Sunday, January 12, 2014

Talking With Mike Dennis About Audio Books

Mike Dennis is no stranger to readers of this blog. A frequent commenter, his novel, Setup on Front Street, made my Best Reads of 2011 list. The Take made one of my monthly lists this year, and his short story, The Session, is one of the small handful of best short stories I’ve ever read, regardless of genre.

It was a treat to sit next to him on this year’s Bouchercon panel, moderated by Peter Rozovsky. The topic was hard-boiled and noir writing styles, and, as anyone who’s read Mike’s work is aware, Mike knows what he’s talking about.

I was delighted when he approached me to inquire into collaborating on an audio version of Grind Joint, and jumped at the chance. It’s been fun and informational to hear everything filtered through someone else’s interpretation and vision, and it’s been a pleasure working with him.

It occurred to me there may be other authors, and readers, who might wonder how to get in on the audio book biz. Mike was kind enough to take time from his schedule of writing and recording to answer some questions I hope you’ll find informative.

One Bite at a Time: How long have you been reading for audio books?

Mike Dennis: First of all, Dana, let me thank you for giving me this opportunity to appear on your blog. I do appreciate it.

I started narrating audiobooks about nine months ago.

OBAAT: What got you into it?

MD: All through my musical career, which spanned 30 years, people told me I had this great “radio” voice. Even radio DJs told me that. I never had any desire to be a DJ, though, because I always figured they wanted to do what I did, which was play music. Along the way, however, I did pick up a few commercials here and there, but nothing to rave about. I knew I had a good voice for that kind of thing, but I never really knew how to capitalize on it.
Then, a girl I knew from my years in Las Vegas, who had started an audiobook publishing company, put out a call for male narrators for audio short stories. I told her I’d like to take a whack at it and she went for it. Since then, I’ve branched out into novels. I’ve even done a novel-length non-fiction book.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of what’s involved to actually get the words from the page into an audio file.

MD: There’s a lot more to it than I initially thought. First, it helps immeasurably to have a well-written, properly-edited book. I have to read the material with feeling, something I was never used to doing, since I seldom read anything aloud. The material has to be read at a certain pace, so the listener can follow it easily and yet not be put to sleep. I have to grasp the meaning of each sentence and convey what the writer felt when he wrote it, so the better the writing, the easier this is.

Then there is the problem of dialogue. I have to come up with a distinct voice for each character and keep it consistent throughout. That’s harder than it sounds, because when I have multiple female characters, for instance, I have to really give them each a different voice without sounding too masculine. If there are regional accents involved, that can slow things down quite a bit, also. In every case, the dialogue has to sound natural, like people actually talking to each other.
After I get the material recorded to my satisfaction, then it has to be edited and mastered, and that’s where the time is really consumed in huge gulps. Getting rid of little unwanted noises, clicks, and pops is a big deal. So is proper equalization. My voice is very sibilant, with sharp, cutting esses, and that has to be dealt with accordingly. The book has to sound good over expensive headphones as well as cheap headphones, and that can be tricky.
Preparing a finished product of a high caliber, that can compete with bestseller audiobooks, is a big challenge, with quite a steep learning curve. I had no one to really guide me in those first few months, but I worked hard at it and now I’m very pleased with the quality of the product I’m turning out.

OBAAT: How much equipment is involved?

MD: I have an ElectroVoice RE-20 microphone, a Centrance Micport Pro preamp, a pop shield on a boom stand, and a thing called a Porta-Studio, which is an ingeniously-designed collapsible box, about 18” wide by 14” high by 24” deep, with foam baffling all through the inside. The microphone is placed inside this box on a small stand, creating a “dead zone” for better recording quality. I sit in front of this open box and speak into it.

When I first started, I had another microphone, which was a perfectly good one, but I learned through trial and error (mostly error) that it was not suitable for my voice, so I got the ElectroVoice a couple of months ago and it’s made a big difference.

OBAAT: About how long does it take to record a minute (or an hour, if that’s an easier comparison) of usable audio?

MD: That really varies with each narrator and each project. In my case, it will take me an absolute minimum of three hours to produce one finished hour of an audiobook. It has taken me as long as five or six hours on some projects.

OBAAT: What do you like most about reading for audio books?

MD: Being able, in my own small way, to interpret the writer’s material for the potential listening audience.

OBAAT: What’s the biggest headache?

MD: For me, it’s reading a book or a story that is poorly written, with many typos and stilted dialogue. The second biggest headache is editing. I really don’t look forward to it (although I always put my shoulder to it), and I’m thrilled when it’s done.

OBAAT: Working as both an author and as a reader, what advice to you have to offer authors who might want their books to be available on audio, as well as anyone who might be interested in reading for audio?

MD: First and foremost, for writers I would recommend finding a narrator whose voice you think suits your material. Just because someone did a great job on John Grisham’s latest legal thriller doesn’t mean he would be the best for someone else’s crime novel.

Check out samples of audiobooks in your genre. Wait till you hear a narrator who “sounds” like your material. Then contact him and ask him to do an audition sample of your novel.
For would-be narrators, I would definitely recommend acquiring professional-level equipment before you even take a first step. You can’t just speak into your computer. You’re competing with professionally-recorded audiobooks, and you have to be able to stay up with them, to produce at a relatively high level right out of the chute.

Having said that, such equipment can be had for under $1000, and it’s all a one-time expense. If you want, of course, you can spend thousands more and get a better sound, but for starters, you can get by with less than a grand.
Listen to audiobooks and hear what they’re doing. Buy an audiobook of a novel you really like and listen closely to it. Check out how the narrator does it. Try to pick up his/her tricks. Most importantly, go for that sound.

Thanks to Mike for the time and insights. This is one of the things I like most about interviews: I learn stuff all the time.

Anyone interested in working with Mike can contact him via email. (

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