Behind the Scenes: In the Recording Studio for “Life in Five Senses”

I narrated the audiobook for Life in Five Senses myself. I’ve recorded most of my previous books, and it’s always a fascinating process.

For three days, I sat in a small dark recording booth, carefully placed in front of a microphone with a pop filter (which I definitely need; I have an issue with plosives, I’ve been told).

My terrific director May Wuthrich—with whom I’ve worked many times—and engineer Zach Giberson sat in the next room, where I could see them through a soundproof glass window and talk to them through my mic and headphones.

Inside the booth, I read the book from a script on an iPad. I paused often to drink water to keep my mouth from going dry and to move my body to keep my energy high.

I had to keep reminding myself to relax in my seat. It takes tremendous concentration to read with expression and emotion, while articulating clearly, at the right pace (I tend to go too fast). Over and over, I’d find myself tensing up. That makes the process unnecessarily draining, so over and over, I reminded myself, “Drop your shoulders!”

My director had sent a list of 59 words she’d checked for pronunciation ahead of time—such as names of people (e.g., Dorothy Kunhardt), artworks (Sarcophagus of Harkhebit), places (Eleusis), materials (maiolica), foods (ke-tsiap sauce).

Despite the long list, we had to stop several times during the recording to check challenging words such as “centaur,” “aesthete,” “cumin,” “satiety,” “lazuli,” “Weimaraner,” “madeleine,” and “Worcestershire.”

Unfortunately for me, I found it hard to pronounce the ordinary word “tastes” clearly—a word that comes up often in the book, as you can imagine.

Pronunciation hack: Zach told me about “,” a site that shows you clip after clip of videos where real people pronounce a certain word or name. From what I can tell, it does seem to favor clips from experts—and it also shows that there’s a lot of variation in how people pronounce a word.

I found this phrase to be a particular tongue-twister: “park’s refurbished spring landscape.” It took me five tries to get it right.

While recording, I experienced an amusing example of a sensory illusion related to how our brains match sights and sounds. When we watch a movie, the sound comes from speakers far from the screen, not from the actors’ mouths, but our brains move the sound to the correct place. In the same way, while recording, I heard May through my headphones but could see her through the soundproof glass of the studio booth, and my brain corrected the information, so her voice seemed to come to me through the glass.

I was encouraged when, after a break on the first day,  Zach said to me, “I tried turning my phone to grayscale the way you talked about. That’s genius!” (Discussed on p. 54 in the book.)

Throughout the recordings, I kept a pillow in my lap. I know from experience that I have a tendency toward “stomach noises,” and a pillow muffles the sound. TMI?

One embarrassing thing happens every time I record one of my books: I have to stop because I’m overcome with emotion. For Life in Five Senses, I had to take a break several times while recording the last few pages.  I wrote those words, I’ve read and edited them dozens of times, yet when I read them aloud, I still got choked up.

The very last line of the book was very tricky to deliver. When you look at a copy yourself, I think you’ll understand why it was hard to read aloud those words in the way to capture the experience of reading them to yourself.

This actually wasn’t the first time I’d read much of the book aloud. As one of the last stages of my editing process, I read aloud all important passages, as well as those that were particularly tricky to write. Reading aloud is a great way to catch issues such as wordiness, accidental rhyme or alliteration, repeated words, poor rhythm, or general clunkiness.

Want to see more behind-the-scenes footage from the recording studio? Watch this short video.

People sometimes ask, “Does it count as ‘reading’ a book if you listen to the audiobook?” In my view—absolutely!

If you’d like to order a print copy Life in Five Senses or the audiobook, you can find information and purchase links here.



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