Tue
Jan 13 2009 2:29pm

Crafting an “Audiobook Drama”: Jack Kincaid on the technical and creative challenges of producing Hoad's Grim

Here’s part two of my interview with Hoad’s Grim author/podcaster Jack Kincaid. If you missed part one, you’ll find it here. In this post, we’ll be discussing the technical and creative challenges inherent in producing an “audiobook drama” that’s not your average, everyday audiobook. We’ll also be hearing from one of Kincaid’s partners-in-crime, professional voice actor James “Killer” Keller, who lends his vocal talents to the production.

The podcast seems to function as the perfect synthesis of audiobooks and audio dramas; why did you decide to produce something that falls somewhere between those two more traditional formats?

KINCAID: It had to be an audio novel with narration, straight off the page. As I am a novelist, novels are what I have to work with. It’s as simple as that. This, of course, involves both the narrator and the characters, who I thought should be distinct and acted out as if it were a radio drama, play, or movie. The narrator would cohabitate with them with equal character and dramatic texture. It’s the way the cards fell. That we had created a hybrid of audiobook and audio drama was more of an afterthought, particularly as we tried to figure out what to call it. “Audiobook drama” seemed right.

Listening to this podcast seemed to me like the closest thing to watching a film I’ve ever experienced on audio; this is partially because of the visual nature of the prose, but also the audio effects and music and different voices contribute to this as well. A lot of professional audiobooks fail miserably when trying to inject those elements into an audiobook; what did you do that makes it all work together so well?

KELLER: We know what we’re doing. Don’t try this at home. I think that because both of us are musicians by background, it just fell naturally into place to do it this way. That, and the fact that yes, other audio projects like this have failed miserably attempting to do the same, we understood that, and we didn’t want to go down that path, but rather go off on a tangent and create something that has never been done before.... and succeed.

KINCAID: I found Killer’s answer to be astute. A musician’s instincts has a lot to do with it. Each element you introduce—the narration, the character voices, the music, the ambiences, sound FX—must harmonize like the instruments of an orchestra, all in the same key and on the same page. Each serving a purpose, competent at that purpose, and content with that purpose without trying to compete with other elements, they are parts of a greater whole. They’re a team.

If you efficiently orchestrate, you’ll never need to compensate. I say that because people too often introduce elements to distract from what they perceive as flaws, erroneously or not, or, in some cases, to knowingly dress up a pig while praying that nobody notices, only to make it worse. The cure is always worse than the disease when it’s prescribed from the wrong hands. Not everyone has the experience, the instincts for this kind of work, and the ear for choosing the right music as well as getting the levels right, which is an art all its own. People make a living this way. As with anything else, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it shows and keeps showing. Skill can be developed, however, if one gives it their all and takes it seriously, but part of the problem I think, particularly with projects such as these that come from unpublished writers, is that many don’t give the form the respect it deserves. They think of it as only a stepping stone to something else, as a means to a thing, rather than THE thing.

We set out to make the most out of the form with a full sound and create the best experience we could with what we had to work with. Fortunately, I already had experience with mixing sound, sound effects, and music. So far, it has taken nine months of my life, during which I worked on nothing else. It’s a commitment. We took it very seriously and never, when it came time to lay a musical layer or sound FX layer, did I approach the task lightly.

You narrate the podcast yourself, but it’s not just your normal speaking voice, or even a normal voice at all; the narration is a sort of frantic, demented quality to it that seems to match the narrative nicely—how did you come up with the voice?

KINCAID: I knew that the traditional reader-reading-aloud approach wasn’t going to work for me or be an agreeable partner to acted character dialogue. I had to approach the narrator as a character, an easier-said-than-done task. I had to separate the narrator from the page where he—or I probably ought to say ‘it’—was in most ways invisible, interwoven into the essence of the book. I examined it and mused on just what it was. A third person narrator has no ‘who,’ no identity or background of its own. It is an entity, one which is only human when it is conducting human emotions from the character it is following. It is a conduit for the book’s atmosphere, mood, the details of its environment as The Narrator travels through it, the energy of its events, and, as I said, a psychical conduit for the emotions and thoughts of the characters. All these influences in the governing of The Narrator could be likened to spirits and The Narrator as a medium channeling them. What has dominance over any given moment of the story has the most influence on The Narrator. Given this, I did expect The Narrator to be a shape-shifter of sorts, would have to be given its nature, but that’s not very helpful in creating a static character. I then contemplated where one draws the line between the book and The Narrator. That line seemed so thin that where it landed was almost irrelevant. Every book has a personality, carried by the narration in its choice of phrasing, its attitude, and commentary during those moments when the story stops to take a breath. This was the best source of substance I could find to put myself in its place, which is necessary for me to then find its spoken voice.

