Reeve project, Kessler says, Pro Tools was “really pushed to the limit. Basically every sentence was delivered in segments, partially based on the rhythm and respiration rate of his ventilator. We had to work around it, but still be sure that the ventilator sound was there, because that’s part of who he is. In editing, we found that, depending on what point we were at in the ventilator, a slightly different crossfade was required to make each edit work. Ten or 15 minutes into the book, we already had several hundred crossfades, which pushed the limit of crossfades allowed in a given session. So we had to keep bouncing each section out and starting a new session in order to continue.”
While the editing on Kessler’s spoken word projects is extensive, the use of signal processing is not. “You don’t want to process too much,” he says. “You want to be as true to the voice as possible. Mainly, you don’t want a muddy sound, and you do want a good strong level. During recording, we put on a little compression, but not a lot. We run through the O2R, and we’ve created a dynamics setting combining compression and expansion that works well for us.
“We also have the TC Electronic Finalizer,” Kessler continues, “which has nice three-band compression and still allows us to keep the signal in the digital domain. We might use a touch of compression while mastering. Also, a lot of times we’ll ride levels during the mastering process. It’s not just a matter of letting it play out of Pro Tools once it’s been edited. Let’s say there’s a soft-spoken part where the actor pulls in and gets very quiet. You want that tone, but you have to keep up the level.”
CAPTURING ALIEN VOICESChominsky’s work on the Alien Voices projects involves tracking and mixing at Waves (primarily a radio and television advertising production facility), while doing the editing and sound design at his own project studio, Atlantis. Moving back and forth between the two environments is easy because he has a Fairlight MFX-3plus in each. When tracking at Waves, he says, “everything is recorded through a Euphonix CS 2000 console into the Fairlight. I use the built-in compression in the console to add light compression to each mic. We don’t do any punching in as such; everything is stored as its own element.
“We set up the recording sessions in a way that allows us to build the performance and maintain a flow during the read,” he continues. “Sometimes, to accommodate an actor’s schedule, we need to be flexible about doing certain parts wild, but generally we try as much as possible to record a script starting from the top and working through to the end. We go as far with each take as we can, but we’ll stop if someone stumbles, or if we do a section and there is a feeling that it can be done better. Jeff Howell keeps all the notes on the takes and re-reads, and which performances will be edited together later.”
While the cast works as a group for the read, each actor is generally miked individually for his or her dialog parts. “But sometimes we’ll just stick up one mic in the room for the background parts like crowd scenes,” Chominsky says, “because that keeps it sounding more like a group.”
Chominsky’s preferred microphone for the dialog parts is a Sennheiser 416. “In addition to the dialog,” he says, “all the books have a narrator part, which we record separately. Our favorite mic for the narration is an AKG C 12, a large-capsule tube model from the 1950s. It has a nice warm feel, and it’s very personal, so it gives a nice differentiation between the narrator and the characters.”
The ensemble performance is usually completed in a single day, with narration recorded on a separate day. “Once all the voice tracks live in the Fairlight,” Chominsky says, “I can take the material to my Fairlight at home, where I do all the dialog editing. That can take quite a bit of time, because some of the parts have been done wild, and others have been re-read to get a better performance. Also, because we have everyone in the booth at the same time, with a lot of open mics, I’ll go in and edit out all the open air on all the tracks. So without using noise gates, everything is discrete, without a lot of bleed. We want to create the most clean, distinct voice tracks so when people listen in a car, on the radio or on cassette with headphones, everything is as clean as possible.”
After dialog editing, Chominsky edits the narration and interlays it with the dialog. “At this point,” he says, “with everything mostly laid out on the timeline, I run off a DAT or a DA-88 and send it to the music composer, Peter Erskine, who starts composing, recording and mixing the music at his own home facility. He uses both electronic and acoustic instruments, and he eventually gives me back these great music mixes on DAT. And he remains very involved in working with me to make sure that all the music is lined with the voice tracks in exactly the places that he had imagined.
“While Peter is working on the music at his place,” Chominsky continues, “I start adding in the background ambience and sound effects at mine. We try to be as unique as possible with our choice of sounds. We take some effects from libraries, but we also do our own Foley and unique sound design. And we also work quite a bit with synthesizers and samplers to come up with things that haven’t been used before.”
As an example of the approaches he and Howell take to make the effects distinctive, Chominsky recalls the Ant People from First Men in the Moon. “We wanted to create a unique sound for their movement,” he says. “So Jeff created a glove that had various objects attached to it, such as wire with dangling beads, and Popsicle sticks. When we recorded his fingers moving on a table, all these parts on the glove combined to create some very alien sounds.”
Chominsky and Howell also work on creating ambiences that support the listener’s sense of where the action is set. “The books take us to places like inside the center of the Earth, or on the moon,” Chominsky says. “For every new place that we go through in the story, we create a distinct background sound effect that subliminally takes the listener to that place. In First Men in the Moon, they are inside a metal sphere, so we created kind of a tight, metal slapback room effect. And, of course, if they are inside a cave, we’ll put reverb on them.”
When the sound effects and music are completely laid in against the dialog, the project moves back to Waves for mixing. “We take advantage of the Euphonix console by automating everything: the pans, the aux sends and the faders,” Chominsky explains. “We have a lot of panning going on as our characters are moving around. And we also add any EQ or additional compression that may be required at this point. We try to keep the mix as exciting as possible.”
Given the importance of spoken word in the automotive environment, the biggest challenge in mixing is making the material work across a wide range of playback settings. “The Alien Voices projects are released on CD,” Chominsky says, “and might be played back in a very top-notch environment. So we try to strike a balance between people who will be listening on a nice stereo system and people who will be listening to cassettes in their cars. We monitor on the main speakers, which are Genelecs, on our Yamaha NS-10 nearfields, on Auratones, on headphones, and also on television speakers, just to make sure everything still cuts through in a worst-case scenario.”
Chominsky’s signal path for recording the final DAT master is out of the Fairlight, through the Euphonix and into a TC Electronic Finalizer, which feeds the DAT. “We compress the whole mix,” he says. “The Finalizer is one of my favorite new toys. It’s been a very valuable tool enabling us to get maximum volume and intelligibility.”
All in all, Chominsky finds the audio drama productions to be among his most satisfying work. “In a movie,” he points out, “you have god-knows-how-many people involved in the audio process. But with these types of projects, I stay creatively involved from the tracking through the editing and sound design to the mixing. It’s very fulfilling, and makes it exciting to be part of these projects.”