Q and A with Narrator Jay Dyess
- What made you decide to become a narrator for audiobooks?
For me, it was the encouragement of my two best friends, Christian and Barbara. I’ve entertained/tortured them for years almost daily with impressions and funny voices, and about a year ago, Barbara, a huge audiobook fan, asked if I’d ever considered narrating one. I looked into it, decided to give a try, and – in no small part thanks to their continuous encouragement – here I am!
- Do you need special training to become a narrator? What specific things in your background do you feel help you to do this job? Why? No, I don’t think you need special training, although there are particular skills and training that can certainly help. I’ve had some theater experience, and have taken some public speaking classes, but I was an industrial engineering major in college. Actually, since I’m also my own audio engineer, my background in project management and training in problem-solving probably has served me just as well as the liberal arts skills! I’m still in my first year of audiobook narration, so I know I’m still learning as I go.
- I picture maybe using a microphone. I’m sure it’s a little more complicated than that. What does the process look like? Surprisingly, it’s not much more than that. I’ve got a recording booth in my basement (that was formerly a closet). It’s treated for sound – both to keep outside noise out, and to deaden any echoing inside. I use a Rode NT1A condenser microphone, a pre-amp and mixer for power and controlling the sound quality, and an audio interface that connects with a PC to record everything. Most of the post-recording edit work is done on software called a DAW – digital audio workstation. I use Reaper, a great tool for audiobooks in particular.
- I’ve heard it takes 1-3 hours to produce a finished hour of narration. Is this true for you? When you make a mistake do you have to start over? For me, a fiction audiobook takes 3-4 hours to produce a finished hour. That includes the “first read” – reading it through as you would for pleasure, although I do tend to make some notes going through. For me, it’s so important to know how the story ends to understand how characters act at the beginning, so you can’t skip that step.
Now, for the second part, I definitely make mistakes. LOTS of mistakes. I will occasionally stumble over words, make a weird mouth noise, and have even had tummy rumbles that get picked up (never record right after lunch, kids). Fortunately, I can take care of all that when editing, so I just redo the line, and keep right on going!
- I’ve wondered how much of the book is recorded in a segment? Is it a chapter? Is it by a specified time, such as 15 or 30 minutes at a time? How many “takes” do they typically read for each segment? I typically record in discrete chapters; often, it’s a requirement of the audiobook seller (like Audible, for instance) that chapters be separate files, so it just makes sense to record that way. That said, I’ll sometimes record several chapters at a time – usually no more than 60-90 minutes at once, though. I’ll take a break and edit what I’ve recorded, then go again!
- And if they do character voices, how do they remember the voices for the entire book, of if a series, for the entire series?I admire that talent. The listener knows immediately which character is speaking. For me, keeping track of the voices in my head (ok, THAT doesn’t sound right) has never been difficult – at least within the production of a single book. I think it goes back to the prep work before you start recording; as I do that initial read, I’m hearing the characters just like any reader does – with exception that maybe I’m trying to tuck that sound away and remember it.
It definitely gets trickier within a series of books, especially if don’t do the series consecutively, as with “Cowboys Don’t Marry Their Best Friend.” I did another audiobook title with very different voices before I began the “Cowboys Don’t Have a Secret Baby”, so I did go back and listen to the characters in “Marry” who’d be making an appearance to make sure I was consistent.
- What type of preparation do you do? Do you have a specific process? Does it vary from book to book? I do have a specific process, and it can vary slightly, although, so far, not much. As I mentioned, I’ll always read fiction works cover to cover first (I have produced a couple of non-fiction titles where you can skip this, but I generally never do). Before I start recording, I’ll set up a project calendar to match the various deadlines we’ve set. Using that, I can estimate how many chapters per day/week/etc. I roughly need to produce to stay on track. Once I start recording, I produce each chapter and share it with the author (or publisher, as the case may be), so that they can listen and review. I’ll create an online, shared spreadsheet that the author and I can use to collaborate to make any corrections and changes. With this joint edit method, once I’m finished recording, we’re basically done, and it’s off to the audiobook stores for retail prep!
