Good afternoon and welcome to today's posting, which is quite unique in all the years I've been sharing stuff here on this weblog. I mentioned back in November, that I'd been asked to write an article for the winter edition of Whispering Gallery, the Dorothy Dunnett Society's quarterly magazine, outlining my experience of recording the eight volumes of Dunnett's The House of Niccolo, during the summer months of 2018.
It had been quite some time since I'd written an 'essay' and I confess to having had a sense of trepidation at the thought of making some kind of cogent analysis of the process of recording such a vast story arc to the readers of Whispering Gallery. However, once begun, the act of writing became quite cathartic and I only just made it under the 4,000 word limit the magazine's editor had suggested!
The article made it into the magazine uncut and is reproduced below in full, along with illustrations of all the projects I was working on, as they ocurred chronologically throughout that hectic 15 week period.
This will take a while to read, but if you're up for it, let's go...
The House of Niccolo for Whispering
A few weeks
ago, I enjoyed a highly convivial meeting with Betty Moxon (of the Dorothy Dunnett Society); we are it seems,
relatively close neighbours and rather than a long exchange of email, I thought
it much better to meet in person, where we could chat to our heart’s content
about The House of Niccolo, due to be released in audio book format the
following week. It was agreed that I should write an article for Whispering
Gallery, to give an idea of the process and challenges involved in recording
such an epic project, as a result of which dear reader, here we are.
In my forty
or so years as an actor and latterly, in my six or so years as an audio book
narrator, I’ve often thought that a combination of naivety, ignorance and an
astonishing level of often unfounded optimism has seen me through. I can
confirm that I was able to bring all three of those doughty attributes to the
recording of The House of Niccolo!
month of October draws to a close, I’m scheduled to record two audio books and
an audio drama. The bulk of preparatory work has been done and there’s time to
look over details of the text and character notes before going into the studio.
Each of the books should have a running length of around eight to ten hours,
which is about average and of course, the audio drama will be considerably
this now, in order to present a benchmark norm of my regular working life; the
recording of a couple of audio books and perhaps also a couple of audio dramas
each month, is about average and perfectly manageable. Such a schedule means
that I never really fall out of work mode; my voice and hopefully, my brain tick
along quite effectively and there’s very little sense of stress. In fact, it’s usually
all good fun; both rewarding and satisfying.
Now, I’m not
about to suggest that the process of recording the Niccolo books was in direct
contrast to the above, though I think it fair to say, I did experience a degree
of physical stress, which, in my optimistic naivety, I hadn’t fully anticipated.
Allow me to
recording my first audio book, Strange Meeting for RNIB in 2013, my
involvement in the audio industry has grown quite rapidly, to the point where it
has become my primary occupation. Despite many years as a ‘jobbing actor’ in
theatre, television and radio, acquiring the skills to perform an audio book
has proved to be quite a considerable challenge and indeed, has been all the
more enjoyable for that; to quote Miriam Margolyes from the Spring 2017 Equity
Journal: "I believe that recording an audiobook is
the highest and most difficult test for any actor."
As late spring turned into early summer last year, I was
approached by producer Neil Gardner, a long-time collaborator, who floated the
idea of us recording all eight books of The House of Niccolo together. I had
previously recorded quite a number of books with Neil and with Penguin Random
House, so there was a degree of ‘pre-approval’, which gave me the confidence to
think that I could step up to the mark and give a good account of these novels,
about which, I confess, I knew very little. Naivety, ignorance and optimism; if
in doubt, say yes!
Perhaps ultimately, The Dorothy Dunnett Society also gave
their approval; I’ve often found the process of being invited to perform an
audio book slightly mysterious and certainly beyond my control. Unlike theatre
or television, there is no interview to attend, although in a quite literal
way, there is of course, an audition. I know of one author who gave his
approval after listening to my version of H.G Wells’ The War of The Worlds as
he wandered around a supermarket.
