Ask An Industry Expert: Annie Aldington
18 February 2022
Today I’m delighted to welcome Annie Aldington, professional actor and voice artist.
Hello and welcome, Annie, and many congratulations on being the first winner of the RNA’s new NARRATOR OF THE YEAR award (seen here receiving her award at the Industry Awards ceremony 28th October 2021). This also being the first time I’ve interviewed a narrator, I hope I’m putting the right questions! Perhaps I can begin by asking you what this award means to you and your colleagues in the audio-recording world?
I was thrilled and totally surprised to be nominated for the award, let alone to win it! There are so many wonderful narrators out there and I was dead chuffed. My first feeling was that at last our industry has been recognised—and by a high profile organisation like the RNA. I felt I was accepting the award on behalf of all of us who record the romantic genre and at the award ceremony I felt proud that we had a place along-side the authors, publishers, cover designers, book shops and bloggers! Lock-down brought a surge in audio downloads and with it more recognition for us narrators. Listening to an audio book can be just as enjoyable to a person as picking up the book and reading it. I feel more than anything that the award was for all the audio book narrators out there who beaver away preparing and recording books. All those narrators who go into a studio to add heart to someone’s words. All of us who have a life in the world of audio books work hard to do justice to the author and their story. It is wonderful that the RNA recognises this and decided to bring us into the fold.
I believe it’s now over 25 years since you made your first audio-recording. Can you tell us about your first venture into this field?
My very first book was called Polly of Penn’s Place by Dee Williams. I’d trained as an actor but had never recorded a book before. Someone had let the studio down at the last minute and I just happened to have dropped my demo cassette (cassette!) off through their door. I was hauled in to do a test read and given the job. I think they were just glad I was local and breathing and a Londoner (it was set in Rotherhithe). That would never happen now! I did okay I think (!) but I really did learn on the job.
So, how has the industry changed over the quarter century since then?
Nowadays narrators are cast as you would be for any other acting job. We usually have to audition for a book (by that I mean the casting director at a studio will send sample voice clips to the publisher and/or author). Back then Studios were a bit more relaxed. No-one told me how to prep a book but I instinctively knew that I’d better read it and give the characters some sort of different sound. Nowadays you hit the ground running. A reader has to have the text fully marked up. And It’s fast. Time is money and the quicker everyone is, the better. You don’t last long if you turn up unprepared. It is a huge industry now. When I started it was seen as secondary to proper acting by some actors! Now all the ‘names’ are doing it. It is hard now for inexperienced voice actors to break into the audio world. There isn’t time to learn on the job anymore and most studios want a track record before they will cast someone to do a book.
Could you take us through the steps you undertake to prepare for narrating a book, before you actually start to record it?
When I first started I would read the book twice. Once to get the story and once to mark the script up. Now I generally read and mark up at the same time. Most authors give us the information we need just by what they write. You can see the character and hear them. I do a cast list with a bit about the character: any accents, class, attitude. Then I’ll use symbols or words for their sound (surly, light, glide, dab, nasal, stab, pressing, kind, soft, etc) to mark up the script. I’ve got my own shorthand of symbols that I should think only I understand—squiggles, dots, etc. I’ll write the initial of the person speaking and a symbol for their sound. Some actors use colour. So for me D. ~ . naz. means that D is speaking and is a bit nasal and curt. Some books have foreign names or languages or place names you’ve never heard of and all narrators worth their salt will look everything up. There are some good sites on-line for research. And YouTube is brilliant. When I started I had to go to the reference library! I don’t ever trust myself to guess. We use iPad/tablet now and I mark up the PDF of the text with a stylus. In the old days we carted a hundred weight of paper around with us. I hang onto the cast list, as often books will come as a series and I can refer back to it. I always say: It’s in the prep. The more time spent on marking up, the quicker studio time is. The producer doesn’t want to be hanging around while you look up a word or phone a mate asking how to pronounce Slobodan Milosevic. I will mark up on the script where I need to breath, use arrows to continue a thought and my own parentheses to make more sense to me as I’m reading. It’s really not advisable to walk into a studio, sit down and say “so, what’s this about, then. Any good?” You’d be out the door! There is the old chestnut that goes around as a warning to would-be transgressors on the prep and worst of horrors, who’ve not even read the book: You’ve decided on page one a character is a Scotsman and done him as Sean Connery all the way through. He dies on page 542 crying out for his old mother in his Irish Brogue. The Irish Brogue that was only mentioned on page 542. Read the book!
