QUARTERLY BLOG: ALTERNATIVE AUDIO

In the last blog, I mentioned that Strathmore’s output has increased not only in quantity, but also in variety. This trend has continued over the first half of 2018 and, while audiobooks are still very much our bread-and-butter, we have branched out into other kinds of audio recording. From interviews, to podcasts, to apps, Strathmore has been developing a range of new skills and pondering the questions and challenges that come with them: How long will a listener be willing to stay for a bonus feature at the end of an audiobook? What are the differences between a competent podcast and an engrossing one? And how many different ways can an actor manage to read a line of dialogue for an app before they go mad? 

 

The most frequent kind of additional audio that Strathmore has been asked to record is the audiobook bonus feature. These are extras found at the beginning or end of the audiobook that weren’t included in the original text, and often allow the reader to learn more about the author, reader or book. In the case of This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, a comedic exposé of the dire situation the NHS finds itself in, the extras were able to do all three.

As a comedian, author and reader Adam Kay was already familiar with making charming and witty conversation, which Macmillan took advantage of by pairing him with Mark Watson to discuss the story of how his book came to fruition. Due to Adam’s extensive collection of gasp-out-loud anecdotes (and both men’s comedic tendency to push at boundaries) the challenge with editing this was not so much about helping the conversation to flow, but in avoiding any potential legal problems. Recently, we had Adam back in the studio to record a few more bonus tracks, as the title has become, at the point of writing, one of Macmillan’s fastest selling audiobooks – arguably a testament to the increasingly realisation that some things work even better in audio than on the printed page, and that some things can be done only in audio.

Podcasts could be described as the sister medium to audiobooks – not only because they are both spoken word mediums, but also in that they give such flexibility in how they can be consumed. Strathmore recognised this emerging medium early on, and has been producing podcasts for clients as diverse as the London Review of Books and Rabbi Sacks for a number of years. The diversity of these podcasts has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of working on them, particularly in the case of LRB – for example, the last two we recorded were Sir Ferdinand Mount reading his essay on the British Empire, and a short horror story by John Lanchester read by Toby Jones.

Our most recent work with Faber & Faber, however, has been yet another change of pace. Their poetry podcast is a free flowing chat between presenters Rachael Allen and Jack Underwood and, on each occasion, two studio guests, interspersed with ‘Audio Postcards’ sent in by poets from around the world. The four-microphones set up plus the complex editing involved made for an enjoyable extension of our technical experience. The opportunity to branch out into unfamiliar areas of voice recording is something we look forward to continuing in the future.

Although Strathmore specialises in standalone audio, we also been producing video. A major production was an interview with Suede front man Brett Anderson, as part of the promotional material for his autobiography Coal Black Mornings. Hachette sourced a wonderful interviewer in the form of novelist and music journalist Matt Thorne, and the conversation was insightful and entertaining. I was able to draw from my video editing experience gained during my Media BA, a skill I enjoyed dusting off and one I never anticipated would be of such use working at an audiobook studio!

A very different kind of sound-to-picture that we have recorded recently is voice-over. This has cropped up a couple of times in different forms – promotional animation for This Is Going To Hurt, for example – but one of the biggest departures for us was for a medical instruction video. Katie Scarfe, a regular reader for us, had the challenge of selecting a suitable tone of voice: on one hand ensuring that she was providing an enthusiastic and engaging performance and on the other, sensitively addressing the topic of Crohn's disease. Not a task to be taken lightly.

Strathmore’s creative partnership with publisher Nosy Crow has been long-running and varied – covering not only the publisher’s children’s books and their longer ‘chapter books’, but now also their range of apps. These take traditional fairytales and drop the reader/player directly in the middle of the story, allowing them to experience it through interaction. For the child, this is a seamless experience where characters react to their actions with coherent (and often very funny) dialogue. For the performer in the studio, however, this typically means reading hundreds of out-of-context sentences, often with multiple variations of the same phrase: “Can you see the cat?”, “Where could the cat be?”, “Is the cat over there?” Maintaining the sense of spontaneity in their performance can be a challenge, but as soon as the actors see wider picture in the form of a prototype of the app, their enthusiasm is restored and, without fail, they can’t wait to get back in the booth.

And perhaps that is the perfect metaphor for why we at Strathmore love working on alternative audio – taking a breather from the familiar, and seeing a wider picture of spoken word recording allows us to stretch our wings. From the knack of thinking on the spot that podcasts necessitate, to the discipline required to record VO for apps, different voice-only mediums allow us to hone specific skills that feed back into our production of audiobooks.

Billy Godfrey

3 July 2018 

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