The last few years have been very kind to me in terms of work;
as a freelance ‘jobbing’ actor, that hasn’t always been the case and so, when
offered such a fabulous opportunity, to record all eight audio books of a
series, I leapt at it. As my audio career has developed, I’ve said ‘yes’ to an
increasing amount of work, the more varied and challenging the better. You
might be surprised to learn for example, how tricky it is to ‘narrate’ a
cookery book; in my case, James Martin’s Home Comforts, read with just a
soupçon of a Yorkshire accent.
Having gleefully accepted the offer to record The House of
Niccolo in May 2018, I thought I’d be in for a very busy summer; when the text
of Niccolo Rising arrived, I had no doubt. The first thing I did in
preparation, was to order copies of Elspeth Morrison’s two volumes of The
Dorothy Dunnett Companion, only to realise that I had no time to read them.
Instead, they were consulted when needed, throughout the recording period. And the
recording period was looming large on the horizon.
Both 2016 and 2017 had seen busy times in the studio and on several
occasions, I noted in my online ‘web-log’*, that I found myself to be working
‘at capacity’, meaning that I couldn’t squeeze in any more work and indeed, had
to regularly turn down job offers, which, unsurprisingly, went very much against
the grain. Little did I then realise what working ‘at capacity’ really meant.
The recording schedule for the Niccolo books meant that I needed
to be fully prepped and ready to begin Niccolo Rising at the end of June
and to have the entire project completed as soon as possible thereafter, as we
had a publication deadline of mid-November. In order to allow time for editing and
proofing, as well as for any ‘pick ups’, I had to finish recording by early
October. That gave me fifteen weeks to record all eight volumes; a week to
prep, a week to record, or thereabouts. And just to add a little extra piquancy
to my long, hot summer, I should mention that I had already agreed to record four
other full-length audio books and four audio dramas with a different company, during
those same fifteen weeks.
Before I started to record audio books, my experience had
predominantly been in theatre. With an Honours Degree in Drama and Theatre Arts
from the University of Birmingham and a year as a post-grad at East 15 Acting
School, I had a pretty good idea of how to technically approach the job of
acting. In 2009, after a very ‘lucky break’, I started to record a variety of stories
with Big Finish Productions, who are best known for their Doctor Who audio
dramas. Playing a wide variety of characters in more than 200 Big Finish dramas,
from a ‘fog’ to a ‘gestalt swarm of leeches’, as well as the odd human, I felt
confident, when the opportunity presented itself, to take on an audio book.
In contrast to my life in the theatre and even as an actor in
audio drama, I had no idea of how to approach the job of narrating an audio
book, of how to perform all the characters in the book, of how to pace myself
or use my energy properly, of how to sustain a credible performance over many
hours, constantly switching between character voices and narration. I had to
devise a strategy pretty swiftly, if audio books were to become a feature of my
After an inevitable period of trial and error, I began to
understand the demands of the job and what I should do to make it all a bit
easier. When preparing to rehearse a play, I highlight my character in the script
and add any notations that might be useful. I also make a note of positioning
or ‘blocking’ on stage and when learning the lines, occasionally add stress and
pace indicators under important and operative words, to give myself a feeling
for the path an arc of text might take.
I began my learning curve as a narrator by using techniques
familiar from working in theatre and adapting them as I learned more of what I
needed to do in order to ‘perform’ an audio book. For example, rather than simply
marking up my character in a play, as I will be performing all the characters
in an audio book, I usually begin by individually highlighting each character’s
speeches with a different colour, using an application called iAnnotate. Marking
up in this way is an extremely time consuming process, though it helps to clarify
and anchor character details in my imagination and the different colours allow my
brain to recognise and anticipate who is about to speak, allowing me to switch
seamlessly between narration and speech when recording. With Niccolo Rising,
and the other seven volumes of the series, I quickly ran out of easily
Like most current voice actors, I read from a ‘tablet’ in
studio rather than a paper script; turning a page or even moving a sheet of
paper is quite noisy and any recorded paper shuffles have to be edited out. I
use an iPad Pro, which also allows me to silently scroll through an entire text
and to alter the size of the text and brightness of the screen if necessary. I
found the typeface used in The Niccolo Books quite hard on the eye and tiring to
read over long periods; my original texts also had what I can only describe as a
smattering of ‘small black blobs’, perhaps done with the intention of imbuing the
pages with a flavour of antiquity. The blobs were easily mistaken for
punctuation marks and were very distracting, so we promptly had to ask for clean
versions of the texts.
