An Interview with Narrator Steve Marvel

An Interview with Narrator Steve Marvel
Terry Odell

Actor Narrator Steve Marvel head shotI’m pleased to have Steve “Captain” Marvel, the narrator of my Mapleton Mystery series, as my guest at The Kill Zone today. We’ve been working together for eight novels and a three-novella bundle and since I’m virtually clueless about how someone works with voice rather than fingers, I asked if he’d share a bit about himself and his process. He said he’d check in from time to time, so if you have any questions for him, ask away.

A little bit about your background qualifications as a narrator.
I studied Acting at a renowned university Theatre program and have had a four-decade stage career since. That time in the theatre has taught me how to create distinguishable characters, which lends itself very well to audiobook narration. Shortly after I started narrating, I won Audible’s Audiobook Narration contest. I’m only one of four narrators to have done so. I suppose you could say I’ve developed a skill in storytelling over the years which is serving me well in audiobooks.

How long have you been narrating audio books?
I started narrating audiobooks in 2013, although I had a regular job narrating a weekly financial newsletter for four years before that. So that’s about fourteen years, all told.

What other projects do you undertake?
For audiobooks, I go for titles that seem well-written by authors who like to collaborate. I tend to work mostly in detective fiction, thrillers, and sci-fi/fantasy, although I’ve done some fascinating non-fiction work, including a chronicle of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which is surprisingly popular, and a history of Star Trek, in which I voiced the words of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. That was a hoot.

Where other voiceover is concerned, I do a fair number of video games, mostly of the lighter-hearted, more tongue-in-cheek variety. I’ve voiced a lot of silly characters, including a series of fish and one fully non-verbal game in which I played five different monkeys. Those are fascinating challenges.

What made you decide to become a narrator?
Demand rarely exceeds supply within the acting business, but I discovered audiobook narration at a time when their popularity was exploding and publishers were actively seeking voices with acting ability behind them that could effectively portray characters and not just read copy. Audiobook narration also presents the actor with the opportunity to be not only the lead of the story, but every subordinate character, as well. He often functions as director, too, so the opportunity to exercise one’s creativity is greater than in just about any other area of the business.

How do you decide what projects to pursue?
Besides the qualities I look for in both book and author that I mentioned earlier, economics play a role. I take projects that either pay an attractive rate (as a member of SAG-AFTRA, there’s an established minimum I’m allowed to accept), or which show prospects for royalty-share income adequate to compensate me for my time as a professional. Choosing the right book is part art and part science.

For audiobooks, how do you determine the voices for each character?
I look for clues within the book’s text. Obviously, gender and nationality (accent) factor prominently. Age and attitude can also come into play, as can physical characteristics—is the character described as rotund or slight, healthy or wan, etc.? The body affects how a person’s voice is produced fundamentally, so I use all clues to feel out the character’s spine, both literally and figuratively. I often adopt that physical posture as I voice the character, which changes the voice without my having to rely strictly on auditory memory.

How do you keep all the voices straight?
I typically concoct and record all the major character voices for a book after I’ve read it through and before I begin the narration. I keep a file of those audio clippings open on my computer as I record the narration and refer to it as needed to remind me of my choices for each.

How closely do you work with the author?
That tends to vary by author and publisher. For major publishers, one doesn’t always have access to the author (especially, as was the case in a narration last year, when the author had been dead for a decade!). With independent titles where author and publisher are typically one and the same, some authors are very “hands off” and only have something to say about the narration at the beginning and end of the project, and then usually about logistics. Other authors give feedback as chapters get recorded, generally about characters and specific line readings. I’ve been very fortunate to work only with authors who mostly give me creative freedom and intercede only when something really jumps out at them.

I always try to keep in close touch with the authors I work with and keep them in the loop as to my progress and any questions I might have.

What are your biggest challenges?
The sorrow of seeing worthy audiobooks go unnoticed. Many authors struggle to market their work effectively, and I feel for anyone who’s poured so much creativity into a project only to see it languish in the marketplace. Digital items can live a long time online, though, so hope springs eternal.

