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Monday Classroom: Behind the scenes–Ann M. Richardson, Audiobook Narrator, Voiceover Talent

I became intrigued by voice-over talent/audio book narrators when voice-talents auditioned with Bellebooks/Bell Bridge books for my novels and the novella. They’d send me a sample and I’d listen and  see if there was a “fit.”

I loved Ann Richarson’s voice as Melissa (narrator in Sweetieright away. Ann was/is perfect as Melissa–she is Melissa. I became so fascinated by a profession I didn’t know much about,  I was happy and honored when Ann took time to talk with me about what she does.

What led you to become a voice-over talent?

I had the great fortune to be read-to by my mother and grandmother.  Both were great readers, adding inflection and emotion to the stories, and stopping to explain words or innuendos when I didn’t understand.  It was not uncommon for them to become so involved in the stories that they cried or laughed when the situation became sad or funny.  My grandmother perpetually read Mary Roberts Reinhart’s “Tish” series to us, and my mother was especially gifted at doing voices; we loved when she read to us from the “Uncle Remus” stories.  In college I majored in broadcast journalism, but I got married in the middle of that and moved from Nebraska to California.  I took a break from full-time college in order to work full-time. I managed to take night classes at community colleges nearby, focusing on literature, composition, and business communication.

When we had children, of course, then, I read to them almost every night, the way I had been read to.  I volunteered in their classrooms and libraries at their schools, reading aloud. When my job evaporated with the economy in the early 2000’s, I began to contemplate a job that could enable me to stay home with the boys and still contribute to the household income. I went back to my original direction and took two community classes introducing the basics of voiceover and giving an overview of the industry.  Each class gave students the opportunity to record samples and receive a professional evaluation.  Both instructors gave me very high marks and I decided I would tackle it.

But it wasn’t until I began volunteering for Recording For the Blind and Dyslexic (now known as Learning Ally) that I discovered that narrating audiobooks was really the direction I wanted to pursue.  I still do website narrations, phone system messaging, and the odd voiceover job here and there, but narration is my passion.

You have a beautiful, clear-distinct voice, so it’s no wonder you received high marks! For anyone interested in pursuing this career, where do they start? What kind of training is required?

If you think you have the chops for it, sign up for a voiceover class (there are tons available, just Google it!) and become voracious in your search for information.  There are lots of groups on LinkedIn that you can join and learn from reading the discussions posted there.  Most important, DO NOT QUIT YOUR DAY JOB.  This is a highly competitive industry, and 90 percent of it is marketing.

Unfortunately, there is no minimum requirement of training in order to be a voiceover talent or narrator.  Recently the market has been flooded by those who have lost their jobs in the economic downturn, and since the voiceover industry has become predominantly a home-based industry (you can set up a good in-home studio for as little as $2000.00) there are many, many people auditioning for the same jobs.  Because I want to be the best I can be, I attend at least two training workshops a year, attend webinars and tele seminars as often as I can. I also read industry blogs, articles, and meet with voiceover people whenever I can. My goal for this year is to take acting lessons.  If you are more focused on long-form narration, volunteer reading aloud somewhere.  I will explain this further on in this interview.

Sweetie's mountains (mine, too)

You were consistent in Sweetie and I was amazed by how each character always sounded the same—lending an authority and exactness to your work. How do you keep up with all the characters’ voices?

When I get a narration project, the first thing I do is read the whole book.  The next thing I do is begin a journal, keeping track of each character, their history, their physical description, mannerisms, basically anything that can give me clues to how they will sound. For “Sweetie” I wrote in my notes that Sweetie herself was a cross between Pippi Longstockings and Nell (from the movie “Nell”).  She was sassy and had a heavy accent.  Melissa’s mother, I noted, was aristocratic, condescending, and pretentious, with no accent.  The bully, TJ, reminded me of Nellie Olsen from Little House On The Prairie . . . you get the picture.