Whoops! A few retakes required. Good preparation and anticipation are clearly the key to a smooth recording process. One picture on your website shows you wearing casual ‘soft’ clothes, standing at a microphone and holding a paper script, fastened at one corner. That made me wonder how you control for unwanted noises. Non-rustling clothing is part of it, I guess. What about turning the pages?
Paper scripts are only really used in radio now, if at all. It is just a case of folding the corner of the script and holding it away from the mic to turn the page. With iPad it is so much easier and it is just placed on the lectern or held and scrolled. Back when we used paper the producer tended to stop recording in order for us to lift the page. Any movement is picked up by the mic so soft clothing and stillness in studio is a must. Bit of hand waving maybe.
Once you get started on the recording, could you take us through the typical process that has to be gone through before the final audio recording is on disc or ready for digital download?
A studio day is usually from 10-5pm. There is a level check and any questions or concerns with the producer, then it’s credits and chapter one. GO. If you make a mistake and recognise it then you fluff and repeat (go back to the beginning of the sentence) and the recording keeps rolling. If you don’t hear it, the producer will stop you. The producer marks up a paper script their end for the editor to see where cuts need to be made, fluffs taken out, any de-noising needs to be done. Then the proofers are the last port of call. Any mistakes that have got through are picked up, rectified and that’s it.
What can go wrong?
Everyone behaves differently in studio and I am a giggler. By 3pm some days it feels like Friday afternoon at school. Shut in a room with no windows surrounded by soundproofing. That situation when you can’t laugh so you can’t stop. Time is money but you can’t stop laughing. Looking through the glass at the producer getting peeved because you’re wasting time, so you laugh more. Start the line for the third time with some innocuous word like blue tit and suddenly you are 6 years old and sniggering at the word tit. You know you must pull yourself together but you can’t.
It goes something like this:
Annie: She heard the sound of a blue tit (laughs) singing.
Producer: We can hear the laugh in tit. Again, please.
Annie: She heard the sound of a blue (laughs). She (laughs). I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Come on Aldington shut up. She heard the sound (laughs).
Annie: Can I record up to blue then cut and just say tit on it’s own?
Producer: No. Come on you can do this.
Annie: (Deep breath) Right. Think of something horrible. Come on Aldington. Do you hate me now?
Producer: Yes. ok? Ready?
Annie: Yep. She heard the sound of a blue tit singing in the (laughs) did I get tit out?
Producer: Yeah, good to go. We just need the singing in the tree bit now.
What a tolerant producer! I’m imagining how that might have gone on a live theatre stage—which gets me thinking that acting in live theatre or TV productions and playing a single role at a time must feel quite different to narrating an entire novel and playing all the parts, as well as being the narrator between sections of dialogue.
I always think the most important thing about audio recording is that you are first and foremost a storyteller. Some narrators don’t change their voice or accent much at all and it still works. I always think the attitude of the character and driving the story along is more important than anything else. I do a lot of London-based books and trying to voice 60 cockneys is a bit of a feat, so all I can do is change their attitude (the writing will do that for you anyway) and try to give them a slightly different sound or beat as I explained earlier. We all get reviews on Audible and sometimes people will slam you on an accent you’re not very good at. Accents seem to be the thing that people comment on the most. They will hate you and the book if your bit of Welsh is off. We are always cast to type in audio, so I would never get a classic such as Pride and Prejudice or Modern Manners by Debrett’s. I’m a Londoner with a London accent and the central characters will usually be Londoners. But you can bet your life that half way through the book—in which everyone is a chirpy cockney working down the market—the accent you fear the most will pop up in the form of some character who turns up in the Old Kent road having moved from their birthplace in Inverness with their Geordie husband. I always say we are one instrument and not the full orchestra.