The experience I’ve gained in recording audio books over the
last few years, has led me to the conclusion that I should prepare less in
advance of recording and rely more on sight-reading and the inspiration of the
moment. It’s not a technique I would universally recommend, though it seems to
work for me. After six years and some 200 or so titles along the way, I have
the confidence to trust myself and trust the process I’ve become comfortable
with. Perhaps I should briefly explain what I mean by preparing less. The
process of working on a play, of understanding the text and the character one
is playing, almost takes the form of a forensic investigation, with potentially
weeks of rehearsal and interaction with the director and other members of the
cast. As a narrator of fiction, the entire process becomes your responsibility.
With a book, as long as I’ve been able to assimilate the
characters, know how to pronounce names and places and have a familiarity with
the text, the performance can be allowed to occur ‘in the moment’. To emphasise
the point; unless I’m playing a completely alien entity (see fog and leeches
above!) I very rarely practice a character voice before recording begins and
even then, I’ll probably have no more than a vague idea of how the character
might ultimately sound. I do sometimes wander around the house, testing vocal
ideas, which can be a useful exercise. However as soon as I’m in a professional
studio, rather than bouncing off the living room walls, my voice is instead being
piped through myriad electrical devices and fed back to me via headphones,
which of course, changes things quite significantly. Many’s the time I’ve had
an idea about a character voice, only to abandon it as soon as I get behind the
Usually then, when a character voice pops out, it’s the first
time I’ve heard it. Such spontaneity is incredibly liberating and amongst other
things, it means I don’t have to overly concern myself with remembering how
characters sound; the character appears as a direct result of the given
circumstances of the narrative and my innate reaction to that character should consistently
trigger the same response and produce the same sound. Which in a broader sense,
is really to define the Holy Grail of acting; to be ‘in the moment’, not to
project or demonstrate an emotion or an intention, not to ‘play the effect’, but
to simply allow theatrical ‘truth’ to manifest itself, to subsume ego, to ‘get
out of your own way’ as an actor and allow the character you’re playing, to
express themselves as the author intended – and to do no more.
May and early June 2018 had been busy with five audio dramas,
some voice over work and an audio book, the recording of which, took me to the
21st June. A little bit like ‘weekly rep’ in the theatre, I had started
to mark up and make character notes on Niccolo Rising as I got on with performing
my other work. Dovetailing activity in this way is quite usual and usually,
quite manageable. However, Niccolo Rising has 107 named characters; highlighting
their numerous and extensive conversations took days rather than hours. I also
had to put quite a bit of time into researching the pronunciation of personal
and place names, knowing that in performance, I would have to articulate such
names fluently and almost subconsciously. It’s so tempting to say ‘Med-eechi’
rather than ‘Medd-i-chi’!
Indeed, deciding to what extent names and character voices should
be accented, especially in a series of books featuring such a hugely diverse
range of people and ethnicities, was quite a task and something the producer
and I discussed as we recorded. My feeling was that our listener needed a
‘home’ sound to identify with, in this case, my version of ‘standard English’.
