Hannibal Hills: Lessons from the First Three Years

There’s no roadmap to building your own narration career. Many independent narrators come to narration as a second profession, without a background in voiceover or audio engineering. With so much to learn and master, embarking on a career in audiobooks can be daunting to say the least. So how do you know if that plunge is one you should take? And where the heck do you start anyway? Well, there’s no one right way, but here to tell you how he built a career in audiobook narration from square one to successful Audible Approved Producer of more than 40 audiobooks, is “The Darkly Sophisticated British Storyteller,” Hannibal Hills. You may not follow the exact same path, but you’re sure to find some important road markers for your own journey.

The Inspiration

Audible Approved Producer Hannibal Hills

I was almost forty-six when I first read from a book into a microphone. This isn’t unusual in the world of audiobook narration—many of the voices you hear reading your favorite books came to the job with half a lifetime of experience in very different roles, and so it was with me. Although I trained in theater back in the early 1990s, I left that path. For a time I worked in banking, and for twenty years after that I was a self-employed web designer. I also worked as a wedding minister from my thirties on. Many narrators carry a love of performance from childhood, like a pilot light that waits patiently to be needed. After officiating one summer wedding, a guest made an off-the-cuff remark about wishing I could read them an audiobook. I remember the glimmer of a notion that maybe I would like to try that. Four years later, I finally did.

The First Auditions

In February 2017, on impulse, I decided to buy an hour of time at a small local studio with good, promising reviews—just to read something into a “real microphone” in a “real space.”I came out of that first session longing for something more substantial to read and most importantly, I had finally been behind the microphone, and I liked it. I liked it very much.

I then found ACX via Google, and it was very easy to create a profile. I booked a second hour in the local studio the following week and picked three books to audition for: a comedy, an urban fantasy, and a non-fiction title. I recorded the scripts, paid extra for the studio engineer to tidy up and master the final takes, and uploaded the files with a polite message of greeting to the authors. To my astonishment, forty-eight hours later I had been offered contracts for all three. This was my first major decision point. I knew I enjoyed recording, but also knew I would have to pay for the studio time. For three books, this was a much bigger expense, but I felt it was something I had to do. Recording for two or three hours a week, in a couple of months those books were done. So far, it was still just an expensive hobby. But I loved the process, and by the end of the first book I knew I never wanted to stop.

The Engineering

I made an agreement with my engineer, who would work for a cut of the royalties from the next book. This actually turned out a very good deal for all concerned, and we ultimately did five titles together—one of those books is still my best-selling Royalty Share project—but recording at a local studio had two significant drawbacks: it was cost-prohibitive and studio time was extremely limited.

From the beginning, I had been tracking my audiobook costs and income on a spreadsheet, and projecting probable earnings at various levels of output. I had already figured out this was a long game, and that I would not be making a sustainable full-time income for at least two years, and not unless I could record on my own terms in my own space. Looking back, the first couple of years narrating were primarily about investment: investing in time, in coaching, in a proper recording space and equipment, in learning more and more every day, and sticking with it every day, because momentum is essential.

Choosing and Funding a Home Studio

I live in a noisy location: heavy road and air traffic, many neighbors keen on gardening and DIY projects, and at the time we owned the world’s loudest cat. I realized quickly that blankets would not be enough to dampen the intrusive sounds. Between March and May of 2018, I worked hard at projecting the numbers for costs and income, and started inquiring about loans to cover the cost of a recording booth that would be good enough to beat the local noise pollution. Needing a booth that I could access twenty-four hours a day, in a location already available for free, I decided on our vacant guest bedroom. After gathering quotes for booth construction and some long, frank conversations with my wife, I talked to my bank and they offered me an “equipment” loan, which meant a lower rate than a typical personal loan. With those funds, I purchased my 6’ by 4’ Vocalbooth Platinum. I know that many narrators thrive with a much less expensive space treatment, but in my location I needed more. I have not regretted it a single moment, and in the two years I’ve had it, my beloved booth has given me a consistent,  professional sound quality that has allowed me to audition and perform with confidence, and prevented many noise issues that would have caused extensive and costly edits or re-takes.

Becoming an Editor

Having moved into my home studio, I needed to learn to edit and post-produce my own files—a significant undertaking. I tried months of tinkering, slowly improving, but finally knew I needed a professional to help. The marvelous Tim Tippets helped me create the right effects stack (the order in which one applies effects like EQ and compression to their audio files), and streamline the whole process. Sean Pratt, about whom you’ll learn in the next installment, had already taught me the essential value of “punch and roll,” a recording technique that makes audiobook editing far easier. Knowing that you have your process down means you can concentrate on performance and career-building. For narrators, I now believe the end goal is to outsource editing and post-production, but first we should know how to process our own audio. As with your recording space, the right DAW (your Digital Audio Workstation—the software used to record, edit, and post-produce audio) is different for everyone. I now record in Reaper and edit in Audition. There are a variety of DAWs that will get the job done; it’s about creating a system and process flow that gives you confidence and allows you to get on with the job of performance most effectively. For me, the simplicity and comfort of the Reaper interface perfectly suits my needs during the performance phase, while the functionality of Audition allows me to process every aspect of my recording and easily master files to the right specifications.

At this point, I had recorded over a dozen books, and learned a lot about the technical part of the process. But, I knew I still had a great deal more to learn about performing, and especially how to find work, build my brand, and to take my career to the next level.

Stay tuned for the second part of Hannibal’s narration career journey, where he’ll tackle specializing, outsourcing, and goal-setting.

2 responses to “Hannibal Hills: Lessons from the First Three Years

  1. This is a great story! Looking forward to learning more. I literally asked the Universe for a look into how the actual career & lifestyle of a voiceover talent begins. Thank you.

  2. Good stuff. I look forward to hearing the next phase of your journey in audiobook narration. tks.

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