As an engineer, editor, and director, Amanda Rose Smith has worked on over 700 audiobook productions, 300 of which are ACX titles. After years of working with studios and publishers, she struck out on her own, and recently dropped a vocal booth into her Brooklyn apartment so she can see productions through from start to finish. Read on to learn her thoughts on collaborating with narrators and the value of knowing what “ə” sounds like.
Q: How did you become an audiobook studio pro?
A: I was a music major at Smith College, studying to be a composer for film, TV, and video games, and I decided I’d like to record my own work. Simultaneously, my work-study job in college involved read aloud for blind and dyslexic students, recording each week’s lessons onto those old tiny tape recorders.
Later, when I traveled to New York to get my masters in Music Technology, I began working for the American Foundation for the Blind as a recording engineer and editor for audiobooks. After that I was at a commercial studio for several years, working on audiobook productions for several publishers, doing post-production for film and television, and eventually became the production manager for the entire studio. A few years ago, I left that position to start my own business. I now work directly for publishers, with narrators on ACX, as well as continuing my work in film, television, and video games. I recorded all the ADR for the second season of Orange Is the New Black, for instance.
As a studio professional working indirectly with ACX (I’m usually hired by producers to edit and master their home-recorded audio), ACX work factors in as a significant portion of my income and in growing my business. After encountering lots of producers who would love to work on ACX but don’t yet have their own recording spaces, I decided to buy my own booth and create my own recording space.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out?
A: I wish someone had explained to me how vulnerable one has to be, as an actor, to get the right performance across. Consistently connecting with this work on an emotional level is a hard job. Over the years, directing actors, I’ve learned how closely collaborative this work is. The engineer/director and the actor have to fully engage with each other to allow the best product to emerge.
In my early years, I was sometimes afraid to be as hands-on as I could have been in that collaboration. That feeling probably stemmed from an interaction I had with a very seasoned—but also sensitive—narrator on a book. They had started the book with another director, and I had been brought in to finish things off at the last minute. So we hadn’t really built a rapport yet. Being the pronunciation and misread nerd that I am, I came down a little hard and fast from the start of our session, pointing out all of their mistakes right away, before we had built any trust. It made for an uncomfortable session and the ensuing performance suffered.
Mistakes are important to catch, of course, but over the years, what I’ve learned first and foremost is the nature of collaboration in session work. Now, I record all sorts of people—from actors who have been narrating for decades to authors who have never spoken in public—and I always approach it from a place of collaboration rather than just fixing someone else’s mistakes. The overall quality, performance, accuracy, and technical sound quality are all part of the whole.
Q: What are you doing to grow your skills and get better at your profession?
A: I’m always researching new gear, new software, new techniques, etc. Social media plays heavily into my keeping track of what my peers in the industry are doing. When I notice buzz about a new piece of software or gear, I’ll try it out. In any technical industry, which this is, it’s important to stay current. For example, I was using ProTools pretty much exclusively when I started out, but a number of other digital audio workstations (DAWs) have cropped up in the past few years. Different programs have different strengths, and studying them allows me to find the most efficient ways to get the work done. While I still often use ProTools, Reaper is also fantastic for audiobook production, especially since it works equally well on PC and Mac. Twisted Wave is great for bulk processing. Izotope RX is indispensable for noise reduction.
Staying up-to-date in this way also helps me advise others when they have technical problems. This is still a very word-of-mouth industry, and I’ve gotten lots of work simply by offering a few minutes of my time to fix a problem.
Q: What are your favorite educational resources for audiobook production?
A: The main physical dictionaries: Merriam Webster and Oxford. When I worked for the American Foundation for the Blind, we weren’t allowed to use online resources. So, I had to learn to read all of the pronunciation symbols in order to do pronunciation research. I’m grateful for that now, because most of the pronunciation sites that are reliable, like Merriam-Webster online or Dictionary.com, may only have audio files for one version of the pronunciation. Those will often be followed by a bunch of symbols only nerds like me can read.
Q: What is your must-have piece of studio gear?
A: There are a lot of microphones and pre-amps and plug-ins that I like, and I’m sure that one of those would probably be the expected answer here. But honestly? My favorite piece of studio equipment is the iPad. I have the new 12.9 inch pro in my studio and I’m in love. I started working in this field while people were still using paper scripts. When the iPad became ubiquitous in the audiobook studio, the changes I saw were profound. Narrators who previously had to stop every two pages or so (to avoid the page flip getting caught on-mic) could now go on for as long as they desired—or until I stopped them for a misread. I saw some actor’s output go up by as much as 15%; people who previously finished a session with 180 minutes of raw audio were now finishing with 200 or 210. That might not seem like a big deal, but since most publishers pay on a per-finished-hour basis, it was a game changer.
Q: How do you define success in your creative career?
A: I feel most successful when I pull my head out of my book/computer/headphones and think, “Wow, I’m getting paid to do this.” For me, getting paid to do something you’d probably do anyway is the highest form of success. I also try to keep moving forward, in terms of my level of knowledge. If I can look back on a year and feel that I know more than I did last year, that’s a good year.
Q: Do you have a fun hobby or skill unrelated to your audiobook work?
A: I love to travel! Also, I scuba dive. In 2013, I went scuba diving off the coast of Belize, at the second biggest barrier reef in the world. To an audio engineer, there’s something oddly relaxing about the near-silence of an underwater environment.
After earning a BA in Music Composition from Smith College, Amanda, originally a musician, moved to NYC where she completed a master’s degree in Music Technology at New York University. Recently, she was the dialogue editor for Telltale Games’ “The Walking Dead: The Game.” She loves most things Star Trek, and hopes to visit all seven continents before she dies. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.