What Sets a Good Audiobook Apart
By June Thomas, Slate
March 8, 2021
On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with actor and award-winning audiobook narrator Abby Craden about her voice work. They discussed the technical aspects that go into recording an audiobook, her creative license in making narration decisions, and the differences between working on fiction and nonfiction projects. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: Let’s talk about the accents, the different tones of voices. I noticed that you do a lot with different pitches, different amounts of gravel, you might say. How do you describe how you do different voices?
Abby Craden: I feel that I am lucky that I have a wide range in my voice. I can go very deep and gravelly, and I can also go high and soft and young, which has offered me the opportunity to do lots of different genres. I’ve done kids’ books, I’ve done young adult, I’ve done all sorts of different things.
I always find the person who’s me, which is kind of this tone [speaks in normal voice], and I’m like, Oh, thank God, she’s me. I don’t have to worry about that. Then I go like, [speaks in deeper pitch] Oh, she’s deeper than me. Or, [speaks in higher pitch] Oh, she’s up here, and she’s breathy. It is the palette of what I can do. I think what’s really important when you’re listening is to be able to know who’s talking. One of the hardest things is when you have a group of, like, five men and they’re all 40, and they’re all having a beer together. How you make those voices sound different?
How do you distinguish them? What can you do with your voices to indicate five different guys when they’re all similar?
There’s pitch, so high, low. Tone could be gravelly as opposed to nasal—someone’s always nasal. There could be rhythm, so there’s someone who speaks really fast and then there’s someone who speaks slower. Sometimes as I imagine them, my voice changes a little. I can imagine the character, and it adds a different flavor. It’s all of those things.
Sometimes I will make notes on the side, especially if it’s a long scene, so I know who’s saying what when, and I put a little Post-it by my iPad so I can remind myself if they’re all talking to each other. But it is challenging, for sure.
Don’t you ever lose track of how a character talks? Especially if it’s not a central character, but somebody who was in the beginning, then disappears for 150 pages, and comes back. Do you keep some kind of reference?
I have character notes, but I also have an ability with ProTools to flag characters and find them in a previous track. So if I do lose that character and I want to go, Oh God, what did I do with that? I can actually go back and listen to myself.
Then you kind of imitate the previous version?
Exactly. I’m like, Oh, did I do that? OK, well, here we go. You’ve got to do it again.
I’m wondering if there are voices that are harder on you, that just like take more out of your voice, which I’m sure it’s very important for you to protect, given the nature of your work. Have you ever regretted assigning a particular timbre to a character who’s then cost your voice?
I’m lucky that I have never had vocal fry after working, but I definitely have picked voices too low, like a man where they talk about how gruff he is, and his voice is like sandpaper. You’re like, Oh, I can do that. But do I want to? Does someone want to listen to that for six hours? So I’m like, Oh shoot, I shouldn’t have done that. Or sometimes like a Scottish accent—it’s so hard to make it sound clear. I can do some dialects, but I’m not a dialectitian. I do the best I can. I try to honor that, because I think it’s important.
I was recently listening to an audiobook—you were not the narrator—where one of the main characters was Australian and everybody else was American. The narrator was American. Do different kinds of back and forth cause more problems than others?
Absolutely. I have to just trust within myself that I can feel the truth. So many books have so much dialogue, and you’re playing all the characters. It’s actually quite a gift because I get to be everybody. I get to be detective. I get to be the man. I get to be the woman. I get to be the child. When does an actor get to do that? So that’s awesome and also challenging. I just have to trust myself. If it sounds off to me, I just go back and redo it.