Audiobooks are a beautiful thing. They accompany us on the train, get us through road trips, and entertain us during tedious chores. But what goes into recording a novel, and how in the world do narrators bring life to all those characters?
Enter award-winning voiceover artist Tara Sands. We’re willing to bet you’ve heard her voice before—in primetime commercials, your kids’ Saturday morning cartoons, or maybe even narrating one of your favorite literary characters. Tara spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright about southern accents and tonal shifts, why she eschews loud restaurants and covets quiet time, what happens when books get emotional, and how narrators and writers could work together to create flawless dialogue.
Read It Forward: Tell me a little about your process when you prepare to record an audiobook.
Tara Sands: I read through the book once to make a list of characters and a list of words or pronunciations that might need looking up. Oftentimes the director will do that for you. If there’s a song in there or certain city names, I’ll make a list of all those things where I’m like, “I have no idea how to say that.”
Then I’ll make a list of all the characters that show up because we have to give them voices. I’ll write down any attributes the author hints at, any accents they might have, so I have a comprehensive list of all that stuff before I get into the booth. I try to come up with as much as I can ahead of time, which sometimes goes right out the window once you get in the booth and come up with a totally different voice for that character.
RIF: Nice. So you figure out like, “Okay, there’s one 12-year-old girl, there’s a grandmother,” and so on, down the list. You almost create character profiles for each of these.
TS: Yeah. And sometimes, for a series like The Singular Menace, where I think we’ve done three or four books, I cross-reference it with my notes. So, “This character is coming back. What notes did I have last time for them?” And then I hope nothing’s changed and all of a sudden they don’t say, “He said, in his British accent…”
RIF: Right. Do you ever go back, especially if it’s a sequel, and listen to yourself read the first book?
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TS: Well, I hate listening to myself, so I listen just enough to get a sense of the characters. In a perfect world, we’d have sound clips of all the voices we did in a previous book. I listen enough to get the tone of how I read it the last time, so it feels like a continuation.
RIF: I also hate to listen to myself speak. Do you think that’s a universal human thing?
TS: No, because I talk to narrators who love listening to their own voices. It would probably be good for me to listen as a learning tool, so I think that’s why some of them do it. But I just don’t enjoy listening to myself.
RIF: Yeah, it’s a strange sensation. Do you have any favorite characters you’ve given voice to over the years?
TS: Oh yes. In Flora and Ulysses, there was a little boy in that book who I loved. P.K. Pinkerton was a series we did, and I had to narrate that book as a little boy with a southern accent. I’ve done a bunch that were all narrated with southern accents. Those are fun because you have to remember not to drop out of it. Once I did a southern accent, they started giving me more books like that, which is fun. The Truth According to Us was also one in a southern, little girl voice. Those are fun because they’re more challenging in that way. I can’t sound anything like me.
RIF: Do you do anything differently when you voice a female or a male?
TS: With the male voices, it’s an indication of a male voice. We’re never going to fully sound like a dude. So it’s dropping pitch, mixing up speed and tone depending on age. But usually it’s an indication of the character, not a full embodiment of a male. If I’m playing a 60-year-old man, I’m just never going to sound like that. But I can play with the tone, maybe find some kind of vocal pattern they have or a way of pronouncing certain things that they do, to try to indicate that it’s someone else talking.
RIF: When you’re out in the world, do you find that you’re extra observant when it comes to noticing things about people’s voices, like their cadence and pitch?
TS: Oh, yeah. It makes it more fun and less fun to go through life, because you listen in a way that is distracting sometimes. Especially annoying voices. I was talking to a friend of mine who does this as well, and we’re so sensitive to voices. There are shows we can’t watch if someone’s voice bothers us because we’re so in tune with that.
RIF: Oh my gosh. That must be wild.
TS: Yeah, it’s a job hazard.
RIF: Are you a reader in your life outside of work?
TS: I do love to read. Having this job has definitely caused me to read less than I would like to. When I read for prep, I tend to read really fast. It’s hard for me to slow down and read for fun. If I do, I tend to read more nonfiction because that’s not what I do for work. So my fun reading is usually not other people’s idea of fun.
RIF: But it’s a break. How long would it take you to record a whole novel?
TS: With audiobooks, the general rule is if the book is ten hours when it’s finished, it probably took us two or three times that to finish it. That’s including press. For studio time, the rule is usually two to one. But that doesn’t figure in the prep time, reading it, thinking of characters, looking up words, that kind of stuff. And you know, taking breaks, because your voice obviously gets tired, so you have to step away. You’re going to make tons of mistakes while you’re in the studio. I’ve done some heavy books. Sometimes you need to just step away because it’s too emotional, and you’re just like, “Wait a minute.” I did The Language of Flowers years ago, and we had to take breaks because we were crying through that book, and I obviously didn’t sound good when I was crying. It’s a balance of being present and being emotional, but still being understandable.