- Where do you work? Do you have a special room? What type of equipment do you use. (Pictures of your equipment would be fun for listeners, I’m sure, especially if you have a picture of you working.) As I mentioned earlier, I record in my super-fancy recording booth (or “closet”, if you want to get technical about it) that I’ve sound-treated. I use a Rode N1TA microphone, a DBX 286S mixer, and a Focusrite Scarlett Solo Audio Interface. I do my sound editing and mastering in Reaper, the best digital audio workstation (DAW) software for audiobooks on the planet.
(Where all the magic happens… no, those aren’t towels; they’re, um, (quite excellent) terrycloth sound dampeners)
- What is the most difficult thing about your job? What is the easiest? For me, the most difficult is the sound editing. Not because it’s hard – the engineer in me lovesthat, but I tend to be a perfectionist, and editor/sound engineer-me gets frustrated at performer-me for the stumbles I’ll inevitably make: the mixed or omitted words, the strange mouth sounds, or even how I interpret a line. The nice thing is that it’s not a problem to hit the booth and redo anything I don’t like.
Choosing the easiest part is, well, easy: the narrating. My inner kid still loves pretending and play-acting, and with the opportunity to work with such incredible writers like Jessie, it’s just amazing to get to dive right into these remarkable worlds and be someone else – or usually, lots of someones!
- What do you love the most about your job? What is the worst thing about being a narrator? Aside from creative outlet, it’s kind of cool to make something that I can put my name on – that’ll be here for a while (possibly longer than I will). I’m honestly not sure I’ve found a “worst” thing yet – I’m still very much infatuated!
- Are there specific types/genre of books that you just love to narrate? Any type of book that you will refuse? If you could record any book, which one would it be and why? As I mentioned, I’m still a relative newbie: I’m not sure I’ve done enough books to say I have a favorite genre yet; I’ve done romance, sci-fi and fantasy, western adventure, and non-fiction like self-help, medical, and even diet books. I will say I have absolutely loved every fiction work I’ve done – every last one. It’s hard for me to be quite that passionate about the non-fiction, even if they’re good books.
As far as books I’d refuse to do, I don’t really have a list. I’m definitely not interested in certain broad categories like erotica or gory horror (and I’d be terrible at both), but for everything else, I’d say I prefer books that add something positive to the world in one way or another.
I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about any single book as a goal. There are so many books I’d love to do – favorites that I grew up reading – it’d be impossible to choose. Besides, so many have been done so well as audiobooks – the Harry Potter series performed by Jim Dale (and again by Stephen Fry) come to mind – it’s hard for me to even imagine doing those myself.
- Are there any specific incidents that you draw on when you need a certain emotion for a scene? I’m familiar with the technique, but I’ve been fortunate that the writers I’ve worked with are so skilled at world-building, that I haven’t really needed to call on external motivation. Shameless plug: the author of “Cowboys Don’t Marry Their Best Friend” is particular amazing at this (cough).
- I love writing fun banter and scenes where my heroine and hero are goofing off with each other. Those scenes just flow out. Other scenes, especially scenes that are emotionally charged, and scenes that involve a lot of people, go very slow and make me tired. Are there any type of scenes that are fun and flow easily for you? Why? Are there any types of scenes that are difficult for you to do? Why? What do you do to help yourself get through them? I think I’m the exact opposite! Don’t get me wrong; they’re all fun for me. But the emotional and “busy” scenes are the ones that usually flow right out, and I feel like I get in one “take”. It’s the scenes with the playful banter, the subtle emotions, that I have to work harder at – for that very reason, I think. The fact that playfulness and similar emotions are so subtle, I want to make sure I get the nuance just right. It’s not necessarily more difficult, just something I want to take more care with. For me, that usually means making sure I understand where the author is going, so I read and re-read, and then, on occasion, try it a few different ways, even.