Steve Marvel, audiobook narratorWhat’s the favorite part of the job (not counting getting paid!)

Connecting with the characters and the story and performing an interpretation that comes out of my own creativity. Reading alone in the booth, in the dark, can have a decidedly meditative quality to it. As someone who enjoys spending his vacations on silent retreat, I find that aspect of the process very appealing.

What’s the least favorite part of the job?
Like many narrators, I find editing the audio tedious. I don’t mind voicing the edits, replacing a word or phrase here and there. What I do mind is the process of cutting out the “bad” sections to replace them with the “good.” I’m actually quite good at it, but it’s extremely time-consuming. I’d rather be narrating!

How long does it take you to record a “typical” novel?
My average audiobook runs about 10 hours in finished length. Figuring about four hours of recording/editing time per finished hour, a book takes about 40 hours of work to produce. It probably takes me another 10 hours to read the thing through initially and make notes.

As an author, I compose my manuscripts at the computer, using Word. I’m always moving things around, finding better words, and fixing mistakes. With a word processor, it’s a very simple task. I have copy, cut, and paste commands at my disposal. I can highlight a sentence or phrase and drag it somewhere else in the manuscript, or delete it altogether.
What do you do with the first narration of the manuscript before you return it to the author? Do you hire out to have someone clean up the sound quality? (And could you describe what kinds of things have to be cleaned?)
Because my recording environment is particularly quiet (I have my own “isolation” booth at home), I generally don’t have to do much to the audio before I send it off to the author. I edit out mistakes and misreads as I go along, using a technique known as “punch and roll” to erase the unwanted audio and replace it with the proper reading as I continue on with the narration. When I finish each chapter, I run the audio file through what we call an “effects chain”, which is just the software taking out any low-level hiss and normalizing all the volume levels in the file.

What about matching the narration to the manuscript? Do you have someone else take a pass through the manuscript to avoid as many missed bits as possible, or do you rely on the author for that step?
I tend to work with a proofer to check my audio after I’ve recorded it against the manuscript. That person specializes in proofing audio, so she picks up the vast majority of glitches and misreads. I’ve tried to do it myself, listening to each file after I’ve recorded it. I can say without qualification that I’m now happy to pay someone to do that for me.

Then, the bigger questions. If there’s a notation that you read a word/sentence wrong, what’s your process for fixing it? Can you drop in or replace a single word? Do you go back and re-read the sentence? The paragraph? Would you be willing to walk us through your process?
As I mentioned before, if I catch a mistake as I’m narrating, I immediately correct it and move on. For mistakes the proofer catches, it can be time-consuming to match newly-recorded audio to the old—distance between mouth and microphone and the condition of the voice can vary between recording sessions—so I prefer to re-record as little as possible to replace misreads or bad sound in a file. That means I typically re-read just the phrase containing the wrong word—that is, that part that falls between breaths, as those are natural pauses. So I tend to replace phrases and rarely whole paragraphs. Occasionally, I’ve re-recorded a single word, though mostly when the word stands alone for some reason. More common than replacing a single word is removing an extraneous one without having to re-record the whole phrase.

Also, rather than re-record a correction multiple times, I’ll sometimes “tweak” the correction I’ve read with a software tool—raising or lowering the volume or pitch slightly, for example. Over the years, I’ve developed a number of tricks I can use to reduce my editing time. One still has to listen to each edit itself, of course, to make sure it’s acceptable.

Audible doesn’t require a 100% match of audio with the ebook. Do you grumble when an author asks you to fix minor glitches, like “a” for “the”, etc.? Or do you discuss whether it’s worth changing with the author?
If the sense of the writing doesn’t change due to an omitted, added, or altered small word, I tend to leave it alone and try to prevail on the author to let it be. There is a cost, in time, to editing. Editing audio takes a surprisingly long time, due largely to the need to match old and new sound, as I mentioned previously. If I’ve requested the author to leave an “alternate read” as is and she pushes back, I go back and make the edit. Perhaps I’m lucky, but I’ve never yet worked with an author whose requests I’ve found to be unreasonable. Perhaps I’m also easy to get along with!

