San Francisco Chronicle “What I Do” – 14th May, 2013

SFChronCharacters come to life in his voice

By Edward Guthmann

   At various moments, Simon Vance is an ingenue, a pompous Dickensian headmaster, the vampire Lestat or Anne Boleyn.    Vance is an audiobook narrator who in 30 years has recorded more than 600 books. He doesn’t commute to a studio but works at home: recording his narration in a soundproof booth, editing his own work at a digital-audio workstation.    A native of Brighton, England, Vance came to the United States in 1992. He has two sons, 18 and 23, from a past marriage and lives with his wife, Cynthia Bassham, in Concord. He has six Audie Awards, an annual prize given by the Audio Publishers Association.

There’s a great art to narrating an audiobook. It’s much more than just sounding good. You need to have an actor’s sensibility: the ability to empathize with the characters you’re reading about. To inhabit them.

You’re not just reading the words off a page, and if that’s all you think it is, then you’re deeply underestimating what’s needed.

A common mistake beginning narrators make, because they hear this on the radio, is to emphasize too many words. I call it sportscaster intonation. It should be conversational, very gentle. You need to back off and not get between the pictures the author created and the pictures you want the listener to have.

I record three to four hours each day. I’m normally in the studio by 8:30 or 9 o’clock. I record for an hour and a bit, then take a break where I bring the file into the office and edit. I’ll read the paper a bit, answer e-mail. Come back and do another hour. Then another break, and an hour of recording in the afternoon.

I read off an iPad and record in a soundproof booth with double-wall insulation. The window in that room has triple glazing. My microphone is a Neumann U87, which you’d find in any professional sound or music studio. There’s a pop screen to soften the p’s and protect the microphone. I always wear headphones, one ear on and one ear off so I can hear the atmosphere in the room.

I generally do about one book a week. With days off for other acting jobs and obligations, that’s probably 40 a year. The average book takes anywhere from eight to 15 hours to record. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was 18 to 20. “The Count of Monte Cristo” was 45 hours.

One of the advantages of recording at home is that if I make a mistake, it’s on my time and no one else’s. I used to occasionally be called into New York studios to record, but it’s cheaper for them if I do it here. And they know that I’m a good self-director.

I began 21 years ago in the audiobook industry. Before that, I was reading books for the blind at the Royal National Institute for the Blind in London. In the early days of the industry, that’s how just about all the audiobook narrators got started.

My first recording studio was in the corner of a garage in Walnut Creek, using two cassette decks. I did the editing by stopping the tape, running it back and then dropping it into Record. It was primitive. I went from that to a digital audiotape machine, and then in the mid-’90s I started recording onto a hard drive on the computer.

In 2001 the business exploded with MP3s. The digital-download revolution changed everything. That was when it was possible to make a good living in the business. I was finally able to buy a house.

Preparation can be the most time-consuming and least-rewarding part of the process. There are several parts to it. Comprehending the story. Understanding the writer’s style: does he use a lot of big words, long sentences or paragraphs, a lot of sub-clauses? And of course checking for pronunciation of words.

I’d rather be performing. But, like acting on stage, you need to be familiar with the story before you stand up and present it.    With nonfiction, I generally don’t read the entire text. Sometimes I even sight-read, which is a skill I developed as a BBC newsreader. With fiction, especially mysteries or thrillers, it’s essential to have an understanding of who the good guys and bad guys are.

The book I’m about to embark on is a light murder mystery in the Agatha Christie style. There’s a rather complicated family structure in a classic English upper-class home. So I’m going to draw a family tree — with servants, as well — so that I can picture where everybody stands.

Nearly all the books I narrate are fiction. For the vast majority, I’m the solo narrator. But I also do multiple-voice productions, with other actors playing different characters. On “Dracula,” I’m one of nine narrators including Tim Curry and Alan Cumming.

Recently I was asked where I get character voices from. I get them from watching and listening. TV shows, radio. And just the fact that I always played. My dad gave me a tape recorder in the ’60s, and I started doing silly voices into a microphone and never stopped. I’m still doing that.

Edward Guthmann is a Bay Area freelance writer

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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5 Responses to San Francisco Chronicle “What I Do” – 14th May, 2013

  1. Jessa August 20, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

    Hello Simon:

    I have just finished listening to you read some Sherlock Holmes pastiche and I made my way here. I love your voice. You ARE Sherlock to my ears.

    “The book I’m about to embark on is a light murder mystery in the Agatha Christie style.” This line in the interview above makes me very curious. Agatha Christie is my favorite author and I would love to hear a book in her style read by you. Would you share the name of the book you were referring to?

    Best Wishes from the Pacific Northwest.

  2. Douglas W April 20, 2016 at 7:32 am #

    I was surprised by your mention that you’ve recorded The Count of Monte Cristo, as I looked for a recording by you before settling for another. Now, having learned that you recorded the novel, I’ve searched again at Google and Amazon, and I still can’t find a recording by you. Was it never released? Has it been withdrawn? Have I overlooked it? If you tell me where to find it, you’ll make a sale.

    By the way, I recognized the same or similar voices in your readings of the Dune series and the D’Artagnan series. I didn’t fault you for this, of course; it’s enough that you distinguish every character in a series, and it would be too much to ask that you distinguish every character in all the books you read. It was funny, though, to listen to Louis XIV and think of another tyrant, Leto II.

    • Simon May 2, 2016 at 11:43 am #

      Hi Douglas – Yes, as far as the similarity of voices I would find it impossible not to have some crossover in the various voices of my characters in 30 years (and probably a thousand books) of recording – hope you can overlook the fault 🙂

      I do wish my recording of The Count of Monte Cristo was still available… It vanished when Books on Tape was purchased by Random House many years ago and they removed several past recordings across the board. It’s possible the original recordings still exist in their archives and I may make further enquiries to see if they might rethink their decision to remove it from immediate availability. It was well thought of in its time. If I get any kind of positive response I’ll let you know.

  3. Wendy B July 11, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    I was recently introduced to your work by a friend and fellow book blogger who only just discovered you as well. I’m a few months new to audiobooks and am blown away, not only by your skill, but by the process. I was very curious about how it works. I’m sure it’s different for each narrator, but I appreciate this insight! Thank you.

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