RIF: Exactly. How do you take care of our voice as you’re recording? Do you have a secret honey-and-lemon remedy, or…?
TS: I’m the worst. You’ll talk to other narrators who have great regimens and are really good about that. Hot water is maybe the only thing I do. To me, it’s more about resting it at night than it is about in the booth. But everyone will have a different answer to that question. I wish I was better about it. For me, it’s definitely about the quiet time.
RIF: I never really thought about that. So if you live with someone, do you not make plans to go out to dinner after you record because it’s rest time?
TS: I am that annoying friend who asks how loud a restaurant is. I love being able to go out, but if it’s a really loud place, I’ll just say, “Hey, can we go someplace smaller that’s not so loud?” I always pick the quieter option, and that’s in life in general. I’m like, “Okay, I’m not going to go to a concert the night before I have to record a book.” Things like that.
RIF: Right. Are there any characters you’ve voiced that you can’t stand, or that you wish you’d done differently, in retrospect?
TS: Oh, yes. Anything with a lot of rasp in it. A lot of my young male voices have a lot of rasp in them, and I like the way they sound, but they really hurt my throat. So I’ll decide how much that person talks in the book before I give them that voice.
RIF: Oh, smart. Like, “Okay, it’s only six lines.”
TS: Right. But then if there’s a sequel, and you’re like, “Okay, that person comes, and has a lot to say…” It’s trying to be savvy, but also, sometimes I’ll do it just because I know it serves the book. So I’ll think, “Okay, I know I’m going to have to take more breaks, but I know this is going to sound better for the book.”
RIF: Do you ever get to hear author feedback, or are those channels kept fairly separate?
TS: They’re pretty separate. At Penguin Random House, the director has contact with the author, which is great because in some ways you want to be free to interpret the book. You have their notes ahead of time about how they’re hearing it, and then you have the freedom to take those notes and make it your own. I know if I wrote a book, I would want to micromanage, so it’s probably better that we’re not completely involved. Although it would be really fun to be directed by a writer at some point.
We had an author come in—I can’t remember what title it was for—who just wanted to see the process. She realized in watching us that she had written a southern character without making the dialogue easy to do with the southern dialect. So she totally learned, “Oh my gosh, my next book, if I’m writing the character with an accent, I have to make the dialogue to work with that.” Sometimes I wish they could be part of the process a tiny bit more, but almost during the writing process. Because once it’s written, we’re not allowed to change anything. Especially if it’s a children title, we can’t drop the G’s off the end of words. We can’t customize because a kid is often learning how to read with this book. They’re reading along. I would love to sit down with authors and tell them, “Okay, the way you write dialogue is super important, because we’re not allowed to deviate at all.”
RIF: It’s actually providing insight that could be used a little earlier in the writing process.
RIF: That’s fascinating. Wow.
TS: I know. I want to go to writers’ conferences and do a panel on that. You have to work out a way to make this integrative, because we should all have access to each other.
RIF: And you have this whole knowledge of voice that could really help a writer.
TS: For sure, yeah. We all do. There are a bunch of us narrators at Penguin Random House. Just from talking over lunch, we’re like, “Oh, god. They were so close. If they had just done this with this book, it could have been amazing.” There’s all that talk that I wish they could be a fly on the wall for.
RIF: Have you ever learned any words that you thought, “Wow, I definitely did not know that word before looking it up at the beginning of my process?”
TS: Constantly. The book I did this week, there’s a Christmas song called, “Here We Come A-wassailing.” I always thought it was was-sail. But sometimes it’s words you’ve said your whole life, where it’s like, “Well, we all said this wrong. Do we say it correctly, or do I say it the way the general public says it?”
RIF: Especially if the character would say it the way the general public would.
TS: Yeah. That’s where it’s so tricky with things like that, because you have to be true to the word so you’re saying it correctly, but would the character say that? It’s really a weird part that no one thinks about.
RIF: One of the things I’m obsessed with, maybe because I’m from Philadelphia, is the unique, local way of saying some words. Like, you must be very familiar with how Philadelphians say “water.”
TS: I’m from Jersey. I say “ah-range.” I’ll say “orange” if it’s on the West Coast, but if the book is set in Jersey I’m like, “Oh, good, I can say ‘ah-range.'” I’m sure I get it wrong—I’m sure we all do. There’s only so much we can possibly know, but you try to catch yourself whenever you’re doing something like that.
You also don’t want to distract from the book by it being too heavy; you just want to serve the book. Sometimes the too-heavy accent is distracting, because it’s not a cartoon. You just want to get the words across, and hopefully it’s a good book, and the words are good. If it’s a kid’s book, sometimes I do make it over the top because that’s more fun and hopefully will keep their interest. But an adult listening doesn’t want to hear a caricature, necessarily.
Photography by Alexa Miller