There were other considerations when choosing what sort of voice to give it. Knowing that I would be voicing some of the other characters, The Narrator’s voice had to be as distinct as possible from all others, had to be the most unique, so as to minimize any listener confusion generated by one voice bleeding into another. My range isn’t as vast as that of James Keller.

The first voices I came up with didn’t work. Each time I thought that it didn’t sound like The Narrator owned those words. There was too much tripping. The voice and the words it spoke weren’t in agreement.

Finally, I found it. How exactly, I don’t know. It sounded weird to me when I listened to the recordings after, from outside of its skin, but it felt inexplicably right too. I did have doubts about it for some time, as Killer or anyone else I talked to about the project at the time would tell you, still do, because it is so unusual and I worried that it may not agree with a lot of listeners. I accepted that trade-off. It just felt right.

It felt accurate.

You also provide the voices for several of the characters, but the podcast also incorporates the talents of some other voice actors. Tell us about some of your co-conspirators and talk about their roles in the production.

KINCAID: The production also incorporates the talents of sound artists and musicians, many of whom released their work under a Creative Commons license. Some of the music is my own (what music I had time for while wearing a dozen other hats in the technical side of the production), but most is not. The highest profile material would be the two Nine Inch Nails albums that were released under a CC. I found much inspiration in the Ghosts I-IV album. It’s quite likely that it wouldn’t have happened without it. In addition, there is wonderful music by Matthew G. Davidson, Aaron Dunn, Kevin MacLeod, Futant Oblivion, Gee Davey, John Scalzi, and tons of others, all of whose talents and generosity in releasing their work under a CC or granting permission to use their material contributed to making Hoad’s Grim what it is. Every element is important.

A substantial portion of the ambience and sound effects in Hoad’s Grim are the work of ERH, a very talented man with a wide range of work. I found him at the free sound project (freesound.org) where some of the other sound effects originate. He was also kind enough to assist me with a few things for Hoad’s Grim in addition.

Then, of course, there are the other voice actors, without whom Hoad’s Grim wouldn’t have left the development stage. This is doubly true for James Keller who was on-board from the beginning and whose encouragement and enthusiasm kept me moving through the project’s very bumpy beginning. I already knew that he was talented before we began, but I didn’t know how much. He amazed me. I envy his range. He voices a diversity of characters in Hoad’s Grim.

Jane Eastman is someone that I worked with in the past in theatre, a long time ago, and a common friend with Killer. Employing my charm (and begging skills), I asked her to come out of retirement and join the project. Blessed with a natural, down-to-earth style, she played all the women roles, except for the old lady, Betty Morgan (voiced, incredibly, by Killer). I am indebted to her for her contribution to the production. Truly. I soon start sending her my soul in monthly installments.

Sydney Patrick is a voice actor that works in the studio with Killer, who brought her into the project to voice the character of the little girl, Kirsten Dudley. Another great talent, she brightened every scene her voice touched. It matched the voice that I had heard in my mind while writing the book. No one could have performed the role better.

KELLER: My role was to just shut up and do what I was told.

I am a professional character voice actor, and Jack and I have known each other for many years. When he approached me with the initial idea of the project, I was very excited about it, even though he was just looking to get some cheap labor out of me. He would send me the chapters via email, and I would take them to my studio and record them and send the files back to him. As far as the development of each character went... he would just tell me how he “saw” the character, and I would give them a voice. It felt like I had free reign to the direction of the voices.... but I guess that’s just because we just both knew where it needed to be, and that’s where it went... the whole process seemed very easy, and fell into place quite nicely.

For both of you: how do you find a voice for a character?