How do you switch smoothly between accent, pitch, pace etc for different characters? And what happens if you get a cold?
Switching is easy if I have marked the script up properly. We don’t have a voice coach sitting next to us like in Hollywood, feeding us the line in the accent. We have to hop from one to another and there is no time to keep going over it again and again. You just have to hope for the best. And like most people I am better at some accents than others. If you are hopping from Cornish to Brum dialogue between characters, you are going from speaking from the back of the mouth to the middle almost every other line and, sometimes your mouth and brain don’t quite get there. You can’t really keep stopping the recording to get the accent into your head, you just have to switch, switch, switch, boom! And you are working on so many different levels at the same time: getting the words out with the meaning, changing characters, looking at the line ahead while you’re reading the line before. There is no greater feeling of woe than being confronted by something like “she had a Californian accent mixed with the Chinese heritage of her mother and the Mexican roots of her father”. Nightmare. You have a go and someone will post a review and say it was rubbish. I usually remember what my characters sound like as I’ve read through the cast list beforehand. Occasionally a producer will say “Billy sounded a bit like Fred there”. Producers are so crucial. I didn’t like home-recording during lock-down as I had no ear outside of myself. They are invaluable and worth their weight in gold. Most of us can sit on top of a cold vocally and the voice is okay. If it is too husky or blocked I’m afraid we just have to postpone the recording.
Amongst the hundreds of recordings you’ve made, I notice you regularly record certain authors, but the genres are quite wide-ranging, including romantic saga, East End saga, gangland stories, crime, mystery and thriller. Which, if any, of these are the most challenging and are there themes or content you prefer to avoid?
Vocally, the most challenging tend to be the gangland stories. Often there are male villains at the centre of it all and plenty of mayhem and torture. Loads of shouting in a deep register and I have to make sure I’m supporting my voice. The energy we use up is quite a thing. I have never turned a book down yet. I think it’s pretty much accepted that we don’t have to do anything we are not comfortable with—gratuitous violence, rape, racism and anything to do with abuse of children. I can’t think of one author whose books I record that would write like that anyway. If it’s not gratuitous and is written well and necessary then I don’t have a problem with it. Some of the gangland books can get pretty near the knuckle. But if it’s real and it’s valid then fine.
We’re told that audiobooks is a fast-growing sector, so experienced voice artists must be much in demand. Do you find time for anything else, professionally speaking?
I don’t do as much theatre as I used to and a tiny bit of TV ( odd days filming here and there, obviously I have a good face for radio). The audio books have taken over a bit! The last theatre job I did was about 2 months ago for a South London theatre company based in Sydenham that supports new writers. It was a play based on the book The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. I played Annie Chapman, Jack the Ripper’s second victim. I love laughing and making people laugh and I co-write and perform a podcast called Catford 6699 with my comedy partner Charles Armstrong. I have been known to do stand-up as well.
What do you yourself read/watch/listen to for leisure (assuming you get any!) and do you have a preferred mode of ‘reading’.
I love history and would love to have been an historian. I will soak up any book/podcast/documentary that tells me anything about how we lived in the past. I read non-fiction mainly. Autobiographies or biographies from Anne Boleyn To Judy Dench. I also love crime and thrillers. I listen to a lot of crime and history podcasts. At the moment I’m reading Murder the Biography by Kate Morgan. On the Romantic side? I will watch Poldark and Outlander until the cows come home. Aiden Turner and Sam Heughan! It must be the tricorn hats!.
Thank you for all those insights into the world of an audio recording artist, Annie.
For more on Annie’s work:
For podcast Catford 6699: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1813269
Annie was talking with Susan Leona Fisher (www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)