What about the less obvious parts of the narration? I know you and I talked about some of the characters and what they should sound like before you began the narration. But what if there’s a difference of opinion about things like inflection, or emphasis on a word when the author listens—things that aren’t obvious when you read a manuscript. Does it bother you to have to go back to fix those types of narration?
It’s funny—there’s a great deal of talk about “micromanaging” in the online narrator forums. Possibly due to luck, or possibly because I do so much preparation with the authors I work with beforehand, I’ve never had such a difference of opinion with an author that there were very many things to change. It’s rare that authors I work with request very much, so with what few requests for such changes I get, I’m usually happy to comply. You and I have had a discussion or two about pronunciations of certain words, which I believe we split about 50-50 to change or to not.

(An aside from Terry: An example from my work. “either” (and “neither”). I prefer “EEther, but Steve had recorded “EYEther” and I didn’t make him go back and change them.)

I think things also come down to a matter of confidence. I’ve narrated enough books to feel very confident in what I’m doing—and I’ve had a decades-long acting career to bolster the performance aspect—so I assume that confidence suffuses my dealings with the author. Having confidence tends to make one more accommodating, because he isn’t threatened by disagreement, and it also makes him sensitive to others’ wishes, because he’s not caught up in defending his own. Confidence tends to be contagious, so I suppose because of that, again, I just don’t encounter very many differences of opinion with the authors I work with.

Steve recently completed the narration of Deadly Relations, my newest Mapleton Mystery. You can listen to a sample on my website (upper left), and find buying options here.

For more about Steve, visit his website.

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now in digital, paperback, and audio formats

Deadly Relations.

Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does

Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

22 thoughts on “An Interview with Narrator Steve Marvel

  1. Very interesting! I’m curious–while some writers may work on more than one project at a time, many stay on the same project before moving on to another. In the world of narration, do you find yourself narrating more than one project at a time and is it hard to keep them straight since you are doing so much pre-work before the actual narration starts?

    • Hi, BK — I tend to fall into the “obsess over one project” camp. I may prep a book while narrating another, but I try to launch into voicing a book just as soon as I’ve finished prepping it. I do take extensive notes, so it would probably be possible for me to work on more than one project at a time. But, like I say, I prefer to obsess over something till I get it right, which tends to mean only one narration in the pipeline at a time.

      Thank you for your question!

  2. Very interesting, Terry and Steve! Thanks for sharing and enlightening us on the subject.

    Steve, what is the typical cost for a 10hr / 40hr / 50hr project for an audiobook?


    • I’ll let Steve answer more specifically, but I think bottom line is “you get what you pay for.” You can find narrators on places like fiverr but I’d say “buyer beware.” Another thing to consider is when you put a book out in audio, it’s not only the story anymore. Listeners will reject a series if they don’t like the narrator. On the flip side, they’ll buy books they might not have considered because they like the narrator.

    • Hi, Steve — the cost for producing a book depends on what type of contract you’re able to set up with the narrator/producer. Most professional narrators tend to work under a “pfh” (per finished hour” agreement, meaning we charge a rate for each hour of finished audio (in contrast to charging for all the hours we spend working on the book which can be considerably more than the recorded length). SAG-AFTRA prohibits us from publicly discussing our rates, but I can tell you that ACX’s agreement with the union sets a minimum $250 for union productions. Most narrators tend to charge more than that, their rates falling into ACX’s standard category of “$200-400” per finished hour. Findaway Voices is another publishing service, like ACX, that also sets a minimum $250 pfh union rate.