I say ‘my version’ because my native Yorkshire accent will always find a way of
putting in an appearance. A character from ‘home’, i.e. Bruges, would therefore
speak in fairly standard English. Variations in pace and pitch would also,
hopefully, convey gender, age and status. This in turn, allowed ‘foreign’ characters
to express themselves in accents suggestive of their origin. In performing 107
men, women and children, not to mention the odd parrot, I needed all the help I
I alluded earlier to the physical stresses involved in
recording an audio book and perhaps now ought to put that into some sort of
context. A standard length book of eight to ten hours might be recorded in two
or three days in the studio, depending on how competent and eloquent a reader
one might be, how tricky the text might be to articulate and what the proportion
of dialogue is to narration. Inevitably, dialogue sets its own pace as
characters express themselves to each other; there are some very slow, intimate
exchanges in the Niccolo books for example and they have to be performed in
their own naturalistic time frame. Narrative can usually be taken at a ‘comfortable
on the ear’ pace. My narration isn’t always entirely neutral; I regard the
narrator as, hardly surprisingly, the teller of the story, an unidentified
character who sets the scene and invites the listener to engage, who acts as a
guide and an occasional commentator.
As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s quite a lot going on
both mentally and physically, hunched there in a darkened soundproof room,
trying not to make a noise by moving around too much or making too many mouth
noises – or any other anatomical noises for that matter. I was so physically
tight and hyper aware of making a ‘mistake’ in some of my early recordings,
that Pavarotti like, I always kept a handkerchief at the ready to dab the sweat
from my brow. I was once asked to remove a noisy shirt, which apparently could
be heard crunching and crumpling, as I wriggled around in my chair. Mercifully,
experience allowed me to gain confidence, to understand that the occasional
vocal ‘trip’ was inevitable and ultimately, to simply relax. Being in such a
relaxed and focused state, allows the subtlety of a performance to emerge and
then the whole recording/performing process becomes a joy.
To record a standard length eight to ten hour audio book in
two or three days then, really isn’t especially demanding. To record Niccolo
Rising in a similar amount of time, is incredibly demanding. My version of
the story took four days to record and has an edited running time of 23 hours -
28 minutes; roughly the equivalent of recording two and a half or three
standard length books.
I’m assuming at this point, that anyone reading Whispering
Gallery, will be fully conversant with Dorothy Dunnett’s novels, indeed, far
more conversant than I am and will know how densely written and complex her
stories are. From the perspective of an audio book narrator, my feeling is that
articulating her work is about as difficult and challenging as it gets. In
comparison, my unabridged recording of the NRSV Bible was a breeze!
As Niccolo Rising was being recorded, my evenings were
taken up with preparation for the next day, along with preparation for the
following week’s work, which took the form of two audio dramas and another full
length, 10 hours - 10 minutes, audio book (The Lords of Silence, as illustrated below).
As I recorded those stories, I spent
my evenings in a hotel room, preparing The Spring of The Ram; recorded
in five days and a snip at 23 hours - 55 minutes.
As I recorded The
Spring of The Ram, I was preparing another audio book, (The Serial Killer Files) recorded in the
first three days of the following week, which came in at 12 hours - 25 minutes
and as I was recording that, I was also preparing Race of Scorpions, recorded
in five days of the following week and running at 26 hours - 54 minutes.
audio book (Blood of Iax) at 9 hours - 30 minutes took up most of the following week and,
you’ve guessed, as I recorded that book, I was preparing Scales of Gold, which
has a running length of 24 hours - 22 minutes. The notion of ‘one week to prep,
one week to record’ was clearly compromised by this time, though you may be
pleased, indeed relieved, to hear, that the following week was free! In fact,
not quite free. It was taken up with preparation for The Unicorn Hunt, all
29 hours - 20 minutes of it, recorded in seven days; which left just
enough time to prepare To Lie With Lions, recorded in six days and with
a running length of 28 hours - 29 minutes.
I’m sure by now, that you can see a pattern emerging; working
‘at capacity’ indeed! My days were almost entirely spent in the studio; the
pressure to comply with the mid-November deadline was crushing, so Neil and I
would often work until 8 or 9 pm, sometimes later. I would then drive home, have
something to eat and start to prep for the next day, which had to be done and
which often took until the wee small hours of the morning to finish. I remember
once, hearing our milkman outside the house and thinking that I really ought to
go to bed, as I had to be back in the studio in a few hours.
Having completed To Lie With Lions, the following week
had me back in my studio chair to record Caprice And Rondo, which was
recorded in five days and which had a running length of 26 hours - 41 minutes.