- What types of books do you read in your spare time? Gosh, that’s hard. I’m definitely a big fantasy nerd – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and on and on… I’ve always been a fan of Tom Clancy and the James Bond books, including the ones written after Ian Fleming’s death. I’ve been on a classics kick lately too, which leads me to the next question…
- What’s the best book that you’ve ever read? What’s the best book that you’ve read this year? Man, this is hard. Can I pick three? Conveniently, I’ve read them all within the last year, so same answer for both questions. In no particular order: 1) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This one is at least partly personal, as I’m from Monroeville, Alabama – Miss Lee’s hometown. The book isn’t quite pure and true history, but there’s a deep connection for me. 2) Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson. No deep insight here: I’ve loved this book since I was seven, and I’ve re-read it a dozen times since. 3) The Lord of The Rings– J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ll spare everybody the fantasy nerd lecture, but the scale and scope of the world Tolkien created – including a complete language – just amazes me to this day. I’ve read and re-read this trilogy, and I constantly find new things each time.
- Is there any specific thing you do to prepare yourself before you start to record?Well, mentally, I try to make sure I’m calm and relaxed – if there’s worry or stress in my the recording, I want to be there only because the story calls for it. Physically, I do try to do some basic vocal exercises, but usually, I’ve already been talking to point I’m adequately warmed up (I know, hard to believe, right?).
- I homeschool. When the kids were younger, we spent a lot of time in the winter sitting around the living room with me reading aloud to them. My voice got tired! (Not to mention, my nose always got itchy. ??) It’s also exhausting doing all the voices and reading with expression. Is there anything specific you do to protect your voice? Is there a limit on the amount of time you can spend recording in a day? Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Knock on wood, but I’ve been really fortunate thus far in my audiobook career – no laryngitis. I have had an instance or two of seasonal allergies getting in the way, and I have to let them pass, but otherwise, drinking lots of water has been all I’ve needed.
- I’ve never fallen asleep while I was reading to my children, but I know homeschool moms who have! Have you ever fallen asleep while recording? Guilty! Just once, though. I was recording a very long (one-hour plus!) chapter of a medical audiobook, and I don’t know if it was all the CO2in my booth/closet, or that it was warm, or what, but I kind of just nodded off for a second or two – WHILE I WAS READING! Now I joke that I’ve actually bored myself to sleep. Definitely took a break after that – and re-recorded that segment with a bit more energy!
- We enjoy listening to non-fiction while we work. The Great Bridge by David McCullough was one of our favorites. Fiction and non-fiction seem to take a very different skill set. Is this true? In my opinion, fiction seems to be easier for readers to read but harder to narrate than non-fiction. Is this correct? I think the skill sets are different, no doubt. As far as the difference in difficulty, I think it depends on the type of non-fiction. For example, historical fiction essentially has a built-in narrative, so while it’s not full-on acting, some emotion and dramatic tension sneaks in. A guide to building a deck, on the other hand, is a bit more of a challenge to keep it interesting without any emoting.
- What was the hardest book you’ve recorded? What made it hard? Which book was the most fun? Why? For me, the hardest has been a Keto Diet cookbook. I’ll be honest, I don’t know that I “get” the purpose of an audiobook version of a cookbook – but maybe that’s my level of cooking skill, and my need to read a recipe over and over while I’m burning supper. For me, it was difficult because of the pacing – trying to keep it fast enough to be interesting, but slow enough for people who are taking notes or trying to follow the steps as I read. It meant very regimented and consistent pauses between the different lines and sections.
The most pure fun I’ve had was a western adventure title I completed recently called “Mount: A Mountain Man’s Adventure”. The main character – and narrator – was a mountain man named (you guessed it) Mount. What made it so much fun was that my sole artistic direction from the author and his publisher was that they envisioned Mount sounding like Sam Elliott. If you know who Sam is, you can almost hear his voice now, can’t you?
- You are so easy to work with, taking suggestions and corrections seriously, and meeting every deadline. I’ve often thought this whole process could be a nightmare if one got a narrator who was difficult, wouldn’t work or wouldn’t make corrections. I suppose the opposite is true. This could be a very difficult process for a narrator if they are working for an author who is never satisfied or who has impossible expectations. Without naming names, of course, has this happened to you? Do you vet an author before you agree to work with them? You didn’t require references from me. Is this something you would consider doing in the future? Do you have a nightmare experience in this area you could share? Any really great experiences? I’ve been exceptionally lucky, I think, in that every author or publisher I’ve worked with has been great. Everyone is different, of course; some have been very hands-on, and some have been completely hands-off – either way, I see it as an immense responsibility to keep the trust they place in me to bring their “baby” to life.