      Both Findaway and ACX also have a “Royalty Share” agreement, whereunder author and narrator/producer agree to forego initial payment and to split the royalties from sales of the audiobook. Both also feature a “hybrid” agreement, employing both the Royalty Share and a lesser pfh payment, to help allay some of the narrator/producer’s hard costs.

      I’m happy to discuss the ins and outs of production with any author seriously considering a foray into audio, no strings attached. steve (at) stevemarvel (dot) com.

  3. Very enlightening. Makes me one to give listening to an audio book another try. My ADHD brain makes it difficult. Reading how he responded to your questions, I can almost hear how he would narrate.

    • Confession time: I’m not a listening person–too easily distracted, but that doesn’t mean I don’t put my books out in audio for those who enjoy “reading” that way. You can hear a sample of his narration on my website.

  4. Thanks, Terry! I’ve never delved into this world, but this gives me a peek (and piques my interest to learn more.)

    One question I have is: How does a narrator of a novel do opposite-gender voices? Maybe I missed the answer in the post/discussion.

    • Good question, Deb, and I don’t know “how” Steve does it, but when I was auditioning narrators for all my audiobooks, being able to distinguish characters by voice was one thing I listened for. I had a relatively small sample, but my other series have female narrators. I found the women did men better than the men did women. I liked Steve’s portrayal of female characters which is part of the reason I hired him to do my Mapletons.

      • Hi, Deb — I’d only add to what Terry said that, in creating a voice for a character, gender is only one of many factors I take into account. There may be a number of physical and psychological characteristics to consider — is he/she a smoker? Overweight? Aged? An opera singer? A psychopath? Meek or aggressive? Gender is obviously a major influence, but I try to work with as much as I can glean about the character, rather than fall back on the “women have higher voices than men” stereotype. Some of my women have actually had deeper voices than men in the same story!

  5. So interesting! Thank you, Terry, for introducing Steve. And thank you, Steve, for the peek inside the process.

    I’m always interested in how a narrator approaches voices of a different gender. Can you offer insight into what seem like a challenging process?

    • Hiya, Debbie — as I mentioned in my response to Deb’s question, above (more great minds!), I try to look at all the aspects of a character I can find, gender being only one among many. Rather than rely strictly on pitch, for example, to distinguish females and males, I tend to work toward a character’s degree of femininity or masculinity. Some men can be distinctly more effeminate than others, and some women more masculine, even than some of the men in the story may be. Considering those more metaphysical aspects of a character makes him/her more interesting to listen to, I’m sure, and also more interesting for me to portray.

  6. Thanks, Terry and Steve for a very insightful interview. I love audio books, and would love to have my new mystery series in audio. My previous fantasy novels, while doing well in ebook, didn’t do well enough IMHO to justify the expense, though I did talk with a couple of narrators who had approached me.

    I’ll piggyback on Debbie’s question with mine 🙂

    With my cozy mystery series, I’m hopeful the books can become available on audio.
    My fantasy novels were all in first person, and the main characters were both female. My mystery series is in third, with my sleuth female. Does 3rd person make narrating a different gender from your own easier for you? Or does 1st vs 3rd not matter?

    • Hi, Dale — great question. I think males and females can get away with 3rd person narration of the other gender’s stories just fine. That said, I think that, there being so many capable narrators now of both genders (along with those who are gender-neutral), audiences prefer hearing a story narrated by a voice matching the gender of the main character. The exception would be a story written from a female character’s POV where most of the dialog in the book comes from males. I’ve narrated those with no listener backlash.

      For 1st person — though, again, anything’s possible — I think people tend to prefer females voice females and males voice males.

  7. I follow several audiobook narrators on TikTok. Fascinating bunch. I especially found this line intriguing: The body affects how a person’s voice is produced fundamentally, so I use all clues to feel out the character’s spine, both literally and figuratively.

    Thank you, Terry and Steve. I really enjoyed it.

  8. Thank you, Terry and Steve, for interesting and useful information about audio. I listen to audio when I’m doing chores around the house or exercising.

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