There is also a lot of research that goes into the rest of the book, aside from the characters.  For example, I spent hours on the internet finding and listening to snippets of the songs that Sweetie would sing occasionally.  I watched documentaries on TV about the Appalachian region’s language, and I googled the accent.  I also found, in a weird way, that all those years watching NASCAR with my husband paid off.  Many of those drivers are from North Carolina, and I could hear all their voices in my head while I was reading!

Wow! You do your research—but it shows. And you also sing quite well, by the way. :-D. (The NASCAR reference made me laugh.) So, d
o you have any favorite kinds of books?

I absolutely love young adult literature.  Especially if it’s colorful and exciting, like “Sweetie” was. I love it when the characters are well-developed, and authors use colorful descriptive words. Oddly enough, I’ve been cast for several memoirs lately, and that is a much different style; very low-key and almost informational in delivery, but I enjoy that as well.  My passion for reading revolves around communicating, and making sure the reader understands what the author is trying to get across.

How about some funny, or uncomfortable, or weird, or just plain “Oh Dear!” moments in this business? 

I’ve had a few bloopers.  Most of them just get edited out, but one was pretty funny and I ended up sharing it with the author, who shared it on her website, as did the publisher, Oasis Audio.  The book was “Moonlight on Linoleum” by Terry Helwig, and there came a point in the story where the main character got herself in a pickle, and even though I’d read the book before I started, the scene suddenly struck me funny and I got to laughing and couldn’t stop.  I didn’t stop recording because I was just lost in the moment, and I couldn’t help myself.

There was another book I narrated, a textbook on Protestantism, where I pronounced “pastoral” not as “PAStoral” but as “pasTORal” every time I came across the word.  Hey, I was raised on a farm, whaddaya expect! I had to go back and fix all of those. Very tedious.

shhhh!

Another aspect to consider when you begin recording is how quiet your recording environment is.  My biggest enemies are leaf-blowers, FedEx trucks, and my dog snoring.  I can put the dog outside but there is no remedy for the others.  My family has also had to make adjustments for my career.  They must be very quiet in the house while I’m recording.  Spring break and summer are especially difficult.  But things have become much better for them since my sister-in-law got me a neon sign that says “VOICEOVER RECORDING!”  I turn it on every time I record and they can easily see when they should be quiet.  This has also led to an interesting problem.  I forget to turn it off.  This prompted my 13 year old to make a sign for me that he taped to the wall outside my booth: “DFATLM” (Don’t Forget About The Light, Mother).

See, one Saturday afternoon, I’d finished recording and had forgotten to turn it off. My husband was working on the car (he was heavily into racing cars up until a few years ago, and so he has all the good air-impact tools) and this day he saw my light on and so rotated all the tires, changed the oil and various other tasks, all using hand tools. He came in from the garage rubbing his sore, wrenched shoulder.  He was NOT HAPPY when he saw me sitting on the couch, and my light was still on.

DFATLM.

*laughing!*–oops! By the way, my brother, who lives in Oklahoma, raced cars for a while.  Ann, how are you and books/authors connected?

I am not shy about contacting authors, if the publisher is ok with that, but sometimes publishers prefer to be the go-between, which is fine.  I love to connect with the authors for pronunciations, clarification on confusing situations, or to make sure I’m on the right track. I want to do the story justice, and present it the way the author wants it painted.  A good narrator disappears; the characters emerge and it’s not my voice anymore, but theirs.  My mom gave me the highest compliment on a book once.  She said, “I forgot it was my daughter narrating, and got lost in the story!”  My first paid audiobook was a memoir of a sight-impaired professor, who was learning to use a guide dog.  She was very actively involved in the reading of her story, and guided me through how she wanted it read, inflections, pronunciations, and pacing.  She was really a blessing in disguise, and it was very hard work.  But as they say, “No pain, no gain!” and that long, arduous book taught me so much about recording, pacing, characterization, and consistency, and proof-listening, that I felt I should have paid her!