- What, in your opinion, makes a great narrator/author relationship? What is important to have to make the finished product as high quality as possible? Trust, plain and simple. I try to make sure my plans and schedules are clearly laid out, and that I always meet them. It almost sounds trite, but I never forget my name is going to be on this audiobook too, so “good enough” isn’t ever good enough. When the author sees you that you care, it’s easy for them to reciprocate, trust-wise.
- I know readers would love to know any details from your personal life that you would like to share. If you’re comfortable telling us where you live, what parts of the world you’ve lived in, family, job, schooling, anything that we can relate to. I live near Penn State (I went to Penn State, Altoona) and I know to avoid Happy Valley on Saturday afternoons in the fall. It is more beautiful in person than it is on TV. 😊Readers particularly love pet stories. Bonus points for pet pictures. 😊As I mentioned earlier, I was raised in Monroeville, Alabama, and attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (Roll Tide!). I moved to the Atlanta area about 21 years ago, and just love it. I’m a single dad, raising a son who’s a rising junior Communications major at Kennesaw State University here in Atlanta. I’ve got three other “children”: an American Bulldog named Vanilla, and two cats, Smoke and Lilly. As far as hobbies go, I’ve got serious nerd-cred: I’m an avid computer gamer, and I love building PCs. Of course, this makes me the “tech-support son” for my parents, but that’s not so bad, I suppose!
(Vanilla during a walk at our nearby park)
(Lilly at work keeping me from doing actual work)
(Smoke posing in the sunroom, where she lords over the backyard)
- When I was a senior in high school, I won an award from the local paper for a non-fiction Valentine’s Day romance I wrote about the aquaculture project our school had gotten a grant for. It started off with a line that included, “could there be love lurking beneath the murky depths?” Are there any quirky or interesting things that you’ve done or have happened to you in your life? Well, while I’m not sure how interesting it is, but my career path has definitely been quirky: I’ve worked as an industrial engineer for both Wrangler and Lee Jeans (as training, I actually had to make my own jeans from start to finish), I’ve sold insurance, I’ve worked for a computer manufacturer, and I’ve worked for a company that manufactures toll road equipment (you know, the machines you pitch your quarters into?). With that last one, I got to travel internationally a bit – we even installed a toll road system in the Dominican Republic; and trust me, there are worse things than having to spend several weeks in the Caribbean!
- As a writer, I’m constantly reading, not just books in my genre (romance) but I love non-fiction, particular adventure stories, like Endurance and Into Thin Air. Reading widely is one of the things I do to improve my writing. What do you do to improve your narration? The same! I find I gain practical knowledge every time I hear another narrator. I definitely make use of my audible membership for that purpose!
- In my written books I have the opportunity to write dedications and acknowledgements and “about the author.” I’ve wished that there was a way for my narrators to add a little something for themselves similar to those things when they narrate my books. If you could write an acknowledgement, a dedication, an “about the narrator,” for any/all of the books that you’ve done, what would they say? I’d want to recognize the friends I mentioned earlier, as well as my son for all of the wonderful support they’ve given me since I began narrating. I’d also want to acknowledge the role that the authors and/or publishers I’ve worked with have played – every last one deserves credit for their own role in making these a success.
- If readers/listeners/fans would like to get ahold of you, how can they do that? Do you have a website? A blog? A Facebook page? How would you like listeners to reach out to you? I have to confess; I’ve been a bit lacking in my social media presence as I’ve focused on building up my portfolio. I do have a twitter page for my narration (@SayWithJay), and authors can find me through ACX.com, but as of now, I don’t have a separate Facebook page or website. I do plan on creating both (using the same SayWithJay monniker): the Facebook page should be up soon, with the website to follow. In the meantime, I’m always happy to respond to email at SayWithJay@gmail.com.