KELLER: For me it comes very naturally... that’s what I do. I have so many voices that are in my head trying to get out, if I see a physical or mental image of someone or something, the voice just comes out... there is very little thinking involved with it for me. I particularly enjoyed finding Betty for some strange reason.... mostly because it was my 1st attempt in doing a voice for an 80+ year old woman. A challenge indeed.

KINCAID: Sometimes, it comes naturally, with little effort, owing to a background in theatre that stems back into childhood and has become a matter of nature. Other times, it’s work. I have to get under the character’s skin, see through their eyes, consider their background, think through their frame of perspective, fully envision them, find a ritual or thing to help me tune them in, and once I’ve found that zone, get them to talk and find their rhythm. It’s not unlike what I do as a writer, only in this case, it’s not words through my fingers onto a page but from my mouth into a microphone. I don’t always get it right the first time and will have to re-envision, which was the case with Deputy Castillo, for example. I originally pictured him as in his 30s, but the text of Hoad’s Grim never specified. Once I bumped him up in age about twenty-five years and gave him a heavy cigar-smoking past, thinking along Columbo lines, a voice clicked into place. Sometimes I sense that a voice is almost there, but not quite and needs something. I’ll then integrate some characteristics of another voice, which I think can fill the perceived void, like the voice of Scatman Crothers (for Phil the Librarian) or The King (for Roy Morgan).

Is there any process or ritual by which you get into character?

KELLER: Most of it involves sacrificial animals, and sharp objects. But seriously, I talk to myself.. constantly, and in different voices. I will have complete conversations as different people, mostly about nothing, and most of them curse a lot, but that’s how I prepare characters, and come up with new voices. That and a lot of coffee.

KINCAID: Some of my answer from the previous question applies here. Every character has a vocal warm-up of sorts to coax my voice and mind to where I need it, such as repeating some phrase unique to the character, clearing their throat or chuckling or grunting “uh-huh” as they do, sometimes—as Killer said—cursing and bitching (Reggie Kubeske comes to mind there), any number of things. Very much like the way I write, there will sometimes be physical rituals involved or an object which gives me a connection, such as the big sledgehammer which I kept on my lap or within reach for Chad Hyman, used back when I was writing Hoad’s Grim and then used for the project for when I played his role. It may sound strange to others, but it’s part of my method. It’s how I work.

What goes into the recording of the character voices from a technical standpoint?

KELLER: I was set up in my nice studio, with all kinds of shiny buttons, and knobs. I would read the chapter in character that Jack would send me off a monitor, record the voices and edit them down to send back to him. It was more interesting on my end, because I would have to record conversations with myself in the different character voices. Sometimes I would record them consecutively in one track, others I would send separately.

KINCAID: I didn’t have the luxury of a studio, studio equipment, or studio conditions. All recording took place in my home office. I would record all characters (The Narrator, Chad Hyman, Castillo, Tom Beamish, and other bit parts) separately, in their own zones which take me both time to get into and time to get out of. I can’t jump tracks on the fly as well as Killer can. Where acting is concerned, I was better built to attain one character zone and hold it throughout a play. The same could be said of writing. The character (whose POV the narration is following at the time) is my connection. Once the POV changes, I have to break to reconfigure my mind and the new perspective.

I usually record lines multiple times on a track. Once I’m done, I keep those that I think sound the best and toss the others. After that I run the sound through a noise reduction filter and it’s ready to be copied and dropped into a chapter’s first layer. That’s it.

When’s the podcast set to conclude and do you have any future “audiobook drama” plans?

KELLER: I think we were toying on the idea of a spin-off with Betty and Eric from within the Grim... something Brady Bunch-like with the Gibgoblins.

KINCAID: A spoof does sound like fun and a comedy would certainly do my soul good.

The weekly serialization of Hoad’s Grim took a break in December to reconvene at the beginning of January with Chapter 17. If all goes smoothly, Hoad’s Grim should conclude in February.

As for the future, who can say, but we’ve been discussing possibilities. It’s very likely that we’ll begin a new project in the future, after I’ve had some time to get back to writing and the unfinished novels waiting for me. I don’t think the experience furnished by Hoad’s Grim ought to be squandered. It doesn’t make sense to walk away from it forever. Just for a little while. After that, we’ll likely come back, probably with a larger cast and better equipment on my end, and see how much farther we can push that upward curve in the audio form.

0 comments

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment