BEYOND THE BOOTH with Erik Synnestvedt
Erik Synnestvedt has been active in the audiobook industry for 20 years. Starting out as a narrator, he has over 300 titles to his credit for publishers such as Hachette, Penguin Random House, Audible, the Library of Congress Talking Books for the Blind Program, and more. These days he uses his training and expertise to do full time post-production work, helping other narrators sound their best. He has proofed and/or edited almost 300 titles just in the last year. You can find him at Eriksynnestvedt.com
KW: Since I started as an editor (I was trying to get work as a narrator but it was the closest I could get), I’m fascinated to hear about your journey from narrator to editor. Assuming it wasn’t audiobook engineer, what did you want to be when you grew up?
ES: I wanted to own a baseball card store. I still have all my cards from when I was a kid.
KW: What did you study in school?
ES: I was a psychology major with a theatre minor. I performed onstage throughout high school and college, got away from performing after graduating, and then came back to voiceover (VO) work as something that I’d always felt called to do. VO work morphed into full-time audiobook narration, which morphed into full-time post-production a few years ago.
KW: What made you say, I want a job in this industry?
ES: Becoming immersed in the audiobook industry was a gradual process that grew out of wanting to be a VO artist. But it eventually became the aspect of my career that I enjoyed and connected with the most. It’s a tightknit community of performers and producers and less of a Wild West than commercial voiceovers.
KW: I agree. Audiobook people are definitely the best. What was your very first job in the audiobook industry?
ES: In the early 2000’s I worked for Flo Gibson at Audiobook Contractors. Flo was an audiobook legend. She started in radio way back when, narrated at the Library of Congress for many years, and then started her own business. I monitored her in her basement soundproof booth (that was built like a tank) and did all of her business management, including sending out cassettes (yes, cassettes!) to libraries.
KW: Ah yes, my first narrations were on cassettes. Those boxes were so huge! Jumping to the present day, what is your job title now?
ES: Freelance audiobook producer. I may not work directly for an audiobook publisher as their employee, but I’m still a producer of audiobook content.
KW: Right, like narrators, many editors are independent contractors who work for multiple publishers. Since you organize your own schedule, what does a typical day look like for you (or sound like)?
ES: I get up at six a.m. and proof and edit all day until about ten p.m. with breaks to eat, work out, do stuff with my son, talk to the cats. I have no commute since I work from home. I work in pjs or sweats in the winter and shorts and a t-shirt in the summer. I win employee of the month every month!
KW: That award usually goes to my cat. What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
ES: Not getting enough exercise and sitting in the booth all day long.
KW: Also true for narrators. And writers. What is most stressful about your job?
ES: When I have six ten-hour books to do in a week and the deadlines are stacked up. Proofing is very time intensive and the hours do get long.
KW: What’s the part of your job that you savor?
ES: From my earliest days working at the Library of Congress, when they were still using reel-to-reel and only gradually switching to digital recording, if I could make an edit without involving the narrator, I’d get super excited. And now with digital recording, sometimes I still manage to fix something (take out a noise in the middle of a word, insert a word somewhere) and make it sound seamless, and I’m stoked I was able to do it. The narrator will never know that I saved them one pickup or salvaged one sentence, but I know, and I think it’s totally cool.
KW: I think that’s extremely cool, since I do not like recording pickups. (Pickups are the fixes that narrators have to record once a proofer and/or editor have flagged their mistakes.) As you’ve been in the industry since the very early days, what’s the most significant or unexpected change you’ve witnessed?
ES: When I started in 1999 (!), cassettes were still a viable delivery method. Libraries still relied on cassettes since most people still had cassette players in their cars. CDs had been out forever, but cassettes didn’t die for audiobooks for a long time. It seems like audiobooks on CDs were around for only a short while before we switched over to downloads almost exclusively. In addition, though, the transition from exclusively studio-based recording to predominantly home studios has got to be the biggest change. It has really opened the industry to many performers to make a living in their chosen field and passion.
KW: I totally agree on both counts. What do you wish that listeners understood about your part in the production of audiobooks?
ES: There’re many years of training that goes into proofing and editing. I’ve spent a lot of hours being exposed to pronunciations in many different languages or listening to that very slight cut breath.
KW: For those who might be wondering, a cut breath is what happens when a narrator makes a punch-in edit on the fly in the middle of in incoming or outgoing breath. If it gets left in, it can be very distracting, and in my experience, it takes some skill to get rid of them, or even to hear them. Sorry, go on.
ES: And one has to have a high level of concentration and attention to detail to be able to spot that a narrator said ‘a’ instead of ‘the’ when you’re on your fifth hour of audio for the day. Most publishers or audio rights holders really do want 100% accuracy.
KW: As I mentioned, I began my audiobook career (also 20 years ago!) as an editor and then transitioned to narrator, with director and proofer sprinkled in along the way. I was a terrible editor for a variety of reasons but I know that the experience has made me a better narrator, because I'm more aware of what is fixable. The work also gave me the chance to listen to takes that don't work, since I was editing before punching in was invented. I'd love to hear if there are ways that you think having been a narrator has made you a better editor/proofer?
ES: I absolutely believe having been a narrator makes me a better proofer/editor. I don't think there are very many narrators who have transitioned from being a full-time narrator to a full-time post-production proofer and editor. Being a narrator is certainly sexier, but I’ve found over time that my strengths are better suited to the other side of the glass. Having been a narrator allows me to have a highly attuned proofing ear, especially because I was obsessed with getting the words out of my mouth exactly right to minimize pickups. It contributed to a weirdly keen eye for noticing something wrong on the page compared to what I'm hearing. I REALLY like what I do now. And I believe that I bring a unique perspective to a narrator's performance that can help that performance be even better. I'd love to direct narrators live in-session. I used to do it at the Library of Congress, but with home studios so prevalent, that seems to be more of a thing of the past.
KW: The diminishing role of studio directors is certainly a change that many lament. What do you think will never change about audiobooks?
ES: Well, one thing that I hope doesn’t change is using real live human beings to tell the stories. If everything moves over to text-to-speech I think we’ll all be in big trouble.
KW: Many of us will be out of work, anyway! What gives you a sense of accomplishment?
ES: A narrator I work with extensively recently won an AudioFile magazine Earphones Award for a book that I proofed and edited for her. She did all the hard performance work, but I’m psyched that I had a hand in making it sound good.
KW: Okay, now for the important questions. What’s your poison?
ES: Do I have to pick one? A Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager sitting in the stands and watching a Washington Nationals game.
KW: Finally, please introduce your co-workers, I mean, pets.
ES: Zim & Lou, named for the Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman & Lou Gehrig. Lou is the regulation sized white one (with just bit of gray on his head and tail), and Zim the 22 lb. dude.
KW: I will have to tell you my Lou Gehrig story some day, but for now thanks to Erik for visiting us here at Romance Narrators, and don’t forget to check out his website, Eriksynnestvedt.com.