The studio chair became quite a challenge in itself. Having spent so long,
sitting in the same position in front of the microphone and trying not to
wriggle around, the chair had almost imprinted itself on me. The backs of my
thighs particularly felt quite bruised, to the point where as soon as I sat, I
was immediately in pain. It occurred to me that DVT might be something to
consider, so with that in mind and in order to alleviate the pain behind my
knees, we rigged the studio so that I could stand up. When recording an audio
drama, we all usually stand up, as it can become quite a physical activity; we
don’t usually stand to record an audio book, but in this instance, it came as a
The week after Caprice And Rondo, I recorded another
non-Dunnett book (Sacrosanct); an anthology of short stories which came in at 15 hours - 16
minutes and had, as I remember, a huge number of characters. Still not quite approaching
Dunnett territory though. By this time, I had long been surviving on a few
hours sleep each night and a steady supply of a well known energy drink, which
apparently “Gives You Wings”. It did and boy did I need them!
The end was in sight. As I recorded the anthology, I was
prepping Gemini, scheduled to be recorded the following week. We
began on October 1st and completed all 31hours - 47 minutes of it on
the 8th. which meant that after final edits, proofing and the odd
pick up, we had finished slightly ahead of time and the mid-November
publication deadline had been met. I could look forward to a little time off
and to some much needed sleep.
Because we had so little time to record The House of Niccolo
and despite a sense of familiarity with some of the principal characters, I
confess to not really knowing or remembering the books very well. Since
completing Niccolo, I’ve been involved in quite a number of other projects and
like the words of a long ago performed play, once so familiar, my recollections
of this vast story arc are quite scant. Which of course means that I can look
forward to listening to the entire saga with fresh ears; I’ve just finished
listening to Niccolo Rising and look forward very much to Spring of
You may perhaps be aware that last November’s deadline for
publication came and went, which was disappointing, given the effort that went
into complying with the original schedule. The audio books were finally
published in September 2019.
The House of Niccolo has an overall running length of 215
hours and features 1,473 characters, the vast majority of whom, I had to create
voices for. During the course of those fifteen weeks of summer, I recorded the
equivalent of around 25 standard length audio books and 252 hours - 11 minutes
of narration, as well as taking part in four audio dramas; working ‘at
Hopefully, what I’ve written here will offer an insight into
the mysterious art of audio book narration, or at least, my understanding of
it. It was never my intention to discuss the content of the books, for the
reasons given above, if nothing else. Instead, I hope I’ve been able to convey
something of the process of recording an audio book; in this instance, a whole series
of incredibly tricky audio books and also, something of the approach I take to acting
and how I apply the experience of many years of performing to the demands of creating
a world in audio. It’s almost impossible to talk about acting, without running
the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious. An audio producer friend and I
often round off our working day with a civilised snifter, at which point, we
check our watches and see how long it takes me to go from a standing start to
full-on pretentiousness; it can be measured in seconds and if I’ve drifted off
into absolute twaddle in this article, I hope you’ll forgive me.
I’m quite proud of what we did with The House of Niccolo; if
you decide to give the audio books a listen, I hope you enjoy them. It’s surprising
perhaps, what naivety, ignorance and blind optimism can achieve!
John Banks October 2019
* * * * *
If, after all that, you'd like to see details of The House of Niccolo books, ie a short synopsis of each volume, they appear below in their own posting from 10th September of this year. To access the posting, simply scroll down the blog home page to 'Older Posts', click through to the next page and it's there.
Thanks for ploughing through such a dense chunk of text; hopefully, some of it at least, will have been of interest. The audio books are available via the usual outlets, though, annoyingly, the samples on audible.co.uk are, from books 4 to 8, identical and taken from the introduction rather than the actual narrative - very odd!
To date, I've only listened to Niccolo Rising, the first episode of the series, though I look forward to hearing the rest of the story as 2020 gets underway. Should you choose to give the series a try, I very much hope you will enjoy it!
...all for now; more just as soon as it happens!
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