Does your voice ever give out? Do you have to do special things to keep up your voice/vocal cords?

A brand of throat coat that has licorice root! Sweetie gave Melissa tea with licorice root! :-D I love coincidences . . .

Audiobook narration is a marathon, whereas voiceovers such as commercials, website narrations, etc, are like sprints.  When one narrates, he/she should be able to record for hours at a time.  This means you learn what your body can handle, and still deliver a good product (pay attention to consistency!)  You learn what foods make your stomach growl, what drinks produce mucous in your throat, what foods make your mouth sound sticky, and what remedies work best for a cold, sore throat, or congestion.  You learn not to party hard the night before you narrate, and to get plenty of rest and of course DRINK LOTS OF WATER.  I feel that being in good physical shape is paramount to good breathing, and so I run a lot. I don’t consume dairy of any kind before I narrate, or you can’t hear me over my stomach, and I never drink orange juice, or I sound like I have a mouthful of peanut butter.  There is an awesome tea called “throat coat” that I drink non-stop while I narrate.  It keeps the mouth lubricated, but not “clicky”.  And if I begin to sound hoarse, I stop talking COMPLETELY for about an hour.

Are there characters you don’t like and find distasteful to voice-over?

eeek eeek eeek, eek?

I have not yet come across a character whom I didn’t want to voice.  The nasty ones are fun to get down and dirty with, and the more colorful, the better!  Technically, though, I find myself the most challenged to portray elderly men.  I have to practice that.  That’s part of why I want to take acting lessons this year.  I want to learn more techniques that will enhance my skills, and be a better, more versatile narrator.  I once was narrating a children’s book for Learning Ally, and had to voice a hamster for a whole chapter.  That’s A LOT of squeaking! There were literally no words, just “eeeeeek, squeak, eeeek weeeeeek!” for a WHOLE CHAPTER.

Well, I liked what you did with Zemry, the old man in Sweetie. Any advice to offer for those interested in doing voice-over work?

Google everything.  Do your homework!  Listen to as many podcasts or tele seminars as you can; read books; sign up for an introductory class.  This is not for the faint of heart, but there is much work to be found, if you’re dedicated, ambitious, and tenacious.  Here are some resources to check out:  www.edgestudios.com, www.voiceoverextra.com, www.voiceoveruniverse.com, www.acx.com.  If you want to find out if you think you’re able to do this kind of work, I STRONGLY encourage you to find a program where you can volunteer reading for those who need this service.  I volunteer weekly for Learning Ally, www.learningally.org, where I record two hours at a time.  No matter how busy I am, I make time to continue this.  The members who use this service depend on us to record textbooks, including such intricate and complicated volumes as calculus, physics, math, and chemistry (we’re talking elementary through college level here!) to children’s literature, fictional works, and even stage plays.  Some of the members have made it through college using our services, and are working on their masters or doctorate degrees!  They are truly motivated and amazing in what they accomplish. Please visit the website.  This is a non-profit organization run ENTIRELY on volunteer readers.

In addition to providing a valuable service, recording such a variety of texts hones one’s skills as a narrator and gives you a chance to try things you wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise, such as accents, character voices, learning new recording software, etc., while still keeping in mind your must produce a high-quality, pleasant-to-listen-to recording.

Thank you Ann! Appreciate you! And thank you for bringing my characters, and the characters of other authors, to life.

For more information on Ann and her work, visit her website, or Learning Ally, or email Ann  at annmrichardson@hersmoothvoice.com .

Also, coincidentally, after we finished up this interview, this weekend Sweetie the audiobook went on sale at Amazon, itunes, and audible.com. Good timing! :-D

A short sampling to listen to: Sweetie & Melissa at Whale Back Rock (as well, there are samples on the links above)

(Hamster image – Visit the ASPCA, animal shelters, and other wonderful animal-lover places!)

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