It all began like this…

Not exactly like this, but the goal was the same: Creating audiobooks for the blind, partially sighted or dyslexic.  When I began 30 years ago we recorded on reel-to-reel 1/4″ tape machines and had one engineer between two recording studios – yesterday there was one engineer to each narrator and everything was recorded onto a computer’s hard drive using rather strange software.

I’m choosing this topic for my first blog on the re-designed “me” website because yesterday I donated some time in support of Learning Ally’s Record-A-Thon (the organization formerly known as “Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic”) and had a wonderful morning down at their studios in Palo Alto which made me recall the many pleasant hours I spent at the Royal National Institute for the Blind’s Talking Book Service (now more than 75 years old) in London in the 1980’s.  I always say it’s where I served my apprenticeship in audiobook narration.

Back then I was at the BBC working a very strange shift pattern as a newsreader/presenter for Radio 4 that left me with time off during the week and as I was new to London I was still looking for things to do in my spare time.  A friend had recorded a few books for the RNIB (whose Talking Books studios were just around the corner from Broadcasting House, the BBC’s headquarters) so I volunteered and that was it, I was hooked.  For the next 10 years I must have recorded scores of books in short 3 hour sessions once a week (including my first recording of Frank Herbert’s DUNE canon – all five books took me about a year).

Here’s how it worked then: One engineer sat between two soundproof studios and listened in to each in turn.  We, the narrators, would record continuously and if we stumbled and the engineer was not listening to us we would first have to get their attention.  Then they would rewind the tape and at a suitable gap (prior to where we stumbled) the engineer would ‘drop’ us back into the recording.  I recall there were green and red lights on the desks in front of us and they put the green up for standby and the red when we were to start (come to think about it, it may have been the other way round!).  Nowadays I work alone in a studio and do all the work myself – while some narrators still practice the ‘drop in’ method of picking up after stumbles I prefer to record straight through, dropping markers when I need to, and editing the mistakes afterwards.

The Learning Ally studios are shown on the right – they look like a set of experimental boxes in a futuristic SciFi movie – you’re never quite sure if what emerges will be what went inside to begin with…

Yesterday I had to learn a whole new system because for that book I actually had to say the name of the page I was on and pause both before and after.  At the same time the engineer would click on a screen and highlight an icon indicating that page… and at the end of that page there’d be a pause, I’d say “Page two seventeen”, another pause while the engineer clicked the ‘217’ icon, and then on I’d go.  Certainly not the same as recording a commercial audiobook.  I’m sure this has to do with allowing the person listening to be able to easily find their way through the book.

I must mention the person who brought my attention to this organization and first invited me down to donate a few hours to the cause: Anne Richardson.  She’s someone who (like me) started recording for the blind and partially sighted and has since moved on to commercial audiobooks.  She’s still just starting (with only a few audiobooks out there) but she’s put a lot of effort into expanding this part of her career and promises to do well.  What I find admirable is that she still donates at least an afternoon a week to working down at Learning Ally studios.  If you find yourself able to then please do your part and donate to the cause.


In a side note our peach tree produced it’s first blossom of the year today and I wanted to share it with you.

We have two apple trees, one pear and the peach all of which have been planted in the last 2 years.  We had a couple of delicious apples last year, but the late rains knocked all the blossoms off the peach tree and it gave us no fruit – but then, we’re told, it probably wouldn’t have been that good since the tree was so young.

We’re hoping for a better result this year.


Finally, I hope you like the new format of the website.  It requires me to go back over many of the past posts and adjust them for the new style and that’s very time consuming, but I’m trying to do that over the next few months.  I really like the much more simple framework and hope you do to.

Take Care

Addendum:  Since writing this the subject of volunteering as a narrator has come up in other social media outlets, and from a LinkedIn discussion I offer these two suggestions for places people can volunteer (it’s a great way to begin training yourself in long form narration).  One is in Minnesota: and the other in LA: – I’m not sure if they also accept donations.

About Simon

Simon is an actor who found his way into audiobook narrating as a side-gig and seems to have made a success of it. With some training as an actor as a child (just a couple of hours a week, but it stuck) and 15 years working inside the BBC (ending up as one of the presenters/newsreaders on BBC Radio 4 in London) he found the ideal combination for an audiobook narrator. Found his way to California two decades ago and never left.

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15 Responses to It all began like this…

  1. Permalink March 19, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    Hi there would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with? I’m going to start my
    own blog soon but I’m having a difficult time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something completely unique.
    P.S Apologies for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

    • Simon March 20, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

      As it notes at the bottom of the page – it IS WordPress! Any blog can be tweaked to make it do what you want it to – you just need to know how, or find someone who does. 🙂

  2. R smith March 15, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    This comment is just to tell you how much I am enjoying listening to your reading of the Patrick O’brian series. I have read the complete set 3 times. But your reading and the amazing way you provide a unique character to each voice has brought new life and considerable joy to this 4th journey through these wonderful books. I just finished book 9 and can’t wait to listen to the next 12. Thank you so much and I continue to marvel at how you can go from one voice to the next.

