When lockdown began to take effect in March 2020, publishers and authors across the world had to make rapid adjustments to plans for our books, not only to keep publishing, but also to keep our colleagues and partners safe and healthy. Since we began publishing audiobooks in late 2018, we have continued to learn and to refine our processes, but lockdown presented us with a completely new challenge—how to continue publishing our audio editions while travel was restricted and recording booths were potentially hotbeds of infection. We agreed early on that the safety and well-being of our staff and partners was paramount, but beyond that we knew how important it would be to our authors and listeners to continue to make our books available in audio. We are proud to have continued our work while ensuring that risks were minimized. We’ve collected insights from partners, readers, and editors on the challenges and lessons learned while producing audio under lockdown. No children, spouses, or birds were harmed during the making of these audio productions!
Perspective from our studio partner, Sound Understanding
As an audiobook production company that collaborates with a number of freelancers, has studios in a garden in Bath and access to studios in London and Oxford, flexibility is already built in to how we operate. However, COVID-19 has presented some unique challenges, as well as some opportunities. Fortunately, the company was able to continue running during these strange times. Within a week of lockdown being announced, we had converted to an online business without sacrificing a core component of our quality guarantee—having a producer and reader work together on every book. Besides narrators who already had home studios, those interested in setting one up were sent a complete kit, compiled and sourced by Sound Understanding and, on its arrival, provided with technical advice over the phone to assist with set-up.
Home recording has many advantages, such as scheduling around other activities such as home-schooling, and breaks and lunches in the garden. But sessions don’t always run smoothly—there can be neighbors mowing the lawn, birds singing, and even flypasts on VE Day.
Perspectives from readers and editors doing recordings from home
Steph Bower, reader
I have had a studio at home for over 9 years now. I even have a portable studio that comes with me when I travel. When COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, Sound Understanding was quick to realize that they had a great team of voice-overs already set up and ready to go. With a few adjustments and trials of Zoom, iP-dtl, CleanFeed, WhatsApp and Skype, we managed to work somewhat normally with a producer in very abnormal circumstances. I miss seeing the team, but having them “down the line” is just great and gets me through what can sometimes be a lonely existence in a basement booth. I see people in the park every day enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, but as a voice-over artist, I spend most of my time in a cupboard indoors! Recording Audio books is a fantastic job. The work is physically demanding, but when you get into your rhythm it is an excellent escape from the world outside. I also love listening to audio books and have found myself plowing through many over the past few weeks, One day we will come out of this, but until then, I’ll be content staying in my cupboard and reading aloud!
John Telfer, reader
I’ve really enjoyed working from my own little audio booth, hemmed on all sides by duvets, foam mattress, and hangings to deaden the acoustic. The social aspect of going to a studio is, of course, missed, but I like that I can be in contact with a producer via Zoom or Skype, which can feel very necessary. Of course, after a few hours of talking, everyone, no matter how experienced, starts to speak gibberish, and the producer is always available to bring things back on track.
Will we ever go back to what we once considered ‘normal’? Hard to say, but we are finding great ways to work for the short- or the long-term.
Richard Lyddon, reader
At the beginning, recording was a bit reminiscent of Apollo 13. Limited bits of kit. Not much time, and it had to work. It is amazing what you can do with old cardboard packing boxes retrieved from the attic; cushions; pillows; a step ladder; a double duvet (13.5 tog) and the very forgiving Zoom microphone.
Since that initial configuration I have blagged some acoustic foam panels to replace the cushions and moved to a bedroom with a much lower ceiling (better acoustics, I’m told). My only challenge now is the bird-life. I live just to the west of Bath in a semi-rural setting, so just yards from my ‘studio’ I have wood pigeons cooing, Goldfinches in full twitter and Jackdaws nesting and cawing. Apart from that, the biggest challenge is neighbors. Nothing personal of course, but unfailingly, at the moment I hit the record button, at least one of them starts strimming, chain-sawing or lawn mowing. I had no idea Harley Davidson made garden machinery. Thanks to a patient Producer (listening in via WhatsApp or Cleanfeed) and an even more patient Editor who now knows what my toilet, power shower and wife’s hair-dryer sound like, we have an audio book. Muddling through at times of crisis is what makes us Brits.
Richard Pryal, reader
I was a member of a large company of actors when the lockdown began, surrounded by cast, crew, and audience every evening (and some afternoons). The shift to sitting alone in an attic surrounded by dangling duvets is, whilst significant, not that jarring when considered as part of a life full of constant change and insecurity.
My family and I work to stay realistically positive. We love our home, our garden, and each other and have more time together at the moment (my 5 year old daughter took the picture—she was far more interested in the cactus than in me). I feel very fortunate to be able to continue working when so many others can’t, and I am getting to do something that I love, which places neither me nor my family in a position of risk.
I have always been possessed of a lively and curious mind, and enjoy the wide variety of material I get to work with—our minds can continue to expand even when our physical circumstances are restricted. I am reminded of Xavier de Maistre in his ‘travel’ book written while under house-arrest following a duel, ‘Voyage autour de ma chambre’—“They have forbidden me to roam around a city, a mere point in space; but they have left me with the whole universe.”
It’s a pleasure to read, to learn, to enjoy an imagined human connection with authors, and a direct and tangible connection with all the people involved in the production of the audiobooks—producers, editors, the whole of the team at Sound Understanding. I also enjoy imagining the potential connection with future listeners—who will they be? What are they doing as they listen? Why are they listening at all? These connections—whether immediate or imagined—are very important to me at the moment. They bring solace, motivation, and satisfaction.
Naomi Clarke, editor
I must admit that I’ve actually found editing in lockdown to be a welcome distraction from the outside world. The sound quality of recordings has meant using a little more noise reduction than usual, but that’s no big deal! Narrators have seemed more relaxed, more at ease, and generally really up for the challenge of recording themselves at home! It’s been really wonderful collaborating with so many different people on these books, and feeling part of a community while we’re all in isolation.