In the Studio with Maureen Johnson and Nicola Barber

I’ve never been much of an audiobook listener, but lately my attention and interest for it has been growing.  My children are hooked on audiobooks and we can’t be in the car without listening to something.  Of course, they’re pretty young so when they’re in the car I can’t actually listen to any of the YA books I’ve been adding to my “to listen to” list–titles I’ve gotten from the Odyssey awards, Amazing Audiobook lists, and posts here on The Hub, but my list is growing.  As I’ve been listening so many questions have come into my mind about how audiobooks come about and this week I was able to get firsthand answers when I attended a recording session for BrillianceAudio.The recording was of Maureen Johnson’s newest novel, The Name of the Star, and the narrator was Nicola Barber.  The Name of the Star is set in London and is an atmospheric thriller featuring Jack the Ripper, possibly ghosts, a mystery, and an American teenager.  The book is not yet out, but I can say from the bit we heard performed that it definitely captured my attention and I can’t wait to read (or hear!) the whole story.

On to the studio.  It was a surprisingly compact narrow rectangular room with a soundproof booth at one end of it.  It’s in this booth that the performer sits in front of a big microphone.  In the rest of the room were impressive looking soundboards,a big clock ticking away fractions of seconds, the engineer, the director, and assorted guests, which included the author,myself, the vice-president of BrillianceAudio, and a few members of the Amazing Audiobooks committee.  We sat and watched as Nicola brought Maureen’s words to life.  If you’ve ever harbored the fantasy that you enjoy reading aloud so perhaps you could take up a second career as an audiobook narrator, let me quickly disavow you of that notion.  Listening and watching  Nicola perform it was clear that she is a truly talented actress.  Indeed, when I later chatted with her about her career it turned out that prior to focusing on voicework she had a successful stage and screen career.  What was especially riveting about this performance was the number of different voices and accents she used.  When I’ve listened to books before I had wondered if they recorded all one voice at the same time to keep it consistent, but that is not the case.  Nicola read the pages in order, seamlessly moving from one character to the next.  What was especially impressive was her easily moving between different British dialects.  I was curious about who decides what sort of accent a character gets and Nicola told me that for this book the main characters’ accents had been indicated in the novel.  The other characters she used her own judgement for.  I was pretty amazed at how few errors Nicola made as she read, and how expressively and crisply she spoke.  I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be an author and hear your creation read aloud like that.  This was the first time Maureen had witnessed a recording of one of her books and she said, “It’s disturbing…but in a good way.”


There were really so many interesting things I learned about audiobooks, including:

  • Unlike filming a movie, recorded books are typically read beginning to end, completely in order.
  • Brilliance Audio uses the traditional “three legged stool” approach to recording–using a narrator, an engineer, and a director to create the recording.  The engineer and director both listen, but for different things.  The engineer is listening for sound quality (and indeed, twice, the engineer stopped the recording to go adjust a buzzing light that only he could hear), while the director is listening to ensure “fidelity to the book.”

  • They recorded using a common style called “punch in.”  In the punch in style the narrator, when she would make an error, would simply pause.  The engineer would play back the beginning of the sentence and she would just jump right into it, without having to start all over again.  It’s not like doing takes of a movie.  I was pretty amazed that they were able to do this without discussion about starting from where or when, they just did it.
  • Apparently it is exceptionally difficult to find an actor or actress who can truly convincingly go back and forth between an American and British character (which this narrator could do.)
  • A good standard ratio for a reader is 2:1, which means 2 hours of reading to get 1 hour finished product.  (They said that the narrator we saw was more like 1.25:1.)
  • Once the reading is done the production studio (which is where we were) does not have much more to do to the product.  It gets sent to the publishing company studios for finishing, which includes things like adding any music and credits.
  • A special fascinating tidbit for librarians:An audio recording of a book gets seven unique ISBNs for all the different formats!

It was really a special experience to visit the recording studio and see an audiobook in the making.  Many thanks to Tim Ditlow at Brilliance Audio, Nicola Barber, and Maureen Johnson for sharing it with me.

Sarah Debraski:  presently reading a comfortable old favorite, Coming Home by Rosamund Pilcher, and listening to Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar.

5 thoughts on “In the Studio with Maureen Johnson and Nicola Barber”

  1. How Cool. Nicola must have so much stamina, I get winded after a few picture books in one storytime!

  2. Great article, Sarah! It was an amazing learning experience, and I’m glad we were invited to see it.

  3. Great post! I’ve gotten much more into audiobooks in the last six months, and a good narrator makes ALL the difference ! I’m a big fan of Angela Dawe, who reads, among other things, Ally Carter’s Heist Society series. I don’t know if I’ve heard anything by Nicola Barber, but I’m excited listen to this one.

  4. It is neat to learn behind the scenes information. Thank you. I think I’d like to share this with my young adult groups.

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