  3. Howard Ellison March 6, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    So true about tape and blade. You almost hold the audio in your hands, but cut and paste frees time for a better finish. It’s just less fun: probably you know the Broadcasting House legend of threading tape the length of Portland Place and rewinding it back into a studio window?

    • Simon March 12, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

      Not that one – but at BBC Radio Brighton there was a time when we had to tape delay The World At One by just a few seconds (to allow our own headlines) and we had a huge contraption in the control room over which we ran the tape (recording WAO on one machine) across to a replay machine, and when the WAO news hit the replay machine we paused it and a weight attached to the bridge of tape (crossing from one machine to the other) kept the tension on the tape as it dropped slowly to the floor – then the local announcer got the cue to intro WAO and the replay could begin…. Insane… Every weekday. One day someone forgot to put the first machine into record and the previous day’s news was broadcast on Radio Brighton.
      Those were the days!
      – S.

  4. Andrea Christensen March 5, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Simon, it was my pleasure to meet you on Friday at Learning Ally. I find it interesting to learn of your years reading for the sight impaired, and how you consider it your apprenticeship in audiobooks. Makes so much sense to me. I love volunteering at Learning Ally, I walk in the studio and never know what I’ll be reading. Fabulous practice for a wonderful cause. I’m really grateful my friend Ann shared her experience & invited me to participate as a reader.

    Thank you for giving your time & expertise to Learning Ally. And good luck with your fruit trees!

    Take good care –

    • Simon March 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

      You’re welcome, Andrea. Learning Ally looks like a great place to work.
      Currently I’m hoping the blossom on the peach tree doesn’t get knocked off by all the rain just coming in.
      – S.

  5. Doug Sprei March 5, 2012 at 6:18 am #

    Simon — We are honored and grateful that you stepped up to volunteer at Learning Ally’s studio in Palo Alto. Thousands of people with reading disabilities stand to benefit from your narration — visit to meet just a few of the bllind or dyslexic readers on the receiving end of our volunteers’ good will. With appreciation, Doug @Learning_Ally

    • Simon March 5, 2012 at 8:39 am #

      You’re very welcome, Doug. It was an honor to share some studio time with your army of volunteers. I know you need no urging from me to continue your excellent work.
      – S.

  6. Howard Ellison March 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    An image that sticks with me is the video you posted, chatting in your sunny California garden.
    My thought was I should have gone to the States long ago as that’s where voice acting evidently flourishes.
    Instead, my wife and I found a quiet corner of Devon. I did some community radio, then joined a ‘pay to play’ site.. You were interviewed on it about your art, and actually encouraged newbies… thankyou. Luck of lucks, it led to short form narration, then a full book. In at the deep end, and resurrecting things forgotten from long-ago drama class!
    Looking forward to your newsletter.

    • Simon March 4, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

      I was just out in my sunny California garden, trimming the fruit trees and doing a few other jobs – i would so love to have a garden in Devon as well.

      Congrats on the growing success in audiobooks – keep up the good work.
      – S.

  7. MaggieMcGee March 4, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    I never saw your old website, as I am severely vision-impaired and still getting used to using my iMac. So I can’t compare your new format, but I CAN compare it MOST favorably to the many websites I have visited that are anything BUT “kind to the blind”. They have colored print on colored backgrounds and a very “scattered” look. I find your extremely simple to read and navigate, and I love your photos and video blogs too. I also appreciated your response to my post n your Facebook page, and I confess to becoming a true fan. Audiobooks are one of the greatest pleasures in my life. As an English Lit major, I have always been a voracious reader and was very sad when I could no longer read even large print books. Thank you so much for using your talent in this way.

    • Simon March 4, 2012 at 11:30 am #

      Thanks again, Maggie – so glad to know I’m moving in the right direction. I used to love all the bells and whistles and wanted as much bang for my buck – but as we’re always learning in acting: Less is more. I shall continue to strive to ‘keep it simple’!
      – S.

  8. Stacie March 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    Am I the first to comment? Love the site! I studied Radio/TV in college, and only dabbled in radio during those college years. We actually edited audio by splicing reel to reel tape. I enjoyed it, just not the sound of my own voice, so I leaned towards television promotions.

    Congrats on all of your success!


    • Simon March 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

      Ah, the joys of splicing 1/4″ tape! Still, it stood me in good stead when moving into the digital editing of audio tracks…. People today don’t know how lucky they are – Harumph!
      – S.

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